Three decades after meeting the American heiress Natalie Barney, the ‘impératrice des lesbiennes’ in Paris, Truman Capote still sounded starstruck. In the years just after the Second World War he went regularly to Barney’s weekly salon at 20 rue Jacob. Inside the house, a cross between ‘a chapel and a bordello’, with a domed stained-glass ceiling and a ‘slightly Turkish quality’, there would be ‘a big buffet on the side with the most marvellous things – I mean the most delicious kinds of strawberry and raspberry tarts in the dead of winter; and always champagne’. (He didn’t mention the inadequate heating: Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece and one of Barney’s lovers, claimed that if you turned the chairs upside down you’d find oysters sprouting underneath them.) The guests were ‘curious, unexpected people’, though mostly important ones: the publisher Marguerite Caetani, Peggy Guggenheim, Djuna Barnes. Figures associated with Proust would sometimes be there – Lily de Gramont, the duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, for instance, whom Barney insisted on introducing to Capote (an interest in celebrities was ‘one of her hang-ups’). Many were queer women. ‘Miss Barney’s circle was not limited to lesbians,’ Capote reported, ‘though certainly all the more presentable dykes in town were on hand.’
On one occasion Barney took Capote to another part of Paris. ‘She wanted to show me something very unusual and extraordinary which very few people had ever seen.’ When they got to a ‘curious little neighbourhood place near the Arc de Triomphe’, Barney told her chauffeur to stop the car. They walked ‘for the longest time and finally we came to an ordinary pension (at least from the outside) and inside we went up in the cat-smelling, creaky elevator.’ After rustling around in her bag for a key, like a ‘burglar at a safe-cracking’, Barney told Capote to wait on the landing. Finally, after what ‘seemed like fifteen minutes’, she let him in to an ‘enormous room’ filled with paintings covered in fabric.
And Miss Barney said, ‘This is the studio of my beloved friend, Romaine Brooks,’ and I’m quoting that just exactly – ‘my beloved friend, Romaine Brooks’, and we began moving around the room and she would pull the cords and the cloth would slide back from these paintings and there they were: Lady Una Troubridge with a monocle in her eye; Radclyffe Hall in a marvellous hunting outfit with a terrific hunting hat. It was the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts.
Barney walked round the room telling Capote about each picture painted by Brooks, her long-term lover. ‘She would explain the relationship between this person and that as we walked around the studio – and it was like an international daisy chain. “Now she (don’t you think she’s rather attractive?) ran off with Romaine which just broke my heart … for two years I couldn’t get out of bed.”’ Later, in a semi-fictionalised account of the meeting, he wrote: ‘You know how you know when you’re not going to forget something? I wasn’t going to forget this moment, this room, this array of butch-babes.’
From ‘1880 to 1935 or thereabouts’, in Diana Souhami’s calculation, almost every American or British woman in Paris seemed to be a ‘butch-babe’. Picasso thought that the lesbian dress code – short hair, mannish clothing, a monocle and a sprig of violets – was an American import. ‘Ils sont pas des hommes, ils sont pas des femmes, ils sont des Américains.’ The journalist Maryse Choisy had another explanation, writing in 1929 that ‘Athènes, comme à Paris, comme à New York, ce “lesbisme” (qu’on ne connaît plus à Lesbos) naît chez la femme qui travaille.’ Whatever it was, it caught on. Straight women bobbed their hair and tried to look androgynous; in 1927 even the Devon and Exeter Gazette was claiming that ‘all the smartest ladies nowadays, particularly if they belong to the intellectual or feminist group, are wearing men’s dinner jackets for evening occasions.’
What had spread to Devon began in Paris much earlier. Gay women, especially Americans, went there for the freedoms it offered. Sylvia Beach said that Americans came to the Left Bank for two things they couldn’t get at home, alcohol and Ulysses, but they also came for the cafés, the galleries, the nightlife. Butch women could be found dancing and drinking at Le Monocle at a time when dressing in men’s clothing was technically a crime – in photographs taken by Brassaï they stare defiantly into the camera, hair slicked back, shoulders broadened by boxy suit jackets.
Souhami’s No Modernism without Lesbians focuses on four expatriate women who spent much of their lives in Paris – Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein and Winifred ‘Bryher’ Ellerman – as well as their friends, lovers and friends-who-were-lovers-then-friends-again. Her argument, explicit in the title and alluded to occasionally in the book, is that these rebellious women were crucial to modernist fiction, art and film. Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses when commercial publishing houses wouldn’t touch it, and at great personal risk – it was her ‘missionary endeavour’. (In London the lesbians Harriet Weaver and Dora Marsden, editors of the Egoist, and in New York the lesbians Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of the Little Review, serialised the novel.) Bryher financially supported her lover H.D. and her husband Robert McAlmon, who published Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes and Ernest Hemingway. There is also the suggestion, never quite substantiated by Souhami, that the way these women lived, their promiscuity and outsized influence, could itself be considered uniquely modern, that this was the age of the ‘international daisy chain’, as Capote called it.
Barney arrived in Paris in 1899, on a trip from Washington with her mother. She was 23 and already knew that she fancied girls. Six years earlier she had met the ‘mother of her desires’, Eva Palmer, on holiday in Maine. They were lovers for a decade, during which they sent each other around a thousand letters. ‘My poet, my mistress, my lover! I love you all the ways tonight, but most of all for the grace of your lines,’ Palmer wrote (she had studied classics at Bryn Mawr, and introduced Barney to Sappho). Barney had many other lovers; Souhami recounts that she once boasted of having eighteen different ‘assignations’ in one evening. Her first conquest in Paris was Liane de Pougy, a French courtesan whom she passed one afternoon while in a landau with Robert Cassatt (who she hoped would be her partner in a ‘chaste and intellectual marriage’). The next day, wearing a hired prince costume embroidered with pearls, and carrying roses and cornflowers, Barney called on de Pougy. (She usually rejected more mannish clothes – ‘why try to resemble our enemies’ – but they could be useful when trying to seduce someone.) De Pougy was in bed. They had a bath together, then had sex on a polar bear rug. They talked about finding a ‘blessed little nook’ to escape to. But de Pougy wouldn’t give up her male clients, who included the Prince of Wales and Maurice de Rothschild. ‘I still need 800,000 francs before I can stop,’ she wrote. ‘Then I shall cable you: “Come take me.”’
Albert Barney, Natalie’s alcoholic and violent father, whose fortune came from the family business manufacturing railway cars, was incensed when he heard rumours of the affair, and Cassatt called off the engagement after Barney suggested they adopted de Pougy. Barney’s father whisked her off to Brittany with her mother and sister, and forbade her from having anything more to do with de Pougy, who began a roman à clef, Idylle saphique, about an American woman called Flossie Temple Bradford. But when Barney returned to Paris, they got back together. Soon afterwards Barney met Renée Vivien, who wrote poetry and was known as ‘Sappho 1900’. Palmer, still on the scene – Barney’s lovers tended to remain on the scene, jostling or flirting with one another – got jealous. Before long she had moved to Paris too and was living with Barney and Vivien. De Pougy married Prince George Ghika, after which she only allowed Barney to touch her from the waist up.
The daisy chain continued to get longer: in 1901 Olive Custance – who eventually eloped with Lord Alfred Douglas – had affairs with both Barney and Vivien. A year later Vivien met Baroness Hélène van Zuylen, nicknamed ‘La Brioche’ for the way she curled her hair, and started an affair. Barney became jealous, dubbed van Zuylen a fat Valkyrie, and was too busy trying to win Vivien back to see her father when he summoned her to his deathbed in Monte Carlo. By the time she got there, it was too late. He left her two million dollars. Flush with cash, Barney rented a house in Neuilly and started staging tableaux vivants in the garden; they often descended into orgies. During one such display, Mata Hari rode naked on a horse after Barney refused to let her bring an elephant. The neighbours complained and in 1909 she moved to rue Jacob, where she held weekly gatherings. ‘I didn’t create a salon,’ she wrote. ‘A salon was created around me.’ The same year she met Lily de Gramont, the ‘Red Duchess’: their first date lasted three days. It was because of de Gramont that Barney stayed in Paris during the First World War – and through her that she met Romaine Brooks.
Gertrude Stein’s early years in Paris were far less turbulent. She moved there aged 29 in 1903 to live with her brother, Leo. Like Barney, she already knew she was gay: an early romance with May Bookstaver, ‘upright and a trifle brutal’, had convinced her of that. In France Stein began work on QED, a novel about Bookstaver, and she and Leo started buying up paintings – Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse. ‘Cézanne gave me a new feeling about composition,’ she wrote. ‘It was not solely the realism of the characters but the realism of the composition which was the important thing.’ Alice B. Toklas arrived in Paris in September 1907, and by the summer of 1908 Stein had declared her love and asked Toklas to move into the apartment on rue de Fleurus. One friend reported that she counted thirty sodden handkerchiefs daily, as ‘day after day [Toklas] wept because of the new love that had come into her life.’
At first Leo didn’t mind the new arrangement. But the pair started to get on his nerves, and he wrote them snippy notes about the gas bill, the cost of laundry and other domestic problems. ‘I told you one time since that I found it very disagreeable to come downstairs or into the house in the morning and find the light burning in the front hall.’ In 1909 Stein and Toklas started looking for somewhere else to live, but in the end it was Leo who moved, taking off to Florence with most of the Renoirs and Matisses. ‘I hope that we will all live happily ever after and continue to suck our respective oranges,’ he wrote. Stein and Toklas decided never to see him again. From then on, they were inseparable, rarely spending more than a few hours apart. They started their own salon, though it was less egalitarian than Barney’s: the men sat in the front room with Stein while their wives were shoved into the kitchen with Toklas. Stein was also a regular at 20 rue Jacob, sitting with her ‘knees widespread, dressed in stout tweeds and mountain climbing boots’, as one guest put it, like ‘a game warden scrutinising the birds’.
During the First World War some 25,000 British and American women signed up to volunteer relief organisations in France (though not Barney, who boasted that she was the only American not driving an ambulance). The designer Eileen Gray and her ‘companion’, the weaver and cellist Evelyn Wyld, were part of a fleet of drivers assembled by Lily de Gramont. Dolly Wilde joined them. Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, started the ‘heiress corps’ with her partner, Anne Murray Dike. For many, it was liberating. Women referred to one another by their surnames, as if they were soldiers or schoolboys, or gave each other boyish nicknames – Tommy, Kit. They were no longer criticised for wearing androgynous clothes; indeed, Vita Sackville-West’s land girl uniform brought on ‘wild spirits’ and, Souhami notes, soon afterwards she seduced Violet Trefusis.
In 1917 Stein and Toklas volunteered to distribute hospital supplies for the American Fund for the French Wounded. They drove around in a Model T Ford, which they named ‘Auntie’. Stein had a habit of ‘talking and forgetting about driving’. When Toklas told her they were on the wrong road, she responded: ‘Wrong or right, this is the road and we are on it.’ Their taste for eccentric clothing – in Paris, Stein was once mistaken for a bishop – also caused a stir. Stein wore a greatcoat and Cossack hat, while Toklas favoured a pith helmet and officer’s jacket covered with pockets. According to Georges Braque, who ran into them in Avignon, such outfits were unfathomable, even in wartime:
Their funny get-up so excited the curiosity of the passers-by that a large crowd gathered around us and the comments were quite humorous. The police arrived and insisted on examining our papers. They were in order, but for myself, I felt very uncomfortable.
Sylvia Beach moved to Paris at the start of the war. It wasn’t her first time in the city; in 1903 her father, a Presbyterian minister, was seconded to the American Church in Paris and the family moved there for three years. But during that time she ‘never seemed to get anywhere near the living Paris’. A decade later, she joined her sister Cyprian (also gay), who was living in a studio in rue de Beaujolais and working as an actress. Beach took a room at the Hôtel Palais Royal on the same street. For a time she studied French literature and gave English lessons. But in 1917, by which time she could see bombing raids from the hotel balcony, she signed up as a farmhand. In October, she came back to the city. She was looking for a copy of the journal Vers et Prose when she crossed the Seine to visit Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres, at 7 rue de l’Odéon. Beach was wearing a wide-brimmed Spanish hat and dark cloak. Monnier came out to greet her, and the wind whipped off Beach’s hat. Monnier ran after it. ‘That was the beginning of much laughter and love,’ Beach wrote. ‘And of a lifetime together.’
The following year, Beach decided, with Monnier’s encouragement, to open an English equivalent of her bookshop. Premises were found a street away, at 8 rue Dupuytren, in what had been a laundry. With the help of $3000 from Beach’s mother, Shakespeare and Co opened in 1919. In the window were editions of Shakespeare (of course), Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and copies of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (Monnier’s favourite English-language book). On the walls were photographs of Oscar Wilde, drawings by William Blake and examples of Walt Whitman’s early writings. Émigré writers and French intellectuals flocked there, and to the larger shop on rue de l’Odéon, where it moved in 1922. ‘From that moment on,’ Beach said, ‘for over twenty years, they never gave me time to meditate.’
Bryher was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Shakespeare and Co, and one of its main financial backers. ‘There was only one street in Paris for me, the rue de l’Odéon. It is association, I suppose, but I have always considered it one of the most beautiful streets in the world. It meant naturally Sylvia and Adrienne and the happy hours that I spent in their libraries.’ Unlike the other women Souhami writes about, Bryher never properly lived in Paris; she spent extended periods there, but her main residence was in Switzerland (to avoid paying tax). She had wanted to be a land girl like Sackville-West but, not yet 21, needed parental permission. Her father, the shipping magnate John Ellerman, refused. He didn’t want his daughter, whom he called Dolly, to be anything other than frills and curls. Bryher – who renamed herself after one of the Scilly Isles when she was in her mid-twenties, who felt like a boy trapped in the wrong body (‘her one regret was that she was a girl’), who as soon as she could would chop off her hair and spend the rest of her life wearing clothes so plain that she was mistaken for a clerk – outwardly obliged. But privately she despaired: ‘I found a bottle of rat poison in a cupboard and the only thing that prevented me from swallowing it was that I did not want to hurt my parents.’
In 1918, with the help of the editor of the Sphere (a journal owned by her father, who was also the majority shareholder in the Times), she sent a fan letter to H.D. asking if she could visit her in Cornwall, where she was living with Cecil Gray, a musicologist, while her husband, Richard Aldington, was serving on the Western Front. H.D. thought the writer was an elderly schoolmistress: she got a surprise when the 24-year-old millionaire’s daughter turned up. Souhami compares their meeting to the moment when Beach’s hat flew off in the wind and when Toklas first saw Stein (Toklas said she heard bells ringing in her head). In this she is following the women’s own accounts. ‘The door opened and I started in surprise,’ Bryher wrote years later. ‘I had seen the face before, on a Greek statue or in some indefinable territory of the mind. We were meeting again after a long absence but not for the first time … “I wonder if you can tell me something,” H.D. began, “have you ever seen a puffin and what is it like?”’
Their relationship started slowly. Bryher was always keener than H.D., who wrote to a friend that Bryher loved her ‘so madly it is terrible. No man ever cared for me like that.’ She complained that Bryher had a brain where her heart should be and was ‘cold and imperious’: ‘Hard face, child face, how can you be so hard?’ But after H.D. became pregnant by Gray and both men deserted her, her relationship to Bryher changed. H.D.’s father died just before the baby was born, and she suffered a nervous collapse, contracting flu and then pneumonia. It was Bryher who tracked her down to dismal rented rooms in Ealing, put her in a nursing home and paid for everything.
H.D. now relied utterly on Bryher, whom she called ‘a baby Maecenas’ in a letter to Marianne Moore. (For her part, Bryher felt that H.D. was the first person who didn’t look at her ‘as though they saw just over my head a funnel out of which pours gold coins’.) But Bryher’s parents remained an obstacle. They insisted she live with them in Mayfair, rather than with H.D. in the flat she had rented for them in Kensington Church Street. A solution of sorts came on a trip to America in 1920, in the form of Robert McAlmon, a writer and friend of William Carlos Williams. McAlmon was also gay, and wanted to escape to Paris. Bryher suggested that they get married. ‘I put my problem before him … if we married, my family would leave me alone. I would give him part of my allowance, he would join me for occasional visits to my parents, but otherwise we would live strictly separate lives.’ They were hitched the next day. Moore was scandalised, referring to McAlmon as the ‘scoundrel bridegroom’ – she felt he was taking advantage of Bryher – and using the episode to inspire her poem ‘Marriage’. ‘I wonder what Adam and Eve/think of it by this time.’ By 1921 H.D. and Bryher had gone to Switzerland while McAlmon was in Paris where, with the help of Bryher’s money and editorial oversight, he set up Contact Editions, which published Hemingway’s first work (Three Stories and Ten Poems) and Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Contact Editions and McAlmon drew Bryher back to Paris regularly. (H.D., who continued to be non-monogamous, preferred to stay in London, feeling warmer towards Bryher when she was away from her.) He introduced her to James Joyce, took her to Stein’s salons and to the cabaret with Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood. She spent time at Shakespeare and Co. Parisian life didn’t suit her. As a teetotaller (like Beach and Barney, who said that ‘being born intoxicated, I drink only water’) she found McAlmon’s heavy drinking boring and ‘the places he visited intolerably dull’. By 1926 H.D. had met Kenneth Macpherson, 24 years old and mostly gay, and started an affair with him. A year later Bryher divorced McAlmon and married Macpherson.
These women didn’t slow down in middle age. By the early 1930s Barney had lost her gamine svelteness – one of her friends said that she and Brooks looked like Tweedledum and Tweedledee – but none of her lasciviousness. She had an affair with Wilde, who wrote to her after one assignation: ‘Did you know that it was nearly four o’clock when I left you last night? I ache with tiredness and darling I am bruised.’ In 1935 H.D., then 49, started a relationship with Silvia Dobson, a 26-year-old primary school teacher with whom she indulged in what Sigmund Freud, who was her analyst at the time, called ‘star fish stuff’ (astrological charts and the like). In 1936 Beach came back from America, where she had undergone a hysterectomy and cancer treatment, to find Monnier had begun a relationship with Gisele Freund, a photographer sixteen years her junior. Beach moved out, to rooms above Shakespeare and Co, but had dinner with them nearly every night.
When the Second World War began, Stein and Toklas decamped to the French countryside, where they lived under the protection of the German collaborator Bernard Faÿ. Brooks and Barney went to a villa outside Florence where they dug a trench in the garden so that they could sunbathe; as disengaged with the war as they had been the first time round (Barney was antisemitic and stubbornly apolitical; Brooks was actively fascistic, raving about the German ‘blonde warriors keeping the Red Russians at bay’). By contrast, Bryher helped more than a hundred people, including sixty Jews, escape from Germany and Austria. Beach was interned in a camp in Vittel for six months in 1942. When Bryher decamped from Switzerland to London, entailing a three-week journey through Spain and Portugal, she thought of prewar Paris, ‘that blue, smoky atmosphere where everyone was sipping bitter coffee and arguing about metaphysics’.
Souhami has already written biographies of Barney and Brooks, and Stein and Toklas, both of which she draws on heavily in No Modernism without Lesbians, with some passages repeated almost verbatim. This gives the book an impatient air – Souhami writes that this will be her last book about ‘Di’s dykes’, as she calls them – and at times it feels as if she’s had enough of the international daisy chain. Perhaps her impatience is compounded by her decision to write about four such disparate figures. Bryher ended up living in a Bauhaus construction in Switzerland and rejecting gender binaries: ‘I was completely a child of my age.’ Of the four Beach was the one who really influenced the modernist canon (by publishing Ulysses). Stein’s work was unequivocally new and different, but her uxorious attachment to Toklas was not. Barney inhabited an old form of masculine Don Juanish promiscuity, which she was free to indulge in because of her wealth. Her aphoristic poetry is rightly forgotten.
Souhami doesn’t explore the reasons why lesbians tended to be the custodians, as well as the creators, of modernist work. Whether it was their childlessness or their wealth, which also allowed them to live openly while many lesbians hid themselves in heterosexual marriages, these women, with the exception of Barney, were influential writers, collectors, patrons, supporters, hostesses. At the same time, the equation of lesbianism with a progressive modernity not only glides over some ugly politics (as with Brooks and Barney) but also the unavoidable fact there were lesbians before it supposedly became a modernist act to sleep with someone of the same sex. Winnaretta Singer, who was around ten years older than Barney and arrived with her family in Paris in 1875, was an heiress to the sewing machine fortune, a patron of Paul Valéry and composers including Ravel, Fauré, Poulenc and Stravinsky; she also paid for X-ray units for Marie Curie. Virginia Woolf described her much later as ‘the image of a stately mellow old Tory’, and her face was said to be the model for the Statue of Liberty. Woolf reported that the composer Ethel Smyth told her that Singer had ‘ravished half of the virgins in Paris and used … to spring on them with such impetuosity that once a sofa broke’. At 58, Singer began a romance with Violet Trefusis, thirty years her junior and fresh from her relationship with Sackville-West. They were together for a decade. ‘Princess Winnie taught Violet discretion,’ Harold Acton wrote. ‘It was rumoured with a whip.’
But unlike Singer or Smyth, who was laughed at for wearing an evening dress hitched up with safety pins and using toilet roll to blow her nose, Souhami’s women are rarely figures of fun. They have become fossilised in their monocles and their tuxedoes – a process that started while they were still alive. In 1959, Bryher went to an exhibition curated by Beach at the American cultural centre, Les Années Vingt: American Writers and Their Friends in Paris, 1920-30. ‘It’s most beautifully done with everyone we knew and many we did not,’ she wrote to H.D. Later that year Beach stayed at Bryher’s house in Switzerland. Barney – who three years earlier, at the age of eighty, had met her final lover, a 56-year-old Swiss woman, while sitting on a bench – came to visit too, with Brooks. ‘Nothing seems to daunt these old ladies,’ Bryher wrote. Why would it?