Let us peer back in time to meet a great dame and consummate party host: American playwright, poet, and novelist, Natalie Clifford Barney. Born in 1876, our girl Nat used her sizable inheritance to relocate to Paris’s Left Bank, where she hosted weekly salons for 60 years, bringing together a who’s who of French literature and American and British expats of the Lost Generation.
Her “Fridays,” as they were called, had flare and influence. Exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari once appeared dressed as Lady Godiva atop a white horse adorned with turquoise cloisonné before performing one of her numbers. Habitués and invited guests included writers Gertrude Stein, André Gide, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as patron Peggy Guggenheim, Sylvia Beach (the bookstore owner who published James Joyce’s Ulysses), and dancer Isadora Duncan, among others.
The atmosphere was a “cross between a chapel and a bordello,” according to regular, Truman Capote. On the ceiling above, painted nymphs posed au naturel while the floor was covered in polar bear hide. Each week, Natalie filled the air with fragrant lilies and roses and served tea, champagne, divine little cakes, and cucumber sandwiches in tribute to those served by literary dandy, Oscar Wilde.
Natalie, renowned as a skillful host with the precise control of a stage manager, carefully crafted her guest lists. She mixed erudite historians with exotic dancers while keeping regular guests as the lynchpins of laughter and intrigue, occasionally throwing in a celebrity du jour as a special attraction.
Natalie’s home at 20 Rue de Jacob in Paris
Natalie simply adored bringing people together in her home, and she kept that same revolving door in her personal life. With her considerable means, Nat was rumored to keep two sets of coaches, horses, and coachmen to facilitate, at all hours, the sheer volume of her sexual pursuits. She was openly lesbian and the first woman poet since Sappho to write openly about the love of women. During one of her on-again-off-again romances, she had herself delivered to poet amour Renée Vivien in a large box of white lilies, dressed for the boudoir. Ooh la la!
Forever seducing and moving on, Natalie infamously noted, “One is unfaithful to those one loves in order that their charm does not become mere habit” and “Lovers should also have their days off.” Her dalliances left broken hearts all over the world as she stole the wives of diplomats and turned down mariages blanc, that is, marriages of convenience, from male suitors who were also won over by her charms.
Natalie Barney (right) and Renée Vivien
While Barney thrived on constant socializing and entertaining, others note that she would not have attended her own funeral in 1972, dubbed “Mademoiselle’s Last Friday,” as she once wrote: “Funerals? Why trail in tears after a worn-out dress the owner no longer has use for?” So here’s to our girl Natalie, one of the great salonnieres, who devoted a lifetime of Fridays to keeping things interesting and worthy of our best dress.