Natalie Clifford Barney, the Amazon of rue Jacob

Every Friday, at 4:30 p.m., big Buicks and a parade of well-dressed men and women crowd rue Jacob, in the 6e district of Paris. They are about fifty, maybe a hundred, who flock to number 20 and do not leave until a little before 10 p.m. From outside, you can hear the bursts of voices and laughter, the lively conversations and the cheerful sound of glasses clinking. This scene was repeated six months a year on Fridays, from the spring of 1909 to the eve of the Second World War.

In this crowd that thronged to 20, rue Jacob, the most informed onlookers could recognize, from one week to another, from one season to another, from one year to another, the artists and the capital’s most prominent intellectuals. The writers Colette, Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes; booksellers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier; the artists Romaine Brooks, Marie Laurencin and Max Jacob; the authors TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Paul Valéry. Later, Marguerite Yourcenar and Françoise Sagan will also be seen at this address, in what is then only a memory, that of the most sensational salon in Paris.

Inaugurated in 1905 in Neuilly and set four years later on rue Jacob, this very popular gathering stood out in the landscape of the salons of the time as it was avant-garde. A place of considerable intellectual power, it is above all a privileged space for creation and freedom for lesbians. In this two-storey pavilion overlooking a small garden, you live your homosexuality in broad daylight. It is the desire and the way of life of the hostess: Natalie Clifford Barney.

The myth of the Sapphic capital

Died in Paris fifty years ago, in 1972, this woman of letters, whose influence is just beginning to be studied, was born on October 31, 1876 in Ohio into a family of American high society. The father, Albert, is an annuitant, the mother, Alice, a painter. When Natalie was 7 and her sister, Laura, 4, their parents took them to Europe. This is the first of a long series of trips.

Three years later, in 1886, Alice, who wanted to perfect her painting and allow her daughters to progress in French, placed them in a boarding house in Fontainebleau. They will stay there for eighteen months. As a teenager, Natalie, who already knows she is a lesbian, will not stop returning to Paris, first with her mother and sister, then alone, until settling there permanently at the end of the 19th century.e century.

At the time, Europe seemed more welcoming to women and to homosexuals. In Paris, places of male homosexual sociability exist, and authors, like André Gide, who evoke their love of men publish their writings. Lesbians are present in men’s literature, but they are fetishized and confined to the archetype of the languid and tragic nymph. They hardly have a voice and no places of their own. It was in this atmosphere of nascent freedom and relative tolerance that Natalie Clifford Barney arrived in Paris and contributed to erecting the myth of the Sapphic capital, sometimes called Paris-Lesbos.

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