Natalie Barney marker
St. Clair at Third Street
On October 25, 2009, an Ohio Historical Marker honoring lesbian poet Natalie Barney will be dedicated at this site in Dayton, Barney’s city of birth. It will be the first such marker in the state to acknowledge a historical figure’s sexual orientation. The Gay Ohio History Initiative and its partners raised $2,300 to pay for the bronze marker.
Born to a successful businessman and a free-spirited artist, Natalie Barney (1876-1972) was one of the most famous – and wealthiest – lesbians of her day. Both of her parents inherited sizable family estates, and young Natalie was raised in the lap of luxury. When she was 2 years old, the Barneys relocated to Cincinnati, and when she was in her teens, they took up residence in the nation’s capital, where they moved in the top social and diplomatic circles.
Throughout her youth, Natalie often traveled with her mother, the painter Alice Pike Barney, to Europe for extended stays. It was in Paris that Natalie finally decided to settle at age 24, the heir of a substantial fortune of her own.
Barney published numerous poetry collections and plays in French during her lifetime, noted for their openly lesbian content (she had known she was a lesbian since the age of 12), and also penned several memoirs. Her tempestuous affair with poet Renee Vivien and her long-term relationship with painter Romaine Brooks (shown together in the photo above, ca. 1915) have frequently been written about. But it was as the host of a celebrated Friday afternoon literary salon at 20 rue Jacob that she is perhaps best remembered. Barney’s salon was the center of the French avant-garde and of queer expatriate Paris for 50 years, frequented by such literati as Marcel Proust, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Janet Flanner, and Andre Gide. Djuna Barnes’ roman a clef, Ladies Almanack (1928), spoofed both the salon and its best-known members.
Lesbian filmmaker Greta Schiller made a documentary in 1995 called Paris Was a Woman, about the thriving lesbian cultural scene in Paris in the ’20s. In it, there is a walkthrough, using period footage, of Barney’s famous salon.