Americana: Ohio

A Perilous Advantage: The Life and Legacy of Natalie Clifford Barney
November 02, 2010 to November 27, 2010

While many historical narratives are imbedded in our collective memory, no less-significant histories often fade into obscurity. What happens when these histories are given the attention they deserve? In what way can marginalized stories become integrated into the historical canon? For the state of Ohio, it is through the life and legacy of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972).

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Barney was the heiress to a railroad fortune, which gave her the opportunity to pursue her passions: entertaining, writing, and women. A self-declared lesbian from the age of twelve, Barney cultivated a fiercely counter-cultural spirit, chose polyamory over monogamy, and dissent over societal obligation. A witty writer on everything from the politics of love to critiquing the rigid expectations of Victorian women, she authored some twenty books, including Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de femmes (Some Portraits and Sonnets of Women) (1900), Aventures de l'esprit (Adventures of the Mind) (1929), and Souvenirs Indiscrets (Indiscrete Memories) (1960), (in which Barney used the self-coined analogy 'perilous advantage' for lesbian identity).

Sent to boarding school in France as a child, Barney chose to make her adult home on Paris' Left Bank in 1909. It is here that her salons took shape, providing—for over fifty years—a literary, theatrical and artistic incubator for a who's-who of American and European literati. T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Paul Valery, Oscar Wilde, Peggy Guggenheim, Isadora Duncan, Andre Gide, and Barney's lifetime love, painter Romaine Brooks, all passed through her doors. Yet, despite her status as an ex-patriot, a distinct sense of American entrepreneurship has been attributed by many to Barney's ambitions: "the mere existence of a salon run by an American upstart was contrary to French etiquette, but then Natalie had violated almost everything Americans valued as well…"* Sometimes, success has to be achieved outside of America's borders, tested by time, before it is recognized and deemed worthy of absorption into America's history. Barney, as well as many of the writers in attendance at her salons, are a part of this process of historical refusal and reclamation.

On October 25, 2010, as part of the recently established Gay Ohio History Initiative, a historical marker for Barney was placed in Cooper Park, in downtown Dayton, Ohio. It is the first and only of its kind in Ohio to be dedicated to a person within the gay and lesbian community. This marker was found vandalized, cracked and knocked completely off its pole, on July 7, 2010. Rather than focus on its destruction, this exhibition serves as a celebration of Barney's influence. She is both an inspiration—for the character of Valerie Seymour in Radclyffe Hall's seminal lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1920), as well as the subject of Liane de Pougy's Idylle Saphique (Saphic Idyll) (1901)—and a catalyst for queer visibility. Exploring this legacy contributes to an alternative historical narrative.

Susannah Magers

*From the foreword by Karla Jay in Adventures of the Mind, by Natalie Clifford Barney.

This exhibition owes thanks to Erin Fletcher and Arcadia Falcone for their collaboration.

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