Natalie Clifford Barney

Dayton Pride: A short history of one Dayton’s most famous lesbians

University of Dayton professor shares fascinating tales about playwright Natalie Clifford Barney while researching his book. 

June kicks off LGBTQ Pride Month, a time that commemorates years of struggle for civil rights and the ongoing pursuit of equal justice under the law for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, as well as the accomplishments of LGBTQ individuals.

One such individual is Natalie Clifford Barney, who was born here in Dayton, Ohio. She was a playwright, poet, novelist and proud lesbian. Her fascinating story has recently been detailed in the book “Performing Antiquity: Ancient Greek Music and Dance from Paris to Delphi” by Sam Dorf, a professor of Music in the Department of Music at the University of Dayton.

>> RESCHEDULED: Dayton Pride events pushed back to August

To celebrate Pride and the accomplishments of Dayton’s LGBTQ community, we talked to Dorf about what inspired his book and what we can learn about this famous figure in history.

>>> Read more: Dayton LGBTQ history project

Q: You wrote a book about a very fascinating Daytonian that I’ve never heard of before: Natalie Clifford Barney. Can you tell me what inspired you to write about her?

A: When I was a music student in Boston, I was obsessed with this one piece by the French composer Erik Satie. It was called “Soctrate” and was about the life of Socrates. It was absolutely crazy that this French composer who is really known for his tongue-in-cheek comedic work, then wrote this absolutely earnest piece of music about the life of Socrates, his murder and death. This piece is amazing because it's so different. 

I started exploring it when I was an undergrad, and I found out that it was commissioned by this woman who was the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Her name was Winnaretta Singer (Princesse Edmond de Polignac). She was a lesbian living in Paris, and as a lesbian woman who was not out, she ended up marrying a gay prince. They used their wealth and connections to foster creative work, made by interesting people. 

I thought this is really interesting that this lesbian, American woman commissioned this piece about the life of Socrates. I found out she wanted this piece to be something for her and her friends. They wanted to get back to those days of Plato, where they read ancient Greek philosophy to each other, and they wanted music. 

I just started digging and digging, and discovered this really interesting and fascinating network of women who loved women, who lived in Paris in their early years of the 20th century, many of whom were American. This study of Winnaretta Singer was cool and some of my awesome colleagues have written more about her and her husband, but there was this one figure, Natalie Clifford Barney, who seemed absolutely amazing and crazy, and she happens to be from Dayton, Ohio!

Natalie Clifford Barney seated with dog
Photo: Bain News Service

Q: Did Winnaretta and Natalie meet in Paris, or did they meet previously in America?

 A: Yes they met in Paris and they were kind of like frenemies, like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. They were kind of nasty to each other in their correspondence. I think it’s because Winnaretta led high society, she was part of the aristocracy, and Natalie Clifford Barney, who was born in Dayton, and was also a lesbian, refused to get married. She was like “I’m not gonna live this fake life. I'm gonna live an authentic life.” She came out as gay in her teens in southwest Ohio in the 1880s! 

Q: Wow, that seems early to come out. When was she born?

A: She was born in 1876 on Halloween. (She makes a big deal about that.) She was born here in Dayton. Her father owned the Barney & Smith Car Company which built railroad cars, so he was very wealthy. Natalie Barney's mother, Alice Pike Barney was from Cincinnati, and her father ran Samuel Pike's Opera House in Cincinnati which was the big opera house there. She was from this more bohemian, artistic family. 

Alice married this kind of stodgy guy (Barney) and they had these two wonderful free-spirited daughters, Natalie being the older one, and she has a younger sister, Laura Barney. Laura happened to do crazy things like basically starting the Baháʼí religious movement in America, so she was an amazing trip, too.

Natalie was really fascinating because she grew up here and Dayton, and then was sent to boarding school in France because she was wealthy. When she was in France she met a bunch of other American women at the boarding school, and basically decided to settle in Paris. 

Over the summers she would come home and would spend time here in Dayton, and her family ended up moving to Cincinnati when she was about 12, but ultimately, she found Paris to be the spiritual home for her. 

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After she finished school, she rented this amazing apartment in the northeast part of Paris, with this beautiful park in her backyard. As a lesbian woman she was looking for her lesbian sisters and ancestors… Many people in the LGBTQ community don't have parents or grandparents or sisters or brothers that could share this queer identity and culture. 

So she looked back, and the thing that really resonated with her was the poetry of Sappho, the ancient poet who lived 2,500 years ago on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey, which was at that time part of the Greek world. 

Sappho was a poet, but we don't have any of her poems existing fully. They're only fragments. So, they existed on little pieces of paper, but the edges might have been eaten off, so we're missing a bunch of words. There's something really alluring to Natalie about the fragmented nature of this poetry and the ways in which this poet wrote about her love of other women. This was this huge inspiration for Natalie to create her own writing, to create her own fragments and to seek a way of performing and reimagining and re-embodying that world.

So that's what my book, “Performing Antiquity: Ancient Greek Music and Dance from Paris to Delphi,” is about. It’s about these opportunities and explorations of performance. How do we try desperately to recreate what is lost?

Author and professor Sam Dorf

Q: This book is gorgeous…

A: There’s a lot of cool pictures inside too. I was lucky to go to a whole bunch of archives starting here in Dayton and Cincinnati… Her mother ended up relocating after she got divorced and moved to Washington DC, so a lot of Natalie Barney's materials are now in DC. I went to Paris and Greece to find all this stuff. As I’m traveling the world, sifting through the detritus of her life, photos and letters, I ended up developing this relationship with her… 

It's really weird to be this guy looking through the really personal things of somebody who's dead, and has no say right in what you're doing… Going through the archives is intense, exhausting and stressful, but it's also incredibly powerful because you develop these relationships with these dead people because you get to touch their stuff…

These physical things, it can't come alive, like it's just dead, it’s a piece of paper that's covered in rat droppings and dust. It's not a performance, it's not a musical work, it's not a person. What’s interesting for me is how do we translate that into a performance? How does that come alive? 

That’s what Natalie Barney tried to do with those shards of poetry of Sappho. She’s got these few words, and she has to spin that out into a story or a play. That's the kind of work that she did. Then, my job is to try to take that typed script of the play and figure out how we make sense of that today. I’m doing the same thing that she did.

>>> Read more: PHOTOS: Dayton Art Institute challenge inspires clever re-creations from its collection

Q: So was her mission was to sort of bring life to this antiquated, fractured writing?

A: In part. Natalie Barney wrote her own literary works, poetry, memoirs about her life. But a lot of it is also her rumination on the poetry of Sappho, and using that as a model of the idealized world that Sappho lived. She lived in like the sixth century BCE, on an island, and she had this school of other women who were her lovers and her students. They all wrote poetry and sang songs together. 

That is that idealistic world for someone like Natalie Barney who lived in Paris in the 1890s in the early 1900s, where there wasn't a space for women who loved women, who love to write and sing to be public and to be celebrated.

Q: Was she persecuted for her sexuality? 

 A: Yes. One of the performances I write about is her performance of Sappho. She took some shards of Sappho poetry, and she turned it into a play, where Sappho's lover is getting married to a man, and this is very devastating to Sappho. So Sappho throws herself off a cliff because this girl that she loves is marrying this man. This is the story that Natalie Barney is telling about Sappho.

She had her friends perform this in her backyard, near the Bois de Boulogne with some very famous courtesans… This was kind of a big deal. It was actually written about in the Dayton Journal on the front page, about Natalie performing this play in Paris and getting evicted. 

She got evicted because the landlord thought it was weird to put on this theatrical event in her backyard. It actually worked out really well because she ended up moving to the Left Bank of Paris, which is the cool part of Paris. It has this art scene was going on, and she had this fantastic home there when she moved in around 1909. 

Q: She sounds like a truly interesting person.

A: She was friends with everybody. She drew in academics, musicologists, art historians, dancers, singers, opera stars and writers like Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde. She drew together all these amazing people to her house weekly. She was famous for having these salons where cool people would get together and just hang out and share their work. 

So, in my book I reproduced this map that she drew of this imagined world. It richly illustrates this network of individuals and musicians that are scrawled around this walled garden…I love this image of this network of people of influencing each other, versus something linear like a family tree. It's this amazing way she's constructed this world for herself…

One of the challenges as a musicologist, was how do I write about the music and dance of somebody who's not a professional musician or dancer? How do I make other people care about it? She trained and she studied violin in Europe, and was a very accomplished violinist. She could have been a professional if she wanted to probably. She went to the opera, she loved music. So she inspired other people to create music, she was a patron. 

>>>Read more: 8 badass Dayton women who made history

I think her life, and the ways in which it connects to the scholarly work of other people… through these amateur performances is so interesting. I think amateur performance is interesting, no matter what. There's a lot of awesome music and awesome dance that's being done that is not being performed at the Schuster or Victoria Theatre. We need to spend more time studying that writing and thinking about that. 

I think scholars of music history need to look at this stuff too, especially as we try to rewrite our history because we've been writing about dead white men for a long time. There were a lot of women in the 19th and 20th century producing music too. I try tell her story is a way of starting to tell the story of other women's music. Natalie Barney is not unique. There are other women that did amateur theatrical performances in their backyards and throughout the Midwest…

Q: That reminds me of the Schwarz sisters who founded the Dayton Ballet, and how they taught Jeraldyne Blunden who started the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, all very early in American dance history. There’s this legacy of artist innovation done by women here that seems to get overlooked in Dayton’s history of innovation. 

A: Yes, these narratives are often the narratives of people of color and religious minorities that get left out as innovators. The Schwarz sisters were Jewish women, and Jeraldyne was African-American. So it's interesting, and I think their contributions are just as important as the Wright brothers… 

We do have an Ohio historical marker to Natalie Barney in Cooper Park, that was put up I think it was in 2007. It's the first Ohio historical marker put up that mentions the person’s sexuality. It's dedicated to Natalie Barney for being Natalie Barney. When you go to the library, go check it out, it’s right next to it. 

There used to be this culture around Natalie Barney in town as part of the LGBTQ community. Years ago apparently these Barney salons that are members of the LGBTQ community put on with reading groups to keep her memory alive. I’m determined, because I think we need to learn about her.

“Performing Antiquity: Ancient Greek Music and Dance from Paris to Delphi” is published by Oxford University Press, and is available at Amazon or Oxford University Press. Sam Dorf is a musicologist and Professor of Music in the Department of Music at the University of Dayton. Along with teaching classes, he enjoys the research and writing aspect of his professorial career. Based out of Boston originally, Dorf has been living and in the Dayton area for the past eight years.

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