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One of the most famous lesbians of turn-of-the-century and inter-war Paris, Natalie Clifford Barney, is the subject of this agreeably lightweight biography. Known as ""the wild girl from Cincinnati,"" she had money to sustain her daring: one of her grandfathers made his pile in whiskey and another in railroad cars. As a child she had a romantic passion for her mother and found her father dull and stern. This, and her stay in a girls' boarding school in Fontainebleau, where she picked up more than her perfect 18th-century French, are the only clues the book provides for the etiology of her lifelong, quite public, and extraordinarily successful pursuit of women. It doesn't explain why, unlike her friends and Left Bank neighbors Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, she was so promiscuous. (At one time she listed 40 women with whom she had liaisons or ""demi-liaisons,"" among them Colette.) Perhaps she found protracted connections too much like the marriage she scorned as a kind of death. One of her epigrams reads, ""He had the three badges of nonentity: a receding chin, the Legion of Honor, and a wedding ring."" She was literary, but indulged this weakness more often in conversation (French, American, and English writers flocked to her Fridays) than in her occasional publication of love poems, memoirs, and pensees. Oddly, it was a man who put her on the literary map: the critic Remy de Gourmont who fell for her and addressed his Lettres a l'Amazone to her. The book succeeds as high gossip, and it also works as a portrait of a woman rich and tough-minded enough to establish her own lifestyle and make the world swallow it. As she, herself, said, ""How much power we need to yield to what we desire most.

Pub Date: Dec. 22nd, 1976
Publisher: Putnam