‘I’d always felt Romaine had a secret.’

Published in: May-June 2016 issue.


BORN into a wealthy American family, Romaine Brooks was a renowned portrait painter who lived much of her life in Paris, where she had a series of open and loving relationships with women. For all her reputation as a depressive recluse and misanthrope, Brooks was nothing of the kind. So argues Cassandra Langer in her newly published biography, Romaine Brooks: A Life (Wisconsin), which challenges the conclusions of the previous biographers of Brooks’ lover Natalie Barney, the famous Paris saloniste, and those of Meryle Secrest, whose 1974 biography of Brooks has been the authoritative source to date.

         One thing that distinguished Brooks’ art was her awareness and promotion of feminist values; here, as elsewhere, she was a forerunner of things to come. She has been vilified as an anti-Semite and a fascist, but Langer takes issue with this assessment. A product of her class, which was deeply conservative, she nevertheless had Jewish friends and lovers. However, she came to associate Jews with the Russian Revolution, which interacted with her upper-class social prejudices. Langer approaches these difficult issues with nuance and careful research, offering a complex view of Brooks and her circle of privileged lesbians living uniquely independent lives over the course of Europe’s two great wars.

         This interview was conducted in New York City last January.


Allen Ellenzweig: How did you first get involved with Romaine Brooks?

Cassandra Langer: I was a graduate student at NYU and had been sent to the Whitney Museum to do a critique of a show in 1971. I got off at the wrong floor and saw Romaine’s 1923 self-portrait in a top hat. It just drew me across the room like a magnet. It was the first time I’d ever seen a positive, assertive image of a lesbian. The minute I saw the portrait, I wanted to know more about her. Who is this person? I’m studying art history, she’s an American artist; why haven’t I heard of her? She’s certainly as good as any of the other artists I’m studying. So, the next summer, I went to Washington. They had Romaine’s papers, but they were restricted. Fortunately for me, Adelyn Breeskin, the senior curator in charge, was out of the country. So, I was inadvertently given access to the papers and read them all.


AE: Then what happened?

CL: When Mrs. Breeskin discovered that I had been allowed to read the restricted papers, she requested that I make an appointment to see her. She had a formidable reputation: a patrician, gorgeous older woman who impressed every young lesbian I knew. She called me into the office and said, “Well, these papers weren’t supposed to be available. But since you’ve read them, I’d like to see any article you’re going to write.” It didn’t occur to me that she was doing damage control. I was flattered.

Romaine Brooks: Ida Rubinstein, 1917. Smithsonian American Art Museum
Romaine Brooks: Ida Rubinstein, 1917. Smithsonian American Art Museum

At about this time, the Romaine Brooks show had arrived at the Whitney and been favorably reviewed by Hilton Kramer. We were right at the beginning. Meryle Secrest’s 1974 biography [Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks] was just about to come out. I was early on the scene. Actually, to come out at that point and say, here’s an out lesbian artist who’s positive, not committing suicide, not becoming an alcoholic, was a radical assertion. Even so, the self-portrait was generally interpreted as depressive. But to me it was cruisy and sexually attractive.


AE: One certainly can read it as seductive.

CL: Tremendously so: the white face, the red lipstick, the brim of the hat, and that cruisy gaze. By 1979, I had an article ready to go, but no place to publish it. Then a new journal called Art Criticism, run by Lawrence Alloway, the English critic and director of the Jewish Museum, expressed an interest in publishing it. That surprised the hell out of me. It was the first article [on Brooks]published here in an academic journal.


AE: Why didn’t you stop at that?

CL: I’d always felt that Romaine had a secret—just my intuitive lesbian “gaydar” vibrating. Something is not adding up here! I’m very much a research bloodhound. Only two years ago, my persistence paid off. I stumbled upon a French biography of Lily de Gramont, who was an aristocrat and the lover of Natalie Barney. It was written by Francesco Rapazzini, an Italian living in Paris, who found her heirs. They allowed Rapazzini to go through all of Lily’s papers. It turns out that Romaine was involved with Natalie and Lily in a polyamorous relationship. Nobody knew: this was Romaine’s secret. This discovery opened another door, because Rapazzini’s translator contacted me on-line and we arranged to meet. That encounter opened up the whole Pandora’s box of Romaine’s real relationship, and who she really was, contradicting much that had been established by previous biographers about her being gloomy, sober, withholding, etc.


AE: How did she ultimately wind up in Paris and become an expatriate?

CL: It’s a complicated story. My book goes into her really terrible early childhood. She was born in Rome into a wealthy family. Her mother was mad, and she had a dangerously insane brother.


AE: So did she grow up abroad?

CL: She was raised mostly in Philadelphia, although she was abandoned at the age of five-and-a-half and left with a laundress. At that point she was living on the Lower East Side of New York, running around like an urchin for almost a year. Her mother just up and left for Europe with her brother, in search of a cure for him. Typically, she never bothered to tell the laundress. After that, Romaine was returned to her grandparents, went to a religious school, and later was reunited with her mother and siblings in Europe. Later she broke away and studied art in Rome—this at a time when it was unusual for a woman to pursue a career in art. After that she went to Capri.


AE: She married eventually, correct?

CL: Yes, in Capri she met Ellingham Brooks, who had been the lover of Somerset Maugham. In 1901, she read in a newspaper that her brother had died. So she went home to her crazy mother, who was mourning her son. Shortly thereafter, her mother died, and Romaine inherited a vast fortune. She was in her twenties and was now wealthy after having been horribly poor for thirteen years.

So, she returned to Capri and married Brooks, because he had no money and needed somebody to take care of him. She naïvely thought they could have a marriage of convenience, but he wanted a conventional wife. At one point she decided to go on a sketching tour. So she chopped her hair off in an Eton cut and went to Our Boy’s Shop to buy hiking gear. Before she left, her husband commented: “You know, you really should make a will so that our money is secure.” That scared the hell out of her. She fled to London, ostensibly to paint, and there she rented a studio.


AE: So how did she finally get to Paris?

CL: I don’t know whether an affair took her to Paris in 1905 or if she just needed a change. What we do know is that she bought an apartment on the Rive Droite and a studio on the Rive Gauche. She hired a chauffeur and servants and began to make a splash. She involved herself with a number of fashionable salonists. She was a hot young property, and she began painting society portraits.


AE: What kinds of people were part of her circle?

CL: Mostly intellectuals, gay people, aristocrats, and literary people. One of the most famous salons was run by a Madame Muhlfeld, who was a self-hating Jew. Romaine met a lot of people who commissioned portraits from her. So she was doing very well, even though she didn’t really need the money. Being young, beautiful, and gay, she started a series of affairs—with Renée Vivien and with the Princess de Polignac (aka Winnaretta Singer), another heiress, painter, and musical patron. Around 1910, she met Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, fleeing his debts from Italy and pursued by a number of women. Romaine became infatuated with him because he admired and praised her work. They engaged in a very interesting and intimate relationship.


AE: Did they sleep together?

CL: That remains a big question. But I think they did not. If they did, it may have happened once, because he was busy with his various mistresses and he was enamored of Ida Rubinstein, a famous dancer with the Ballet Russes, the Lady Gaga of her moment. Romaine went to a performance of Saint Sebastien, written by D’Annunzio, with music by Debussy, that became the scandal of Paris. She went backstage to congratulate Ida, who fell madly in love with her. They then had a long-term affair, which terminated a little after World War I began.


AE: When did she meet Natalie Barney?

CL: Romaine had heard about Barney for years because of her former relationship with Renée Vivien, with whom Barney had also had an affair. So they shared that in common. This was around 1916. I detail some of the fireworks that went on between the three of them before they finally settled down. These include a marriage contract between Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont. It must have been one of the first lesbian marriage contracts, though it was not legally sanctioned.


AE: Who was living with whom, though?

CL: Lily had been living with Natalie because of her separation from her brutal husband, who had caused her two miscarriages. She had her two daughters with her, and Natalie supported them essentially. We do know that Natalie and Romaine had separate domiciles. In 1920, Romaine painted a gorgeous picture of Natalie. Thus, we have a written contract with Lily and a visual contract, in essence, between Romaine and Natalie. That appears to be how these three women came to terms with each other.


AE: Once she left her marriage, did Lily also have affairs?

CL: Yes. She believed in pleasure. She wrote about pleasure and fashion and design. Natalie continued with her various affairs. Lily and Romaine put up with it because they knew there was no way to reform her. And they had their own liaisons on the side. So they were very busy, highly sexed, passionate, and very independent. In a way, that is a role model for what we see today among younger people: sexual fluidity, the rejection of rigid gender roles, and the insistence on their own sexuality.


AE: If I’m correct, Romaine rejected being part of women’s-only painting exhibitions. She didn’t want to be a “lady” painter.

CL: She was absolutely competing with men. She felt confident of her genius and that she had every right to be right up there with the best of them.


AE: When was Natalie’s salon at its apex?

CL: The 1920s and ’30s for the most part. Almost anyone who was anyone from England or America had to spend a little time at Natalie’s salon, because she was a star maker who made it her business to connect people. She was an incredible networker.


AE: Do you think that their patrician backgrounds account for the anti-Semitic remarks that have been attributed to Natalie and Romaine?

CL: Probably education and upbringing do account for some of these attitudes. However, one must recall that Natalie was a quarter Jewish and had Jewish lovers, and that her sister married a Jew.


AE: That never stops anyone from becoming an anti-Semite, does it?

CL: No, it doesn’t. Among elites, it’s selective discrimination.


AE: How did they end up in Italy, where they spent six years during World War II? As you know, previous biographers have shied away from dealing with their political sympathies while living in fascist Italy. They accepted the accusation of fascism without documentary proof.

CL: Natalie got stuck because Romaine talked her into going there. She believed Mussolini wouldn’t get involved in the conflict. So much for her political consciousness. So, they were caught in circumstances. You have to look at the evidence. Romaine was not a Fascist, nor an anti-Semite, although she was a bigot. She was an elitist who was seriously compromised when it came to politics. You have to consider what a conservative Modernist was and realize that you’re looking at another animal altogether.


AE: Romaine’s muse was Ida Rubinstein, the Russian-Jewish dancer who electrified Paris.

CL: Yes, and then she had Mimi Franchetti—part of Primo Levi’s clan. And, of course, Natalie, who was an intimate friend of Lily de Gramont, who was related to the Rothschilds. So, you have all these Jewish connections. Much of what she said about Jews was related to the fact they were in Italy, threatened on all sides. Natalie’s quarter-Jewish blood made her all Jewish so far as the Nazis and Fascists were concerned. So she may have just been trying to save her life.


AE: Were they living in Florence or outside?

CL: Actually in town. Up a steep hill. That’s one of the reasons that the Nazis commandeered their villa, because it gave a perfect view of the road. They lived in Italy for over six years, throughout the war. Because of Natalie’s Jewish ancestry, she and Romaine were brought in for questioning. Of course, what Romaine said is that she was born in Rome. Miss Barney declared that she was Protestant. They needed to get documents about Barney’s baptism, because otherwise she would have been dragged off to Parma. She was completely terrified that this was going to happen. So, when some people say that she and Romaine were Fascist sympathizers, what else could they say?

However, their statements led to further complications when the Allies took over, at which point they were brought in for questioning. And they were being bombed constantly. And they were threatened by the peasants, the Communists. And of course Romaine was terrified of Communism because of Ida Rubenstein, who was a White Russian, who had told her all about what happened when the Bolsheviks took over. If you want to say she was anything politically, she was a rabid anti-Communist because of what she had learned from Ida.


AE: World War I had destroyed everything that they had known and how their generation saw the world.

CL: True, everything they knew and valued. Classicism, high society—in the sense of it being an elevated, intellectual, cultural society—was completely wiped out. They wanted nothing to do with war.


AE: Wasn’t Romaine awarded France’s Legion of Honor?

CL: Yes, she was, and you can see it on her lapel in her 1923 self-portrait. They were both pacifists, so they supported anything that looked like it would preserve any kind of peace. Natalie wasn’t political; nor was Romaine. I talked to several people who said that they were both clueless about politics.


AE: I think we could say that of Gertrude Stein, too. She wasn’t truly a political person, though she wasn’t shy about making political pronouncements

CL: Let’s face it: all of these women weren’t like Janet Flanner, having to actually earn a living. They were heiresses. They were totally independent and could do whatever the hell they pleased without a husband over them.


AE: Did they conceive of themselves as lesbians?

CL: Oh, definitely, but a different kind of lesbian. I think Natalie had a great influence on Romaine in this, and they were together as early lesbian feminists. They thought women were the better species, so to speak, because they didn’t make war. They thought of themselves as Sapphists. There is a big difference between Sapphist Modernism and this notion of lesbianism per se.


AE: I don’t really see Romaine as a Modernist. But on the other hand, I certainly don’t see her as retrograde. So, how do you place her as an artist?

CL: Oh, she’s sort of Janus-like, looking to the past while going forward in the present. I go into her æsthetics quite extensively in the book. There was a kind of classical purity about the painter, and painting in general, and the emotional valence that you put into a painting.


AE: She was friendly with Whistler, correct?

CL: The only references she allows about Whistler come through Henry Frick. He was the one who introduced her to Whistler’s work. But she always claimed she wasn’t influenced by him, and goes to great lengths to say she was sui generis, virtually born from the head of Zeus.


AE: Who were her influences in actuality?

CL: Oh, very much the Renaissance—people like Bronzino—which was her training in Italy. Make no mistake: she was very knowledgeable about painting. Hers are not easy paintings. In order to really appreciate a Romaine Brooks, you have to engage with it for some time. You have to meet its demands. If you think of the self-portrait, which is iconic, everybody is completely riveted by it, whether they’re conservative, like Hilton Kramer, or radical, like Holland Cotter.


AE: How long did they then survive after the war?

CL: They both lived into their nineties. Natalie went back to Paris and tried to resurrect her salon, which didn’t work very well. Romaine eventually took an apartment in Nice and became somewhat infirm and a real recluse, because she just didn’t like the world she found herself in. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Edouard MacAvoy, a Surrealist painter, recalled her work and it started to get some attention. By 1969, Romaine had already donated a number of works to the Smithsonian. MacAvoy and Natalie were involved in putting together an exhibition—the very one that finally took place in 1971 that brought me to Romaine in the first place.


AE: How would you assess her legacy or current opinion about her work?

CL: What I would like to see is for her work to be compared to that of Whistler, Cassatt, and Sargent, who were her peers. You have to ask yourself, Why is she still left out of the pantheon? Contrary to what has been written about her “small” output, we do not know where her lost works are, so we have no way of judging how large or small her actual output was. What we now know is that she went from producing really big paintings to producing smaller-scale paintings after World War I. It is my hope that younger scholars will search out the missing works and track down the owners. It’s time to track down the lost works and mount a long overdue Romaine exhibition in context with her peers.


Allen Ellenzweig, a frequent contributor to these pages, is the author of The Homoerotic Photograph.