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Wild Heart: A Life, Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris

Chapter One

Beauty in the Blood ...

All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain.
-- Walt Whitman

I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the upbuilding, fast money in the crack-up."
-- Rhett Butler to Scarlett OHara

Double-being. Dyad. Janus. Natalie Clifford Barney was the essence of duality. No matter what one believed about her, the opposite might well be true. A self-described debauchée, she could be proper, even prim. Relishing her ability to shock, she was nonetheless imbued with formal, old-school manners. Far ahead of her time in the politics of personal freedom and feminism, she also harbored extremely conservative philosophies. She could be amazingly cruel and incredibly kind. She didn't always enjoy reading, yet ran the most important literary salon of the twentieth century. Possessed of little formal education, she was considered brilliant by many of the greatest minds in Europe. She celebrated the giving of love to others, but found it difficult to accept love for herself. Although she spent most of her life shining at the white-hot center of a crowd, she was often lonely. With her blond, angelic looks and scarlet blushes, she was the picture of innocence, and yet her private life caused such shock and scandal that some, including lovers and close friends, considered her a mixture of good and evil -- and for a few she embodied the latter word in its entirety.

To begin to understand Natalie Barney we must first look to her family, an only-in-America mélange of Salem Puritans and agnostic Jews, adventurous paupers and careful millionaires, rugged pioneers and effete layabouts. It was a family in which polarities attracted. Like married unlike. In the end, they produced a charismatic dyad, a woman who was at once fire and ice. Natalie's beautiful blood was at war with itself.

From childhood Natalie loved all things French, and so we'll begin by exploring her mother's side -- the French side-of the family.

In the Blood of the Mother

According to long-held family lore, Natalie's great-great-grandfather, Ennemond Meuillion, was a French aristocrat who fled the Revolution. In fact, he arrived in the New World nearly two decades earlier, coming to Louisiana "about 1770, soon after Spain took over the government of that vast territory."

Enough facts exist about Meuillion to piece together a rough outline of his life. He was born in 1737 in the French province of Dauphiné, and the coat of arms on his personal seal indicates that, as his descendants believed, he was of noble birth. Aside from the fact that he trained as a doctor, nothing is known of his early life until he journeyed to America in the 1760s. Crippling taxation had made life difficult in France, even for aristocrats, and young Meuillion might have decided to try his luck in a vibrant new land. The Louisiana Territory, heavily populated by Frenchmen, was a logical destination.

The French presence in Louisiana dated back to 1682 when the Sieur de La Salle claimed possession of the Mississippi River valley, naming the territory for Louis XIV. Over the ensuing decades French soldiers and trappers came to the region, staying on as small-scale planters and traders. Spaniards, too, settled in, emigrating from their own colony in Florida. Control of Louisiana would be tossed back and forth between these two European powers and Great Britain until, in 1803, the territory was purchased by the fledgling American nation.

Meuillion took up residence in one of the earliest French settlements on the Mississippi, Pointe Coupée, and married a widowed Frenchwoman with four children. When she died a short time later, he raised the children as his own. A few years on he married another widow with four children, Jeannette Poiret, daughter of the Chevalier de Brie. They had six children of their own, bringing their combined brood to a total of fourteen.

The Meuillions settled on the Red River near present-day Alexandria. The area, called El Rapido by the Spanish and Rapides by the French, was named for the nearby limestone rapids. A Spanish fort, the Post of El Rapido, fronted the river. Meuillion built a home nearby, cleared trees for a plantation, and prospered growing cotton.

When war broke out between Spain and Great Britain in 1779, Meuillion signed on as a sublieutenant in the service of Spanish general Bernardo de Galvez, who aided the American cause. This wartime service qualified the doctor's descendants for membership in the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution.

After the war Meuillion continued to grow cotton and doctor the community while serving under the Spaniards as commandant of Fort Rapides. He died in his plantation home in 1820 at eighty-three. In 1930 the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker on his grave to commemorate his role in the war, leading the Louisiana Historical Review to refer to him, halfjokingly, as "one of the most famous residents of the Rapides Cemetery."

The second child of Ennemond Meuillion and Jeannette Poiret, Ursula-Natalie's great-grandmother -- was born in 1784. "Ursula Meuillion," her granddaughter Alice Pike Barney wrote more than a century later, "was exquisitely petite, delicate, and adorable. She refused to learn English, which meant that all those about her were forced to learn French."

A favorite family legend told of the time that Ursula received a message from her husband: "Lafayette vient! Préparez inunediatement!" Having no idea who Lafayette was but nonetheless terrified at the thought of his arrival, she urged the household into panic mode. Everyone scurried about, burying the silver, hiding the horses in the bayou, sending the chickens cackling. When everything was locked up, Ursula, the children, and the rest of the household fled deep into the woods. By the time her husband rode home with his illustrious guest, General Lafayette -- American Revolutionary hero and friend of George Washington -- they found not the hospitable welcome they expected, but a deserted house.

Excerpted from Wild Heart: A Life © Copyright 2003 by Suzanne Rodriguez. Reprinted with permission by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

Wild Heart: A Life, Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris
by by Suzanne Rodriguez

  • paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060937807
  • ISBN-13: 9780060937805