Oct/Nov 2014 Nonfiction

Conversations with Berthe Cleyrergue, Housekeeper to the Legendary Amazon, Nathalie Clifford Barney

by Gregory Stephenson

It was all still there. The small, two-story house in the walled courtyard, the crumbling Grecian temple in a corner of the courtyard. On these premises many distinguished writers, artists, and composers had stood chatting over cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea, and many ardent lesbian love-affairs had been conducted. The street address was 20 rue Jacob, Paris, a dignified 17th century street in the 6th arrondissement. The now empty house in the courtyard had been—for 60 years—the residence of Nathalie Clifford Barney, a wealthy American writer, affectionately called the Amazon (a name she proudly adopted) by her admirer Remy de Gourmont in tribute to her unabashed, openly acknowledged lesbianism. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1876, Nathalie Clifford Barney lived nearly all of her life in Paris, dying there in 1972 at the age of ninety five. She is chiefly remembered (mentioned in two score of Paris memoirs and now the subject of half-a-dozen biographies) for her dauntless sexual escapades and for her role as hostess of a celebrated salon attended by such eminences as T.S. Eliot, Isadora Duncan, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, and many others, including prominent French scholars and authors. Nathalie Barney's salon was held on Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m., occasionally featuring literary readings, dance and musical recitals. Fabled sandwiches and cakes were made and served by Miss Barney's long-time housekeeper, Berthe Cleyrergue. And even now in late December of 1981, the dilapidated old house, the deteriorating Doric temple, the deserted cobblestone courtyard seemed to me still to hold something of the romance of the past.

I was very soon to discover—to my astonishment—that the house quite literally still held something of the romance of the past. As I strolled the grounds gazing at the old cobblestones, the withered garden, the walls and windows and doorways, my eyes fell upon the post box in the passageway. Written there in faded blue ink was the name "Cleyrergue." Was it possible, I wondered wildly, that Nathalie Barney's housekeeper still lived here? Charged with excitement and anticipation, I mounted the stairs to the first floor and rang the bell. The door was opened by a short, white-haired, bespectacled old lady. I recognized her at once from old photographs I'd seen. It was Berthe Cleyrergue.

I introduced myself, begging pardon for calling unannounced and explaining that I was interested in the life of Nathalie Clifford Barney. I had read, I told her, the biographies of Miss Barney written by Jean Chalon and George Wickes. (I said this intending to establish myself as having a serious interest in the subject.) My remarks, however, served to animate Berthe Cleyrergue. Jean Chalon, she told me vehemently, was guilty of many indiscretions, of distortions, errors, and outright lies. And so, too, was George Wickes. She invited me into her dim, low-ceilinged apartment and bade me sit down at a handsome, old, wooden table. She sat next to me and showed me a book she herself had written concerning her long acquaintance with Nathalie Clifford Barney (whom she called "Meez Bar-náy"). The book was titled Berthe ou un demi siecle aupres de l'Amazone (Berthe or half a century with the Amazon) and had only recently been published. She then commenced to guide me through the book photograph by photograph, discoursing at length on each in rapid Burgundian-inflected French. It was clear her memory was formidable. She named the day, month, and year of each incident she recounted.

I was also impressed by Berthe's liveliness and apparent good health. She was 77 years old, yet spry and supple, despite having undergone four operations necessitated, she told me, by having taken a fall in the cellar.

Berthe had entered into Miss Barney's service in June of 1927. The way in which this had taken place, she said, was through her previous acquaintance with Djuna Barnes, who was a friend of Miss Barney. Berthe had formerly been employed in a shop in the 16th arrondisement where Djuna Barnes had been among her customers. Berthe had often made deliveries to the apartment where Djuna Barnes lived together with her lover, whose name Berthe could not now immediately recall (it was Thelma Wood). One day Djuna confided to Berthe that she had carelessly caused a burn in the carpet of her rented apartment and that in compensation for this accident the landlord was demanding an enormous sum of money. Berthe had thought this unjust and had spoken with the landlord on Djuna's behalf. The result had been that Djuna did not have to pay anything at all. After this incident the two women became friends, so that when Berthe decided to seek some more interesting and remunerative employment, Djuna encouraged her to apply to become a member of the household staff of Nathalie Clifford Barney and recommended Berthe to Miss Barney. At the outset, Berthe told me, working at 20 rue Jacob as cook and maid, she was unaware of the nature of goings-on in the house. When it first became clear to her that her employer was a notorious lesbian, she thought she would quit (as so many before her had done). However, since she was well-paid and well-treated, and since the character of her work was often interesting, she decided to remain, and she soon grew to like and admire Miss Barney. Gradually, Berthe had taken on more and more responsibility for the managing of the house and had become not only housekeeper but a trusted confidante of her employer.

Not long after coming to work at 20 rue Jacob, Berthe met Henri, the man who would become her husband. Henri, a man of various skills, also proved very useful to Miss Barney, who was well-pleased to have the pair living in the little apartment near the passageway. Henri delighted in hunting and often contributed fresh game to the table of Miss Barney and her friends. Berthe often supplied Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with partridges and pheasants shot by Henri, she said. Though these two ladies employed a servant, Toklas had reserved for herself the role of cook, even insisting on plucking the game birds herself. At the request of Toklas, Berthe added, she later contributed a recipe for inclusion in Toklas's cook book (a casserole of mixed vegetables and veal). Additionally, Berthe often carried messages back and forth between Miss Barney and Gertrude Stein, who lived nearby on the rue Christine. This was in the days before Miss Barney had a telephone installed.

The outbreak of the Second World War caught Miss Barney on a visit to Italy, where she was obliged to remain for the duration of the conflict. During her absence Berthe dealt with all the many problems that arose concerning both the house and Miss Barney's personal possessions. (Nathalie Clifford Barney was considered Jewish by the Gestapo both because her sister was married to a member of the Dreyfus family and because her family background included a Jewish ancestor.) Berthe was instrumental in saving Miss Barney's jewelry from confiscation and instrumental also in feeding Miss Barney's friends in Paris, many of whom were suffering under the chronic food shortages of the Occupation years. Berthe made numerous trips to the countryside, returning with vegetables and fruit and even eggs and butter that she distributed free of charge to the friends of Miss Barney. After the war, when Miss Barney returned to Paris, as an expression of her gratitude she offered to Berthe several items from her personal jewelry, including pearls, diamonds, bracelets, and an expensive watch, but Berthe refused to accept these gifts. Years later, however, she was persuaded by Miss Barney to choose at the very least one item from among the jewelry bequeathed to Miss Barney by her dear friend, Liane de Pougny, and on this occasion Berthe selected a small gold ring with a blue stone (the motif of the ring was two nude women, bodies arched, hands reaching upward). Miss Barney said to her, "Ah, Berthe, you have chosen well!"

Berthe's chief objection to the biographies of her former employer as written by Jean Chalon and George Wickes was that in her view these books concentrated overmuch on the intimate life of Nathalie Clifford Barney without understanding her personality as a whole. Of far greater importance to Miss Barney than her amorous attachments, Berthe said, had been her friendships. Friendship was sacred to her, and she was very faithful and very generous to her many friends, both men and women. Berthe felt that after her many years of serving as guardian of the house and Miss Barney's affairs, she now served as guardian of Miss Barney's reputation. That was why—as a corrective to what she saw as the more sensational and narrowly focused biographies written by Chalon and Wickes—she had recorded her own recollections of Miss Barney and her circle. The other biographies had also, Berthe observed, neglected to treat the seriousness of Miss Barney's authorship. Nathalie Clifford Barney had written plays, poems, a novel, memoirs, aphorisms. She had practiced a very strict work ethic with regard to her writing, Berthe said. It was a central and important aspect of her life. The biographers, she said, had scarcely mentioned this side of Miss Barney's personality. A final, more personal objection Berthe expressed concerning both biographers was that they had in their books claimed ownership of the photographs she had lent to them and failed to return to her not only photographs but also letters and other documents belonging to her that they had made use of.

Berthe said she had been on excellent terms with nearly all of Miss Barney's regular visitors. She had read their novels and their poems (in French). This had been an education for her. She had conversed with them. They had signed her copies of their books. She cherished her memories of the distinguished writers she had met. The exception to her congenial relations to the many guests and friends was Miss Barney's last lover, Madame Lahovary. This affair had begun when Miss Barney was nearly 80 years of age and lasted until her death. Berthe regarded Madame Lahovary as an intruder, an adventuress, a malign opportunist who had brought a destructive influence to bear upon Miss Barney's life, alienating her from her oldest and best friend, the artist Romaine Brooks. Berthe could not, she said, begin to understand the nature of Miss Barney's attraction to Madame Lahovary, who was, in Berthe's opinion, so inelegant and uncultivated, altogether unlike the intelligent authors and artists with whom Miss Barney had associated all her life. But destructive attractions such as this are one of the greatest mysteries of life, Berthe said. They are incomprehensible. She had seen such relationships before, notably Djuna Barnes and her partner Thelma Wood.

At this point I was obliged to break off our conversation, as I had to get back to my wife at our hotel. Berthe offered to meet with me again in just a few days. Eagerly and gratefully, I accepted an afternoon appointment with her early in the new year.

On the 2nd of January, 1982, at 4 p.m., about an hour before sunset, I opened the large wooden doors of 20 rue Jacob and entered the passageway. After admiring the carved griffins set in the wall of the passageway, I ascended the stairs and rang the bell of Berthe's apartment. She opened immediately, and we greeted each other and wished each other a happy New Year. I presented her with a small pot of flowers I had bought on the nearby rue de Buci. I could see Berthe had dressed herself in more formal, more elegant clothes and was carefully coiffed and made up for our appointment. Again, we sat side by side at the fine old wooden table, this time going through an extraordinary album of photographs of Nathalie Clifford Barney. The album included photographs of her as a child, a young lady, a woman, mature, older, and then very old. There were photos of her father and mother, her sisters, her friends and lovers. These latter included Dolly Wilde, Djuna Barnes, Renée Vivien, Eva Palmer, the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre, Lucie Mardrus, Romaine Brooks, the author Colette, and Madame Lahovary (for whom Berthe again expressed disdain).

Berthe's favorite among Miss Barney's friends was Colette, she said. They were both from Burgundy, and this made for a special sympathy between them. And Berthe had very much enjoyed reading Colette's books.

Berthe commented on each photograph in the album, characterizing the person depicted or recounting an anecdote or incident she recalled. She pointed out to me similarities in the facial features of Miss Barney's ancestor (an officer in the American navy during the War of Independence) and those of Miss Barney. Berthe clearly preferred those photographs of Miss Barney where she looked most feminine and tended to disapprove of those in which she appeared in drag or a state of undress. Also contained in the photo album were a hand-written poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (a verse reply to an invitation-in-verse), and loosely inserted letters to Berthe from Djuna Barnes and from Dolly Wilde, as well as letters to Berthe from Nathalie Clifford Barney, from one of which Berthe read aloud to me a citation praising the commendable and indispensible service of Berthe and her husband, Henri.

Berthe asked me where I was staying in Paris, and I replied that my wife and I were lodged in a hotel on the rue Git-le-Coeur. "Oh," she said, "Dolly Wilde lived on that same street." (Dolly was the niece of Oscar Wilde and a flamboyant figure during the 1920s.) She had liked Dolly very much. Dolly was very lively and witty, and they had laughed together many a time. Dolly Wilde was, Berthe said, "a marvellous being." They had been good friends, but Dolly had used drugs a great deal and was often in poor health. More than once, Berthe had nursed her carefully back to health. Miss Barney had also been extremely fond of Dolly, allowing her to stay in her house while she recuperated, giving her money, but because of Dolly's use of drugs, the house had come under the scrutiny of the police. Berthe believed it was Dr. Mahoney (Daniel Mahoney, who served as inspiration for the immortal character of Dr. Matthew O'Connor in Djuna Barnes' novel Nightwood) who kept Dolly supplied with drugs. He lived nearby and was known to be an unsavory type. Miss Barney would not allow him to enter her house.

Berthe said she had also nursed and cared for Djuna Barnes when after being abandoned by Thelma Wood she had succumbed to nervous exhaustion. Djuna had taken a room at the nearby Hotel d'Angleterre, and Berthe visited her there several times a day, bringing her food and little items of comfort, listening to her lamentations and attempting to assuage her despair. Djuna Barnes still wrote to her from New York, she said. Berthe showed me the most recent card she had received from her (strangely, it was written in English, which Berthe could neither read nor speak.) I mentioned I had a sporadic correspondence with Djuna Barnes and would be glad to convey Berthe's greetings to her and give her all of Berthe's news. Berthe expressed her pleasure at my offer, urging me to do so.

What impressions, I asked, did she have of Miss Barney? What opinion had she formed? Quite apart from Miss Barney's private life and her literary interests, what sort of person was she? She was, above all, Berthe said, very dignified, very proper, and very intelligent. She was, perhaps, somewhat reserved, not overtly affectionate or emotional, except once when she learned of the death of her dear friend, Romaine Brooks. Fundamentally, she was composed and collected, but she could suddenly fly to pieces in the face of some minor problem. She was also quite particular about things: she had firm ideas of how certain things—furniture, objects, routines—should be in her household and insisted that they must be that way. Yet other things—like the condition of the house itself—she ignored and neglected. She was obstinate in many ways, Berthe thought, strong-willed. But also generous and understanding. She enjoyed companionship and good food. In the company of her American friends, Miss Barney was much given to laughter, Berthe said. Sometimes they laughed and laughed. As she did not herself understand English, Berthe had no idea what the topics of these hilarious conversations might have been. Miss Barney had not interfered in matters of housekeeping. She had never been meddlesome but had given Berthe free rein in all things, trusting her completely with household expenses and accounts. Miss Barney had also frequently consulted Berthe on questions of apparel and appearance, soliciting her reactions and preferences in regard to clothing and jewelry. Miss Barney had even asked her opinion of certain guests, but in such matters Berthe had declined to offer her estimations, thinking it better to keep her own counsel.

In providing dinners and refreshments for Miss Barney's salon and her gatherings, Berthe said she had learned many things and had enjoyed her work preparing food, despite its demanding nature. She had learned to make a large variety of sandwiches, and she had even learned to cook Thanksgiving dinner according to the American tradition. Miss Barney observed this feast every year with her American friends. All these things had been relatively easy before the war, but after the war there was scarcity and rationing. Then, it had been difficult to obtain the right materials and ingredients.

Berthe served me a drink she described as a Burgundian specialty: a mixture of sirop de cassis and white wine. And she plied me with delicious small cookies and candies arranged on a small silver platter. This was as close, I thought, as I would ever come to attending one of the fabled Fridays at 20 rue Jacob. And how exhilarating for me it was to have this encounter with a living witness to a mythic era, someone who saw in the eye of her memory Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and other figures of that remote, romantic time.

Berthe's small apartment was crowded with furnishings she had managed to salvage from Nathalie Clifford Barney's house, including the table at which we sat and the chairs on which we were seated. Most of Miss Barney's furnishings had been sold at auction, she told me, often for a pittance. Berthe also possessed many paintings and drawings by Romaine Brooks and other artists, together with many books signed and dedicated to her by the various authors who frequented the salon over the years. It was evident she took considerable pride in showing me these things. She had made provisions, she said, that upon her death her photographs, books, and letters were to be donated to the Jacques Doucet library, which already housed a collection of books and letters by Nathalie Clifford Barney.

Perhaps it was the word death that caused me suddenly to think of the sheer strangeness of our meeting, two humans from opposite ends of the earth, together in a room in Paris on a winter evening, speaking of the past, of the dead. And soon, thanking Berthe profusely and promising to write, I put on my coat and took my leave. Walking away from 20 rue Jacob in the darkness, I recalled a line from a poem by Ezra Pound (with whom Nathalie Clifford Barney often played tennis): "She was a very old lady, I never saw her again." And, indeed, that was how it was to be.


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