Lesbian nightclub, elegance and identity in Paris of the 1930s
The modern construction of a lesbian identity has generated many philosophical variances between renowned intellectual women who marked the last century, from the 1920s to the Second World War. If most of them saw their attraction for other women as a natural feature, all did not envisage or interpret their identity in the same way. Their complementary divergence was symbolized by the Bohemian lifestyle of Paris’ Left Bank, a Belle Époque sapphism embodied by the literary salon of Natalie Clifford Barney, opposed to an elegant and sophisticated lesbian nightlife in Paris’s Right Bank, whose main influences came from Radclyffe Hall and Lulu de Montparnasse, the female patron of a lesbian nightclub in Montmartre called Le Monocle. A rare testimony of these hidden tensions can be found in Charlotte’s diary, who retraces the bisexual journey of an ordinary woman living in Paris from the 1920s to the 1940s.
I do not explain myselft, I obey myself.
Natalie Clifford Barney in Eparpillements (1910).
Between these two poles actually hides two fundamental divergences on gender roles and social references. Indeed, the main bohemian (left bank) models were Sappho and Mytilene, the ideas of women’s caucus, homosexuality as a natural female behavior and romantic friendships were central to this point of view. The Temple of Friendship built in Natalie Clifford Barney’s garden and her numerous Platonic quotes still a perfect illustration of this inclusive state of mind. These women didn’t seek to fight gender norms but to express their queerness more freely, which led them to face patriarchal statu quo. Indeed, their gender roles were already challenged by a sexual orientation regarded as “deviant” around them.
I consider myself without shame: albinos aren’t reproached for having pink eyes and whitish hair; why should they hold it against me for being a lesbian? It’s a question of Nature. My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.
Natalie Clifford Barney in her autobiography.
On the other side of the Seine, a slightly different approach to lesbianism began to take shape at the end of the flapper era, around the congenital invert hypothesis, developped by a sexologist named Havelock Ellis. His scientific assumptions were fueled, demonstrated, popularized and explained by Marguerite Radclyffe Hall in her avant-garde work called The Well of Loneliness (1928). This significant reversal legitimized a butch identity, more exclusive, seeking signs of authenticity in masculine behavior and specific dress codes. This is the time when dandyism, tuxedos, cropped haircuts and monocles are used as explicit signs of belonging and concrete opposition to gender norms. In this regard, the atmosphere and photographies of Lulu’s bar still a wonderful symbol and a constant source of inspiration.
The discourses on inversion will have a huge impact on the very meaning of the word lesbian, by gradually excluding bisexuality and platonic relationships from lesbianism. Indeed, Marguerite Radclyffe Hall’s heroine, Stephen Gordon, discovers her homosexuality by reading medical books, then uses cross-dressing to symbolize and link her sexuality with her identity. She clearly presents herself as an archetype of the active lesbian, essentially distinct from the more feminine, passive and “unfaithful” women represented by Angela Crossby and Mary Llewellyn. As these obselete conceptions rely on scientific studies and her iconic figure, they continue to have a certain relevance and an undeniable weight on lesbian communities.
Puddle put an arm round Stephen’s bowed shoulders, and she said: You’ve got work to do, come and do it! Why, just because you are what you are, you may actually find that you’ve got an advantage. You may write with a curious double insight, write both men and women from a personal knowledge. Nothing’s completely misplaced or wasted, I’m sure of that, and we’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you, but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make the good, and I’m here to help you to do it, Stephen.
Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall in The Well of Loneliness (1928).
However, many bridges can be established between these two understanding of the term lesbian. The central role of Valérie Seymour, referring explicitly to Barney in The Well of Loneliness, can give us the key to a meaningful rapprochement between two visions apparently divergent. In fact, both of them regard their sexual behavior as natural, they both identify as lesbians, they also use Art to express their thoughts and, most importantly, they can’t help but desire women, regardless of their love interest’s sexual orientation. If Stephen invents a relationship with Valérie to prevent Mary from choosing between her and Martin Hallam, it is not by chance. In spite of herself, Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall gives more strength to Natalie Barney’s reflections on monogamy. But where Marguerite is profoundly affected by her separations, Natalie sees such ephemeral romances as a logical consequence of her own philosophy.