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‘Paris-Lesbos’: the vibrant lesbian community where women in the 1920s thrived

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  Radclyffe Hall (R) with her partner Lady Una Troubridge. in 1928, Radclyffe Hall published her landmark lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, and was met with a severe backlash and an obscenity trial (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

When Oscar Wilde died in a Paris hotel room on 30 November 1900, he was estranged from his family. Following his conviction and imprisonment for gross indecency, his wife Constance moved to Switzerland and changed her name, and that of their two sons, to Holland. Both his parents were dead and his brother, Willie, had died of alcoholism in March 1899. When Oscar passed away, there was only one family member who still carried the name Wilde: his niece, Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Wilde.

Dolly was born in London, just months after Oscar’s arrest. Although she never met her uncle, she idolised him throughout her life. She looked very much like him, and by all accounts shared his razor-sharp wit. As an adult she liked to boast, “I’m more like Oscar than Oscar himself.” Her friends nicknamed her ‘Oscaria’. Dolly’s affinity with her uncle ran deeper than appearance and cracking wise alone: she was also gay and left England to live in Paris. But while Oscar hid himself away in Paris, Dolly thrived. When she arrived in 1914, the city had such a vibrant lesbian community that it was wryly referred to as ‘Paris-Lesbos’. Also watch the documentary 'Paris was a woman'.

August 1922: People sitting and drinking outside the Cafe la Rotunda in a busy Paris street. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

After the First World War ended, artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals flocked to Paris, lured by the promise of a bohemian, sexually permissive lifestyle. Social attitudes to sexuality were being openly challenged by work of pioneering sexologists, like Havelock Ellis, who studied same sex attraction, or ‘inversion’ as he called it, and concluded that lesbianism and homosexuality were both natural and normal. While same-sex relations were still viciously condemned elsewhere, by the 1920s lesbianism had become quite fashionable in Paris, especially amongst high society. Many influential aristocratic women settled there and openly had affairs with women, much to the chagrin of their husbands.

Princess Violette Murat (1878-1936), Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac (1865-1943), Antoinette Corisande Élisabeth, Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre (1875-1954), and Baroness Hélène van Zuylen (1863-1947), all made Paris their home and enjoyed relationships with women. Wealth and privilege not only protected these women from persecution, it made lesbianism chic. Only Weimar Berlin could match 1920’s Paris in its proliferation gay clubs, theatres, and bars. There was even a lesbian magazine, Die Freundin, which ran from 1924 to 1933.

The permissive atmosphere of Paris is all the more remarkable given the hostility towards lesbianism found elsewhere. Britain was particularly intolerant. Oscar Wilde had been convicted of gross indecency in 1895 under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, for ‘committing acts of gross indecency with male persons’. In 1921, MPs debated adding the following clause to the Act that would also make lesbianism a criminal offence: “Any act of gross indecency between female persons shall be a misdemeanour and punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885”.

 

Although the House was unanimously agreed that this was a “most disgusting and polluting subject”, the bill failed on the grounds that it might give women ideas. The Lord Chancellor reasoned that “of every thousand women … 999 have never even heard a whisper of these practices”, and therefore “the taint of this noxious and horrible suspicion” must not be “imparted by the Legislature itself”.

Seven years later in 1928, Radclyffe Hall published her landmark lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, and was met with a severe backlash and an obscenity trial. James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, called for the immediate ban of The Well of Loneliness, writing, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.” He continued, “The decadent apostles of the most hideous and loathsome vices no longer conceal their degeneracy and their degradation… This pestilence is devastating the younger generation. It is wrecking young lives. It is defiling young souls.”

The Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks demanded the book’s withdrawal from circulation and threatened the publisher (Jonathon Cape) with criminal proceedings if he did not comply. However, Cape had also sold the rights to Pegasus Press, an English language publisher in France and many copies made it back across the Channel. The obscenity trial and publicity ensured high sales, but the book wasn’t printed in Britain again until 1949 when Falcon Press brought out an edition without legal challenge.

‘My queerness is not a vice, it is not deliberate, and harms no one’ – Natalie Clifford Barney

The novel tells the story of an upper-class woman called Stephen Gordon, who comes to understand that she is a ‘congenital invert’. Stephen struggles to fit in until she moves to Paris, where she finally meets other ‘inverts’ at the literary salon of Valérie Seymour. Hall’s novel is semi-autobiographical and the character of Valérie is based on Natalie Clifford Barney, an American writer who settled in Paris and opened a literary salon. Barney lived openly as a lesbian, declaring “my queerness is not a vice, it is not deliberate, and harms no one”. She refused to practice monogamy and had many lovers and long-term partners. She was also the love of Dolly Wilde’s life.

Barney’s weekly salon was at the epicentre of ‘Paris-Lesbos’ and she hosted the leading lights of the post-modernist movement. Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, S. Eliot, Peggy Guggenheim, Isadora Duncan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, and, of course, Radclyffe Hall, are but a few of the people to attend Barney’s salon. Guests dressed as nymphs and danced in the gardens. Lesbian poetry was read, art was discussed, and the drinks were well supplied. The legendary courtesan Mata Hari is said to have once danced through the salon completely naked. She had wanted to arrive on an elephant, but Barney refused, saying “there are cookies and tea, but we can’t have an elephant in my garden”.

 radcliffe hall
English poet and author Radclyffe Hall (1880 - 1943), May 1934. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Barney’s salons may have been exclusive, but Parisian nightlife catered for everyone. There were lesbian and gay cubs all over the city, but the most famous lesbian club was in Montparnasse. Le Monocle was opened in the 1920s, by Lulu de Montparnasse on the rue Edgar-Quinet. The club took its name from the fashion adopted by the lesbian community of wearing a monocle (Radclyffe Hall wore one frequently). Many of the women in the club, including the staff, wore a tuxedo, with their hair slicked back, and put a white carnation in their lapel.

By the 1930s, things were changing. The Nazis rise to power had unleashed a vicious homophobia in Germany and the famous LGBTQ clubs in Berlin were forced to close. Le Monocle managed to keep its doors open until the 1940s, but when the Germans invaded France, they forced it to close. At the outbreak of war, Natalie Barney fled to Italy with her long term lover the American painter Romaine Brooks – much to the devastation of Dolly Wilde.

Dolly had always struggled with Barney’s other partners and had attempted suicide several times when she felt her relationships were in trouble. She had also become increasingly dependent on alcohol and had developed an addiction to heroin. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1939, Dolly refused any medical care and wouldn’t stop abusing drink and drugs. After Barney left for Italy, Dolly returned to England and died on 10 April 1941. The cause of death was recorded as ‘unascertainable’ because she had been found with a bottle of paraldehyde, a strong sedative. She was just 46, the same age as her uncle Oscar was when he died in Paris.

After the war ended, Natalie Barney returned to Paris and reopened her salon in 1949. It continued to attract the great and the good of the art world, but the ‘Paris-Lesbos’ of the interwar years was long gone. The Nazi persecution of gay and lesbian communities had shattered a once vibrant culture and cast a long shadow. It would take many years to recover, but recover it did. As Natalie Barney once wrote, “Paris has always seemed to me to be the only city where you can live and express yourself as you please.”

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