Ask people you know to name a famous historical figure from Dayton, and if they don’t name the Wright Brothers, they might name Paul Laurence Dunbar or John Patterson or perhaps even Erma Bombeck. But I bet they won’t name Natalie Clifford Barney. If you’re not gay yourself (and even if you are), odds are that you’ve never heard of her either. Yet when Natalie Barney died in 1972, her obituary was in the New York Times, and if you speak French and ever find yourself in Paris and ask about her, you’ll have a better chance than in Dayton of finding someone who’s heard of her1.
Why? Because Barney, an heiress of Dayton’s Barney Car Company, lived for decades in Paris as an out lesbian, feminist, writer, and salon hostess, bringing together authors and artists such as Romaine Brooks (her long-time lover), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and many more.
Long-time Dayton LGBT Center board member, librarian and Dayton historian Leon Bey spoke both outside during the dedication as well as at the reception inside the library afterwards. Over the years Leon has done a lot of research on Barney’s life. An interesting anecdote he shared was of going to Paris with his partner David and visiting Barney’s faithful servant Berthe Cleyrergue, who prepared for Leon and David many of the items she’d so often made to serve at Barney’s famous salons.
During the reception, in addition to hearing more from Leon about Barney’s life, we were treated to a Readers Theatre highlighting a small selection of writings by and about Barney. The readings also gave a taste of another historical perspective about Dayton, the annual Salon de DLGC (Dayton Lesbian and Gay Center, as the Greater Dayton LGBT Center was then known), held in the 80s and early 90s in the style of Barney’s Paris salon with performances by gay and lesbian Daytonians. You yourself can read the selections presented during the Readers Theatre by viewing the event’s program (in PDF format), which also includes an annotated bibliography of the sources used for the text of the historical marker about Barney.
To see some more photos from the dedication ceremony, visit the gallery page about the event.
(Click either image above to embiggen.)
1Si vous parlez français, this page has a lot of information about (and photos of) Natalie Barney.