Inventors of Gay: Djuna Barnes

By: Christopher Harrity

Djuna Barnes
June 12, 1892 –June 18, 1982

A mercurial iconoclast, Barnes was the original riot grrrl. A poet, playwright, artist, and contrarian, Barnes’s themes of patriarchy, incest, and same-sex love recurred in her work and in her life.

Her early family life was the stuff of Greek drama: Educated at home by her father and grandmother, and perhaps incested by both. Her grandmother was a Suffragette and her father a promoter of polygamy. When she was seventeen she was married off to her father’s mistress’s brother, aged 52. Rather than fall victim to the hardships of her youth, Barnes was propelled to become a legendary avant-garde writer of no compromise.

Djuna_Barnes_Clipping After a short period of attending the Pratt Institute in New York in 1912, she became a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and soon her work was appearing all over the city. Setting the stage for future gonzo journalists to come, she was completely subjective with her writing, often involving herself directly with the story. She subjected herself to force-feeding as research for her story on the techniques used on hunger-striking suffragettes. (See photo, left)

In the later teens, she moved to Greenwich Village and became entrenched in the Bohemian life thriving there. She was a member of the famed Provincetown Players and several of her plays were produced. Her work was noted as baffling, but riveting. She thrived sexually in this period, having affairs with both men and women after her first and second marriages were dissolved.

Djuna_Barnes_-_Ladies_Almanack_cover Traveling to Paris in the ’20s on assignment with McCall’s magazine, she seemed to have found a spiritual home among the avant-garde. She was part of the inner circle of the influential salon hostess Natalie Barney, who would become a lifelong friend and patron, as well as the central figure in Barnes's satiric chronicle of Paris lesbian life, Ladies Almanack. She became close with James Joyce who helped her move away from her aesthetic and decadent style in writing and art to a more modernist approach.

Her most successful novel, Nightwood was written while she was a guest of the god-mother patroness of the avant-garde, Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim was to be a staunch supporter, emotionally and financially, off-and-on for much of Barnes’s life.

Barnes was troubled with physical illness and alcohol problems. It ebbed her creative output and caused rifts in her relationships. In 1940 with few prospects she returned to her mother’s home where her mother, now a devout Christian Scientist, read Mary Baker Eddy to her and coughed all night. Barnes’s family eventually sent her to a sanatorium to dry out. She was infuriated and with a surprising burst of creative energy wrote the wrathful verse play, The Antiphon, drawing heavily on her family history.

With Guggenheim’s ongoing support she lived out her last 42 years in a small apartment at 5 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. Eccentricity morphed into reclusion and suspicion. E. E. Cummings, who lived across the street, would check on her periodically by shouting out his window, "Are you still alive, Djuna?" Carson McCullers camped on her doorstep, but Barnes only called down, "Whoever is ringing this bell, please go the hell away." She was angry that Anaïs Nin had named a character Djuna, and when the feminist bookstore Djuna Books opened in Greenwich Village, Barnes called to demand that the name be changed.

Barnes_later Ironically, she remains one of the strongest voices of lesbian culture in the last century.

Friends with:
Natalie Barney
James Joyce
T.S. Elliot
Edmund Wilson

Why we care:
Her anger gave voice to strengthen the feminist movement, while staying unique and strident. Her love of the bizarre and grotesque inspired the Surrealists and the Dadaists. Her stringent view of patriarchy can be seen as an influence in the work of modern feminists. Even Woody Allen paid homage with a brief encounter between his lead character Gil, played by Owen Wilson, and Djuna in his latest film Midnight in Paris.


Sources: Wikipedia,





Drawing by Djuna Barnes, originally published in the New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, accompanying her article "How the Villagers Amuse Themselves."

"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.