Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sappho and the Amazon Down East

Ban-y-Bryn, entrance front.
by Brad Emerson, The Downeast Dilettante
Special to the New York Social Diary

While looking for something else in my overstuffed files, this old postcard fell out from between two folders, and I immediately thought about the story it contained.

Albert Clifford Barney was from Cincinnati, the heir to a large industrial fortune.  In the late 19th century, he and his artistic wife Alice---who before Mr. Barney had been engaged to the explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley---and their daughters Natalie and Laura arrived in Bar Harbor to occupy Ban-y-Bryn, their newly built cottage on a craggy hill overlooking Eden Street and Frenchman's Bay. 

Designed by Sidney Stratton, Ban-y-Bryn was a somewhat unconventional house, of indefinable style, considered 'modern' in style by one writer, but compared to a medieval castle by another. Built on the edge of a steep bluff, with mountains on one side, and the ocean spread out below on the other, the house had 27 rooms on four floors---including a top floor studio for Mrs. Barney, major rooms fitted with exotic and expensive woods, and kitchen and services on the ground floor.
Alice Pike Barney. Natalie Clifford Barney, painted in 1896 by her mother Alice Pike Barney.
Rich and charming, the Barneys were an immediate social hit in Bar Harbor, and for the next two decades, the society columns, local and international, covered the Barney's summer entertainments.  

Many of these parties took the form of short plays and tableaux vivants, and were often written by the Barney's elder daughter, Natalie, who was soon destined for greater fame as Rémy de Gourmont's famed Amazon, and, but for Gertrude Stein, the most famous American Lesbian writer/saloniste in Paris---a surprisingly large demographic in the early 20th century. Unlike Stein, Barney was young and beautiful, and scandal and excitement attached her every move.
Ban-y-Bryn rose to four stories at the edge of a steep bluff.
But, I am ahead of my story. Already artistically inclined, Alice Barney's ambitions went beyond the usual amateur socialite yearnings. A chance encounter with Oscar Wilde, who was on his American  lecture tour, at a New Jersey beach (no, you did not misread that sentence: I used Oscar Wilde, New Jersey, and Beach in the same sentence.) gave Mrs. Barney encouragement to devote her life to art.  

The Barneys moved to Washington, not often thought of as in those days as a bohemian enclave. There Mrs. Barney created her famous studio house, as she pursued a career as a painter. Poor Mr. Barney, a conventional, clubbable sort of chap, was soon left behind in the melee, as wife and daughters each pursued a different Eastern religion, dabbled in various other exotic and artistic pursuits, and generally enjoyed their privileged lives in High Bohemia.
Alice Barney's studio house in Washington, now the Latvian Embassy. Natalie Barney and Renee Vivien in 1900, the year that Vivien visited Bar Harbor with Natalie.
Not the typical late Victorian debutante, young Natalie's every move attracted endless attention even in the relatively casual environs of Bar Harbor. Scandalously, she rode horseback western style, rather than sidesaddle, and caused furor for the dashing speeds at which she drove her carriage.

One of her tableaux vivants was a play based on the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, produced, with her family and friends as the cast, as a fundraiser for the local hospital. The Barney's next door neighbor Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, played the Queen, whilst Natalie, in a glimpse of things to come, played the King.
Ban y Bryn is at left in this panorama of the Bar Harbor colony.
And how did the Barneys arrive each summer in Bar Harbor? They would board the Bar Harbor Express, a crack train of the New York Central, originating in Washington, which communicated between several major cities and the fashionable summer resorts.

After a pass through Ellsworth Maine, the train made its final stop a little further Down East at Hancock Point, where passengers would disembark and board a steamer that would glide them across the waters of Frenchman's Bay to Bar Harbor. And the name of this steamer, that each season took the Barney daughters to their summer playground? The Sappho.
Maine Central R.R. Steamship Sappho leaving Bar Harbor.
As for Ban-y-Bryn, it was one of the 70 large cottages that burned in the Bar Harbor Fire of 1947.
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