Great Couples: Djuna Barnes & Thelma Wood
For this series on Great Couples I figured I would start off with a real bang, right in your face. Djuna Barnes (the d is silent) is one of the most prolific lesbian writers in history and she was one of the key architects of modern literature in the early 1900’s. Born in the countryside outside of New York City to a family with 10 kids. Her father was a borderline plagiarist, although he never married his second lover till his first wife finally granted him a divorce. Djuna grew up in lower working class family. Both of her parents were artists, her mother a painter and her father a composer (who never had any great success.)
When Barnes was 20 her mother finally left her husband and moved Djuna and 4 brothers to New York City to start a new life. In NYC Barnes found her voice, her sexuality and her future. She began writing for several publications in New York City and became known for her stern humor and in your face questions. Fame never penetrated her skin and pushing herself to do anything for a good story became a motto. At 23 Barnes moved out on her own into Greenwich Village and started to usher herself into the Bohemian community. She even began a long friendship with Dada artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Barnes was always frank about her bi-sexuality and was even once engaged to be married to Ernst Hanfstaegl who was a close friend with FDR. During the courtship, Ernst made it clear that preferred to have a German wife and was publicly vocal the negative treatment of German immigrants in the United States. Eventually Ernst broke off the engagement and shipped back to Germany and eventually he became a close friend to Adolf Hitler during the years leading up to the war and during. He would fall out of favor with Hitler during the war and defect back to the US, where he started working for his old buddy FDR.
Meanwhile Djuna continued on with her sexual escapades, dating both me and women. In 1921 she was sent to Paris to interview some of the expats who had moved to Paris and were starting a new modernist movement. While there she fell in love with Paris and moved there permanently. She also found her way into the salons of Paris but she managed to become apart of the inner circle of Natalie Barney, who she would become friends with for the rest of Barney’s life. Some write that Barney and Barnes did have an affair but no proof has been found, it is well documented that Barney became a patron to Barnes over the first 15 years of their friendship. It’s during this period that Barnes met Thelma Wood, who she would have a decade long relationship.
After less than a year from meeting each other, the two moved in together and became regular inhabitants of the Lost Generation soirees and gatherings. Wood was born and raised in Kansas and moved to Paris in 1921. On a visit to Berlin, Wood would fall in love with the partying lifestyle that was ramping up in Berlin. Wood was introduced to Barnes by her former lover, photographer Bernice Abbott. The two ladies were certainly a show to the Lost Generation set in Paris. Their fights on the dance floors were legendary. Both confessed they were each others Great Loves but between Barnes jealous nature and Wood’s need for an open relationship, it was recipe for a bad ending. Both were not innocent in any way but in the end, Wood’s relationship with Henriette Mettcalf was the last nail in the coffin. In 1929, Barnes ended the relationship although they remained as friends with benefits for 3 more years. The friendship was finally shattered when Barnes published her master piece Nightwood in 1936, Wood was not too pleased to see she was portrayed in the book in a villainous nature. Wood claimed that publication ruined her life and the two women never spoke again about the book and Barnes supposedly never apologized to Wood.
Both women would continue on with their artistic career thanks to several patron. Barnes hitched her wagon to Peggy Guggenheim and Wood would exhaust her ties with Mettcalf and later became romantically involved with her new patron Margaret Behrens till her death. Barnes’s success of Nightwood and Ryder cemented her as a literary legend to some notable literary contemporaries like Truman Capote and Anaïs Nin. Sadly both women exhausted their artistic nature and both produced nothing of success in there later lives.