Plover’s eggs by a Dutch Master…Lily’s favorite Epicurean delight
Plover’s eggs. It’s illegal to gather them today, but in 1909 the food writer at the International Herald Tribune had hunted them down at the Café Anglais. And had this to report:
PARIS April 24 Have you ever eaten an omelette of plover’s eggs? Two men bent on a new experience did so one morning recently . . . Twelve eggs, by the way, were needed for its making. Questioned on the subject last evening, the “maître d’hôtel” at the Café Anglais, second to none the wide world o’er for its cuisine, and happily keeping to the old traditions, replied that omelets of the sort were asked for so rarely as to amount practically to never. “If desired we serve them of course, but if my opinion were asked I should be inclined to express disapproval. The plover’s egg is too ‘serré.”’ That settles the matter.
Six days later…
“Bottle of Chateau Yquem Fetches $117,000 at Auction.” That was 2011. What did it cost in 1909, and how easy would it have been for Natalie to get her hands on a bottle from the “comet year”? Was it this wine that launched their lifetime together?
Across town on the Left Bank at No. 20, rue Jacob, Miss Barney was cooling a pricey Sauternes. And making sure her cook had gathered the plover’s eggs for a memorable May Day repast. Serré… I can almost hear Natalie Barney thinking. She’d no doubt read the piece in the Herald. Well if plover’s eggs were good enough for Oscar Wilde, they’re good enough for a daughter of France….
April 30, 1909: A daughter of France was indeed coming over. The marquise de Clermont-Tonnèrre. Élisabeth de Gramont.
I can imagine both women standing in front of their wardrobes, agonizing over what to wear on their first date.
Biographer Francesco Rapazzini picks up the story from here:
The exact date of their first encounter is unknown, but one thing’s for sure: the two women were attracted from the start. Lily was in search of lesbian adventure; Natalie knew how to take her there. Renée Vivien, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Colette: hadn’t they also given their gay virginities to Natalie?
There was an invitation following that evening with the Mardruses. Soon the marquise found herself at Miss Barney’s. What happened next has been described by Natalie’s biographer Jean Chalon, paraphrasing Saint-Simon: “They came together, mind and soul, in the sublime intermingling of two rare spirits.”
Natalie and Lily wasted no time acting on their desires: everything had been clear from the beginning. Lily was looking for a true companion, not just another friend. All the long hours spent with Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, talking and listening and analyzing her own sex drive, served Élisabeth up to Natalie on a silver platter.
A blue room the way Picasso saw it
Their first night together, spent between 30 April and 1 May 1909, was one of love shared in Natalie’s bedroom at No. 20, rue Jacob. Natalie’s room was painted all in blue, including the bedstead, down to the floorboards, covered with a white bearskin rug that had been the gift of Liane de Pougy. One of the two windows looked out on the garden with its Greek temple “of Friendship.” Legend has it that the temple, along with the house, was built for Adrienne Lecouvreur by maréchal Saxe. Every year for the rest of their lives–except when the second world war kept them apart–they would try to spend at least a few hours together on the first of May celebrating their anniversary.
The first night was followed by a second, and on the second day they still couldn’t bear to separate. Philibert was away and the girls, Béatrix and Diane, were in good hands with the staff at home. For the first time, Lily felt free.
But on the third day, 3 May, Lily tore herself from Natalie’s embrace and returned home to the rue Lauriston. It was six o’clock at night when she shut the door behind her, took off her hat and gloves, looked in on her daughters and rushed over to her writing desk. “I am deathly sad after leaving you,” she wrote feverishly. “Why, since I’m going to see you tomorrow? It feels like I’ve broken a spell–that I will return to you a stranger, only for a few brief hours there with you where I have nothing of my own–”with” you there in your atmosphere–your attendant in your life of flowers made for distilling perfumes, incense, intoxication; living only on flames and sunbeams. This calm solitude where I am now, it pleases me more than ever–because in this solitude, where I only have myself to please, nothing can intrude on the perfect world except you and me. […] But so many things demand my attention–interruptions–the ransom I must pay for all the happiness you give me! […] I kiss your hands, your avowed, caressing hands, fluid as the water we love! Till tomorrow my love.”
This first letter from Élisabeth to Natalie reveals Lily’s impulsive, passionate nature. But it also shows her need for personal space, for solitude, to gather herself and reflect on the new woman in her life as much as on the physical passion that had taken her by storm. She had never before felt such intense physical pleasure. Not with her husband, not with Albert Flament, nor with any of her other male suitors. Natalie helped Élisabeth to reconcile herself, at last, with her body. With the American, she finally came to know her own body as something other than a source of suffering and an object of torture. It could experience pleasure.
How much time had passed between their first encounter and their first night together? The American hadn’t needed to employ her usual seduction tactics. Lily was ready–ripe, even–for Sapphic love. Natalie hadn’t had to force her hand. Lily had been waiting for the right woman. The woman who would make her want to say “yes.”
And how did Lily take her first steps down the path of lesbian sexuality? It’s one thing to fantasize, another to have the courage to live out one’s desires. Paris at the turn of the century was known throughout the world as the pleasure capitol, a safe haven of tolerance. There were no laws against homosexuality–masculine or feminine–and the enjoyment of this privilege was the exclusive domain of high society and the chattering classes. The lower classes were loath to accept those they considered perverts. But male and female homosexuals were welcomed in nearly every salon and even in most households, as long as they skirted scandal. It just wasn’t discussed. Take the Gramont family, for example. The subject of Lily’s sex life was simply never raised. In public, neither her brothers, her sister, her stepbrother, her stepsisters nor her nephews ever made a single allusion to their “lesbian aunt” or sister. “It was something nobody talked about,” remembers Élisabeth’s nephew, Comte René de Gramont. “Everybody knew that my aunt loved women, but it didn’t concern any of us. She was discreet. And so were we.”
And Philibert? In the beginning, he had no clue about what was going on. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Except that his wife seemed a bit happier. And was always being sent flowers. In time he would discover Lily’s liaison and redouble his violent outbursts.
For now, Élisabeth didn’t ask herself too many questions about this Sapphic love. Hadn’t she decided, the day after returning from North Africa, that from now on she would live as she wished? If that meant living with a woman, so be it. It’s worth remembering that Élisabeth was, after all, a product of the upper crust. And the upper crust reserved its prerogative: pay no attention to petty critics.
Élisabeth de Gramont (c) 2004 by Francesco Rapazzini
Translation (c) 2013 by Suzanne Stroh
Seven years later, and then for the next four decades, celebrating their May first anniversary would get a little more complicated when Natalie would take up with an American painter born on that day, Romaine Brooks. I can almost hear Lily stifling a laugh when Francesco Rapazzini comments, “Too bad for Romaine.” May Day remained sacrosanct for the staunchly faithful yet non-manogamous couple, because for Lily, a woman whose mother had died in giving her life, she had never felt much like celebrating her birthday on 23 April. Besides, Rapazzini explains, Lily’s rigorous, analytical mind never stopped reminding her that she had never actually chosen to be born. For someone so independent, dedicated to perpetual becoming and self-determination, what was the use in celebrating that? ”The first of May was Elisabeth’s true birthday: the birth of love, of the pleasures of the flesh, of sexuality. And so it had to be celebrated at all costs. Which Natalie never failed to do.”
As I rediscover lost lesbian history working on this translation, I’m uncovering other intrigues along the way. Like how the most fascinating things about secret histories are the little things you’ll never know.
Like about that bottle of Chateau Yquem they drank. Was it from the comet year? That was back in 1811…. If you wanted to launch a thousand ecstasies, that’d be your wine…. I seem to recall a 200-year-old bottle selling for something like $117,000 a few years ago.
Discounting feverishly, I can see it would have been well within Natalie’s price range. It would have been rare and prized even in 1909, certainly. Something she might have considered splurging on, even though she herself never drank more than “two thimblefuls” of alcohol at one sitting.
But on April 30, 1909, Natalie didn’t yet know how much the Epicurean Lily disliked that wine (Sauternes in general and Yquem in particular).
And on April 30, 2013, not being a dessert wine drinker myself, I’ll never know if Lily’s aversion was a matter of taste, of personal preference, or because it triggered her migraines (the way it triggers mine)… or if it was really because her Gramont forebear had been fighting for the British during that particular war! (“Awkward,” as my 11-year-old would say.)
Comet year or not, the moon is full overhead, the night is lit up like a ballet outside my window, and it’s looking like the perfect time to compose and send that billet, wrangle those fresh eggs and put that pricey wine on ice.
Happy May Day from Virginia.
Plover’s eggs, comet years and gay marriage aside, Virginia’s still for lovers. And that’s good enough for me.
 Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730), the popular actress allegedly poisoned by her rival, then memorialized by her friend, Voltaire.
 Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), Marshal General of France, one of the eight illegitimate children acknowledged by the king of Poland, although more than 300 are believed to have been born.