This is an article from the fall 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
As one of Thomas Edison’s films on the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris begins, men in bowler hats and women toting umbrellas move through the streets below the Eiffel Tower. A small group convenes in front of the camera, examining it and its operator. A man who looks a bit like a French Ralph Fiennes steps forward from the crowd and mugs for the camera.
Edison’s electric-powered technology is on display in the film — the moving sidewalk, in particular, seems to interest the people of Paris greatly — but it was the Palais de l’Électricité , entirely lit with electric bulbs, that really dazzled the fairgoers in the City of Light. It was into this version of Paris — newly electrified, rushing headlong into modernity — that two young women set out together to make their names and make art.
Eva Palmer and Natalie Clifford Barney had met on vacation at a tiny New England resort in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the 1890s. They began a relationship, and, together, moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Both women were active in the arts, writing plays and poetry, putting on performances, and working with like-minded artists across the city to break down the walls of convention.
These were important years for both women, says Artemis Leontis, chair of the Department of Classical Studies and director and professor of the Modern Greek Program. She has written a book on Eva Palmer, the first woman who later, as Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, directed an international festival of Greek drama and games in the ancient site of Delphi. (The book is forthcoming from Princeton University Press in March 2019.) Leontis recently discovered a lost trove of letters between the women, illuminating details of their life and work from this vital time.
Above: Eva Palmer-Sikeliano (left) and Natalie Clifford Barney (right)
“These letters cover the most significant years of their intimate relationship,” Leontis says. The letters began as the women were entering their adult lives and working as artists, she says, and their correspondence continues until after Palmer — exhausted by the intrigues and power games of her years with Barney — got married, added a hyphen to become Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, and moved from Paris to Greece with her Greek husband. The women’s intimate correspondence ended when she asked Barney to stop writing to her on New Year’s Day of 1910, a few months after the birth of her son, Glafkos.
They were in their twenties when the century began, together in a new city filled with possibilities. A decade later, they were estranged, separated by a continent, a marriage, a child, a name.
Lost and Found
While she was researching the book on Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, Leontis came upon a 1995 book of letters published in Greek translations of correspondence between the two women. The book mentioned rumors of more letters in a collection of inaccessible papers in the Center for Asia Minor Studies in Athens, but the book’s author and translator, Lia Papadaki, was denied access to them. Leontis heard the story in person when she and Papadaki met. Intrigued, Leontis set out to learn more.
Leontis sought out a historian who worked for the Center for Asia Minor Studies. The historian was sympathetic when Leontis described her project over the phone, and agreed to carry a letter Leontis wrote elucidating her reasons for wanting access to the center’s acting director. The historian delivered the letter, and Leontis was granted entry to the collection the very next day.
Most of the archives at the Center for Asia Minor Studies deal with Asia Minor, the Asian part of Turkey, and with the culture and history of Orthodox Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire that disappeared after the empire’s fall in 1921. But tucked among its books and records was also a cluster of folders unrelated to that subject, a collection that contained 127 letters from Barney to Palmer and 56 letters from Palmer to Barney along with photographs and a lock of Palmer’s red hair. The folders also held several hundred more letters written to Palmer by the writer Colette, the actor Marguerite Moreno, the painter Virginia Yardley, and many others.
“When I opened the dossiers, my jaw dropped,” Leontis says. “Each contained several folders of letters spilling out in loosely bundled stacks, tied together with purple and pink ribbons from the time of their receipt. I found traces of tears and mud on the letters.”
Leontis hopes to share these letters with the world through her forthcoming biography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos and a book of selected letters. She also wants to create a digital resource of the once secreted bundles, making them available to interested researchers anywhere. Working with the Jacques Doucet Literary Library, where the rest of Barney’s letters are archived, and the University of Michigan, Leontis, two undergraduate interns from LSA’s Modern Greek Program, and photographer Elias Eliadis created a photographic record and digital versions of the materials in the Center for Asia Minor Studies archive as the first stage in this international collaboration.
“My goal is to create a unified, digital archive that brings together the entire collection,” Leontis says. “It can function as an aid to scholars, artists, groups, and individuals interested in Natalie Clifford Barney, Eva Palmer, and their circle — and anyone who wishes to study and promote their work or analyze the history of sexuality in the twentieth century.”
After their split, Palmer-Sikelianos remained in Greece and became a great supporter of classical Greek thought and art, including financing two major festivals of drama and games at the ancient site of Delphi. Barney held a famous literary salon in Paris for decades. But both women’s motivations are more clearly seen, Leontis says, with the combined letters from that time all taken together.
“Seen together with the letters from both archives,” Leontis says, “the correspondence, in English and French, charts the course of their ideas and activities for about a decade. Their dream is for a new world inclusive of women who love women who form communities of creators. Their view is double: to the future and to the past, where they seek out prototypes for their utopian vision.”