Village People: Djuna Barnes
(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)
Djuna Barnes was born in 1892, to a polygamist family at Storm King Mountain, New York. Her father made little effort to support his children, and Djuna’s grandmother provided most of the family’s income by writing begging letters to friends and acquaintances. Barnes spent much of her childhood caring for her siblings, and later would claim that she received no formal schooling. She was taught art, writing, and music by her father and grandmother, but supposedly never learned math or spelling. She was raped at the age of sixteen, by a neighbor aided by her father (or possibly by her father himself). She was unwillingly married to Percy Faulkner (age 52) before her eighteenth birthday.
In 1912, the family was finally out of funds. They split up, with Barnes and her husband, along with three of her brothers, moving to New York City. There, she divorced him. She attended Pratt for six months, but left, and got a job reporting for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in order to support her brothers. For the next several years, she wrote for almost every newspaper in New York. She famously subjected herself to force-feeding in 1914, so that she could accurately write about what was happening to Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and suffragettes on both sides of the Atlantic. She also wrote about boxing, and retained an interest in it for many years.
She first came to Greenwich Village in 1915, becoming part of the growing ‘bohemian’ community. Barnes shared an apartment on Greenwich Avenue with Berenice Abbott, Kenneth Burke, and Malcom Cowley. She was involved with the Provincetown Players, was a member of the radical feminist Heterodoxy Club, and was openly bisexual, having many affairs with both men and women.
She left the Village in 1921, for Paris. There, she lived with her lover, Thelma Wood, was part of Natalie Barney’s inner circle, developed her close relationship with Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and met James Joyce. In 1936, she published Nightwood, now her most famous work. Although it was well-reviewed, it did not sell, and Barnes made almost no financial profit from it. She began relying upon her friends for financial assistance, and continued to drink heavily. After a suicide attempt in 1939 and a brief stint in Arizona, she finally returned to New York, and the Village.
She moved into 5 Patchin Place in 1941, where she wrote ‘The Antiphon,’ which was only performed for the first time in 1962, in Stockholm. She became a recluse, living out the last forty-two years of her life at Patchin Place. E. E. Cummings, who lived at 4 Patchin Place, was known to check up on her by shouting through his window: ‘Are you still alive, Djuna?’
She died in 1982, the last surviving English-language modernist.