Paris-Lesbos: The community of lesbians in Paris
Before the Second World War and after the First, the city of Paris rivaled Weimar Berlin with its bohemian, sexually permissive lifestyle, and where the ‘Paris-Lesbos,’ a vibrant lesbian community, thrived.
Among those that lived or moved to Paris in the 1920s or early ʼ30s include Dolly Wilde, Princess Violette Murat, Natalie Clifford Barney, Colette, Alice Toklas, and even Radclyffe Hall.
Paris-Lesbos: A fashionable setting
During the period between the two World Wars, artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals were drawn to Paris– many of them lesbians and homosexuals.
For lesbians, this was because lesbianism had become quite fashionable in Paris in the 1920s, especially in high society.
Among them were also influential aristocratic women who settled there and had open affairs with other women like Murat, Winnaretta Singer, and Antoinette Corisande Élisabeth.
Around that time also, social attitudes to sexuality was being openly challenged by pioneering sexologists like Havelock Ellis, who deemed what he called ‘inversion’ or same sex attraction as natural or normal.
In Paris, there were literary salons as well as lesbian and gay clubs all over the city. The most famous lesbian club was in Montparnasse called Le Monocle, from the fashion adopted by the lesbian community.
The liteary salons of Paris-Lesbos
Among those who lived in Paris was Hall, who had published her landmark lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, in 1928.
While Hall’s novel was semi-autobiographical, one of the characters there was based on Natalie Clifford Barney, an American writer.
Like in the book, Hall and Barney had met in Paris. Barney conducted a literary salon at her home and lived openly as a lesbian: “My queerness is not a vice, it is not deliberate, and harms no one.”
In Barney’s weekly, salon at the Left Bank, many of the ‘Paris-Lesbos’ met as part of the post-modernist movement, including Hall, Gertrude Stein (and her partner Alice), Isadora Duncan, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
While lesbian art and poetry were discussed and read, one story had the famous courtesan Mata Hari wanting to arrive on an elephant.
But Barney refused as “there are cookies and tea, but we can’t have an elephant in my garden.”
The nightlife in Paris: Le Monocle
At Le Monocle, the visiting lesbians and even staff wore finely tailored tuxedoes. Guests had white carnations on their jackets, slick-backed hair, a cigar on their lips, and a monocle on their cheeks.
Some guests were not as fashionable (or wealthy) so came in wrapped in a blanket from head to toe. But no one minded as every woman could drink champagn and dance with whomever she pleased inside Le Monocle.
Between Berlin and Paris, the latter was considered the queer capital of Europe by lesbians because they could be visible to be who they were– if they had the money and freedom, of course.
Sadly, the Roaring 20s didn’t last long into the 1930s as the Nazis took over Germany and the Second World War followed. Paris fell with the German occupation of France.
But for a time, the Paris-Lesbos was defiant and vibrant, with Romaine Brooks, Renée Vivien, Élisabeth de Gramont, and Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, and many of the lesbian community living and loving in one city.