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Interviews and Illustrations by and with Barnes


Selections from an Interview with Lillian Russell, 3 May 1914


   "[D]on't you think at least something is going to the dogs, Miss Russell--surely some one thing?
"
   "I can't think of a single thing. Let me see--with women in the world how can things go to the dogs."
   "Then you firmly believe in the women?"
   "I never find a single fault with a woman. I can give the men a jolly calling down at times, but my sisters, they are splendid, they have such great ideals, even if they are tied into knots by husbands; they have aspirations even if they have not as yet learned to walk on the outer side of the street."
   "But the thing that's going to the dogs?" I reminded her.
   "But I can't think of anything that is going to the dogs really and truly. I think that America is about all right and the rest of the time I work. When a woman is busy she hasn't time to fasten the straps about the wrists of the infamous. When one is busy cultivating roses she cannot speculate on cactus."
   And then she thanked me. "What for?" I inquired.
   "For not having asked me a single question about the way I preserve my good looks. Everyone always asks that first. For a few minutes you have let me forget my face, and I want to forget it. I get very tired of it--very, very tired of it. I hate a mirror sometimes.
   "What, after all, is there great in being beautiful? To be a great woman, a great person, one must have suffered, even suffered in great crises. What have I done that I should be famous--nothing but powdered a bit gently the cheeks that God gave me and smoothed the hair that I was born with, laughed and proven a faultless set of teeth. Any grinning idol, well painted, can do as well, but the real women, the big women, are those who toil and never write of it, those who labor and never cry of it, those who forfeit all and never seek reward. Begin this article with the name Lillian Russell, but end it with the name of such as was Cynthia Leonard."
   Out of the purple dusk I walked, and the simple-minded porcelain Chinaman smirked at me from the piano, and the wise-mouthed sun god rolled sightless eyes toward the peacock feathers and the array of silver mugs, and the incense rolled on and up about the chair like a throne with its burden like a queen. (55-56)

 

Illustration of Lillian Russell by Djuna Barnes,
May 1914 (Interviews 53).

Selections from an Interview with D. W. Griffith, February 1925

   D. W. Griffith, when I interviewed him on the subject of what chance any talented young woman has to become a movie star, declared: "[. . .] A tall woman has less chance than a short woman. The public likes to think of itself--if masculine--as defending a small woman; it's easier. And the public--if feminine--likes to see itself coming up to the heart, and no further, in the love embrace. It looks better; there is no doubt about it.
   "It is rather difficult to tell what the requirements are. The season's taste changes with the leaves on the trees--at one moment it is the baby doll with a head full of curls; the next it is the vampire with the calculating look. Just now the people are a little tired of both the baby doll and the vampire. They want neither unsophisticated youth nor crafty experience. They are looking with more interest at the woman who is still beautiful but wise, sophisticated, yet tuned by experience." (305-6)

Selections from an Interview with Alla Nazimova, June 1930

   When was it that I first saw Alla Nazimova? In what was she playing? Certainly in none of the Ibsen plays which she made glorious, but in one of those emotional things that leave forethought to tomorrow. She wore ten good yards of that slinky material which, when molded about the hips, spells a woman bent on the destruction of the soul. She reclined upon a hundred cushions with but one idea, toying with a pistol with but one aim--the heart of the hero. Her managers had forbidden her to display any of her other myriad abilities, in order to set in relief her equally splendid physical ability to look "dangerous" and inexact, that look that is necessary to the popular conception of a thoroughly able adventurist. And all because this woman--born in Yalta, Crimea, Russia, and brought up in the Alps--had gorgeous eyes, winged nostrils and an upper lip to match, made doubly dangerous by a lower, which for a brief inch in its middle, ran as straight as any Puritan praying for rain.
   To Nazimova the memory of these plays is a neurosis, the radix of which is pain and calamity, because they obliged her to feed her great talents to a public which had appetite for nothing more than the conventional stage vampire. She took her beating without humor, because she is at heart a child pondering her adult childhood. Otherwise she would be armored with the very paradox of it, would be made inaccessible by a surmounted injustice, made a little witty at the hands of such a picturesque betrayal. (354)
   

   Illustration of "Mother" Jones by Djuna Barnes, February 1915 (Interviews 96).

Selections from an Interview with Mary Harris ("Mother") Jones, 7 February 1915

   I asked her what had started her in this work that she had taken as her life task.
   It was an unfortunate remark.
   She arose abruptly to her feet, she swept her arms wide in a passionate gesture. It was the universal gesture of the powerful person, it proclaimed disgust and contempt.

   "And you ask me that?" she said. "That is the question that forty million other fools before you have asked. How does thunder or lighting have its start? How does the world start--it has its birth in the struggle. I was born of the struggle and the torment and the pain. A child of the wheel, a brat of the cogs, a woman of the dust. For even iron has its dust, and when a laborer sweats his sweat of blood and weeps his tears of blood a remedy is thrust upon the world. I am remedy.
   "And so how can you ask, and how can I tell when I began to care? You ask because very probably none of you know--you haven't seen our lives as we live them out there in Colorado. We can tell you and you can listen but no tragedy was ever comprehended that went from the mouth to the ear. It has to pass from the eye to the soul."
   She had grasped the back of the chair with her hand and now she let go with a violence that sent her forward.
  "Listen," she said. "You are a young woman, you have never seen the beginning or the ending of creation. I've borne sons; I've seen death. I've just come from the inside of the world. I've been on the under side of the watch. I've been breast-to-breast with the ticks, and I know."
   Silence came into the room upon this last word and I did not speak. I found suddenly that no word in my world was the right word to say--knew that neither a "tch-tch" of the tongue nor an "Isn't that dreadful?" of the mouth would mean anything.
   I just looked at her and she looked back at me, and about her mouth there had settled that subtle something that is a contemplation that has left the mind for the lips. Her mouth is no longer a mouth; it is a sermon.
(97-98)

Selections from an Interview with Flo Ziegfeld, 24 May 1914

   "What particular thing about a girl attracts you?"
   "Her personality, her brittleness--you get the meaning?--the number of grains of purport that she's able to percolate per second--and then, of course--"
   "Yes?"
   "Then, of course, there's the coloring. Personally I like it very vivid--red--say, did I say red? This business is all pretty much a gamble, anyhow. The thing that makes the real money is a clever little play with, say, five actors. You only have five salaries to pay, and you take in money.
   "In musical comedy you rely upon the strength of the stock in the soup to make it go down, and you have five hundred or more salaries to pay. Then the songs. The only real good hit in this year's Follies that I've found yet is a song about the vampire--it's a peach!"
   "Which, the vampire or the song?"
   He eyed me closely and shut his stubborn mouth and did not smile. I was properly terrified and asked him to give me his definition of a vampire.

   "A vampire," he returned, "is a woman who eats lightly of uncooked things; who walks out between tall avenues of spears to die, and doesn't, and finally spends the evening in an orgy of virtuous dreams. That's time wasted. A vampire is a good woman with a bad reputation, or rather a good woman who has had possibilities and wasted them." (73)

Selections from Guido Bruno's Interview of Djuna Barnes, December 1919

   I asked of Djuna Barnes: "Why are you so dreadfully morbid? [. . .]"
   "Morbid?" was her cynical answer. "You make me laugh. This life I write and draw and portray is life as it is, and therefore you call it morbid. Look at my life. Look at the life around me. Where is this beauty that I am supposed to miss? The nice episodes that others depict? Is not everything morbid? I mean the life of people stripped of their masks. Where are the relieving features?
   "Often I sit down to work at my drawing board, at my typewriter. All of a sudden my joy is gone. I feel tired of it all because, I think, 'What's the use?' Today we are, tomorrow dead. We are born and don't know why. We live and suffer and strive, envious or envied. We love, we hate, we work, we admire, we despise. . . . Why? And we die, and no one will ever know that we have been born."
   "But Djuna," I interrupted, "this is one of your pessimistic moods. You cannot mean it all. You, of all the persons I have known, have had your fill of joy in this world."
   "Joy! Is this what you call joy? When we are desperate, doing the first best thing, throwing ourselves as someone for whom we really do not care, and trying to forget ever after by repeating the same folly? In between times we work and talk. Laugh at intervals. . . . Joy? I have had none in my twenty-six years."
   You have never met Djuna. The picture reproduced on this page is a self-portrait. She insists that it looks like her real self. I think it contemptibly bad. Not a shadow of likeness. There isn't a bit of that slovenly doggedness in the real Djuna.
   Red cheeks. Auburn hair. Gray eyes, ever sparkling with delight and mischief. Fantastic earrings in her ears, picturesquely dressed, ever ready to live and to be merry: that's the real Djuna as she walks down Fifth Avenue, or sips her black coffee, a cigarette in hand, in the Cafe Lafayette.
   Her morbidity is not a pose. It is as sincere as she is herself.
   She is only one of many: a new school sprung up during the years of the war. Followers of the decadents of France and of England's famous 1890s, in vigorous, ambitious America.
(385-88)

 

Djuna Barnes, Self Portrait,
December 1919 (Interviews 387).

 

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