Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner
The novelist Djuna Barnes, author of the modernist masterpiece Nightwood, was born 130 years ago, on June 12, 1892.
She is remembered mostly for her fiction, but for two decades she was a notable journalist, writing for nearly every newspaper in New York (except the Times, she once drolly noted), and for much of the 1920s she was on assignment in Paris for McCall’s magazine. France provided her with the raw material for her novels and stories, as she became part of the loosely defined network of lesbian and bisexual women, mostly actresses and artists, who traveled between Hollywood, New York, and Paris and who were known ironically (and affectionately) as the “Sewing Circle”—a term largely credited to the great stage actress Alla Nazimova.
When Barnes returned to New York in 1929, she accepted a new gig as a columnist for the Theatre Guild Bulletin. While in that role, Barnes interviewed Nazimova, who had been largely reduced to acting on the vaudeville circuit after an extraordinarily successful—but ultimately disastrous—turn in Hollywood. “I am vain, and afraid that I’ll leave nothing of myself behind when I die, nothing to be remembered by,” Nazimova wrote in her diary in 1923, as the silent film roles dried up. “An actress is dead when the last person to remember her dies!” Clearly an admirer, Barnes reminded her readers of Nazimova’s previous prominence on the stage, as America’s foremost actress in plays by Ibsen and Chekhov.
Both women had no way of knowing, but probably hoped, that Nazimova was just beginning one of the greatest second acts in Broadway theater history. For our Story of the Week selection, we present Barnes’s profile of the actress, and in our introduction, we describe the rise and fall of Nazimova’s Hollywood career.