A man named Eric Hoffer once said, " With some people solitariness is an escape not from others but from themselves. For they see in the eyes of others only a reflection of themselves." I was watching a clip of Agnes performing a piece taken from Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" in which she talks of Madame Swann the former Odette de Crecy. She recounts the reaction of Odette to different men in the crowd and how regal she was. She also mentions Odette's fondness for the color mauve. Agnes wore mauve or lavender every opportunity she got. What is never mentioned in the piece is something I'm sure that Agnes herself was very aware of having read Proust's works, Charles Swann suspects Odette of liaisons with other women. It struck me that like Odette Agnes observed life from a distance and like Odette she was quite the chameleon adapting to every situation presented to her with great aplomb. Like Odette she lived beyond the bounds of accepted sexuality. It made me sit back and take a look at the people Agnes often spoke of or performed works by or even idolized as a teenager. It proved to be quite an interesting and illuminating exploration.
Let us begin with the actress that idolized as a teenager, Eleonora Duse. La Duse was one of the greatest actresses of her time. She played many Shakespearean roles. She portrayed heroines from nineteenth-century French dramas. She also introduced the drama of Ibsen and d'Annunzio to the stage. She was an incredible woman. She was also equally well known for her love affairs with men but she was infamous for her affairs with women. In 1909, La Duse began an affair with a feminist named Lina Poletti. Lina dressed as a man. The affair was an intense romantic inferno that consumed Duse. Aside from Lina Duse was involved with Isadora Duncan as well as several young actresses she mentored among them Emma Grammatica and a singer named Yvette Guilbert. As a young girl Agnes wrote Eleonora a letter and asked for a signed picture which she ultimately received. It became her most treasured possession. Ultimately Agnes ended up naming one of her beloved dogs Duse in homage to the woman herself.
Another actress that Agnes speaks of and actually portrayed herself was Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah was a very vivid and complex individual. Her name became synonymous with glamor and drama. She was often called "the mother of all divas," Sarah was nearly as famous for her sumptuous, flamboyant style as she was for her skillful portrayals on stage. Sarah was so much more than just a stage personality. She was an accomplished painter, a sculptress, an outstanding business woman who ran her own theaters and acted as producer for her own plays. She wore pants. She played men on stage in many plays. She had numerous love affairs not only with men but with women. She was somewhat of a template for Agnes I think, right down to the hair color.
One of Agnes' favorite musicians was the incredible harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Agnes did a reading from a book by Landowska and it was televised. Many of us have seen it and it can be found on YouTube. Landowska herself was a lesbian. Landowska frequented the salon of Natalie Clifford Barney in Paris. Natalie was an expatriate American who held regular soirees at her salon in Paris and Landowska often played at these. The gatherings themselves were organized to promote the works of women writers. Landowska herself, like many of these women including Agnes, was well known for her exquisite dress and stage decorations. Her music was sublime as well. Landowska had a beautiful voice and it is said that many just wanted to hear her speak, especially when she spoke French with just a hint of her elegant Polish accent. Sounds a great deal like our Agnes doesn't it? In 1933 Landowska met a woman named Denise Restout. Restout would be her companion for the rest of her life.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
In her one woman show Agnes did a piece from one of her favorite writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay, called "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver." Millay was a free thinker. She published a book of poetry in 1922 called "A Few Figs from Thistles." In this book Millay put forth the idea that a woman has every right to sexual pleasure and no obligation to fidelity. Millay was very outspoken about her view of sexuality. In "Great Companions," Max Eastman tells a story that reveals something of Millay's attitude toward her own sexuality. While at a cocktail party Millay discussed her recurrent headaches and was asked by a psychologist, "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?" Millay responded with, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am and heterosexual too, but what's that got to do with my headache?' Honestly it bears an overwhelming resemblance to Agnes' own statement of, "A woman may love a person who is this or that, male or female..."
In The End
As humans we tend to like the things that remind us of ourselves. We idolize the people we would like to emulate. Agnes was no different in most ways. She did isolate herself, her true self. She was more solitary than most in Hollywood but then she had more to loose if she exposed her true nature. Some folks are content to believe she had no idea, in the words of Debbie Reynolds, what the word lesbian meant. I think they are afraid to look at the big picture. They don't want to know that this brilliant, erudite woman was a free thinker, a person who had lived beyond the boundaries of what they perceive as normal. But she did and she did it so beautifully, so spiritually, so magnificently that it is a disservice to the woman not to recognize how complex and brilliant she was.
She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.
She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun `tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.
She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
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