If there were a 1910 version of the Bravo TV series The Real Housewives of DC, Alice Barney would surely be the breakout star. A playwright and painter whose work can today be seen in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the wealthy widow Alice and her daughters Natalie and Laura were the talk of DC gossip circles.
One recent day a nude statue appeared on the Barneys’ lawn, and word spread that it was a likeness of one of the daughters, sculpted by the other daughter, who was known to be studying sculpture. DC society flocked to the Barney home to see it. On October 14, the Times ran a piece about the statue:
What is the Barney statue? When was it placed on the lawn of the fashionable residence in Massachusetts Avenue? Who placed it there? And why? Does it represent the beauty of Miss Natalie C. Barney, the younger daughter of Mrs. Albert Clifford Barney, or is it the likeness of some maid of antiquity? These are questions that are being asked in diplomatic, social, and official circles, and no one can reply with certainty.
The Hindu butler at the Barney home, who answers to the strange name of Only, to-day caused the statue to be placed in a coffin-like box and holds the key to the lid. The lid may be lifted if Only is properly approached.
It turned out later that the sculpture was an antique. The older daughter Laura was in fact working on a sculpture of Natalie, but it was just a bust, and not a nude.
The whole ordeal prompted the Sunday Magazine to write this profile of the Barneys. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
An undraped statue on the lawn brought the Barney family of Washington into international notoriety in a day. Yet for years the members of this remarkable household have kept the National capital in a state of constant expectancy.
They are more than a family, these Barneys; they are an issue.
Whenever a select and exclusive group of the smart set gathers about the dining table, and the flow of nimble wit, sent sparkling on its way with the advent of the oyster, and degenerating into a sluggish stream of inane platitudes with the arrival of the entree, is sinking, lifeless, into a pool of silence with the incoming of the ice, the watchful hostess, unfluttered by the critical situation, reaches back into the convolution of her brain marked “Emergency” and, drawing forth, deftly tosses into the centre of the table this conversational bombshell:
“What do you really think of the Barneys?”
Then she leans back, smiling comfortably, while her guests lock horns and silence flees.
“They are poseurs, learned only in the stale devices of studied eccentricity!” exclaims a beribboned member of a legation.
“Nonsense!” hotly replies a famous engineer, “it is genius scorning the narrow conventionalities of society.”
“Genius nothing!” interrupts a scientist with seven letters after his name, “the veriest tyro in art or literature or ethics would laugh at the Barneys’ pretensions. They fool nobody but the simple minded.”
“What but genius could ever show such remarkable versatility in every branch of art as Mrs. Barney has exhibited in the last ten years?” puts in a literary woman who boasts that she positively refuses to write for the newspapers.
“And what but oddity and freakishness would build a quarter-of-a-million dollar house and not put a bed in it!” exclaims the practical wife of a Cabinet officer.
Yes, silence has departed thence. For the Barneys, themselves of the ultra-fashionable set in Washington, furnish a perennial subject of heated debate in that city, no matter when or where the Barney name be mentioned.
Move over, Michaele Salahi.
THE AMAZING AND VERSATILE BARNEYS OF WASHINGTON: An Undraped Statue on Their Lawn Has Thrown Into the Lime-Light a Family Whose Talents and Unconventionalities Keep Society in the National Capital in Constant Expectation (PDF)
From October 23, 1910