Today's Reading

With his mentally ill ex-wife in an asylum, Lucy's father, Maurice Schwob, now had to face the possibility of putting his nineteen-year-old daughter in an institution too. Instead, he decided, with the advice of Suzanne's father, who was head of the medical school in Nantes, to let Suzanne help take care of Lucy. By this point, the families probably knew that the girls were more than simply close friends. Suzanne helped pick up the pieces of Lucy's scarred psyche.

In an article published in a Nantes-based literary journal, Lucy wrote that her feelings for Suzanne were her "idée maîtresse," her "guiding principle." "I am in her; she is in me; and I will follow her always, never losing sight of her."

One day, she sketched a set of images: a foot inside a high-heeled shoe, an eye, lips, a glove, all stacked on top of one another. On the lips, she wrote her own name, Lucy Schwob, and in the iris of the eye, she inscribed Suzanne's. Behind these illustrations, Lucy wrote three large cursive letters with loops and flourishes: LSM. These were the initials L. S. and S. M., with the middle letter of their names shared. In this simple configuration, Lucy showed just how closely they were joined. Pronounced phonetically, the letters create the phrase "elles s'aiment" ("they love each other").

In the years before Lucy and Suzanne moved to Jersey—and especially during the 1920s and 1930s, when they lived in Paris—Lucy and Suzanne began to see themselves as outsiders, bound to each other and fighting the world around them. Unknowingly, they were cultivating a set of behaviors and attitudes that would help them confront the Nazi occupation.

Lucy's father had recognized his teenaged daughter's intelligence and writing talent, and as the editor of one of Nantes's most important newspapers, he could offer an outlet for her creativity. Suzanne demonstrated artistic abilities from an early age, and she enrolled in art school, studying painting, wood engraving, and illustration. Working in tandem, they created pieces that appeared first in Lucy's father's newspaper and later in other publications. Lucy wrote the text and Suzanne provided the illustrations.

Lucy's first major essay, published in 1914 in a high-profile literary journal that her uncle Marcel had helped found, was titled "Vues et visions." The "views" that she described evoked the ocean as seen from a beach resort town near Nantes. Those views led to "visions," which were set in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt. A few years later, just before moving to Paris, Lucy and Suzanne collaborated on a reprint of the essay, turning it into a small book. In this version, the words and images were striking and beautiful, each illuminating and balancing the other. The strong lines of Suzanne's modernist drawings took up at least half of each page, blending art nouveau's sinuous curves with an early art deco emphasis on geometric form and repeating patterns. One of Suzanne's illustrations, Modern Night, captured Lucy's "view" with a depiction of two women in an intimate moment; in a related illustration, Ancient Light, two embracing men represented Lucy's "vision." But in neither image are the figures stereotypically male or female. The women's hair was cropped short. Suzanne gave the faces of the men delicate, feminine features.

"Vues et visions" also marked what art historian Tirza True Latimer calls their "artistic coming out, since it undoubtedly raised their public profile as a couple while making their homophilia glaringly apparent to those aware of the codes involved." The appearance of both their names on the title page of the publication emphasized the collaborative nature of the work. Lucy lovingly gave her text to Suzanne: "I dedicate these childish words to you so that the entire book will belong to you and so that your drawings will excuse my text."

However, the names in print were not Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe. For their creative work, they chose to be known exclusively as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, respectively. Suzanne had been calling herself Moore for a while, but Lucy had gone through several pseudonyms over the previous years, even sometimes spelling her name "Lucie" before finally settling on the gender-ambiguous Claude, a name used by both men and women in France. Cahun was her paternal grandmother's maiden name. Taking a name from another woman in the family allowed her to escape the shadows of her famous uncle and her influential father. It also, at least partly, let her pay homage to her cousin René Cahun, who had died in the trenches of World War I in 1917. That was the year she fully embraced her new moniker.

It was also the year that Lucy's divorced father married Suzanne's widowed mother, making the two lovers, now twenty-three and twenty-five, stepsisters.

Lucy and Suzanne went back and forth between their birth names and their artistic names, transitioning identities from wealthy bourgeois daughters to transgressive Parisian artists as needed. They were certainly not the first to do so. The famous nineteenth-century French author Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin was better known in public and in print as George Sand, although family and friends called her Aurore. Many artists took new names to separate their artistic personae from their personal lives, to modify their public image, or to hide behind a different identity. In turn-of-the-century French literature, writers sometimes gave lesbian characters androgynous names. To play against stereotypes, the groundbreaking male artist Marcel Duchamp created a female persona named Rrose Sélavy.

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