Romaine Brooks wasn’t just a queer icon, she was a painting paradox: a poor heiress with a colorful love life whose work was iconic but forgotten. This American painter tried to escape her dark past and family demons only to learn that she could run, but couldn’t hide.
Money can’t buy happiness, and our girl Beatrice Romaine Goddard learned this lesson painfully early. Her parents Ella and Henry may have inherited millions, but they were bankrupt in all the ways that mattered. Henry didn’t stop at divorcing Ella—he abandoned his family.
This left Romaine alone with her mother, who turned out to be more monster than mother.
Our poor little rich girl ended up with more issues than any magazine. Romaine’s mother used her as a personal punching bag, that is, when she wasn’t neglecting her. Ella even chopped off Romaine’s locks just to make her feel hideous. But the mistreatment didn't stop there.
Pouring salt onto the wound, Ella was sugar-sweet with Romaine's brother, St Mar.
St Mar got it from their mama—and by “it,” I mean the viciousness towards Romaine. The family's golden child was mentally ill, unstable, and violent; he constantly put Romaine’s life in danger. Horrifyingly, St Mar may have even molested her.
Clearly, Romaine's childhood was a living nightmare. Her cruel mother played favorites—and it had chilling consequences.
Ella and St Mar packed everything for their Europe trip—except Romaine. This mom of the year abandoned her six-year-old with a woman named Mrs Hickey, a poor washerwoman. And just like that, Romaine went from riches to rags, mansions to slums, and steaks to scraps. But there was one silver lining.
Mrs Hickey encouraged the young girl's art. Romaine may have been hungry, but she was also happier. Well, until she was “rescued".
Somehow, Romaine's mother's bad behavior knew no bounds: She ghosted everyone and failed to make her payments. Mrs Hickey finally reached Romaine’s grandparents, who swooped in to save face. They shipped her off to a strict boarding school in hopes of transforming the wild child into a high society lady.
Understandably, Romaine couldn’t wait to be free—and boy, did she take advantage of it.
Nothing tastes as good as freedom feels, so 19-year-old Romaine ditched her “family” for Europe. She went to Paris with nothing more than her pathetic allowance and artistic talent. Sadly, with her propensity for misfortune, Romaine ended up with a baby girl she didn’t want.
After surrendering the baby to a convent, Romaine attended an art school in Rome, where she realized her dream had a dark side.
It’s a man’s world—and boy did Romaine learn that the hard way. She couldn’t go anywhere without facing harassment. Since women rarely worked with models in the buff, she was the only woman in a figure drawing class. Romaine’s classmates made her feel like an outcast—but one day, they went too far, and Romaine snapped.
On Romaine’s third day of class, a classmate left a book open on her chair with lewd passages underlined. Romaine picked up the book and used it to smack the offender’s face. Expecting to be hit back, she braced herself. But the man, now beet red, couldn’t do anything but sputter nonsensically.
Romaine gave him a verbal lashing and stormed out. This changed everything.
After Bookgate, her former tormentors didn’t say a word as she walked in. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. You could hear a pin drop in the silence. Whenever Romaine spilled something on the floor, several classmates would shoot out of their seats like rockets to help her. Romaine finally had their respect (and probably fear)—but this didn't last for long.
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Romaine’s tormentor-in-chief promoted himself to admirer-in-chief. But once again, he crossed the line. He and his friends stalked Romaine, and at one point, he even tried to force her to marry him.
As if her life wasn’t bad enough, Romaine had recently gone through a breakup with a delightful Englishman. She felt unsafe and sick of the city, so she fled to Capri, where things only got worse. A lot worse.
If Romaine hoped to find peace in Capri, she was deeply disappointed. There, nothing but suffering waited for her—poverty and starvation to be exact. Though she eventually clawed her way out of this dire situation, another crisis quickly befell her.
One day, while browsing a newspaper, she came across an announcement about her brother's passing. A letter from her mother soon followed. After six years of silence, her “mom” wanted to meet up.
Romaine agreed to meet Ella and was shocked by what she found. Turns out, St Mar’s passing had transformed her mother into a complete mess. She lived in a space filled with unsettling mementos of St Mar. But that wasn't the extent of the horror show.
The truth was: Ella suffered from untreated diabetes and passed not long after her beloved son. She even used her last words to beg for Romaine’s forgiveness. The loss of her immediate family sent Romaine on a totally different path.
After inheriting the family fortune, our poor little rich girl became a fabulously wealthy woman. The starving artist now had more properties, jewels, and millions than she knew what to do with.
At 28 years old, Romaine was finally free—but all of this glitz and glam carried a hefty price tag—and when her demons came to collect, she had no choice but to pay up.
All these millions couldn’t make up for the horrors of her childhood, which continued to haunt her. Not to mention, Romaine believed Ella was literally haunting her. Terrified, she switched hotels, but the visions of Ella still continued.
Romaine soon learned that there were things money just couldn’t buy, like true love. Not that it stopped Romaine from trying really, really hard.
Romaine realized that marriage could be the solution to some of her woes. After all, she could take her husband’s last name and trash her family’s name. She could finally have (platonic) companionship other than her many trysts with women. Moreover, she could reap the benefits and freedoms married women had at the time.
Sure Romaine wasn’t romantic, but she was a millionaire. Enter: John Ellingham Brooks.
Romaine and John were an…interesting couple. She was a painter, while he was a failed pianist and translator. She was a millionaire. He was broke. She liked women. He liked men. They had no romantic or physical attraction to each other.
On the big day, all Romaine wrote in her diary was “Married". With an en entry as dry as this, it's no wonder that Romaine quickly realized she’d made a huge mistake.
Romaine believed that John, a fellow eccentric, was cool with her quirks. Turns out, he was more traditional than expected—at least when it came to his wife. Romaine’s short hair and men’s clothes embarrassed him so much that he refused to go out in public with her. Soon her marriage woes began to outweigh its benefits—and it caused her to finally put her foot down.
Romaine had already walked down the aisle when she realized John was conservative in all the wrong ways. Meanwhile, he was very liberal in his spending. Alarm bells sounded when John began referring to her inheritance as "their" money.
Just a year later, she called it quits. But John refused to let Romaine's fortune slip away without a fight.
Romaine’s marriage became an expensive mistake. She gave John £300 annually for the rest of his life. Even after John moved away and started a new life, he had the audacity to ask for more. On the other hand, Romaine found something more precious: her calling. It was the end of her marriage, but the beginning of her legacy.
Romaine didn’t just tire of John, she also got bored of her colorful paintings. So she packed up her bags in search of inspiration, traveling to St Ives. This is where she rented a tiny studio, stumbling upon the magical world of neutrals.
From this point on, she almost exclusively worked with gray, white, and black paint. But it wasn’t just how Romaine painted, it was also what or who she painted.
Romaine Brooks was Not Like Other Artists in countless ways. In love and in art, she was a woman for women. Romaine almost exclusively painted the female form, even rejecting the male gaze. Instead, Romaine painted women as she viewed them: empowered, confident, and strong. The catch?
She didn’t care about capturing beauty, which didn’t always go over well.
One subject complained, “You haven’t beautified me". She responded, “I have ennobled you".
Romaine couldn’t please everyone—and honestly, she didn't care to. Thanks to her inheritance, she wasn’t concerned with satisfying her subjects or even selling a single scrap of paper. Most people didn’t truly understand Romaine’s art, but those who did noticed her secret messages.
Who doesn’t love an Easter egg? Romaine painted women who, like her, rejected traditional femininity. Instead, they opted for short hair and men’s clothes. It wasn’t just for aesthetics either: These choices also signaled their sexuality to others. At least, those who were in the know.
This style and art were a secret language only a select few could speak.
It was idolization at first sight when Romaine Brooks met Gabriele D’Annunzio, a famous Italian writer and poet. Romaine didn’t even care that he was a man because she believed they were intellectual and artistic soulmates.
Turns out, she was a closeted romantic who still longed for pure and unconditional love straight out of a novel.
Unfortunately, despite her enthusiasm, Romaine soon learned that Gabriele wasn’t The One. He was just the number one scoundrel. Women loved his charming and romantic writer schtick—and boy did he know it.
Gabriele had an insatiable appetite for the young, wealthy, and famous. If this was a love story, he was the villain. As such, Romaine discovered they weren't on the same page in a heartbreaking way.
Meeting your man’s ex is always going to be awkward, but this takes the cake. Romaine and Gabriele were living the high life in their French villa when they had an unexpected visitor.
One of his jilted ex-lovers decided to show up with a dark plan up her sleeve. She came armed and used a pistol to force her way inside.
And yet, despite this nightmarish fiasco, Romaine still tried to make it work.
One of life’s greatest mysteries is why Romaine still wanted Gabriele. This time, she demanded exclusivity. In response, Gabriele demanded a fortune. He explained that another lover currently paid him 30,000 francs a year. He’d consider it if she matched that amount.
You may be shocked to read this, but they didn't end up together. Romaine no longer wanted him. She wanted revenge.
Romaine didn’t just get mad, she got even. One day, Romaine invited Gabriele over for a private viewing of her art. How sweet, right? Not quite.
He arrived only to find a lewd painting that mocked him. Somehow, Romaine and Gabriele managed to repair their burned bridges. While they ended up lifelong friends, he learned the humiliating way that she wasn’t afraid of using her art as a dangerous tool. He wasn’t the only one.
Romaine loved shade—and not the leafy kind—as Elsie de Wolfe found out. Romaine believed the interior designer copied her style. She could’ve called the imitator out and started a catfight. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, she convinced Elsie to sit for a portrait (which took forever).
We can only imagine Elsie’s reaction to the hilariously unflattering piece, which featured a hat that looked like a shower cap, and a goat that looked like her. Sometimes, revenge is a dish best served on a canvas.
In 1911, Romaine and Ida Rubinstein, a massively famous actress and ballet dancer, began seeing each other. It was an extremely passionate and devoted relationship—at least on Ida’s end.
This time, Romaine found herself on the other side of unrequited love. But Romaine and Ida made it work for years…until it became clear they weren’t on the same page. In fact, they weren’t even reading the same book.
Ida proposed a romantic idea: She suggested they buy a farm where they’d live out their days together. It would’ve been a happy ending worthy of a novel, but Romaine had zero interest. Let’s just say Ida didn’t take it well.
With tensions escalating, the story of Romaine and Ida raced toward its final page.
The collapse of Romaine and Ida’s three-year relationship was probably messy. What could’ve been a sweet love story became a bitter footnote. Poor Ida’s fantasies of farms and forevers ended in flames and fury. Realizing that she’s just not that into you is never fun. But it didn’t help that someone else caught Romaine’s eye, and nabbed her heart.
This time, it was for real, and for forever.
It was like looking into a mirror: Natalie Barney was Romaine’s twin flame. No wonder she fell so hard and so fast. Both women were heiresses who did whatever they wanted and broke the rules. In particular, the mesmerizing Natalie drew people to her like a moth to a flame. But she couldn’t offer Romaine what mattered the most.
The polyamorous Natalie spoiled her lovers with everything except loyalty. This might’ve been a deal breaker with anyone else but Romaine was in too deep. She was willing to put up with anything—or anyone—to be with Natalie. She was worth (reluctantly) becoming polyamorous for.
But things got even messier when Romaine realized she had competition.
Romaine had competition—not just for Natalie’s bed, but also for her heart. Turns out, Natalie was already in love with another woman named Elisabeth de Gramont.
Both Elisabeth and Romaine agreed to polyamory. They figured that sharing Natalie was better than nothing at all. Together, the trio took on countless other lovers, however, this love triangle was by far their most important relationship. It was an unconventional arrangement that seemed to work...until it didn’t.
There’s only so much someone can take, and our favorite painter was no exception. For years, Romaine tolerated Natalie’s casual trysts and even joked about them. After all, those women just had Natalie’s body. Romaine and Elisabeth had her heart. But alarm bells began sounding when Natalie’s affairs became uncomfortably serious.
Enter: Dolly Wilde—Oscar Wilde’s niece and Natalie Barney’s newest lover. Romaine hated Dolly’s guts, and even called the poor girl a rat. One day, Romaine had had enough and gave Natalie an ultimatum.
She forced her lover to make a decision between her or Dolly. Romaine warned her, “Goodbye Natalie. Your fate is awaiting,” and skipped town. Natalie gave in and sent Dolly home sobbing.
They say never meet your heroes for good reason. In Romaine’s case, it’s because historians discovered she could be problematic. She flirted with fascism, among other things. She even moved to Italy during WWII which was…a choice.
You see, she wanted to protect Natalie, who was part Jewish. Romaine figured they would be safe in Italy. She was so, so wrong.
Romaine and Natalie hunkered down in an Italian villa planning to ride out WWII in the lap of luxury. Romaine thought Mussolini never would enter the conflict. She thought wrong. Natalie was now at risk of being rounded up and taken to a camp.
With soldiers and bombs closing in, Romaine couldn’t help but wonder if they were going to make it out alive.
It was straight out of a nightmarish surreal painting—except it was Romaine’s reality. During WWII, Romaine often went hungry but still gave what little food she had to others. To make matters worse, Germans even seized and invaded her home.
Romaine thought she’d escaped the poverty and suffering of her childhood…only for it to return stronger than ever. Romaine was alive, but she was not well.
How do you move on from something like WWII? Romaine didn’t know. After the conflict, she fled Italy and returned to Paris. But Romaine couldn’t go back to her old life as though nothing had happened. But man did she try. She just couldn’t do it.
The world was changing and Romaine wasn’t sure there was space for the previous opulent era. It was the beginning of the end.
Money can buy many things, but it can’t buy immortality. Romaine became painfully aware of this as her body began falling apart. But she did fight back. In fact, she tried everything.
This included the standard vitamins and exercise—but most alarming of all, Romaine dabbled in just about every alternative treatment and home brew there was out there.
One day, Natalie went too far. She sent a doctor to Romaine’s house under false pretenses. To make matters worse, the physician also crossed the line. He pulled out a needle, jabbed Romaine, and sedated her. No, he didn’t have her consent—and as you can imagine, Romaine was not happy.
Natalie loved and cared for her, but her adoration reaped dark consequences.
You can run from your family's demons, but you can’t hide. Romaine was painfully aware that she was losing her mind. She wasn’t just hearing voices and seeing ghosts, she was also conversing with them—specifically the spirits of her awful mother and brother.
While Romaine feared these visions, she was even more frightened of Natalie seeing her like this. Romaine knew what she had to do.
96-year-old Romaine wanted Natalie to remember her as she was and not as the shell she was doomed to become. So Romaine pushed the love of her life away. She cut off contact and left all letters unopened.
Romaine even ordered staff to “slam the door in Miss Barney’s face". Natalie desperately tried to cling on but it was too late.
On December 7, 1970, Romaine left the world. She passed in the very way she'd lived: in total command of her solitude. Tragically, Natalie had no idea. She learned of Romaine’s passing three months later.
It turns out, people kept this secret from Natalie because they believed her heart couldn’t take it. Well, they weren’t wrong, as Natalie followed Romaine 18 months later.
Romaine always marched to the beat of her own drum. She didn’t care about trends and stuck with her aesthetic. By the end of her life, the art world had forgotten her. But Romaine made a decision that transformed her legacy: She donated many pieces to the Smithsonian.
There, they languished for years until it was finally their time to shine.
Talk about too little, too late. In Romaine’s day, the art world wasn’t ready to fully appreciate her work. While no one could deny she was a talented painter, her themes went largely unnoticed—especially her explorations of gender. But starting in the 1980s, more people started noticing these details.
People realized that Romaine Brooks wasn’t just a talent, she was a pioneer.
Romaine was a rebel with a cause: She rejected traditional representations of women. She painted women in all of their complexities and nuances—the women history forgot or suppressed. It's only now that the art world has begun appreciating their forgotten rebel. At long last, the world is finally ready to meet Romaine Brooks.
The story of Romaine Brooks was many things. Her childhood was a Gothic horror. Her love life was a melodrama. Her WWII survival was a thriller. There are still countless undiscovered paintings out there. We know they exist because there are photographs of them. But the (literal) million-dollar question is…Where are they?
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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