In 1929, Schoolgirl was published and America flipped out. The novel features 17-year-old Naomi Bradshaw, banished to a Southern boarding school for girls by her father after things get too heavy with Naomi and her boyfriend. But it was the descriptions of the romantic and sexual encounters among the teenage girls at the school that provoked the outrage and the sales that made the book a bestseller. Young people were more visible by the 1920s, advertisers, publishers, and filmmakers were eager to exploit the generational clashes and taboo subjects. Schoolgirl gave many parents something entirely new to worry about, and it also launched the strange career of Carman Barnes.
While parents, psychologists, and sociologists debated the merits and/or potential sins of a same-sex education, the sixteen-year-old author of Schoolgirl, Ms. Barnes, was tossed out of her Nashville boarding school. She headed to New York City to finish high school and turn her book into a play – one that ultimately received very mixed reviews.
Barnes was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on November 20, 1912. Her mother, Lois Diantha Miller, was regionally famous for her lyric poetry and her interest in mystical mountain folklore. Her father was James Hunter Neal, her first step-father was Dixie-Portland Cement Company founder Wellington Barnes (he died in 1927), and her second step-father was George Pullen Jackson. Jackson was a musicologist and a folklorist, an expert on spirituals of black and white communities of the South.
Carman Barnes attended both the Girls’ Preparatory School in Chattanooga and Ward-Belmont School for Girls in Nashville. So, one could assume that she had a keen perspective on all-girl boarding schools. By the time her principal asked her to leave for writing Schoolgirl, she had spent more time at these schools than anywhere else. And, after she arrived in New York, she started working on another novel, Beau Lover, published in 1930.
In 1931, Barnes landed in Hollywood. Paramount Pictures bought the rights to Schoolgirl for $30,000, hired her as a writer, and then declared her a star. Celebrity news heralded her as “movieland’s newest enigma” and “the next Clara Bow.” They noted approvingly that there was just a trace of her Southern accent left – time well spent in New York summed up the winking tone. But some were skeptical, and soon reports came out that “there are bets going the rounds that Carman Barnes will never see the light of day.” In fact, she never acted in a single role and became something of a joke and a cautionary tale of illusory promises of fame and the cutthroat nature of the movie business. A few town gossips speculated that the studio used her to coerce Clara Bow into renewing her contract. Barnes was back in New York before the end of the year.
Back east, Barnes published a third novel, Mother, Be Careful!, that lampooned the film industry (her “fuck you” to the producers that made a mockery of her young career) and followed that up with Young Woman in 1933. With this book, Barnes brought back Schoolgirl’s Naomi Bradshaw, now in New York where she tried to restore her fallen family’s fortune and place in society during the Great Depression. It appears that this story too had some truth to it. Bad investments had left Barnes and her mother “not in affluence” as she told a reporter at the time.
It would be another ten years before she published again, her last novel, Time Lay Asleep in 1946, though, in the meantime, she dabbled in the esoteric. Barnes tried to put together “schools” and “groups” and invited lecturers to New York.
The most consequential of her collaborations was the lecture series by architect Claude Bragdon (later published as the Arch Lectures) and her studies with Russian mathematician and esotericist P. D. Ouspensky – an early proponent of the Fourth Way (just look it up). Bragdon amassed quite a following of women during the 1930s and 40s. He wrote books on yoga, esoteric wisdom, and enjoyed counseling women on how to navigate relationships with men. In 1940, a group of his followers, young women in their twenties, formed the Arch, a school dedicated to Bragdon’s teachings on art, mysticism, Delphic womanhood, and the fourth dimension. The school grew out of lectures at a studio space Barnes rented for Bragdon and adorned with ancient Llama temple artifacts. For nineteen lectures, Bragdon would wear a traditional Chinese robe and Barnes wore a Hindu belly dancer costume. The following year, Barnes began to study with Ouspensky, privately and with a group. She later bought the dramatic and motion picture rights to Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, Ouspensky’s only novel, but nothing ever came of it.
In 1945, she married diplomat and the founder and editor of Foreign Affairs, Hamilton Fish Armstrong. Armstrong was a wealthy and influential New Yorker (his mother traced her bloodline back to the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant), and his passion was international politics (Henry Kissinger gave the eulogy at his funeral). His four-decade tenure as editor of Foreign Affairs saw a diverse array of powerful contributors, from Leon Trotsky to John F. Kennedy. Barnes was his second wife, and the marriage didn’t last long. They separated after a few years, and Barnes began traveling, returning to the United States only to settle the divorce in 1951.
She made Austria her permanent home after the divorce. It’s where she had a series of nervous breakdowns and shock therapy and where she ultimately passed away in 1980.