Djuna Barnes was born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, on her family's farm. Through her father and grandmother, Barnes gained a great appreciation of and dedication to the arts (the Barnes home was often frequented by such artistic greats as Jack London and Franz Liszt). Barnes did not have a formal education because her father believed that the public school system was inadequate, and thus he felt that home schooling was much more beneficial. Her only formal schooling came after she left the home and moved to New York City.
In 1912 Barnes enrolled as a student at Pratt Institute (1912-13) and the Art Students League (1915-16). While at Pratt, she began her writing career as a reporter and illustrator for the Brooklyn Eagle. Barnes wrote mostly feature articles and interviews.
When she was at Greenwich Village she had an affair with Mary Pyne, and met and lived for a time with the sculptress Berenice Abbott. Barnes' first published her poetry in 1915 as a collection of "rhythms and drawings" entitled The Book of Repulsive Women. Subsequently she met Jane Heap and had an affair with her. Djuna did also have a brief affair with Natalie Barney.
In 1919 Barnes moved to Paris where she met and lived with the sculptress Thelma Woodfor ten years. Barnes herself had relationships with both women and men, but refused to identify herself as a Lesbian. "I'm not a Lesbian. I just loved Thelma," she once told a friend.
In 1923, Barnes published a collection of lyrical poems, stories, drawings, and one-act plays which she entitled A Book. After Thelma Wood's return to the USA in 1930 and Barnes' final decision to leave her in 1931, Barnes travelled widely. She had many affairs including some heterosexual ones. She lived with Romaine Brooks, a painter, for 50 years.
While in France, she was heavily immersed in the modernist scene in Paris where she befriended such beneficial patrons as Natalie Barney and Peggy Guggenheim. This circle of women, which included wwriters such as Mina Loy, Janet Flanner, Dolly Wilde, and Gertrude Stein, became known as 'The Academy of Women.' (These days they are reffered to as "The Literary Women of the Left Bank.") Barnes wrote a satirical work, Ladies Almanack, about this salon and the women who were a part of it. Her second novel, Nightwood (1936), is her masterpiece. Barnes also wrote a verse drama, The Antiphon (1958).
When she returned to the United States, she wrote little and lived a reclusive life in her apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where she died in 1982. Creatures in An Alphabet (1982), a small book of alphabet rhymes for adults, and Smoke, and Other Early Stories (1982) were published posthumously.