The stories of most great ballerinas, however different their temperaments, are basically the same. They start preparing professionally as children; their lives are ruthlessly and narrowly concentrated on their work; they have a mother to nurture them, fight for them; they inspire a powerful creative personality, who then shapes them (Pavlova had Petipa; Karsavina had Fokine; a dozen or more, from Danilova and Toumanova to Farrell and McBride, had Balanchine); and they find themselves in their forties either finished or hanging on precariously—ballerinas don’t age gracefully into character roles and grandmother roles, the way talented actresses can. And they share a quality that, late in life, Margot Fonteyn identified as the one that “has helped me most”: tenacity.
The life of Fonteyn, the most celebrated ballerina of the twentieth century after Pavlova, fits all these circumstances almost to the point of exaggeration. She not only started studying at the usual early age, but she was thrust into tremendous responsibility, as the leading dancer of the young Sadler’s Wells Ballet, when still in her mid-teens. She not only had a famously devoted and levelheaded biological mother, known to one and all as BQ, or the Black Queen (after a character in the chess ballet Checkmate), she had a second ballet mother in the formidable, all-powerful Ninette de Valois—“Madame”—founder and absolute ruler of Sadler’s Wells, who never wavered from her conviction that little Peggy Hookham, quickly renamed Margot Fonteyn, was the Chosen One. She not only became the muse of one of the greatest of choreographers, Frederick Ashton, but late in her career she found in Rudolf Nureyev a second if very different artistic inspiration. And although she was preparing to retire early in her forties, her connection with Nureyev revitalized her and kept her going past sixty, still in demand even if sadly diminished.
As for tenacity, she overcame what she herself called “no elevation, no extension, no instep and feeble pirouettes”; she blossomed under the draconian conditions of having to give nine performances a week in wartime England; she gamely endured the humiliations her marriage provided, and heroically coped when an assassin’s bullets left her husband a quadriplegic. And she faced a painful death with a fortitude that we can only marvel at.
But it was not only the extraordinary breadth of her career and the drama of her personal life that set her apart from her coevals, or the exceptional beauty and purity of her performances, her early technical weaknesses long forgotten or forgiven in light of her perfection of line, her exquisite proportions, her unerring musicality, and her profound identification with her roles. It was the charm she radiated, the lovability, that made her so cherished by audiences for more than four decades. As Lincoln Kirstein once remarked, “Of all the century’s ballerinas, Margot Fonteyn most embodied the art of pleasing.” Her hold on her audience was exceptionally personal, which should guarantee an eager response to the new biography, Margot Fonteyn: A Life, at least ten years in the making, by the dancer-turned-novelist Meredith Daneman. There have been many books about Fonteyn, including her own appealing Autobiography (I was its American editor) and four sumptuous accounts by her photographer-friend Keith Money, but none of them can compare in comprehensiveness and frankness with Daneman’s.
From the start, Daneman makes clear, nothing could move Peggy Hookham from her path once she had decided on it. One of the many virtues of her book is that she has been able to draw on an unpublished memoir by the Black Queen which adds considerably to our picture of Fonteyn’s childhood. Little Peggy, her mother confirms, was well-behaved, self-controlled, hard-working. But when she made up her mind, nothing could change it. Many children, for instance, resist healthy diets, but not many are, as Daneman puts it, “capable of becoming ill for three foodless days” to get their way. (Meat, fish, eggs revolted her; her favorite meal was baked beans on toast.) It’s fascinating to see how this quality of stubborn determination, for which Fonteyn became famous (or notorious) in later life, manifested itself from the beginning. “I learnt never to force an issue but to skirt round it,” wrote her mother, herself hardly a shrinking violet. “Her will was stronger than mine if it came to a showdown.”
Mrs. Hookham was the illegitimate daughter of a lower-middle-class English girl and a very rich Brazilian—his name was Fontes, which became Fonteyn when the family made it clear that they didn’t want their name associated with the stage. Mr. Hookham was a fairly successful engineer, whose work eventually took him—and his wife and children, Peggy and Felix—to China in the early 1930s. In Shanghai, Peggy continued with the dancing lessons she had begun in London, and eventually Mrs. Hookham decided to take her back to England to find out whether she had real talent. That, to all intents and purposes, was the end of the Hookham marriage; he stayed on in China, was interned by the Japanese during the war, and eventually remarried. The Black Queen never looked back.
Peggy was accepted at the Sadler’s Wells school—“No money you can spend on the child will be wasted,” pronounced de Valois. “Unless some disaster occurs, I know she has a great future ahead of her”—and despite her weaknesses her talent was so obvious that within a year she was appearing in the corps de ballet and then, quickly, in solo roles. And when the fledgling company’s one genuine ballerina, Alicia Markova, left for greener pastures, Peggy-Margot was quickly propelled into many of her roles, including Swan Lake‘s Odette (at first, Odile was beyond her technical capacities) and Giselle. But her reception in the company had by no means been unanimously enthusiastic. Her famous partner-to-be, Robert Helpmann, found her “rather uppity, tiresomely remote for one so young, and, in appearance, rather scraggy.” Frederick Ashton himself was unimpressed. He found her “strangely lacking in warmth, charm, temperament and variety…. I sensed a streak of stubbornness.” But Madame had spoken, and Margot was soon appearing in Ashton ballets.
There was a showdown: when she failed to meet the technical demands he made on her, he grew more and more incensed, until one day she broke down in tears, threw herself on him, and burst out, “I’m trying my best; I can’t do any more.” He was to say that this was the moment when she “conceded” to him, and that he knew he would be able to work with her. Daneman, however, sees it differently: “Men never know when they have been conquered. To the end of his life, Ashton believed that it was he who had won the battle”—a feminist touch that perhaps owes more to Daneman’s background as a novelist (and to The Taming of the Shrew) than to the realities of Sadler’s Wells.
Even so, the most telling sections of Daneman’s book are those that explore Fonteyn’s relationships with the powerful people who dominated her and/ or succumbed to her charm and her talent. With her mother she was respectful and obedient—up to a point. With Madame, she was always respectful and obedient. (When in 1954 de Valois informed her that she was to be the new president of the Royal Academy of Dancing, Fonteyn replied: “The Academy is boring, and it is absolutely not the kind of thing I am good at.” “Never mind,” said Madame. “It’s all arranged.” And that was that.) But the crucial early influence was that of the brilliant and self-destructive composer/conductor Constant Lambert, who despite his tempestuous marriage and his alcoholism was her mentor and her lover through her formative years. (In her memoirs, she mentions him only in passing—which is more than she does for several of her other lovers, with one of whom she had an ongoing relationship for ten years.)
The great emotional adventure of her life was with the man she eventually married—Roberto “Tito” Arias, the scion of one of Panama’s great families, whom she first met, glancingly, in 1937, when she was eighteen. When they met again many years later, he was married, plump, the father of three children, and a diplomat. Suddenly, in 1951, there was a phone call to Atlanta, where she was performing, from New York. (“I couldn’t believe it was Tito. He was talking as if we had seen each other last week, when it was twelve years since I had heard a word.”) It was another two years before he turned up again, this time backstage at the Met, and the next day he announced that they were to get married; his wife, he insisted, would be pleased to divorce him. He persisted, he cajoled, he wooed, and, Reader, she married him. “I so much wanted to love,” she was to write, “and it seemed so difficult for me to love.” It was Tito who “rescued this human heart trapped inside the ballerina.” She had already recognized that “my need to love far outweighed my need to be loved.”
She certainly had found a man whom she could love more than he loved her. Tito’s philanderings went beyond those apparently to be expected from a Latin aristo husband, and his cavalier disregard for her needs and comfort only pushed her to more extreme measures of self-abnegation. He was rarely there when she needed him, while she always managed to be there when he needed her. She participated without hesitation in his half-baked revolutionary activities in Panama, involving herself in adventures that were as farcical as they were dangerous—and that made headlines around the world. (Visiting Fonteyn in a New York hotel, Daneman tells us, her great friend the dancer Nora Kaye “was astounded to find her…in the basement, engaged in a spot of gun-practice.”)
She doted on Tito, embraced his family, forgave him, and never indicated to the world that she was suffering. His word was law: her friend Colette Clark told Daneman, “She always did what Tito said. That’s what you have to realize. It’s nothing to do with what she thought; she wouldn’t consult her own thoughts.” It was Tito who brought her into the orbit of Aristotle Onassis and Winston Churchill, Panama’s Noriega, Chile’s Pinochet, and the Philippines’ Marcos—and to the shameful episode of Margot’s choosing to dedicate her book The Magic of Dance to “The magic of Imelda.” (Daneman reports that I, as her American publisher, was horrified, and I was.) She had, by the way, previously accepted from Imelda a bracelet composed of seven bands of jewels—emeralds, rubies, diamonds, pearls. “What can I do?” she said. “I can’t give it back.”
The Fonteyn of the Tito years was in many ways a different person from the unaffected and collegial girl whose loyalties and affections had been so closely committed to the company. (By this time, Sadler’s Wells had become the Royal Ballet.) Now she was the wife of Panama’s ambassador to Britain; she was a favorite of the royal family; she was dressed by Dior, then Saint Laurent. Daneman’s view of “this one and only woman who was also a great dancer” comes perilously close to idolatrous at times, but it turns distinctly caustic when Tito comes into her life: “Times had changed, and so had the company she kept. Her highly principled, sensitive nature was now diverted away from its ruling sense of duty to the public, and directed solely towards her husband.”
One suspects that Daneman would not have thoroughly approved of any man who exercised authority over her heroine. She is also uneasy about Rudolf Nureyev’s effect on Fonteyn, although she credits his role in reshaping and extending her career. The book quotes approvingly the testimony of the dancer Annette Page, who was with the Royal Ballet on its extended tours of 1962 (the “happy” tour) and 1963 (the “unhappy” tour); that is, pre- and post-Nureyev. On the “unhappy tour,” says Page, Margot
behaved badly for the first time, like a sort of temperamental ageing ballerina…. She was the head of the company, the perfect model—up to a certain point. And that point was the arrival of Nureyev. I think she was infected by his narcissism. With his advent, the company became background—a montage. We no longer felt her support.
The Fonteyn–Nureyev partnership was to a large extent the creation of de Valois, who was fascinated by “Rudi” and understood both his value at the box office and the value of the example of his Kirov classicism to her other dancers. And of course she understood what he could do for Margot: “He brought her out, and she brought him up.” But when at first Margot demurred at entering into a partnership with a dancer nearly nineteen years her junior, it was Tito who made the decisive remark: “Get on the bandwagon, or get out.” “So onto the bandwagon,” as Daneman recites, “at the age of forty-two, she gamely jumped.” In her account of what Nureyev meant to Fonteyn, Daneman soars into the higher altitudes of prose. To his charm and bad-boyishness,
Margot’s maternal nature, so long suppressed, now rose and sprang to flower like a bloom raising its face to precious rain…. Even in the short time that she had known Rudolf, the earthly limitations of their bond—her marriage, his homosexuality, their disparate ages—had taught her about transcendence, and now she could base her interpretation [of Giselle] on her own spiritual resources, drawn not from the nebulous air, but from the vast, unfathomable sea of maternal passion.
Well, maybe. But all that maternal bonding doesn’t deter Daneman from exploring at great length “the question which, despite its implicit prurience, none of us can, in the end, quite refrain from asking: Did Fonteyn and Nureyev sleep together?” Nor can she quite refrain from answering that question:
When I admit that…yes, I do believe that Margot and Rudolf were lovers, you must understand that I, like the rest [of the im-plicitly prurient?], am telling you more about my personal prejudices and predilections than ever I could about what really went on between these two people who, as if sharing some complicit laugh, took their secret, undivulged, to their separate graves.
Having addressed the question, Daneman backs up onto higher moral ground:
For great practitioners of the arts, whose lives are at the mercy of a vocation, the discovery…of a fellow aspirant both willing and worthy to give and take support along the way, is a blessing of almost mystical proportions…. Perhaps the most intimate union that an artist can ever forge will be with someone who shares, not his bed, but his dreams.
In other words, the question she couldn’t quite refrain from asking turns out to be irrelevant. But we should never underestimate the appetite of the English for sexual gossip. Ashton and Lambert and Helpmann were particularly adept at it, and so Daneman is able to quote Ashton on Lambert’s virtues: “Very good balance, very reliable tempi, very large cock.” And to quote Lambert to Ashton on Margot’s vaginal muscles (only he employs the vernacular term), they “are so strong that she can activate me of her own accord.” But did the world really need to hear such things about a woman who was famously reticent and fastidious, and whose family and friends will presumably be reading this book? I don’t think it’s prudery on my part that makes me recoil, on Margot’s behalf, from this gratuitous invasion of her most private life.
Still, there is considerably more to appreciate than to deplore in Meredith Daneman’s biography. We will have no fuller or more canny account of the arc of Fonteyn’s amazing career, and the author’s background as a dancer gives her special insight into Fonteyn’s qualities as an artist. De Valois, the Black Queen, Ashton, Lambert, Tito, Nureyev are penetratingly observed. (The only major figure in Fonteyn’s life who seems scanted is her brother, Felix, around whom Daneman tiptoes.) As for accuracy, I spotted very few errors—the Surrealist artist Leonor Fini, who usually had her (male) lover and (male) ex-lover in tow, was far from being a lesbian; Maria Tallchief didn’t dance The Firebird at the Met, where the New York City Ballet never performed; Lincoln Kirstein is bizarrely identified as “the American dance commentator”—and these aren’t important. Best of all, Daneman is acute on what Fonteyn was really like—the complexities of a nature that presented itself as simple and direct.
When Fonteyn deserves censure—most importantly, when she “grabbed” (her own word) the première of Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet from Lynn Seymour, on whom it had been created—Daneman is appropriately severe: “Where is the specific, passionate endorsement of a young artist by a mature one, the generous acknowledgement that genius, when it strikes, must have its day?” She grasps Fonteyn’s extraordinary capacity for denial, and knows whom to quote about it. Keith Money:
Margot’s way of getting through life was to have sort of steel bulkheads like a ship, and if she couldn’t cope with something…a relationship, a problem, whatever, if she didn’t solve it by dusk, it went into a box, the box went into the cupboard, the cupboard was locked and the key was thrown away.
And she quotes Fonteyn herself who, in her twenties, had told her teacher Vera Volkova: “I’m determined to be happy. If an unhappy thought comes into my head, I suppress it. I put it at the back of my head.”
This talent for suppression was to see her through the stresses of her marriage, and free her to unleash the fierce—Daneman calls it “almost maniacal”—devotion with which she tended Tito after his near assassination. Yet she was never grim. One friend remarks aptly that “she had this talent of laughing at misfortune—it was the secret of her happiness that she could laugh at the most incredible moments and make them disappear.” Indeed, her laugh and her smile were among her most potent weapons. She herself noted that she may have conquered America with her smile.
The triumph of Sadler’s Wells’s opening night in New York, in October 1949—exactly fifty-five years ago—is probably unmatched in the history of ballet in America. Fonteyn danced Aurora in the full-length Sleeping Beauty, and ballerina, ballet, and company were wildly hailed. She had been unknown here—the famous one was Moira Shearer, star of the movie The Red Shoes—but overnight Fonteyn was accepted as a great artist and a beloved personality. She was on the cover of Time, the cover of Newsweek; her performances were automatically sold out. And when she and Nureyev joined forces, her fame turned into real celebrity—“Margot and Rudi” became familiar to the general, nonballet public, like Callas, like the Beatles. They were pursued by the paparazzi. Audiences went berserk: curtain calls for the Corsaire pas de deux sometimes lasted longer than the performance itself.
She went on and on. Once Tito was incapacitated, her earning power became essential to their lives, since he never moderated his extravagant way of life. By the time she finally retired and they had settled down on a small, isolated farm on a Panamanian beach, the money had run out. The conditions under which they lived were extraordinarily primitive—at one point, not even a telephone. Tito’s nephew reports, “They lived in something akin to destitution. Her only consideration was his welfare.” She was essentially a farmer now—breeding cattle. Buenaventura, the manservant who had tended Tito for years, says she had become “una ranchera. A Cow Lady.” Yet she could say,
If anyone questions my happiness, will you please reassure them. I’m the happiest woman in the world. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, which is to be with Tito, in Panama, on our farm, looking after the cattle, learning how to keep the stock records and everything else, and just thoroughly enjoying myself, wearing shirts and jeans and not having to fuss about anything.
Invited to tea by the Queen and Princess Margaret, she sent her regrets: there was a cattle sale coming up, and “I don’t think the Queen liked it when I said, ‘I can’t come because I’ve got to buy semen.’”
She had only a few years of this happiness. Tito died in 1989, causing scandal to the end. A well-known society woman who had been close to him—who would come to him at the farm when Margot was away—committed suicide on the day of his death. Margot had already developed the painful cancer that was to kill her. She spent more and more time in a hospital in Houston, pretending to the world that her medical problems were not serious. One friend who visited her told Daneman that “there were moments when I would go to the end of the corridor and I would listen to those screams and start perspiring and think, ‘Why doesn’t she die? This is not a life.’” Yet she returned to the farm, telling an interviewer, “I want to stay here till the end…in the place I chose to live with my husband.”
There was to be one last public moment—a gala at Covent Garden organized to raise money for her. Soon afterward she retreated to Houston and, Daneman movingly recounts, “finally gave up the fight,” doing it in “her own calm but powerfully disciplined way.” Her stepdaughter Querube was summoned, and Margot said to her, “I’ve decided not to have any more treatment. That means I’m going to die, so I want you to call Felix and tell him.” When the answering machine picked up, she said, “Well, give me the phone,” and left a message: “Felix, this is Margot. Querube and I are here and I’ve decided that I’m going to die.” She managed to get back to Panama, and when she died, Querube says, “She wasn’t scared or anything…. She died like a fish, you know. A little fish. A fish receiving air.”
That was in 1991. Her death was front-page news everywhere, and she remains vivid in the minds of those who saw her dance. For me, the great revelation was the radiance of that 1949 Sleeping Beauty; for others, it was her Firebird or Giselle or Swan Lake or Marguerite and Armand, the highly romantic vehicle Ashton created for her and Nureyev, which exploited the contrast between her contained pathos and lyricism and his febrile exoticism. For people who never saw her, there is a considerable amount of film, including television documentaries that are shown and reshown. Recently, a popular exhibition at the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center (which I helped put on) celebrated the impact on America of her art and her effortless projection of dignity, stylishness, and charm. She is taking her rightful high place in the history of her art, and Meredith Daneman has given us what, despite lapses of tone and judgment that are, perhaps, the inevitable price of so personal a labor of love, is certain to be the definitive Life.