A Hero of Our Time

As the British dance critic Richard Buckle said, “Much as I liked [him] underneath, I began to dislike him on the surface.” That’s at least better than the other way around. There was no moderation in Lincoln Kirstein’s reactions to others or in theirs to him. He was all hyperbole and paradox. He could be woundingly cruel and manipulative, but so transparent in his machinations that people seemed to find this quality almost endearing, as if he couldn’t help himself. He would turn against friends for no good reason and he terrified strangers. He was a glowering, ungainly giant in a dark suit with shaved head and jutting jaw—the familiar analogy was a Roman senator. But as the heir of a department store fortune his generosity as a patron was clearly boundless, like his insecurity. Nick Jenkins in The New Yorker, after Kirstein’s death in 1996, noted his contrary nature, saying Kirstein “sought to be retiring, but he was all the more noticeable as he tried to be invisible.” It was just as Martha Graham had said. “What I do not think you know,” she told him, “is really how much people can and do love you, feel your warmth and your great dearness, which you try too hard to hide.”

The encomia have been arriving this spring, for his centenary. He is credited with bringing ballet to America, which was not quite true because there were regional companies, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had been traveling the country playing opera houses and high school auditoriums by the time Kirstein and the twenty-nine-year-old George Balanchine, whom he persuaded to come to New York, founded their Ballet Society. But it was their efforts that, in time, created a truly American style of dancing. It’s fascinating to learn from Martin Duberman’s biography that, in Paris as an aspiring impresario in the mold of Diaghilev immersing himself in dance, Kirstein at first preferred Léonide Massine, Nijinsky’s successor at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (and as Diaghilev’s lover).

No doubt it helped that Massine was bisexual and beautiful. But he was a minor choreographer, modern in the vein of Michel Fokine—akin in art to Kirstein’s friend the quasi-Surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew, whose work never really strained convention. With Apollo, on the other hand, Balanchine announced a new kind of modernism in ballet, one that transformed classicism in the radical way that Picasso did. Kirstein overcame his first inclination and saw the right path forward.

At the same time I suspect that Balanchine’s genius for modernizing classical forms made Kirstein more comfortable endorsing the sort of representational artists, like Tchelitchew or Paul Cadmus or Elie Nadelman, whose focus was, like his, on the body. Kirstein thought abstractionists like Jackson Pollock were bad decorators whose “every lucky accident of the brush” was hailed as “a sort of extra dividend of creation.” Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, warned him not to equate good art with “a preoccupation with the human body in its ideal or perfect form.”

But that preoccupation is a virtual definition of classical ballet, which obviously shaped Kirstein’s entire aesthetic. Modern ballet mixed perfect bodies with nineteenth-century classical traditions roughly in the way that Paul Cadmus’s art aspired to adapt Italian Renaissance techniques to pictures of gay sailors. Sex was a big part of it for Kirstein. He explained to Cadmus that he admired the obscure British-American nineteenth-century figure painter William Rimmer because Rimmer’s works were all about “sex and the fear of not getting too much or enough of it.” From Duberman’s book, you can get the impression that Kirstein’s life was almost evenly split between fund-raising for Balanchine’s company and cruising gay bars and waterfront dives. The potency of his character derived from the force of his artistic convictions combined with his strong sexual preoccupations.

He liked to joke that he “was born in the 107th year of the 19th century,” as if to stress his affinity with a traditional past, notwithstanding that he, as much as anyone, labored to shape culture in the twentieth century. His favorite artists haven’t replaced Pollock in museums but Kirstein provided a useful counterbalance to received taste during the middle decades of the twentieth century. There was a radicalism to his embrace of representational art and traditional studio practices during the 1930s and 1940s and beyond, going as it did against a gathering consensus toward avant-gardism, a paradox he recognized and disdained. His position dovetailed with his attraction to classical Japanese theater, to the physical disciplines of G.I. Gurdjieff, and to the rituals of the Catholic Church (for a while he went to Mass).

As he did with Balanchine’s ballet, he hoped that something new would arise out of what was old, which explains his early, forceful championing of film and photography. He extolled Eisenstein. He and Walker Evans, like he and Balanchine, were temperamental opposites. Evans was laconic, stone-faced. “A constipated and castrated bull dog,” Kirstein called him. But again, he recognized genius. In the early 1930s, he took Evans on an architectural tour of nineteenth-century gingerbread houses and industrial buildings. Then he put together a show of Evans’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933, and wrote the afterword for American Photographs in 1938, which established Evans’s reputation.

He explained his enthusiasm by connecting Evans to the nineteenth-century photographer Mathew Brady. Brady’s Civil War photographs—which expressed a heroism that Kirstein connected with President Lincoln—had “the esthetic overtone of naked, almost airless, factual truth, the distinction of suspended actuality, of objective immediacy not possible, even if desirable, in paint.” Evans’s pictures were much the same, Kirstein said. Evans gave shape to “the contemporary civilization of eastern America and its dependencies…as Brady gave us the War between the States.” For his part, Evans, who perhaps felt threatened by Kirstein’s aggressive sexuality, said about Kirstein, “You can’t count on the accuracy of what he says; he just loves to throw things around.” It was, as Kirstein had put it, the naked, factual truth, but an ungrateful remark.

Duberman enumerates Kirstein’s many endeavors in this immense, exhausting, often workmanlike but important biography, the first. Among other things, Kirstein started the literary magazine Hound and Horn and also founded the scholarly journal Dance Index; he helped create a groundbreaking art society at Harvard; he had a role in shaping Lincoln Center; wrote fifteen books and countless articles on dance, literature, art, and film; laid the foundation for a Latin American art collection at the Museum of Modern Art, which was ahead of its time; and endorsed or otherwise was linked with seemingly everyone who mattered in the arts before midcentury, from Pound and E.E. Cummings to Stravinsky, Copland, Andrew Wyeth, Diego Rivera, Eddie Warburg, Chick Austin, George Platt Lynes, and Philip Johnson (a “gossipy person,” Kirstein said; it took one to know one). Kirstein’s network reminds us how much American arts and letters at midcentury were shaped by a relatively small, largely Harvard-educated, mostly gay group of men who always complained about each other and jockeyed over the most frivolous matters but together accomplished remarkable feats. No one worked more selflessly than Kirstein.

He might nevertheless be on the way to oblivion today because he was himself not an artist and much of what he wrote is now little read. His fiction and poetry were forgettable. His essays, though sometimes vague and often overripe, were learned and strongly felt—awestruck in the case of subjects like T.E. Lawrence, James Cagney, Tchelitchew, and Robert Gould Shaw, the blue-blooded Bostonian Civil War commander of a regiment of black soldiers. Kirstein idolized strong men (he even wrote a poem to Patton: “Patton’s informal entrance seems some sort of booby trap,/but his easy stoic manner is devoid of any crap”), and regretted that he didn’t see battle in World War II. Instead, he served under an architect named Robert Posey on the team that recovered the Ghent Altarpiece and a horde of other treasures that the Nazis had looted and hid in an Austrian salt mine—6,500 paintings and truckloads of etchings, statues, armor, tapestries, and furniture. A German scholar revealed the location of the salt mine, then killed himself, his wife, and his child. From Goering’s house, Kirstein swiped as souvenirs a bedspread, which ended up adorning his bedroom on 19th Street, and stationery on which he wrote to his friends. He described the adventure to Cadmus. “There is my guilt,” he said, “the guilt of not having faced enough danger, and the pissy gratitude to have my little collection of souvenirs to talk about.” This was typical Kirstein in its self-loathing.

In the book, there’s a photograph of him with Balanchine from the late 1960s, sitting side by side in a studio, several feet apart, the two men turned toward each other and smiling, but awkwardly (see page 10 of this review). In later years, when Kirstein would tell people that they had never been close, it sounded like false modesty, but he was just stating a truth. Kirstein oversaw Balanchine’s medical care when the choreographer fell ill with tuberculosis after arriving in the United States. He introduced Balanchine to Horn & Hardart Automats, where the cheap food and “the cascade of nickels on the marble plate” filled the Russian “with acute rapture.” And of course he managed the affairs of the company and school that Balanchine wouldn’t or shouldn’t. But Balanchine clearly never warmed to Kirstein. In Duberman’s book, which has remarkably little to do with dance despite hundreds of pages about the minutiae of founding the New York City Ballet, Balanchine is a remote figure. “He has a spoiled boy’s vanity,” Kirstein wrote in his diary, “which makes him at once refuse any given suggestions. One must approach him always from behind.” After a performance in Hartford, which Kirstein thought hadn’t gone well, Balanchine, he wrote, didn’t seem to him “to be worried enough.” That was the essence of their difference.

Balanchine, after all, was confident in his own talent. He suffered no paroxysms of anxiety. He probably knew what he could expect out of the dancers in Hartford, which wasn’t a great deal. Kirstein was busy dreaming of Paris. He wasn’t the professional. Balanchine was, and had no patience for dilettantes. Balanchine reacted with resentment when Kirstein, a limousine Bolshevik during the 1930s, proposed a pageant ballet with massed workers’ groups called Red Hydra. Balanchine rejected the idea, of course, and there have been other stories circulating over the years about Balanchine swatting away Kirstein’s proposals, most famously for a ballet about Audubon. (The mind reels.) Dancers found Balanchine funny, charming, caring. So it’s striking to read a different view from Kirstein, with whom his work was most intimately associated.

Maybe on some level Kirstein was also drawn to what he often called Balanchine’s “sadism.” I know of a woman, a psychoanalyst, who used to say that the world is full of masochists and there aren’t nearly enough sadists to go around. Kirstein played both roles, masochist with Balanchine, sadist with others. “Any display of weakness, even if I understand it, dangerously arouses all my sadistic instincts,” he once wrote. He was in that case reflecting on his reaction to the gentle, insecure Cadmus, as he might have been to Cadmus’s sister, Fidelma. Kirstein’s marriage to her—she was a pretty, fragile, timorous woman—was long and loving but, as Duberman points out, it deteriorated sadly, as she stood by him through his depressions and suffered her own bouts of it. It couldn’t have been easy to maintain the appearance of ignorance about his homosexuality, as she did.

Increasingly she found the running of their house on 19th Street, with its staff and its young live-in male assistants and its dinner parties for fifty, unbearable. She took to shuttering the bathrooms in their country house in Weston, Connecticut, so, she explained, the spiders in the drains wouldn’t be disturbed. When Lincoln moved her in 1982 into a rest home in Connecticut, against her wishes and away from the world she knew, it became her “grey, negative world,” as he himself put it, although this didn’t cause him to take her back. She had become his burden, as he had been hers. At the end, visiting her infrequently, he watered the plants while she sat in silence.

Kirstein once defined American style to Buckle as “a leanness, a visual asceticism, a candour, even an awkwardness which is in itself elegant, shared also by some of our finest Colonial silver, the thin carving on New England grave slabs and in the quicksilver of Emily Dickinson’s unrhymed quatrains.” Never mind that Balanchine was Russian and that Kirstein drew here on clichés. His focus was always on American culture. When Barr told him in the early 1930s that the idea of founding an American ballet company was unrealistic because “no Americans could submit to the necessary discipline,” and because Europe was the source for all American art—that there was nothing “primarily American” worth calling art—Kirstein was only more determined to prove him wrong.

He inherited his patriotism. His father, Louis, had left home at sixteen, riding the rails as a hobo, peddling patent medicine, and, Duberman tells us, going bankrupt three times by investing in a bush-league baseball team, all before the age of thirty. He then worked his way up from traveling salesman, rejecting an offer from George Eastman to join Kodak (or so family legend had it) because he believed the box camera to be a passing fad. He made his fortune at the large Boston department store Filene’s. A prominent, civic-minded Jew amid Boston Brahmins, he befriended Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Calvin Coolidge, and FDR, and suffered through his son’s flirtation with Socialism, once dragging Lincoln to a Democratic convention to show him how the real world worked. Kirstein was bored and spent the time chatting with Admiral Byrd. After Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Louis hired Sacco’s son, Dante, as his chauffeur; he headed the Boston Public Library for a while, and argued that art museums should have more convenient hours for working people because “no class of society has a monopoly on ‘good taste’”—a view later adapted by Lincoln when he endorsed affordable ticket prices for the ballet.

Lincoln was a clumsy, sensitive boy. He identified with the anxious, genteel central character, Charles Pooter, in the Grossmiths’ comic novel Diary of a Nobody. He recalled in an essay years later that his family’s overstuffed, Anglophilic house was full of yards of blood-red satin:

Windows draped in lengths of heavy flat silk were crowned by pelmets snipped from a mandarin’s embroidered coat. Encarnadined shock was further ensanguined by its contrast with black lacquered bedsteads and night table. A chaise longue was trussed so tightly in polished silk that one reclining might slide off it, despite an anchorage of heavy pillows with their plethora of fringed tassels interspersed by jade balls and ivory buttons. Exaggeration defined embarrassment.

That last line seems almost a motto for Kirstein.

His mother, Rose, took him to the symphony and, at twelve, at his insistence, to see Diaghilev’s company on tour. “Disappointing,” he said about that first encounter, already a critic. But an etching of Nijinksy in velvet tunic and then the sight of Anna Pavlova dancing on stage hooked him for life. The diary he kept as a boy, recording his evolving taste, alternates between passages of ecstasy and self-recrimination. “I have too strong likes and dislikes,” he once wrote. “I am very very spoiled.” At Exeter he lived apart from most classmates with the school’s three other Jews. At another prep school, Berkshire, he devoured Wilde and Blake. In London, his older sister, Mina, who shared his bisexuality (there’s a photograph of her in the book, cigarette dangling from her mouth like a female James Dean before the fact), introduced him to the Bloomsbury crew, on whose fringes she moved. John Maynard Keynes took him (Lincoln was seventeen) to see exhibitions of Gauguin and Cézanne. “Clumsy,” Lincoln decided about Cézanne, a view he would never quite overcome because of his blindness to abstraction. “There would be limits I would not extend,” he recalled later. “The accurate placement of the human face and form, supremacy in surface and texture, the seizure of exact retinal resemblance, were fixtures of my developing preferences.”

At Harvard, Kirstein drooled over “the Lads,” the Hamiltonian blonds with dynastic backgrounds beside whom he felt physically inferior but with whom he wished to be connected, not least sexually. He gradually ventured into the upper reaches of Brahmin society, via Alice Lowell (his first heterosexual bedmate, Duberman dutifully reports). His father was appalled. He “expected that I would shortly forget I was a Jew boy,” Lincoln wrote. He would himself come to admit that the gilded life was “a fictive veneer upon which I had no true claim.” He always identified his own duplicity, as if to forestall others from doing so first.

His youthful sexual partners included his own younger brother, George. Duberman chalks this up to the mores of the day. When he wasn’t on the make, Kirstein threw himself into projects that established him, not yet twenty, as a figure of national significance. The first, Hound and Horn, derived from journals like The Criterion and The Dial, which Kirstein had scoured as a teenager. The magazine’s name was a line by Pound (“Bid the world’s hounds come to horn!”). Its success provided Kirstein with entrée into salons in London and Manhattan, which he later claimed, self-effacingly, had been his true goal. His instincts for literary talent were prodigious, as was his gall. He pursued Bennett Cerf to buy an advertisement in the first number (Kirstein was then nineteen), and he stood up to Pound, who called the magazine Bitch & Bugle, and called Kirstein, in his usual spirit of anti-Semitism, Stimkum Cherrystein.

The other great undertaking was the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, whose exhibitions of modern art and design, in two rooms over the Harvard “Coop,” starting in 1929, became templates for the Museum of Modern Art. Kirstein established it with the Harvard connoisseur and teacher Paul Sachs; Edward Forbes, director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum; Felix Warburg, the banker, and his son, Eddie, who would become Kirstein’s financial partner in the School of American Ballet; A. Conger Goodyear, future president of MoMA; John Walker, future director of the National Gallery in Washington; and the young curator Agnes Mongan. The society showed Noguchi, Max Beckmann, the Bauhaus, Mexican muralists, Calder, American cartoonists, and Japanese handicrafts and photographs, an astonishing program, reflecting, even if he did not organize the shows himself, Kirstein’s broad appetite then. Its success in a sense made the society obsolete. The Modern displaced it as a pioneer. Kirstein’s interest waned as the novelty wore off, attendance fell, and the society failed to provoke the scandals that he clearly hoped for and relished.

There is a striking passage in Duberman’s admiring but generally balanced biography about Kirstein and Allen Tate. Kirstein hired Tate during the early 1930s to be southern editor of Hound and Horn. An avowed racist, Tate had a goal, as he wrote Kirstein, “to keep the Negro blood from passing into the white race.” Tate belonged, Duberman points out, to the Agrarian movement of the day, which glorified the rural values of the Old South. Kirstein’s equivocal response to Tate—“your attitude about the Negro as an inferior race seems to me pragmatically if not inevitably true”—echoed, Duberman notes, his occasional use of the word “nigger” in his diary.

Later Kirstein would argue vigorously that the School of American Ballet should be racially integrated; he marched on Selma. But that anecdote is revealing. Kirstein was always in search of his bearings, seeking out a direction, whether it was Bolshevism or Christianity—some cleansing, purifying system—which is to say he was perpetually in search of himself. Perhaps it was the anxiety of a disappointed artist. He fell hard, like many prominent figures of his day, for the spiritualist Gurdjieff. There’s a funny scene in Duberman’s book at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, where Kirstein first encountered Gurdjieff, face down and naked, lying on a stone slab in a steam room, his arms and legs stretched by two men while a little boy danced a jig on his back. Kirstein would later say he got from Gurdjieff a philosophy of “never explain, never apologize.” It gave Kirstein the liberty to offend and to displease people when he thought it necessary, which he often did.

In addition to biographies of Paul Robeson, James Russell Lowell, and others, Duberman has written various memoirs and histories of gay culture. He treats Kirstein as a kindred soul, with sympathy and a certain clinical indiscretion. He discloses that in later years Kirstein cuddled but had no orgasm with a young companion named Clint Kisner, that Kirstein attributed this to a “prostatic problem,” and that he liked to go look at men in the steam baths. To Duberman, Kirstein’s fluid sexuality was clearly part of an admirable independence that allowed Kirstein to champion unpopular cultural and social causes: his productivity depended on an undomesticated temperament.

Maybe so. You see the undomesticated side in Kirstein’s combative letters and in his diary, whose notorious unreliability is outweighed by great bitchiness, which, quoted at length, enlivens Duberman’s biography. Leonard Bernstein, Kirstein wrote, was “not a very advanced type of human being.” Virgil Thomson had a head like “an egg with a feather on it.” A former friend, Stephen Spender, became “desperately envious and silly,” and then someone whom Kirstein had “no respect for.” He liked Jacques d’Amboise as an heir to Balanchine until he decided d’Amboise was “a moral schizophrenic with a very powerful sexual drive [and] a body enfeebled by weak ankles for so large a frame.” And he blew his top at John D. Rockefeller III over the plans for Lincoln Center in a letter that read: “The criterion is manipulation of real-estate sweetened by the education-business.” The whole project, he added, “frames that moral vacuum which makes Europe and Asia wary of American pragmatism.”

But with Rockefeller as with Balanchine and Evans, Kirstein was pragmatic. Lincoln Center served the New York City Ballet and its school. So he went along with it. He hated Jerry Robbins for naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and for much else, including for characterizing their personal battles as “rich Jew” versus “poor Jew,” but he enlisted Robbins as a choreographer because, as he put it, Robbins “is a complex combination of vanity, guilt, fright, inadequacy, talent, viciousness, sweetness, ambition, greed and gifts—like most of us, only he has more gifts.” And he overcame his disdain for Philip Johnson’s period of youthful Nazism and collaborated with him on various projects including the State Theater, an unlovable barn, which Kirstein nonetheless praised (absurdly) as a hall of “unparalleled grandeur and luxury” because it was designed to suit Balanchine and because Kirstein got to install a pair of pneumatic sculptures by his beloved Elie Nadelman.

As he aged and his control of City Ballet passed to others whom he felt didn’t appreciate what he had gone through, he became embittered and paranoid. He fired Mary Porter, a longtime colleague who had lately recovered from a bout with cancer, because he thought she was spreading rumors about him. “You think you’re omnipotent,” he told her. “You killed cancer!” He had fits of madness. He walked into the wrong hotel room and urinated on a woman asleep in bed. He was carted out of the State Theater by paramedics in mufti.

In the end, his house on 19th Street, with leaking drainpipes and peeling gold fabric wallpaper, was kept darkened, like a cave. Kirstein sustained himself with Chinese takeout, his once-jammed appointment book a scratch toy for his five cats. Jennifer Dunning of the Times recalled a tour of his room of cat artifacts, as Kirstein “put in and pulled out the electric plug of a single light,” plunging the room into sallow light then darkness when they left. “No hour,” she added, “seemed too early to offer large amounts of scotch on the rocks to wash down ballet gossip and talk about choreography.”

He had been a selfless patron, rare these days. Often anonymously, he made donations and gifts to artists he admired. He otherwise rallied fellow rich people to support endeavors that he wasn’t quite rich enough to support without help. In so doing, he helped establish a culture of patronage in America, which has outlasted him and become, with the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet as its prime evidence, his great legacy.

No one can hope for equilibrium of sunshine and lovely weather all the time,” he once wrote, encapsulating his disposition. “Unhappiness is part of the human condition…. The only thing of importance is consciousness.”