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The Ecstasy of a Modern Romantic

My Life is like its author: entertaining, vivid—at times, piercing—and also self-dramatizing and inaccurate. The book is less a chronicle than a song. Duncan’s story of arriving in St. Petersburg in 1905 in time to see, out of her cab window, the funeral procession of the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre, in which the imperial police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, is demonstrably false. Likewise her account of the conception of her third child (she is lying on a beach, weeping over her lost children; a handsome man materializes; “Is there nothing I can do for you?” he asks; “Give me a child,” she answers; he obliges) should be taken as an adaptation of the actual circumstances. She needed such stories to make sense of her life (the third child, too, died, at birth), and, with her large, generous nature, she wasn’t fussy about facts.

Furthermore, her urge toward drama is responsible for many of her book’s most remarkable qualities, notably its candid, or at least heated, reports on her sex life. Here is her account of Paris Singer’s lovemaking: “Like a flock of wild goats cropping the herbage of the soft hillside so he comes gloating over my body, and, like the earth itself, I felt a thousand mouths devouring me.” She didn’t mind telling the reader about masturbating, either: “I…often lay awake all night; my lithe, feverish hands, travelling over my body, which seemed to be possessed by thousands of demons, tried in vain to subdue or find some outlet for this suffering.” Outside pornography, this sort of thing was rarely written about in 1927.

Several such passages were deleted before the book went to press. Duncan told friends that she put in a lot of sex talk because that’s what the publisher wanted. This seems unlikely, since it appears to have been the publisher who suppressed the material. (Or maybe it’s true, and the editors just got more than they bargained for.) Other things, too, were cut—unambiguous indications of Loie Fuller’s lesbianism, a description of Gordon Craig raping Duncan’s secretary—mostly, it seems, in the service of saving reputations or avoiding lawsuits. Names were dropped or disguised. In the new edition that Liveright will publish in May, all the deleted material of interest has been restored. This book is the first unexpurgated English-language edition of My Life.

As for factual errors, they are too many to correct. Furthermore, the real truth, even if she’s not telling it, is not always easy to discover. So it was for her. “The truth runs away and hides from me,” she wrote. Finally, the book is carelessly written. The last two paragraphs of Duncan’s introduction—the description of her first reaction to the death of her children—are repeated almost word for word later on. Nor did she have the chance to correct galleys, if, indeed, she would have.

The most important omission—and one that cannot be repaired, since she never wrote it—is any account of the six years that preceded her writing of the book. During this period she, like so many intellectuals of the time, became a fervent partisan of Russian communism. She danced in the new Soviet Union and founded a school there. She also, in 1922, married the Russian poet Sergei Esenin, who was twenty-six—that is, seventeen years younger than she—and who had no language in common with her. Esenin was already a well-known artist. In addition, he was an alcoholic and a thug, and, it seems, deranged. He repeatedly beat Duncan up, and insulted her in public. (“Woman very old!”) He trashed hotel rooms in which they stayed while she was on tour. Once he threw himself through a plate-glass window. Duncan paid the bills, as she always did for her family. She left Esenin after a year. Two years later, in the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, he slit his wrist, wrote a farewell poem in his blood, and then hanged himself from a heating pipe.

Why did Duncan omit this? She may have been ashamed of the Russian period—ashamed of letting herself be kicked around by Esenin and also, after so much praise when she was young, of the insults she now often received from reviewers. In the early 1920s, she still put on some powerful performances. The young Frederick Ashton attended a concert of hers in 1921. Long afterward, he recalled that though she was blowsy by that time, she captivated him:

I got an impression of enormous grace, and enormous power in her dancing. She had a wonderful way of running, in which she what I call “left herself behind,” and you felt the breeze running through her hair and everything else…. She wasn’t really the old camp that everyone makes her out now, she was very serious, and held the audience and held them completely.

A half-century after seeing her, he made a piece in her honor, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.

But her performances became increasingly fraught. George Balanchine, as a young graduate of the Petrograd Theater School, saw her just a year after Ashton. In an interview long afterward, he said that what he remembered was “a drunken, fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig.” In the late years she repeatedly had oopses, occasions on which a strap of her costume slipped or broke, exposing a breast. Kurth describes a scene that took place during her last (and unsuccessful) tour of the United States: she actually ripped her tunic open over her bosom and yelled at the audience, “You don’t know what beauty is! This—this is beauty!” Sometimes she sat down onstage and didn’t get up for a while.

Her legend was still great. Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote in 1927 that Duncan was more widely known in Continental Europe than any other American of the time except Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. But things were very hard for her. Partly to save herself, she began her memoir.

Soon afterward, she suffered her famous death. On September 14, 1927, just after the typescript of My Life had been sent to New York, Duncan went out for a drive with a young man, a garage mechanic, whom she had her eye on. She wore a red shawl—a gift from Mary Desti, her best friend (the mother of Preston Sturges)—that she liked very much. It had eighteen-inch fringes. As Duncan tossed the scarf over her shoulders, one of the fringes caught in the spokes of a wheel. The car had not gone more than a few feet when the shawl broke her neck. Desti, who was standing there as it happened, wrote to her son, “This, the jerk of the winding, had broken her spinal column instantly, before she could say, ‘Oh!’… For years she has wanted to die, but feared suffering. So she got her dearest wish.”

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