Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan; drawing by David Levine

She had a Greek phase, along with brother Raymond, dressed and danced in Greek tunics, poured a small fortune in early box-office receipts into Raymond’s illusion of a well to go with their temple on a dry hill facing the Acropolis. And long and ardent study of Greek vases, in the British Museum and the Louvre, sometimes when the whole family in their crazy courage were close to starving, as she told it in My Life, did help to shape her views of the human body and her innovations in the dance. But her spirit was quite other, as she well knew herself, naming as her masters in the dance influences as far from the classic world as from the art of classical ballet, which she despised—Rousseau, Beethoven, Wagner, Nietzsche, Walt Whitman, of all people. She recalls ancient Greece to the end, though, in her proneness to accidents, only with some weird inner engineering in place of the divine, and a strange failure to achieve tragic status even under her most tragic blow.

That of course, as everybody now knows from the Vanessa Redgrave movie even if they didn’t before, was the drowning in the Seine of her two beautiful little illegitimate children while driving with their nurse, in 1913. It was eight years later, after what reads in her own account like a mad crescendo of love affairs and being thrown over in one by pianist Walter Rummel, “the most hallowed and ethereal love of my life,” that she set out for the “glorious promise” of a New World, on the invitation of USSR Commissioner of Education Lunacharsky.

As the final accident prevented her telling the story herself beyond that point, it is useful to have a chronicle of her last years and only legal marriage, written by her chief Russian colleague and amanuensis, the man who continued to direct the Duncan school in Moscow for some twenty years after her death. Unfortunately, although the author seems likable and intelligent enough, the book is badly organized, often to the point of being incomprehensible, and the translation has only such inadvertent felicities as “I stopped with a start.” The flap announces a Foreword by Sir Frederic Ashton, which must have been mislaid in the office—there is no Foreword by anybody; and various points of fact in the text have been left obscure, not from the bureaucratic miasma that somewhat veils the whole picture of the Russian Duncan school’s beginning and operation, but for no reason at all except editorial carelessness.

Who, for instance, was Irma Duncan? She figures very largely in the story, as the only one of Isadora’s pupils who went to the USSR with her and stayed with her there, even seeming to have kept the whole show going nearly single-handed quite often when the boss was off gallivanting. No doubt any true Duncan fan knows all about her, but for others some comment on the name and whether the two were related would seem in order. We are told that at one point brother Raymond billed as Duncans all sorts of hoboes and others in his own version of a dance studio in Paris, in an effort to discourage the fraudulent use of the name, but that apparently was not the case with Irma. Yet if she had been her daughter Isadora certainly wouldn’t have concealed it. This is just one of a number of pointless little obfuscations that a few words would have dispelled. The book must have been brought out in a rush in an effort to cash in on the movie publicity. Still a lot of its material is fascinating, if one is willing to grant any enduring interest at all to the complex and sprawling image of Isadora, and it does help at the moment to keep that image from being swallowed by Vanessa Redgrave.

Not that the movie isn’t well acted and on most points faithful to Isadora Duncan’s memoirs, as far as it goes; which of course can’t be far, when the genius is left out, inevitably, Vanessa being a far cry from Isadora as a dancer. Aside from documentaries, all movies about artists of stature in any art are essentially fraudulent in the same way, for the same reason, since they can’t help making a shambles of the main point, and what they state, about the artist and his art, is in contradiction to what they convey. The general kinship of this one, for example, is with such cinematic stuff as Gone With the Wind—scarcely a medium for conveying the daring non-realism of Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig, which is at least as central to Isadora’s drama as her having had a child of Craig’s. That she herself did have genius, as well as a personality on a heroic scale becoming less and less likely in our flattened-out societies, it seems we must allow, like it or not, and with full allowance for her many absurdities and inconsistencies.


As with all the performing arts until rather recently, we have to take the genius on faith, but the testimony, as to both her performances and her legacy, is impressive no matter how controversial.

As far as I know there was no movie made of her dancing, and if there had been it would probably have carried as little of the truth as the records of the time of the voices of Ellen Terry and Caruso. Even if it were now and not fifty-odd years ago, her art would have no such benefit from improved recording techniques as performances in music. Beyond all artistry, which is all that cameras could record, there was evidently a powerful effect of stage magnetism, more in the realm of electricity or ESP, and related to abnormal powers of inner conviction. So she was portrayed by artists Leon Bakst and José Clara, in drawings happily reproduced in this volume, as though a Gaston Lachaise female were to spring from sculpture into representations, with music, of “La Marseillaise” and Botticelli’s “Spring.” In other pictures of her long before that blowsy stage, showing her thin and wispily adolescent, the enormous force of character that went into the development of her art—and into the destruction of so much else—shows up even more dramatically.

In country after country, including Czarist Russia on several trips, she did bowl people over, first a small élite of artists and intellectuals and eventually a much larger, though never the really great, public. Along with that one has to try to imagine her large role, and rather peculiar passion, as a pedagogue, which was crucial in her decision to live and work in Soviet Russia. Over and over, in Greece, Germany, France, England, America, her school or plans for a school had collapsed. The New World she imagined the revolution to have ushered in was her only hope. She wanted a thousand pupils and was able to have forty; she dreamed of great stadiums full of beautiful human bodies trained to graceful and harmonious movement according to her methods, in short a version part dance part gymnastics of the Romance of the Revolution, of the Ten Days That Shook the World era. Hence half the appeal of the movie image of her just now under the new wave of simplistic emotionalism in that sphere; the other half obviously has to do with her role as a libertarian in sex. She has been resurrected just in time to feed the current fantasy of the innocently orgiastic, in both private and public behavior.

As a representation of Isadora, this is in both aspects about equal parts truth and nonsense. There is even real comedy in her going over so big precisely when the reality of her is largely so far out of style that it could almost be back in as camp. She had a big heart; had known in childhood and later great poverty and the hateful selfishness of most of the rich; wanted always to base her schools on children of the poor; by coincidence saw the dawn mass funeral in Moscow in 1905 of the workers shot down at the Winter Palace, and never got over it; had become convinced that the soul of the Western bourgeoisie was too commerce-ridden ever to understand and support her art. For the picture of the emotive female fellow-traveler of the early days, so far so good.

But Isadora was first and foremost a performer, of the general theatrical company of Ellen Terry, Gordon Craig’s mother whom she called “the ideal of my life,” and of Eleanora Duse, her good friend and scarcely a revolutionary. Her vocabulary resounds with such period words as Woman, Beauty, Truth, Art, Glorious Vision. In spirit she was far more a pre-Raphaelite than a Marxist, as she certainly was in her reading, and her innocence was no more prompt to denounce a corrupt bourgeoisie than to praise the servility of the well-trained British servant or rail at jazz as “the expression of the primitive savage,” the “sensual convulsion of the Negro.” In her long affair, which might as well have been a marriage, with the multi-millionaire Paris Singer, grandson of the sewing-machine inventor, although she seems really to have had little taste for money except as her school ventures kept requiring it in enormous amounts, she was nevertheless able to endure a far higher degree of luxury than one would ever associate with the true revolutionary. She was even able to spend a winter with him idling on a yacht on the Nile, while her school made out without her.


Certain bizarre anomalies of the kind crop up through the Russian part of her story and the affair, legalized for some reason, with the poet Esenin, seventeen years her junior. One of the good vignettes Mr. Schneider provides is of her on one of her first evenings in post-revolutionary Moscow, at a party composed evidently of middle-class intellectuals and not at all of factory workers, castigating the company on their bourgeois traits and behavior. This “naïveté” caused enough of an uproar so that Lunacharsky himself felt obliged to publish an embarrassed apology for her.

She had arrived in Moscow that time without cash or clothes—only her constant, ill-boding scarves and shawls—imagining that all services and commodities would be free as air and that she would need only red blouses for her wardrobe.

In another scene, also from the early period of exaltation, when her dance prop was a red cloak and she wanted to be “Red! Red! Red!”, the author describes her in a great hall, holding a lantern over her head for an hour to keep the audience singing after the lights had broken down. In short her self-image at that stage, and one suspects her political acumen too, was rather that of a ship’s figure-head—not a model designed to stand up under much social reality or much sexual stress either. There appears to have been some hostility to her in the USSR, from what quarters is not clear in this account, but it could hardly have been otherwise even without her incipient alcoholism and huge areas—at least so one surmises—of insensitivity and ignorance.

In any case, Isadora’s revolutionary fervor was not of a kind to prevent some pretty extravagant goings-on with Esenin in Berlin and Paris, in their rather mysteriously prolonged time away from Russia—after their disastrous trip, her last, to a mainly unsympathetic USA. As for Mr. Schneider’s assertion that at the time of her death in 1927, two years after Esenin had thrown her over and a year after his suicide, she was waiting for money from her publisher to return to the USSR, one has to wonder. If she was not quite the nymphomaniac and alcoholic mess portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in that period, and it is hard to see how she could have turned out so remarkable a book as her autobiography if she had been, still, life among the bottles and homosexuals around the Negresco, one of the more expensive hotels of the Riviera, was a long way from the austerities and terrors of early Stalinist Moscow.

The ship’s prow approach was no longer in order. Outside prison there were to be no more heroes or heroines for a long time. It is hard to imagine that she would have been either welcome or happy much longer, and it would seem to have been for the best all round that the school she founded there could keep the advantage of her name without the inconvenience of her person.

A more basic question posed by the whole story is of a different order altogether, with only the remotest connection with any country or politics. That is the relation of the woman artist to a) marriage, and b) motherhood, including pregnancy and child-birth. Isadora is the perfect model of total confusion in this domain, a confusion rooted in the self-idolatry frequently associated with a high order of creative talent in the human female, as the sociologists might put it (the male too but differently). This is in reference only to true genius in one of the arts, not to run-of-the-mill talents in same, nor to women in other professions: medicine, law, business, literary criticism etc.

I believe it was Virginia Woolf who said, “My books are my children.” If not she, it could have been; and with substitutions for the word books, it could be any of a vast majority of the serious women artists since Sappho—whether lesbian, or adjusted to sexlessness, or more or less pampered spouse in a childless marriage, or endless seeker after romance like Isadora. A few great ladies of the theater have managed to have one child, but theirs is an interpretive art; and the interpretive arts too, to consider for instance Bernhardt, Duse, Landowska, are scarcely conducive to family life. The rate of miscarriages and stillbirths would appear to be very high in these circles, because often very much willed. The woman in the artist may have craved the child; the artist in the woman could not tolerate it and killed it in the womb.

This is not to say the combination is impossible, or necessarily lethal to either mother or children; with wisdom and phenomenal luck, among other factors, it has sometimes made for a wonderful life, for all concerned. But it is difficult and, as anybody can observe, extremely rare—for a very good reason. A man artist may be torn and even ruined by family distractions and attendant money troubles. For a woman, although she may not bear the economic strain, the conflict can be close to absolute, the art and the children, over a number of years, being very much the same kind of creation and making day in day out rival demands on the same department of the psyche, aside from any question of time and energy. The choice is more or less continual between wrecking one’s children and letting the art wait. In the woman unfit for such division this is usually sensed well ahead of time, so the psyche may take protective measures even if the reasoning mind doesn’t.

In Isadora Duncan’s case only a third baby, conceived after the hideous death of the other two, was lost at birth; she had gotten an attractive young man, a total stranger, to father it, as a life-saving measure for herself. “Give me a child!” He did; it died in a few hours. She related that fact to her continuing state of shock and grief, which in her account were never to be relieved; all her life after the drowning, she wrote at the end, had been nothing but a flight from “the Horror of it all”; her spiritual life had ended on that day in 1913. This would have to mean that the “hallowed and ethereal” affair with Rummel and wild jealousy on her part in its ending, along with the whole Russian experience including Esenin, were essentially void—a long series of words and poses without meaning. No doubt they were partly that. There is no reason to dispute her suffering. But neither can one quite allay a suspicion that there was in her a built-in invitation to disaster.

On the evidence of her memoirs, her notion of love was incurably egocentric, and there is nothing to suggest that her feeling for motherhood was not equally arrested. It resembles nothing so much as the attitude toward her baby-dolls of a little girl who neither wants nor could imagine a husband in the picture. Motherhood was to be a projection of herself alone; necessarily one might say, since with all her goings-on verbal and otherwise about sex and spiritual affinities, she was clearly incapable of the kind of enduring love that makes marriages possible. Or putting it differently, she knew a lot about infatuation and nothing about love at all. The only self-abandonment in love that she seems ever to have experienced was the orgasm; nor did it occur to her that a woman’s love for her child might be of the same character as her love, if any, for the father.

As far as the children are concerned, such matriarchal, fatherless arrangements have worked perfectly well in various primitive societies that are altogether geared to them, and can work fairly well on occasion in ours, depending on the mother and her reasons. Isadora hardly fills the bill as a favorable prospect; in fact to think of having her for a mother is to quail. She herself, having a rather feeble sense of cause and effect in general, only went so far in her understanding of the matter as to say that for her Art and Love were in constant combat. Old-fashioned prima donna that she was, she never noticed that her art was tied to a degree of self-absorption, not to say self-adulation, that was bound to make all her “grand passions” transient and motherhood perhaps a far more dangerous battlefield.

She thought of herself as “born of the sea,” under the star of Aphrodite. “I was so lovely…” “Considering that I was built rather on the lines of the Venus de Milo…” “I resembled Brunnhilde…” “My audiences came to my performance with an absolutely religious ecstasy…” Such phrases are standard in the autobiography, the self-bemusement teetering strangely between contradictory exaltations—a quasi-religious sense of the “innocence” of her nearly naked body in the dance, and of the human body in general when inspired by “pure thoughts,” versus a more and more over-heated or in her view Bacchanalian approach to sex. One ponderously ecstatic passage on the erotic joys of middle-age, as compared to youth, concludes: “I was once the timid prey, then the aggressive Bacchante, but now I close over my lover as the sea over a bold swimmer, enclosing, swirling, encircling him in waves of cloud and fire.”

Whatever the male role in this torrid Charybdis, self-preservation would seem to call for fairly rapid escape, as indeed kept happening, the more stormily because with the exception of Singer she kept going for men who were artists too, and who soon tired of having their own art swallowed up in the vast requirements for hers. This is as plain in the Gordon Craig story as years later with poor Esenin. And just how and where, in such a picture, does one visualize the role of the mother?

If the question were Greek, the flaw and the terrible punishment would fall easily into place. Instead a curious sense of stage management, rather than of tragic content, pervades the Isadora Duncan story even at its grimmest. Perhaps it was not like that at all to some of those who knew her and were close to her, or who had the chance to be affected by her as a dancer. At any rate, at the present remove, a scene that stands out in her experience as a mother is a piece of gynecology, reported by herself. We have to remember that Nature and the Natural, with capital letters, figured centrally in all her talk of the dance and in her detestation of physical disciplines such as the ballet and Swedish calisthenics—“torturing exercises,” designed to “separate the gymnastic movements of the body completely from the mind”; in her school, “the body becomes transparent and is a medium for the mind and spirit,” and the conceptions for it, she often reiterated, had come to her from the movements of trees, plants, animals, water, from Nature itself.

It turns out that was just Art. In Life, when it came to woman’s most natural activity, giving birth, we find her howling with pain, resentment and outrage. Barbaric; a massacre; unspeakable horror; all very well for “the peasants and the African Negroes. But the more civilized the woman, the more fearful the agony, the useless agony.” And so on and so on. All this from a woman who must have been in marvelous physical condition, and whose body was trained to be in such harmony with, as she put it, her mind and spirit. That it was a common view of childbirth at the time makes it no less odd from this particular romantic rebel and Nature addict—or sex goddess as the blurb has it.

That her mind and spirit might have been at fault on that occasion, at least as much as the “stupid country doctor”; that her beautiful independence and whole conception of love might be suspect; that she was an emotional and nervous wreck at that point, partly from her ambivalence about the baby that was trying to struggle out of her body, with no father to welcome it—to these possibilities she was apparently as blind as the most ordinary of fallen women. “With what a price we pay,” she wrote of her pregnancy, “for the glory of motherhood.” It is like a parody of the turn-of-the-century notions she thought she had thrown out with the corset, and hardly points to a very healthy prognosis in the case, though miracles do occur in the making of mothers as elsewhere. She herself was later to blame the children’s death indirectly on a series of neurotic visions that had been afflicting her, and that, to a post-Freudian view, seems to suggest a continuing violent ambivalence in her maternal love. Her writing was long after the fact and on that point is only obliquely instructive. Nevertheless one can’t help wondering, if the children had been spared, what other ways nature might have found to revenge itself on so confused a priestess.

She danced with scarves, was always covering lamps with scarves to get the light that suited her, and had her neck broken by a scarf. Several years before that, Maxim Gorky had written his famous article, reproduced in the Schneider book, on her and Esenin, after an evening with them in Berlin. He called her everything Esenin didn’t need, but his rather horrid description of her was perhaps unfair; his sympathy was all with his young compatriot, whose poetry he admired intensely while deploring his drinking and noting in him an air of madness, and it hurt him to see that genius in the clutches of a much older woman, overweight and half drunk, whose dancing Gorky had not liked even in her heyday.

In any case, Gorky’s paragraph describing Esenin is the finest passage in Mr. Schneider’s book, and along with the author’s touching account of the poet’s last year and last miserable efforts at life and at other loves, probably has something to do with the somehow lightweight feeling that attaches to the pictures of Isadora dead, as against the ones of Esenin and his tombstone. Something but not everything; she did depend too much on her scarves.

This Issue

December 18, 1969