Peter Kurth

The author of the new biography of Isadora Duncan discusses the legendary dancer whose short life was a whirlwind of art, stormy love affairs and tragedy.


When Isadora Duncan finally sat down to write her memoirs, she received a much needed advance from the eager publisher, along with a telegraph: “ENOUGH WITH YOUR HIGHFALUTIN IDEAS SEND LOVE CHAPTERS MAKE IT JUICY.” Luckily, biographer Peter Kurth was not forced to make that choice. “Isadora: A Sensational Life,” his new 652-page book about the world’s first great theatrical dancer, not only catalogs the tempestuous antics of Duncan and her numerous lovers, but it does a terrifically engrossing job of chronicling a life devoted to art and beauty.

“Isadora” is pieced together from a vast archive of love letters, magazine clippings, diaries, drawings and photos — to the extent that Kurth’s job occasionally appears as much editorial as biographical. It’s a good thing he took this approach: Many of the papers quoted in the book were lost in a 1999 fire that consumed the Manhattan apartment belonging to Duncan’s great-niece. “Isadora” took 10 years to write, a period full of tumult in Kurth’s own life, and it’s easy to see why he feared he might never finish it. But the real challenge, he says, was learning to sympathize with his subject.

Duncan was childish, vain and brilliant. She would greet visitors only while reclining on a divan and insulted her friends and audiences just as impulsively as she heaped praise upon them. She spent all her money as soon as she had it, then hit her friends up for more. Once, appearing late for a recital in front of a peeved American audience, Duncan remarked that Americans must learn the value of repose. Later in life, when her friend Mercedes de Acosta asked her what she had done with the money she had borrowed from her friends, Duncan replied petulantly, “I spent their money, which is just what they should have expected me to do. Please don’t scold me. I’m hungry.”

Her alcoholic bouts were so desperate that she’d mix a cocktail out of “eau-de-cologne and the dregs of empty wine bottles.” And she was a legendary flirt, the kind of woman who’d tell a man she’d just met, as Kurth reports, that “she never slept at night and to phone her after midnight.” More than anything, Duncan was devoted to her art. She was barely out of her teens when she reinvented dance; and when no one understood her work, she traveled across the globe until she found audiences that could. She believed that her dance was a gift to the world.

Duncan’s love affairs were nearly as stormy as they were numerous. She had three children by three different men, two of whom abandoned her, while she cheated on the third so openly that she virtually forced him to leave. Her rampage through the United States with the heroic (and unstable) poet of the Russian Revolution, Sergei Esenin, fell into alcoholic, violent ruin, dragging down Duncan’s reputation with it. And things continued to go downhill as her later performances met with little acclaim and lots of ridicule, especially when the top of her Greek-style tunic developed a habit of falling off.

Duncan is perhaps best know today for her own dramatic death in 1927. In Kurth’s telling we learn how the 49-year-old dancer had picked up a young French-Italian race-car mechanic at a local restaurant and coyly suggested he stop by her apartment to take her for a drive in an Amil Grand Sportscar along the French Riviera. As the car took off, she reportedly shouted to her friends, “Adieu, mes amis, je vais ` la gloire” — Goodbye my friends, I go to glory!” Moments later, her shawl caught in the rear wheel of the car, breaking her neck. But Duncan’s life hinged on another horrific tragedy that occurred almost a decade and a half before her death. In 1913, her two children — Deirdre, fathered by theater designer Gordon Craig, and Patrick, fathered by Paris Singer, the wealthy heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune — drowned in the Seine when the driver of their car stepped out to crank the engine and failed to secure the brake. The Renault pitched over the embankment, trapping the two children and their nanny inside. One year later, a third child, who Duncan believed would be the reincarnation of either Deirdre or Patrick, died a few hours after birth.

Duncan’s life was full of both glory and tragedy, much of it self-generated, and she was a seductively dramatic individual. Kurth, who spoke with Salon recently from his home in Vermont, said that telling her story meant keeping her at a distance.

You’ve said that you expect the reviews of “Isadora: A Sensational Life” to focus more on Duncan than on you, her biographer. Did you try to keep yourself out of her story?

Well, I tried very hard not to put myself into it. A lot of biographers are doing that now, not just Edmund Morris with Ronald Reagan, but Nancy Milford with Edna St. Vincent Millay. And I might have been able to do it like that, but I don’t actually believe in biography that way. So I tried to draw on my emotional experience when I wrote it, rather than making any direct parallels, and my editor helped me a lot with that. I would have things in there and she would say, “This doesn’t read the way you think it does. You’re making points that would make sense to people who know you, but won’t to anyone who doesn’t.”

At the same time that you were writing about tragedy in Duncan’s life, you were experiencing your own personal tragedies. It must have been hard not to compare yourself to her.

Well, I look at my life as sort of the same as hers; there’s a big dividing line in it, before and after. With me it’s HIV and with her it was the death of her children. And once I’d cleared that hurdle, somehow I felt I was tapped into her in just the right way. And I could go ahead and trust her story and not worry about mine so much.

But when the chapter about the deaths of Isadora’s children was originally written, it was way over the top. As it might well be, since it was simply horrible. But Mary Tondorf-Dick, who has always been my editor, is a genius at bringing me down, bringing the writing down.

What was the chapter like before your editor got to it?

I was sort of second-guessing the characters. Her behavior at the actual moment of the tragedy when her children died was, I think, maybe hard for some people to understand. It was sort of quiet. She seemed unemotional at first. She was plainly in shock. But she had an idea of turning it into something beautiful if she could. And her artistic credo as it developed was always to do less with her dancing, rather than more, so I began to get that in the narrative, tried to pull back somehow and to keep it restrained and to keep it strictly to the factual evidence as I had it.

I know that from my experience, after not just being HIV positive myself, but from 20 years of losing friends, after a while, it’s not that you cease to care, it’s that you’re speechless. The only response can be a symbolic response. People expect other people in great grief to go wailing and gnashing their teeth and throwing themselves on coffins and she wasn’t like that, and I have found over time that I haven’t been like that. There’s something in you, a kind of quiet place for sorrow that is essential to your own survival. And I suppose it would be different for different people. I tried to keep it stark and clear. I think it’s much stronger that way.

I know that my understanding of her and my sympathy for her is vastly increased by these parallel experiences in our lives. I have not lost my children, but my sister has lost her children and when that was going on, she was criticized from one end of the country to the other for being calm, stoic, not doing what people would expect a mother to do. And Isadora never did what people expected her to do.

There doesn’t seem to have been any event in Duncan’s life nearly as significant as the death of her children. Do you think she ever recovered?

There’s a Yugoslavian proverb that says there are sorrows of God and there are sorrows of the world. And the death of Isadora’s children was definitely a sorrow of God. It’s Greek. It’s irrevocable. Nothing could be done. Whereas I always could be rescued, and have been a couple times, with new medications. I can mourn the death of a lover and have a new lover. But she could not have her children back. And the idea of children in all of her life was central.

Duncan had a knack for choosing really bad men. And though generally you keep an emotional distance from your subject, there are some passages where it’s pretty clear how you feel about her lovers, particularly Gordon Craig.

You should have seen this before we edited it! You’d see how much I didn’t like him. But the thing is, I would have fallen for him too. I’ve had my experiences with men like that.

That was another aspect where my editor really had to pull me back. At first, I was really snide about him and it had to go. I think he treated her terribly. And granted, she was, as my mother said, not someone you’d want to have in your house. But I think he treated her badly. I think he treated all the women in his life badly. And that makes me very angry.

My editor and I agreed to look at this as a Greek tragedy. And in a Greek tragedy, the audience doesn’t stand up and start criticizing, though the chorus might come on and point to things. So in the end I had to point at it rather than declare it. I really worked hard not to let my opinions intrude, although my sympathies are clear. And that’s a very difficult line to draw in writing. I had pages and pages of analysis of what might have made Craig tick. And everything I said made him look worse. But I figured that’s not my job. He’ll make himself look bad.

What kind of man was Craig, and why do you think Isadora would have fallen for someone like that?

He was just completely self-absorbed, as I suppose I am — as I suppose any creative artist is. I don’t think Craig ever had a doubt in his head about himself and what he was doing. And Isadora probably didn’t either as far as her work was concerned, but she wanted something much more dimensional than Craig was able to give her. She wanted to rest a little from her mission.

She was a woman who not only wanted, but I think sought out, ecstasy in every level of her life. And there’s nothing more exciting than a horrible, mean lover. I know this is also against the current way of thinking about things. I think it was Mercedes de Acosta who said Duncan treated all her lovers as if they were her children. I tried not to psychoanalyze her too much, because I think she’s beyond psychology. I mean, I think you could have the same background and still not be Isadora Duncan.

But there was one man who broke the pattern. Paris Singer, “my millionaire,” as Isadora referred to him, was generous and loving in a way none of her other lovers were.

Singer was the one where she was really stupid. I mean I think he was the one she was best suited to. He would have done anything for her, and tried. He was certainly her sexual match. From that point of view they were perfectly suited. If she had only calmed down just a little in public even, it would have worked out.

Right, she’s constantly flaunting her affairs with other men in front of him. She never respected him the way she did Craig, or the Russian poet Esenin.

No, but don’t you think that happens a lot? Obviously, if it weren’t for this art of hers, this “mission” as she understood it, she might have been able to go through life as other people do and sort of work it out. But she always had that excuse of her work to take her away from something when it began to be difficult.

When I first started working on this, I was teaching a workshop and one woman there was astonished that I would be writing about a woman who had made so many immature choices. But, I said, “None of us in this room are going to have to make the same choices she did. I mean none of us are of the same caliber in our work, none of us are as obsessed with our work as she was. We don’t have that messianic feeling that she seems to have been born with.” And sometimes I’d flip it around and say, “If this was a man, how unusual would it seem that some great male artist just had to have sex all the time, with all these different people?”

Are the rules different for men? Is there any male artist she reminds you of in that way? Maybe Picasso?

Yes, very much like Picasso. Because I think there were qualities in her approach to love and sex that we might identify as masculine, especially as time went on. There is that beautiful line of hers when she says she learns that love could be a pastime as well as a tragedy. And I think a lot of men understand that, much to the frustration of a lot of women. But I would think of her sexuality as being a little more male than female. Predatory almost, especially as she gets older.

Did her notion of her art, what she wanted to achieve through dance, change much over the course of her life?

No, I think as she got older she began to understand that she probably would not live to see her vision fulfilled. And in fact it has not been fulfilled. She was a source woman: There are lots of Duncan dancers; most of them are just dreadful. A couple of them are very good, but they’re all re-creating her work; that’s not what she wanted. She wanted thousands and thousands of young children to know this beauty of movement and then she expected them to each pass it on to someone else.

What does a dreadful rendition of Duncan dance look like?

The bodies mainly are not in alignment. They’ll get some of the movements, but they can’t get the whole body to be doing everything in alignment. That certainly was her genius: Nobody had danced with their whole body before. The ballet she saw when she was growing up was nothing like the ballet we see now. There was no flow, no grace. It was all spectacle and acrobatics.

So she did have a strong impact on ballet, despite her lifelong disdain for it.

She did. She showed the ballet that there was such a thing as grace and continuity in dance, and that had not existed in ballet before. So when Balanchine revived classical ballet, he was able to add this flow to it, this beautiful movement flowing into movement which had not existed in ballet before.

But Balanchine is quoted in your book with one of the nastiest descriptions of Isadora that I’ve read anywhere. He called her “a drunken fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig.”

They’re still awful about her. She is probably the most ridiculed dancer ever. And part of that is inevitable, because she was such a character. But ballet is a male art. It was designed by men, is still designed by men. Most of them hated her. They don’t understand that what she did was throw open the doors. And one thing that is absolutely not true is that there is no such thing as Duncan technique. Having tried it a few times, I can guarantee that there is!

In Duncan’s later life she became closely associated with the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism. It turned her into something of a pariah, especially in the United States. But she’s constantly contradicting herself on this; one gets the sense that she doesn’t really understand the movement she’d supposedly identified herself with.

No, I don’t think she understood anything about it. I mean, that said, she was hardly alone in 1917 in assuming that the Red Dawn really was dawn, that it was going to lead to something glorious. A lot of people felt that way, especially Americans. It wasn’t until the late ’20s that it started to become clear exactly what sort of regime it was going to be. There’s a lot to be said about that. But she was entirely emotional about it. To her it was just all these hungry little children who needed her, and communism meant that there would be no rich people; everyone would be equal. It was utopian and fuzzy. But no, I don’t think she ever had a really political idea in her head.

It’s the same way that she wasn’t a feminist in any organized way. In fact, just the opposite: She didn’t care whether she had the vote or women had the vote. It just wasn’t her issue. She didn’t feel that she was repressed in any way. Her feminism was physical, the liberation of the individual.

There is no film of Duncan dancing and only a few still photos. It must have been hard to write about an artist for whom there is almost no visual record of her work.

That was a huge challenge. Almost all of the stuff that’s been written about Isadora has made the mistake of trying to describe the dancing, trying to delineate it, which for one thing is tedious. My goal was to make sure that the story never stopped moving. I hoped that by the time it was over, people might have an impression of how she moved. And that would have to come from the reader’s own imagination.

Duncan seems to have had an incredibly powerful sense of entitlement. She never seemed to doubt for a moment that she was a genius and that as a genius she was exempt from all of the rules that govern normal people. She felt the world owed her everything.

Yes. She made no bones about that. It really was everything to her in the end. Even with that last nuttiness with Esenin in Russia, which even she knew was a disaster from the beginning. She said, “Well he’s a poet, and poets aren’t the same. He needs me. Genius needs me.”

She did think of herself as, if not a goddess, a demi-goddess. She lived constantly in her mind, drawing on the philosophy of the Greeks. She did that as consciously and deliberately as someone else might to EST or something. She said it was her birthright.

She thought everything — a lover, children, huge acclaim, great art — should be possible and that they should be possible for her. And I’m telling you, I’ve not found one thing written by her, or heard her quoted by anybody, that contradicts that view that she carried throughout her life.

She never thinks she’s doing anything wrong. I mean even that crazy scene in the end when she grabs the pearls off that woman’s neck and throws them in the water. They couldn’t get her to apologize for that. She said, “Well, she shouldn’t have those pearls. I can’t have my school, she shouldn’t have those pearls.” I mean, I don’t know how you “psychologize” a person like that.

She was in many ways monstrous in that sense, monstrous in the way the French say it. Nothing got through beyond this idea she has [of her art]. Nothing brings that down. So that even in the end when anyone could say, and did say, “She must stop dancing; she just looks ridiculous,” she would say, “That’s not the point.” I am creating beauty and if people don’t see it as beauty, I still experience it as beauty.

She was obviously a huge egomaniac, if that’s even a strong enough word.

Was it difficult to write about someone who could be so unlikable?

That was what scared me most when I started, that and the fact that I had absolutely no background in dance (though she didn’t either, really). But what scared me most was, how can you make someone like this sympathetic and how can you make a story flow dramatically with a character that essentially doesn’t change?

Still, we need to remember that people then had a very different idea about artists than we do now. Art was regarded by many, not just by artists, as a sacred thing. Artists were expected to be difficult, temperamental and impossible. You’ll find that [to be true] even as late as the great female movie stars of the 1940s, like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. They didn’t change either. They were sort of cut out of marble in the way that they lived. It wasn’t even a question of being callous and stepping over people to get ahead; they already were ahead. Or they thought about themselves as being ahead. No one was in their way. They never backed down. I don’t know who we have like that now.

But in the end I loved her. I suppose I fell in love with her in the way you do with someone you spend that much time with. Either that or you don’t do it. You can tell immediately when someone’s written a bio of someone they don’t like. You can always tell. And I really had to get into her heart somehow, before I could do it.

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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