Dancing in the dark

I was racing against death when I signed up to write Isadora Duncan's biography -- and winning wouldn't even be my strangest adventure along the way.

Published November 12, 2001 5:53PM (EST)

On the day I finished my book about Isadora Duncan -- a biography it took me 10 years to complete -- my computer gave up the ghost. I stopped writing on Nov. 29, 2000, and by midnight my hard drive was gone -- melted, disappeared, as if it never existed. My brother, who works for IBM, tells me this really isn't possible -- "It's in there somewhere," he says -- but he couldn't find it, either, and he doesn't know Isadora. I had backups of everything, but it seemed a strange coincidence.

Now, it's the car. Something to do with the starter -- namely, it won't. A year has passed. "Isadora" is printed, published, shipped to the stores, and the car dies on cue, just when I need to get around and just when a small wad of money comes in from an old royalty account. It's time for new wheels, even if they're old ones (which they'll have to be). My mother says I've got "an 11th-hour kind of life," and a lover I once had in Paris called me a jusqu'au-boutiste -- loosely translatable as a "whole-hogger," and a compliment from a Frenchman, I think. At least, that's how I chose to take it: 1993 was a difficult year.

I should be grateful; it could be worse. Isadora Duncan died just a few days after finishing her autobiography, "My Life," in 1927 -- strangled by her long silk shawl, as everyone knows, during a joy ride on the French Riviera. Then her first biographer, Allan Ross Macdougall, dropped dead of a heart attack in Paris on the day he mailed his manuscript to New York. True story: He was having lunch at the Cafi de Flore and just keeled over at the table, a fate we might all wish for ourselves -- but not now, s'il plait aux dieux, not when "Isadora" is finally out of the box.

Macdougall -- Dougie, they called him -- makes a quick appearance in Nancy Milford's new biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay; they were friends, and Macdougall edited Millay's "Letters" after her death in 1950. What people don't know is that when she died on the stairs at Steepletop, her house in upstate New York, Millay was holding a copy of "Isadora Duncan's Russian Days and Her Last Years in France," the book Macdougall had written 20 years earlier with Irma Duncan, one of the dancing "Isadorables," Isadora Duncan's students.

"It was under her head on the stairway," Macdougall told a friend, "and was spattered by her poor post-mortem blood. The bloody part was torn off by her sister Norma before she gave the book to me; and erased from the top of it ... I imagine Edna was going to take the book upstairs to consult when she [wrote] to the Guggenheim Foundation, backing my request for a fellowship to do the Isadora life. That, alas, was never done; and the Guggenheim people would not take the intention for the deed." Dougie himself died penniless in 1956, and his biography of Isadora wasn't published until four years after that, just a skeleton of the work he meant to produce.

So, you see, I'm lucky. I signed to do Isadora's biography 10 years ago, in another world, nation, century, millennium and life. My agent worked me like a dog on the proposal -- he kept sending it back. It's good, he'd say, but not good enough; more of this, less of that. I came down to New York from Vermont to meet some big editors, but ultimately decided to stay with Little, Brown. For a moment, I felt golden and secure. But I had two secrets no one knew about. The first was that I was dying of AIDS. The second was that I knew nothing about Isadora Duncan; nothing at all.

DUNCAN, ISADORA (1877-1927) A pioneer of modern dance, she adopted an emotionally expressive free form, dancing barefoot and wearing a loose tunic, inspired by the ideal of Hellenic beauty."

-- Hutchinson Dictionary of the Arts

Come away! her dancing says. Come out into the splendid perilous world! Come up on the mountain-top where the great wind blows! Learn to be young always! Learn to be incessantly renewed! Learn to live in the intemperate careless land of song and rhythm and rapture! Say farewell to the world you know and join the passionate spirits of the world's history! Storm through into your dreams! Give yourself up to the frenzy that is in the heart of life, and never look back, and never regret!

-- Robert Edmond Jones, "The Gloves of Isadora"

I had to have something to work on, you see. I needed a job and an explanation, not for myself -- I was too depressed, much more than I knew -- but for other people when they asked: "What are you doing? What are you working on now?" I've always hated the question, even when I know the answer. "Oh," I'll say, "one thing and another," or, "You know, it's just beginning to take shape, and I don't dare discuss it!" That always works.

In fact, when I began the research for "Isadora," my lover had just died of "AIDS-related complications." (I'll call him the Phantom, because he swore he'd haunt me if I ever wrote about him, and if anyone could do it, he's the one.) I had nothing to do but ward off panic. An editor, one of the only people in publishing I saw socially, as it were, mentioned Isadora Duncan over lunch. I had a lot of different lives at that time. I was driven, dashing, never stopping, always leaving. I had a separate life in London from the one in New York, a third life in Paris, a generic life for traveling, a gay life, a writing life, a life for tea with duchesses and a life in Vermont -- "home," where I grew up, went to college, got married and divorced, wrote my first book, met the Phantom and lost him in 1,170 days.

Probably, I should have told them all -- publishers, editors -- about my health condition, my sero status, before I contracted to write another book. It might even have helped to tell my agent -- ex-agent, that is, because, when I finally got sick and fell apart, it was much more difficult to do. I still feel ashamed. It's the same thing I felt toward old friends when I "came out," a retroactive guilt over secrets I'd kept and things I should have said, but didn't. For comfort, I remind myself that I was born on the cusp of gay liberation -- "Write that down," I say -- too young to have played a part in the glorious days of Stonewall, too old to have grown up except in fear of discovery and exposure as a faggot -- the worst fate an American boy could meet with on this earth.

So, fuck you -- it took a while to adjust. And no sooner had one hurdle been cleared than another rose up to take its place, higher and even more threatening. I'd been frightened of AIDS since 1981, when those first poor fools in the Village began to drop. "Thank God we're not in New York," I said at the time, and I wasn't alone: "We're not in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami" -- wherever. 1983, 1984, April, May of 1985 -- was it only then that I understood, struck dumb with terror in the middle of traffic on Quai Voltaire, after a side trip to the sauna? "Darling," a friend remarked, pointing to a boy we'd had sex with together, "if she doesn't have it, nobody does" -- something like that. And still I ran, had nightmares and ate flesh in the darkest of dark rooms. Death, somebody said, wasn't the worst thing that would happen to me, only the last.

By the time I got tested in 1989 my counts were already down, and they started me right away on AZT. I went to Egypt, then Austria -- or it may have been Spain and Denmark. I do remember Romania: I was there on assignment, monitoring the first post-communist elections and looking at the murdered Ceaucescus' solid-gold toilet fixtures. Amsterdam, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, Madrid, Monte Carlo -- always, if I could, I went through Paris, where, on my 40th birthday, I had every hair on my body taken off by Tunisian ipileurs. Every single one, apart from a little tuft in the pubic region that was meant to rise out of my Speedo -- "pour la plage, Monsieur." I have no explanation for this episode, except that I wanted to see someone else when I looked in the mirror.

- -- - -- - -- - -- - -- -

Category: Film/Stage: She married into the Singer sewing machine fortune in 1909, although while unmarried she'd already caused a sensation in New York by performing pregnant in flowing, revealing Greek robes. When her children drowned in a car that rolled into the Seine, she left Singer and eventually married the poet Sergei Esenin, who left her after she bared her breasts and called them graceful art. For ten points, name this controversial performer who seduced a sports car driver minutes before catching her red silk scarf on the rear wheel and strangling herself in 1927.

-- College Bowl Quiz, 1996

All wrong, all of it. In the first place, Isadora never married Paris Singer. Secondly, it was a shawl that killed her, as I said before, not a scarf -- a big red shawl with foot-long fringes. And when her children drowned, she cut off her hair and threw it in the sea. "When real sorrow is encountered," she said, "there is, for the stricken, no gesture, no expression. Like Niobe turned to stone."

I left Vermont -- for good, I thought -- after signing for "Isadora," got an apartment in the city and enrolled in a clinical trial at Bellevue: ACTG 175, the grandmother of AIDS combination therapy. It was a blind study; I took thousands of pills, but it turned out later I was on AZT the whole time, and the rest were placebos. Lucky for me, because when new drugs came along, it meant I'd developed resistance to only one medication. It meant I was in it for the even longer haul. And I did most of the research for "Isadora" in three frantic years.

From the beginning, I felt rushed and pushed. This is going too fast, I said, but only to myself. It was no one's fault -- my life was too fast, both because I made it so and because I was living, secretly, on borrowed time. Secrecy speeds up the clock. You've got to do it while you can, while you can -- this played over and over in my head.

My contract with Little, Brown, much amended since, called for final delivery in 1995. I knew all along it couldn't be done, even assuming that the author would live and be well enough to try.

"Isadora was no nonentity," said George Bernard Shaw, "as I found when I met her" -- an understatement only a giant could make. Artist, dancer, philosopher, radical, courtesan, teacher, divinatrice -- when she wrote her own book in 1927, she told her publishers it would take at least 300,000 words and should be published in two volumes: "First: Memoirs of Youth. Second: Maturity. Kindly pardon me as I again repeat that the quality of my writing depends entirely on whether I have capital to write the book in peace of mind." She didn't, and stopped in the middle. American writer Glenway Wescott, in Nice that year with his lover, Monroe Wheeler, recalled:

She told me that it was the only thing she had ever done just for money, and she was ashamed, and having spent the money she could not give it up. It was worse than I knew, she said. Not only was the style poor and stilted, there was bad grammar in it. There had been many objections to her dancing, but there had been no bad grammar in that; and she wept. So I promised to come on the next Wednesday or Thursday and have a look. But when that day came she was dead, in the strangest automobile accident I ever heard of.

I didn't crack until 1994, when I stopped caring what kind of drugs I was taking and nearly died of pneumonia at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. I don't remember how I got admitted to such a place; I lived nowhere near it, and I was delirious when my closest friend brought me there. The doctors said later that I had "the same pneumonia that killed Jim Henson," creator of the Muppets, and that when I came in I was "six to eight hours from death." I wondered how they knew. Only 25 more T cells lost and I'd have tipped over into "full-blown" AIDS. I had an affair with my roommate, who was full-blown already. We smoked cocaine and had sex standing up, hooked to IVs, wheeling our bags around.

When I left the hospital, I had another book that I'd agreed to write -- short book, long story -- and I got it done, by golly! I wrote, drove, scrambled, flew, drank, snorted, smoked, took pills, ran wild and broke friendships, whole alliances, to get it done. I honestly believe this saved my life, hard though it was for my family and friends to witness. "He who hopes to grow in spirit will have to transcend obedience and respect," says the poet Cavafy. "Half the house will have to come down." Or Heraclitus, speaking of Greeks: "It is the opposite which is good for us."

Few understood what I was up to, and neither did I until after the fact. I only knew that I had to keep going and I didn't care how it was done. Rumors flew, some partly true and the rest mostly false. When I was suddenly dumped from a high-paying magazine gig, where my earlier work had earned me nothing but mash notes from its blond, boyish, stinking-rich editor -- "Marvelous! Fabulous! You're a genius! Brilliant!" -- I gave up on New York, crawling back to Vermont. It took a long time to get back on my feet, and I only began to feel some confidence again after my health rebounded on protease inhibitors and I met John Hannah, the man I love and live with now. And escaped drowning myself by the skin of my teeth.

- -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -

So Dougie is to issue a Biography of Isadora. Well, well -- well -- That's easy -- the difficulty is to write it as it deserves -- as Montaigne or Byron would have written it.

-- Edward Gordon Craig

I've kept that quote out of the book -- wouldn't you? Isadora wanted Cervantes for her biographer, and William Faulkner, after reading her memoirs, said that "Shakespeare himself could hardly have done that volume justice." Nevertheless, I had to write something, sooner or later. Six chapters came out in 1996 -- awkward, nervous and woefully incomplete, as I also felt myself to be in those days.

After six, I stopped. Was it money again? I don't remember. Certainly it always came to that when my editor called. I'd told her everything by that time; she's a brick, but every now and then she did have to ask -- where was the book? I didn't know. I began to get well on the new drugs, which were expensive and, frankly, mind-blowing, and about which I wrote a great deal. I took on the mantle and persona of "Lazarus" for a small but national audience, wrote columns about AIDS, went to Washington, that sort of thing. Being a spokesman for survival tired me pretty quickly and I quit it abruptly, angrily, "swearing never to desert Art for love again," as Isadora put it -- whereupon I met John, who now answers all questions of that kind. We like to say that we met sneaking cigarettes under the bridge to the 21st century.

In 1998 I went back to the book, buffed up my chapters and finished number seven, "Myth," which follows Isadora Duncan to Athens and Bayreuth, where she turned the Wagner Festival on its head in 1904 and earned a reputation, not yet deserved, for licentiousness and debauchery. She was just about to meet the love of her life, English stage designer Gordon Craig, when my whole family came together in crisis, after my sister Barbara's two daughters, who had been kidnapped by their father 20 years before, surfaced in Florida with their delinquent parent and refused to have anything to do with Barbara, or with the rest of us.

Before all the world, in a media circus, my sister was accused of crimes against the children she had lost, while their abductor, Stephen Fagan, now a convicted felon, became a hero in the eyes of many. I became "Kurth family spokesman," a role with special perils, and one I found I couldn't write about after the first shock and outrage had passed. I tried -- I would have forsaken Isadora for it. But what came out was only bile, ugliness and obsession. I lost 18 months of work in that ordeal, and if those poor girls ever think again -- but I won't say it. I wrote about the death of Isadora's children in a condition of perfect pain. "No," she replied, when friends inquired if they could help, "there is nothing, nothing, nothing to do."

By the time Y2K came and went without disaster, I'd written as far as "South America," Chapter 19. Then I had another collapse, and another pneumonia, when 52 pills a day began to poison my body and mind and I broke with the doctor I once trusted -- the same doctor who'd treated the Phantom in his final days. Hands down, this was the hardest thing I've ever done. I thought I'd die doing it -- I thought it would kill me.

Now, I take seven pills for HIV, two in the morning and five at night, and suffer from the side effects my life-saving drugs entail. My hands and feet are numb and cold from neuropathy, my legs are weak and I have dangerously high cholesterol -- I could die at any minute! AIDS, terror, airplanes, anthrax. "Always fire and water," said Isadora, "and sudden fearful death."

Five years ago, when I started on HAART -- "highly active antiretroviral therapy" -- I gave a talk on National Public Radio. I spoke about "the tranquility of hopelessness" and "the torments of optimism," as if I really knew something about them. But if I have any advantage over other people, after 12 years of this awful thing, it's that I'm used to being pitched forward, hurled into the next stage of life. And that's exactly how it came: a summer night, a car in wrong gear, a dock with no rail, bottomless grief and presto! -- I'm in the lake over my head.

Be aware that you can't open a car door underwater -- the pressure is too great. Try not to have electric windows, because if they aren't down already, at least a little bit, as mine were, your goose is cooked. And remember that the mind plays tricks: I could have sworn I was floating in the air when it happened, looking down on my own demise. I know that I dove back into the water three times after I shimmied out, trying to pull the car up by its fender, and that when I finally realized it couldn't be done, I was laughing -- hysterically, in shock, but laughing, just the same. Heraclitus: "If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out, and difficult." In a certain way -- and it took until now, believe me -- I've never been afraid of anything again.

- -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -

I still haven't filled out Little, Brown's author questionnaire, quite simply because I don't know how to answer: "Besides writing, what activities are you currently engaged in? Do you have any suggestions for promoting your book? Any personal media contacts? Is there anything in your book that you consider 'newsworthy'?" Among the few reviews I've seen so far, one's good, one's bad and one's dumb. The usual, but I don't know what it means anymore -- I've been away too long. When Fay Weldon recently announced that she'd taken money from Bulgari to promote its jewels in a novel, I suggested tying a Hermes scarf to every copy of "Isadora" and selling them together. For some reason, my editor never got back to me on that.

And there's no ending to this story, either -- you'll have to forgive me. On a good day, I can look at my finished work, all 652 pages of it, and thank my stars it got done at all. Still, I make no sudden moves. I don't ride in sports cars; I wear no shawls or scarves. "I do not doubt that someday someone will discover an instrument which will do for sight what radio does for hearing," Isadora wrote, "and we will discover that we are surrounded, not only by sounds, but also and invisibly, to our eyes, by the presence of all that is no longer. The music and the voices that we hear do not cease to exist but travel in space indefinitely and in time attain other stars ... Each word we speak, each gesture we make continues in the ether on an immortal voyage ... In this survival only I believe, and that is sufficient."

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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