"Isadora: A Sensational Life"

An excerpt from the new biography of dancer Isadora Duncan.

Published November 12, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

The bodies were released about eleven o'clock that night. Mary had prepared a sofa in the downstairs library, "where I arranged and dressed them, combing and curling their golden locks. There they lay, hand in hand like two smiling angels." In death, Deirdre's arm was placed protectively around Patrick, and their heads were turned inward, touching.

"Going upstairs I asked Isadora if she would like to see them," Mary wrote. "Like a stone image, with Augustin on one side and me on the other, she came down the long stairs to her immense studio, and as we entered the library, oh, so gently, so gently, she knelt beside them, taking their little hands in hers, and with a cry that has pierced my heart ever since, whispered, 'My children, my poor little children.'" Isadora later described that moment:

Only twice comes that cry of the mother which one hears as without one's self -- at Birth and at Death -- for when I felt in mine those little cold hands that would never again press mine in return I heard my cries -- the same cries as I had heard at their births. Why the same -- since one is the cry of extreme joy and the other of sorrow? I do not know why, but I know they are the same. Is it that in all the Universe there is but one Great Cry containing Sorrow, Joy, Ecstasy, Agony, the Mother Cry of Creation?

For the next three days, Isadora never slept or changed her clothes. Two doctors stayed at the studio, urging her to rest and offering her sedatives, which she refused. Singer was so distraught that he checked into a clinic. In London, Mrs. Patrick Campbell wrote George Bernard Shaw: "Such a day one would have loved only to have thought of life and happiness. I open the paper to read of Isadora Duncan's heart rending sorrow -- poor Singer -- poor Ellen Terry, poor Gordon Craig -- poor all of us that have hearts to ache."

Before dawn on Sunday, April 20, students from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts arrived in Neuilly and covered Isadora's garden and trees with white blossoms -- "all the white flowers they could find in Paris," Mary wrote. "Owing to the peculiarly distressing nature of the accident," said the New York Times, "nothing that has happened in a long time has so touched the hearts of Parisians .... All Paris is in mourning." Hundreds of Isadora's friends and acquaintances streamed through the studio on Sunday and Monday to offer their condolences. Patrick's toy wagon, a gift from Jean Cocteau, still sat in the courtyard, along with his pet goat, which wandered the grounds "looking for its master," according to reports. Maurice Ravel approached "that unfortunate house" trembling and afraid: "It is too frightful and so unfair!" Outside, Bourdelle was seen pacing back and forth, holding his head in his hands, "muttering wildly." Mary persuaded him to come in, where he fell on his knees and, weeping, lay his head in Isadora's lap.

"She looked at him as the Mother of God might have looked," Mary wrote. "I can't explain just what it was. She was in the most exalted state, as though some great spirit of pity had taken possession of her and she was sorry for the whole world." Word reached her that the chauffeur, Morverand, had been arrested on charges of "culpable homicide." She immediately sent a letter to the Paris public prosecutor, asking for his release. "I wish to assure you that I do not bear him ill will," Isadora wrote. "He is a father, and I need to know that he has been released to his family before I can regain some measure of calm .... It is for the peace of my soul that I make this appeal for pity." Morverand was let go without penalty.

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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