The man who did more for the arts in Amer­ica than any­one else.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World -

Lin­coln Kirstein ( 1907- 96) was one of the 20th cen­tury’s great im­pre­sar­ios of art and cul­ture. He started the im­por­tant lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Hound and Horn ( Ezra Pound was its Euro­pean ed­i­tor), helped in the es­tab­lish­ment of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and de­voted much of his life and fam­ily for­tune ( from Fi­lene’s de­part­ment stores) to sus­tain­ing both the School of Amer­i­can Bal­let ( SAB) and the much- loved New York City Bal­let. Over the years, he also wrote stan­dard his­to­ries of dance, es­says and mono­graphs on chore­og­ra­phers and artists ( Michel Fokine, Pavel Tche­litchev), a vol­ume of po­etry ( Rhymes of a PFC, which W. H. Au­den ex­tolled for its “ con­vinc­ing, mov­ing, and im­pres­sive” pic­ture of World War II), and even a play that starred the young John Lith­gow and Tommy Lee Jones. Kirstein pro­moted sev­eral once- lit­tle- known South Amer­i­can artists, in­clud­ing David Al­faro Siquieros, and ea­gerly in­tro­duced classical Ja­panese theater to New York. He was also in­stru­men­tal in launch­ing the Strat­ford ( Conn.) Shake­speare Fes­ti­val. At least his fiction was lack­lus­ter.

Few chil­dren of the wealthy have con­trib­uted more, or more di­rectly, to the artis­tic en­rich­ment of the na­tion. The Worlds of Lin­coln Kirstein, writ­ten with author­ity and el­e­gance by Martin Du­ber­man ( au­thor of the ac­claimed Paul Robe­son: A Bi­og­ra­phy), is thus an eye- open­ing ac­count of what one might call the shadow- side of cul­tural his­tory. For artists, no mat­ter how bo­hemian their life­styles, need com­mis­sions, the­aters, gal­leries, pa­trons, crit­ics, stu­dents and, some­times, com­forters. All th­ese Lin­coln Kirstein worked hard to pro­vide. His friends, and usu­ally his debtors, cut across all the arts: lit­er­ary critic R. P. Black­mur; the­atri­cal di­rec­tor John House­man ( once the lover of Kirstein’s sis­ter, Mina Cur­tiss); com­posers such as Stravin­sky, Vir­gil Thom­son and Aaron Co­p­land; painters Diego Rivera and Andrew Wyeth; pho­tog­ra­pher Walker Evans; writ­ers James Agee and E. E. Cum­mings; ar­chi­tect Philip John­son; the mys­tic guru G. I. Gur­d­ji­eff, and many more. Cer­tainly ev­ery head­lin­ing name in Amer­i­can dance ap­pears in th­ese pages — from Martha Gra­ham and Agnes de Mille to Jerome Rob­bins, Paul Tay­lor, Ru­dolph Nureyev and Mikhail Barysh­nikov.

Still, we al­ready know a good deal about most of th­ese em­i­nences, though lit­er­ary and artsy gos­sip is al­ways wel­come. ( Kirstein neatly sums up Vir­ginia Woolf as look­ing “ very gaunt in a lace cap, and fright­en­ing.”) Where Du­ber­man truly ex­cels is in giv­ing equal at­ten­tion to the mon­eyed or man­age­rial peo­ple be­hind the scenes — the phil­an­thropic mil­lion­aire Nelson Rock­e­feller; the prickly SAB ad­min­is­tra­tor Vladimir Dim­itriev; busi­ness­man Mor­ton Baum, who la­bored hard to keep New York’s City Cen­ter from go­ing un­der; Louis Kirstein, the fa­ther whose money bankrolled his son’s projects; and Chick Austin, of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, who mounted the pre­miere of Gertrude Stein and Vir­gil Thom­son’s “ Four Saints in Three Acts” and then helped en­tice chore­og­ra­pher Ge­orge Balan­chine to come to Amer­ica. On page af­ter page, Du­ber­man re­con­structs squab­bles among MOMA trustees, re­prints Kirstein’s beg­ging let­ters to fi­nan­cial back­ers and rightly hon­ors the as­sis­tants and sec­re­taries who made var­i­ous fine arts or­ga­ni­za­tions ac­tu­ally func­tion. As his book re­minds us again and again: When dancers like Maria Tallchief, Jac­ques d’Am­boise and Suzanne Farrell took their bows af­ter a breath­tak­ing per- for­mance in yet an­other Balan­chine mas­ter­work, some­body you prob­a­bly never heard of was pay­ing for the theater, the cos­tumes, the stage de­sign and the mu­sic.

Here in Wash­ing­ton we typ­i­cally re­gard pol­i­tics and jour­nal­ism as hard­ball, yet both pale next to the bit­ter ri­val­ries, cold- hearted cal­cu­la­tion, back- stab­bing, heartache and sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of the per­form­ing arts. The crit­ics ut­terly lam­basted Balan­chine’s early pro­duc­tions. Kirstein- backed ex­hi­bi­tions and plays failed dis­mally. Strapped for cash at one point, Balan­chine ac­cepted a com­mis­sion from Rin­gling Brothers cir­cus to cre­ate a bal­let for ele­phants. The mae­stro chore­og­ra­pher ap­pears to have slept with vir­tu­ally all his fa­vorite dancers. Year af­ter year, the New York City Bal­let lost thou­sands of dol­lars, much of it made up by Kirstein. The linch­pin of the corps, Balan­chine, was re­peat­edly fall­ing ill, ei­ther from re­cur­rent tu­ber­cu­lo­sis or from over­work. Stars sud­denly de­serted to other com­pa­nies. The won­drous bal­le­rina Tanaquil Le Clerq came down with crip­pling po­lio.

In the long cen­tral sec­tion of this bi­og­ra­phy, Du­ber­man de­scribes in de­tail all those first stum­bling years of bal­let in Amer­ica. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, Kirstein’s fi­nan­cial part­ner Ed­die War­burg — who spent 20 years in daily ther­apy — would grow power- mad, even go­ing so far as to cor­rect the steps of some of the stu­dents. When wran­gling be­gan over a new set of con­tracts, War­burg coolly an­nounced that “ as the chief in­vestor he had no in­ten­tion of shar­ing any po­ten­tial prof­its with the oth­ers. This drove ev­ery­one else into their life­time pos­tures for man­ag­ing stress: Dim­itriev flew into a tow­er­ing rage, Balan­chine into a trance state of in­dif­fer­ence, and Lin­coln into ex­hausted de­spair over his own un­spec­i­fied in­ad­e­qua­cies ( and Ed­die’s ‘ self­ish­ness’).” As Du­ber­man notes with crisp un­der­state­ment, “ In the cir­cles sur­round­ing Lin­coln, peo­ple did not fight or love in or­di­nary, pre­dictable ways.”

De­spite oc­ca­sional thaws, Kirstein couldn’t stom­ach the so- called mod­ern in­ter­pre­tive dance of Martha Gra­ham and Agnes de Mille. Classical bal­let, he main­tained, cen­tered on “ the dig­nity of the uni­ver­sal, the anony­mous, the in­ter­est in­her­ent in the ob­ject of ex­pres­sion”; bal­let “ does not crush in­di­vid­u­al­ity ex­cept when the in­di­vid­ual is an ex­hi­bi­tion­ist.” In fact, the en­emy of “ true” dance was “ self­ex­pres­sion.” Given such prin­ci­ples, Kirstein sim­i­larly loathed ac­tion paint­ing and ab­strac­tion, pre­fer­ring re­al­is­tic por­trai­ture. He in­tensely dis­liked Leonard Bern­stein, both as a man and as a mu­si­cian, and main­tained that John Walker, even­tu­ally the di­rec­tor of Wash­ing­ton’s Na­tional Gallery of Art, hogged the glory of hav­ing res­cued paint­ings stolen by the Nazis when the credit re­ally be­longed to the soft- spo­ken con­ser­va­tor Ge­orge Stout, who “ ac­tu­ally saved all the art that ev­ery­body else talked about sav­ing.” ( Dur­ing the war, Kirstein had served on the team that dis­cov­ered the Aus­trian salt mine where the Ghent Al­tar­piece and many other trea­sures had been hid­den.) With even more fear­less­ness, Kirstein in­te­grated classical bal­let, and, when African Amer­i­cans em­braced their wil­lowy white dance part­ners, he took the flak.

For risk- tak­ing, as Du­ber­man notes, is cen­tral to cre­ativ­ity — and to erotic arousal, as well. The bi­sex­ual Kirstein’s love life was never placid: He slept with debu­tantes, older women and would- be ac­tresses — at least on the days when he wasn’t cruis­ing for sailors. He mar­ried and stayed mar­ried to Fidelma Cad­mus ( sis­ter of painter Paul Cad­mus) but made sure that there was al­ways at least one hand­some young hunk around the old Gramercy Park town­house. For Kirstein was noth­ing if not rest­less, a peren­nial seeker. De­spite his fam­ily’s wealth, he was drawn to Bol­she­vism dur­ing the 1930s ( go­ing so far as to dis­play the ham­mer and sickle in his of­fice) and, though Jewish, even­tu­ally be­gan to at­tend Mass and even to re­ceive in­struc­tion from the Je­suit thinker William Lynch ( au­thor of the su­perb Christ and Apollo). In later years, Kirstein’s usual “ demons” of de­pres­sion and self- blame dark­ened into bipo­lar dis­or­der, and he some­times grew vi­o­lent, even re­quir­ing elec­troshock ther­apy. But be­fore long, he’d be his usual self again — prickly, dif­fi­cult, out­spo­ken, driven by too many com­mit­ments and, at least some­times, sweet and en­dear­ing.

Martin Du­ber­man has writ­ten a su­perb bi­og­ra­phy of a man who early on rec­og­nized that lit­er­a­ture and the fine arts don’t only need creative spir­its, they also need cham­pi­ons. Lin­coln Kirstein spent his time, his en­ergy and, not least, his money well. We are his ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

Michael Dirda’s e- mail ad­dress is mdirda@ gmail. com.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.