May 5, 1907– Lincoln Kirstein:
“If there is a hero, it is choreography.”
I know more about Dance and Dance History than most civilians. My college boyfriend is/was a dancer and choreographer. Because of what I have learned from him, I have a keen interest in Dance and The Husband and I enjoy dance concerts almost more than any other form of live entertainment. If I could have wished for any talent, it would have been to be able to dance like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, or Mikhail Baryshnikov. I am also a student of life in NYC in the 1940s-1970s, this #BornThis Day honoree is an absorbing figure of that epoch.
He was a writer, impresario, art connoisseur and a major 20th century cultural figure in NYC. Kirstein’s assorted attractions, ambition and attention to high culture, along with a small fortune, gave him a circle of accomplished artistic friends: George Platt Lynes Jared French, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Walker Evans, and Sergei Eisenstein among many others.
Like my own infamous sex diaries, Kirstein kept records, beginning in summer camp in 1919 until the late 1930’s, making notes about his assignations with other men: Harvard undergraduates, sailors, street toughs, and guys in the showers at the 63rd St YMCA. He enjoyed long love affairs with dancer Peter Martinez, artist Dan Maloney, and conservator Jensen Yow. Casual sex frequently grew into long-term friendships for gay men of his era.
In 1941, he married Fidelma Cadmus, the sister of one of my favorite artists, the very gay Paul Cadmus. The newlyweds first lived together with Martinez until 1942 when Martinez tried to enlist in the army, but was denied. More of Kirstein’s boyfriends lived with the couple in their townhouse in Greenwich Village. His wife was fond of most of them. The NYC art world considered Kirsten’s gayness an “open secret,” although he did not publicly acknowledge his gayness until 1982. He had a very special, modern relationship with his wife.
Kirstein was the primary patron of his wife’s famous artist brother, buying many of his paintings and helping with his living expenses. Cadmus had difficulty selling his work through galleries because of the erotically charged depictions of working-class men, soldiers and sailors, which provoked plenty of controversy.
Kirstein’s tastes were clear and confident. He was a most important and influential advocate for the Arts in America. A man of culture, commitment and courage, he is probably most noted for making possible the career of the great choreographer George Balanchine in the USA. Kirstein dedicated himself to promoting and growing classical ballet in this country for 60+ years. He was also a prolific writer about Dance and Art, a poet, a passionate art collector, an organizer of cultural events, and an adviser to the U.S. government about culture.
In 1928, Kirstein attended a performance of Apollon Musagète (now known as simply as Apollo), a new ballet with a score by Igor Stravinsky with choreography by 24-year-old George Balanchine.
In Venice in 1929, while doing research about the artist El Greco, he happened upon on the funeral of dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The event had a profound effect on young Kirstein. He decided to dedicate himself to the study of the History of Dance, and even taking ballet classes. He came upon the notion of bringing a distinguished choreographer to found a ballet tradition in the USA. He fenagled an introduction to Balanchine, the choreographer whose work he had admired so much.
Kirstein founded and financed the School Of American Ballet as a center for Balanchine’s work. He would remain the board chairman of the school until 1989. He was also the driving force for the financing of Balanchine’s companies: The American Ballet Company, The Ballet Society, and The NYC Ballet, where he served as general director. Kirstein also founded a touring group, Ballet Caravan, to stage ballets by American choreographers on American themes, including Eugene Loring’s, Billy The Kid (1938), commissioning a score by Aaron Copland. It is one of several works with librettos provided by Kirstein.
He also had a big role in the development of Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts in Manhattan, where the NYC Ballet used to be in residence. Not limiting himself to dance, he was a founder of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre at Stratford, Connecticut.
During WW II, Kirstein served with the U.S. Army in England, France and Germany. In 1945, he discovered and supervised the recovery of the huge collection of art looted by those nasty Nazis. His story is slightly fictionalized in my boo George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men (2014), where he is played by Bob Balaban, an interesting choice since tiny Balaban resembles the towering Kirstein not at all.
Rich, Harvard educated Kirstein was an outspoken progressive and involved himself in the Civil Rights marches in Alabama in 1965. He was also a firm supporter of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre Of Harlem from its earliest stages.
He wrote over 40 books, many about Dance, Dance Technique and Dance History, but also reviews, essays, poems and two novels.
In his later years, Kirstein struggled from depression and paranoia. He destroyed the studio of his occasional lover Dan Maloney, and sometimes was in a straitjacket for weeks at a psychiatric hospital. His illness did not affect his professional creativity until the end of his life.
He maintained an apartment in Manhattan, but in 1955 Kirstein and his wife bought a country home in Weston, Connecticut where he kept a low profile. They were married for 50 years, until her passing in 1991. They shared a love of art and nervous breakdowns.
I used to see him at Lincoln Center when I worked for The Metropolitan Opera when American Ballet Theatre was in residence in spring 1977. He was easy to spot, very tall, very handsome, very impressive.
“If you have any idea of any kind of complexity or immensity or destiny, of general order, you’re put in a position of nothingness. And I think this is true. I don’t think I’m anything; I never have thought that. Whatever it is that activates it is a certain kind of energy that goes on. But the effect is ridiculous; it’s absurd.”
Kirstein left this world in 1996. He was 88-years-old. He requested that there be no religious service when he died, and that no religious words be spoken as his ashes were scattered across the pond near his Connecticut house. There were only a dozen mourners, and the wind blew some of his ashes back in their faces. He had lived that kind of a life.
If you want to know more, and you really should, try Martin Duberman’s The Worlds Of Lincoln Kirstein (2007).