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

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 22, 2007

THE WORLDS OF LINCOLN KIRSTEIN

By Martin Duberman

Knopf. 723 pp. $37.50

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 performance 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 "self-expression." 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. ยท

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

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