Broadway, the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors, 1940 to the Present

By Robert Emmet Long
Continuum. 312 pp. $35
Friday, January 4, 2001

Chapter One


When Agnes de Mille arrived with Oklahoma! in 1943, she changed the nature of the American musical. Up until then, dance had played a generally peripheral or subordinate role. But de Mille put it at the dramatic center of musical comedy, while integrating it smoothly with the development of the story. She gave the choreographer an importance previously reserved for stars, directors, and great-name producers; and in doing so she prepared for the arrival of the choreographer-director, or "superdirector," whose name appeared in lights on theater marquees above the other credits (it would be "Bob Fosse's Chicago" and "Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line"). The choreographer-directors did much of the best and most innovative work on Broadway in the decades that followed; and de Mille, who contributed to the excitement, was there at the beginning to set it all in motion.

    One of the formative features of Agnes's life was the family into which she was born; for better or worse, and sometimes both, she was a de Mille. Her paternal grandfather was Henry Churchill de Mille, a descendant of Dutch Episcopalian de Mils who emigrated to America in 1658, settled in North Carolina, and later fought for the Confederacy. After the war, the family sent Henry north to be educated at Columbia College in New York City. It was the family's pious intention that he study theology, and he did so for a time—until his love of theater won out. He became a successful playwright, contriving lucrative melodramas in collaboration with the legendary director David Belasco. In 1876 he married Beatrice Samuel, whose German Jewish family emigrated from England to America and settled in Brooklyn in 1871. Upon her marriage to Henry, she converted to Episcopalianism. Her younger son, Cecil B. De Mille (differing from the others in the family, he wrote his last name with an uppercase "D," as if to give it a stronger or bolder effect), always referred to her pointedly as "my English mother who was an Episcopalian."

    Beatrice was a vital and formidable woman who, on Henry de Mille's early death from typhoid in 1893, opened the Henry C. de Mille School for Girls in their large home, adjoined by seventy-six acres of land, in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. At the same time she launched her career as a playwright's agent (she had already gained experience by negotiating her husband's contracts), with an office on Broadway and a clientele of female playwrights who advocated women's equality. A superb manager, she groomed her sons, William and Cecil, four years younger, for worldly success. Cecil would later say that she was the strongest force in his life. "It was she," he declared, "who taught her sons what it was to fight," instilling in him "enormous ambition, competitiveness, and a desire to dominate."

    In their youth, William was the frontrunner and Beatrice favored him with a number of advantages. She sent him, for example, to study at a gymnasium in Friedberg, Germany, prior to enrolling, like his father before him, at Columbia, where he abandoned an engineering course with which he began, to study playwrighting with the famous drama professor Brander Matthews. Although of an intellectual nature, William was also a college athlete who went out for boxing, fencing, track, and tennis. He was an attractive prospect when, in March 1903, he married Anna George, daughter of the celebrated American social thinker Henry George. Henry George isn't a name that the average American would be likely to recognize today, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was among the best-known Americans, and his name was a household word. Franklin Roosevelt called him "one of the really great thinkers produced by our country."

    In the mid 1850s, first as a foremast boy and then as a ship's steward, Henry George sailed practically around the world by the time he was twenty. Born in Philadelphia, he gravitated out West, becoming a prominent newspaper editor and columnist in San Francisco, where he opposed the big railroads and monopolies. In 1879 he published Progress and Poverty, in which he advocated a "single tax" on land to replace all other taxes on earnings and savings as a solution to the problem of ever increasing wealth that was accompanied by ever increasing poverty. The book nearly outsold the Bible and made him an international hero. Bernard Shaw gave Henry George credit for winning him over to Socialism, and others influenced by him included Sun-Yat-Sen in China and Leo Tolstoy in Russia. Henry George, a gifted writer and powerful speaker, died suddenly of a stroke in 1898 while running for mayor of New York in opposition to the Tammany machine. His funeral procession in New York, which drew great crowds, was said to be the largest the city had seen since that of Abraham Lincoln. Being the granddaughter of Henry George obviously gave Agnes a pedigree. To the commercial Broadway success of the de Milles, the George side of the family added moral stamina, seriousness, and international fame. It raised the stakes within Agnes's highly competitive family.

    Agnes was born on September 18, 1905 (a sister, Margaret, would be added to the family three years later), when her parents were living on 118th Street in the middle of Harlem, then a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood. Five years earlier, her father had his first play produced in New York; in 1907 he made a career breakthrough with The Warrens of Virginia, which was directed by David Belasco, who had collaborated with his father. The play was about a Southern girl during the Civil War who falls in love with a soldier in the Union Army. Cecil, who had acted and written plays without any particular success as yet, was cast as the heroine's brother; and Mary Pickford, then using the name Gladys Smith, played their younger sister. The Warrens of Virginia, with its fifteen-month run and numerous touring companies, made William de Mille a celebrity and gave him a comfortable income. He presented Agnes with her first glimpses of how attractive it was to succeed in the theater.

    Her profoundest early impressions, however, were occasioned by Merriewold, a 2,000 acre tract of land on the western tier of New York State bordering on Pennsylvania, where the Georges and their circle had built summer houses. It was remote enough from New York City—six hours by train, ferry, and buggy—to be virtually a world apart. The de Mille house had no modern conveniences at all—no gas or electricity or telephone or indoor toilets. But for those who vacationed there, it was a wooded paradise. It also had culture, since artists, intellectuals, and other accomplished people, many with ties to the George family, spent summers there and frequently gave home concerts and theatricals. Merriewold made a deep and lasting impression on Agnes not only for its natural beauty but also for its sense of being a privileged, superior world centering upon the high-minded Georges. This setting would encourage her to take a romantic view of her future in which, like the Georges, she would be highly esteemed. She was a bright girl but quite headstrong, and her mother began to worry about some of her traits. She seemed unable or unwilling to show affection, and when frustrated she would cry until she vomited.

* * *

While William succeeded, Cecil failed or was in financial difficulties. He married Constance Adams, a judge's daughter who in 1902 rebelled against her conventional home by going on the stage, and she and Cecil appeared together in a number of theatrical ventures. Cecil was barely scraping by, but the balance of power between William and Cecil was about to shift radically in his favor. Cecil had become friends with Jesse Lasky, a vaudeville producer and former cornet player who, in 1913, became interested in forming a motion picture company with his brother-in-law Sam Goldfish, a glove salesman from Jamestown, New York, and he persuaded Cecil to join them in the undertaking. The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company was quickly formed with a total capital endowment of $20,000. Lasky was president; Goldfish (later to change his name to Goldwyn), vice-president and business manager; Arthur Friend, secretary and legal adviser; and Cecil, director general. Instead of the mostly five-to-ten minute motion pictures that were the common fare of the time, the company announced that it would make feature films running an hour or more. Cecil was sent out West to set up operations and oversee their first silent epic, The Squaw Man.

    Before leaving, Cecil offered William the opportunity of investing five thousand dollars in the company, which, had he taken advantage of it would have made him a millionaire and one-eighth owner of Paramount Pictures. Instead William wrote Cecil a patronizing letter declining to back the project and scolding him for his folly in being involved in it. "After all," he wrote, "you do come of a cultured family, two of whose members have made honorable names in the field of drama, and I cannot understand how you are willing to identify yourself with a cheap form of entertainment ... which no one would ever allude to as an art." Two months later, in November 1913, Cecil traveled by train to Flagstaff, Arizona and, finding it too arid for his purposes, continued on to California and Hollywood, a parcel of land separated from Los Angeles by eight miles of country road. The rugged Hollywood landscape was just right for making a Western.

    Cecil rented a barn that he converted into a studio, and made the picture in six weeks. The Squaw Man, the first feature film made in California, was an immediate success when it was screened in New York, and went on to gross a quarter of a million dollars. Soon William had to eat his words, as he went out to live in Hollywood and write movie scripts for his brother. Cecil Blount De Mille began one of the most successful careers in Hollywood history and became one of its most powerful figures, while William made a good living writing screenplays and later directing movies, but always living in his younger brother's shadow.

    In the spring of 1915, Anna de Mille and her daughters (Agnes, then nine, and Margaret, six) joined William in Hollywood and took up a new life there. Agnes attended school with children who, in certain cases, had famous fathers—Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., for instance, and Edith and Irene Mayer, whose father was studio head Louis B. Mayer. Irene Mayer's recollection of Agues at this time is pertinent and revealing. "The whole family," she remarks, "was snooty, holier-than-thou. Anna was autocratic and stiffnecked, and Agnes was even more so. She knew she came from superior stock, and she showed it. At school she did more than anyone else— ... editor of the school paper, editor of the yearbook, best player on the tennis team, head of the upper school, vice president of the drama club. She was full of vim and energy, and a conviction that everyone was stupid—which they were. She looked down her nose at everyone.... She had ambition and a great appetite."

    But if she looked down on some, she exalted others, chiefly her father. "My passion," she wrote in her autobiography Dance to the Piper (1951), "was to please him, never to fail his expectations.... I did all he asked eagerly. He was an excellent photographer; I learned photography. He sang well and half-jokingly suggested that I learn the piano in order to accompany him; my response ran to five hours' daily practising in the summer and full-length recitals with my sister.... He told me to read, I read.... He told me to write. I became editor of the school paper." Her biographer, Carol Easton, makes a persuasive case that Agnes was in love with her father, and that the men in her life were, in one way or another, father surrogates. The man she eventually married, Walter Prude—handsome, articulate, and in the arts—was such a man. Unfortunately for her, her father withheld the recognition and affection she desperately craved. He had wanted sons, and when Agnes and Margaret came instead, he referred to them as his "boys." Engrossed in his work, his tennis, or his deep-sea fishing, he ignored them.

    The de Mille house was a haven of culture in Hollywood, and famous people in literature and music—including Somerset Maugham, Rebecca West, Michael Arlen, Efrem Zimbalist, Alma Gluck, and Geraldine Farrar—came to visit. Agnes was taken to concerts while she was still a child and at thirteen saw Pavlova dance, a rapturous experience that was the real beginning of her fixation with becoming a dancer. Important, too, was the fact that Ruth St. Denis, a friend of her mother's, would call at their house; once Agnes danced for her and was thrilled when this legendary figure praised her. When Agues was fourteen she took ballet lessons with Margaret at the Theodore Kosloff School of Imperial Russian Ballet, and was soon in the grip of what she later called her "dance mania."

    Her father did not want her even to think of dancing as a career, and while she outwardly bowed to his wishes, she quietly persisted in her mania, practicing steps in her mother's large bathroom at six in the morning, before the others arose. She enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles at an early age, graduating cum laude at twenty in June 1926. A day later she was informed that her father, her great idol, was divorcing her mother to marry Clara Beranger, a literary collaborator of his and friend of the family. Anna de Mille never recovered from the divorce; and Agues suffered, too, as she and Margaret went to live with their mother in New York, far from her adored father who, in the way she felt it, had abandoned her. From this point on she would have to contend as best she could with her domination by her mother who, interestingly enough, was still infatuated with her own father, the great Victorian reformer Henry George.

* * *

So in the autumn of 1926, while living with her mother and sister in a duplex on West Sixty-seventh Street, just off Central Park, Agnes ventured out "to change the American theater." She soon learned that all that was available to her in the musical theater was a part in a precision kickline or a tap chorus. Concert dance was still in its infancy, with a place in public consciousness so marginal that John Martin at the New York Times was the only paid, qualified dance critic in the entire United States. As yet completely unknown, she appeared in some concert dance programs, and in the summer of 1928 she toured with Adolph Bolm's company as a guest soloist. A dozen years earlier Bolm had been a featured dancer with Diaghilev's company in Paris; but after settling in America he was confronted by greatly reduced audiences, and survived on his memories of better times. The tour with Agnes was often farcical: in Macon, Georgia, forty-five tickets sold in an auditorium seating four thousand. One benefit of the tour, however, was that it brought Agnes into contact with Louis Horst, the group's pianist-accompanist. A big, cigar-smoking man with a huge appetite for music and art, he was Martha Graham's collaborator and sometime lover. And it was he who introduced Agnes to Graham and her world.

    In 1929 Agnes was engaged to choreograph and dance in a revival of The Black Crook, the 1866 grandparent of the Broadway musical, in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was her first opportunity to choreograph for a group of dancers and it brought her into contact with twenty-five-year-old Warren Leonard, who would be her dancing partner and confidant for the next five years or more. Agnes's first New York concert with Leonard occurred in February 1930, and it was followed by her first dance recital in Los Angeles, which was attended by all the de Milles and was well received.

    On the strength of the success of the first concert a second was given, the audience sprinkled with important producers and agents, but it did not elicit movie offers or offers of any kind. Anna negotiated with a Dutch manager for concert bookings in European cities, and her father at first agreed to underwrite the $6,000 cost of the tour. But after consulting a knowledgeable friend and being told that foreign managers exploited and swindled American performers, he reneged on his offer. Agnes then returned to New York, where she moved from her mother's apartment to live in "a faded and extremely dubious uptown hotel." At this time she became friends with Martha Graham and took part in the excitement and fervor of New York's concert dance circuit, with its startling innovations and flowering of major new talent, and even genius—which Agnes would record in her memoirs and her biography of Graham.

    In 1932 producer Max Gordon engaged Agnes and Warren Leonard to choreograph the revue Flying Colors, which had music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Deitz, who also acted as the show's director. Three previous Deitz and Schwartz shows—The Little Show (1929), Three's a Crowd (1930), and The Band Wagon (1931)—had been successes; and like the earlier productions, Flying Colors had a strong cast, which included Clifton Webb (then best known as a dancer), Tamara Geva (the Russian ballerina and first wife of George Balanchine), Vilma and Buddy Ebsen, Charles Butterworth, Patsy Kelly, and Imogene Coca. By the time of its tryout in Philadelphia, however, Agnes and Warren Leonard were floundering and were replaced by the more experienced Albertina Rasch. When Flying Colors opened in New York four weeks later, there was no mention of Agnes's name in the credits.

    In October of that year, although money was scarce (her allowance from her father had been cut in half due to his financial losses in the Great Depression), Agnes, accompanied by Warren Leonard, set sail for Europe on the Ile de France. She arrived in London at exactly the right time, since two major English ballet companies were just then getting started. The larger of the two, Sadler's Wells, later to become the Royal Ballet, was founded by Ninette de Valois, a former dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, who, despite her French name was Irish. The other was the Ballet Rambert, run by Marie Rambert who had also danced with the Ballets Russes, and despite her French name was Polish. The Ballet Rambert, in the Notting Hill Gate section of London, operated in a small theater on a miniscule budget, but dance history was made there. Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, both major choreographers, first made their reputations at the Ballet Rambert; and Tudor in particular, in his concern with characters' psychological states, was an influence on Agnes.

    When she first met him, Tudor was an underpaid assistant to Rambert, a drudge, Agnes remarked, who "served when need arose as secretary, accompanist, stage manager, and janitor, for a fixed salary and 2 British pounds a week, room and board." At the Ballet Rambert, too, Agnes met the young dancer Hugh Laing, a West Indian from Barbados whom she called "probably the most beautiful young man I ever saw in my life." Tudor created many of his ballets with Laing in mind, and in private life they were lovers. From 1934 until just before World War II, Laing partnered Agnes in all of her dance recitals in England, and she had a close, at times larking friendship with him and Tudor. She sometimes referred to them as "the boys," but when they proposed that she live with them, she was aghast at the impropriety of it. Agnes led a frugal life in London during the mid-1930s, surviving on 3 British pounds a week; but she benefitted considerably from her family's contacts in England. Because she was the granddaughter of Henry George, the George Bernard Shaws invited her to their home for lunch. Bertrand Russell, Harold Laski, Walter Lippmann, and Krishna Menon all socialized with her. Friends of the de Milles with whom she became close included writers Rebecca West and Elizabeth Bowen, and actor-director Romney Brent.

    Brent introduced her to English society and to leading figures in the theater, talking up her talents to people in a position to help her. On Brent's recommendation, Agnes was hired to choreograph dances in a new musical, Nymph Errant, a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Brent was also largely responsible for Agnes's four London recitals. In February 1934 he commissioned her to create two ballets for a new revue he was directing called Why Not Tonight? One of the two she provided, drawn by her English friend Ramon Reed from a tale of Boccaccio's, was called Three Virgins and a Devil; it concerned a young devil still learning his craft, who tricks three self-righteous virgins into going to hell. Agnes tried out her ideas for it with Antony Tudor, Hugh Laing, and one or two others at the Ballet Rambert, and it was performed for the first time when Why Not Tonight? opened in Manchester in March. By then, however, Agnes had been called away to Hollywood, where her uncle Cecil offered her a chance for a major breakthrough.

    De Mille decided to give Agnes an opportunity to do some incidental choreography for his movie production of Antony and Cleopatra. Paramount paid her round-trip railroad fare from New York and a salary of $250 a week for a projected five or six weeks. She was to dance in one number and to supervise a sequence on Cleopatra's barge. Unfortunately for Agnes, she came to the assignment with the conviction that she knew better than her uncle. The scene he envisioned—a large and exotic crowd scene that included the entrance of a bull with a nearly naked maiden atop it, with an implication that a sexual act would occur between them—was garish, but he knew exactly what he wanted, and immediately rejected the more esthetic version that Agnes attempted to put in its place. Relieved of her choreographic assignment, she now danced her solo, which was supposed to be sultry but was rejected by her uncle with the stinging remark made before everyone on the set that her attempt at sexiness "wouldn't rouse anybody." Humiliated and angry, Agnes returned to New York.

    The confrontation between Agnes and her "Uncle Ce" is interesting for the way in which it dramatizes the clan relationships of the de Milles, who not only contended for power in their public careers but also brought the contest home as power struggles within the family itself. The family power drive was embodied in its matriarch, Beatrice de Mille, who followed her sons to Hollywood and oversaw their careers while pursuing her own as an agent for playwrights, selling rights to their works to the movies. Partial to William at first, her favor by then had fallen on Cecil, the movie mogul who lived in luxury in the Los Angeles hills, and Cecil in turn is supposed to have "cherished" her. The key word Agnes uses to characterize her grandmother when, as a child, she visited her when she was dying of cancer, was "powerful." "I was a kid," she recalled, "but I thought then that it was somewhat ironic that I was there, with all the strength and the right to live, and the power—when she, who'd been so powerful, and so unfriendly, was simply going in front of my eyes."


© 2001 Robert Emmet Long