Isadora: A Sensational Life

By Peter Kurth
Little, Brown. 652 pp. $29.95
Friday, January 4, 2001

Chapter One

A Baby Bolshevik

First, her name.

"I am called Isadora," she wrote. "That means Child of Isis — or Gift of Isis." Properly, it should have been Isidora (the feminine of Isidore), but the name was hers, given at baptism and not invented later in an effort to seem exotic. Among Isadora's books was a biography of Girolamo Savonarola, the fifteenth-century reformer and heretic, bearing an inscription: "To Isadora Duncan from her mother, also Isadora." The name had entered the family through an "ultra-Catholic" aunt with a devotion to Saint Isidore of Seville, "the most learned man of the Middle Ages," according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, and the patron saint of students and scholars. In 1946 Isadora's brother Augustin confirmed that "her full name was Angela Isadora Duncan, the initials spelling 'AID.' Our mother said that meant she was going to be an aid to the family, and she was."

She was born in San Francisco on May 26, 1877, "under the star of Aphrodite," as she told it, the daughter of "wind and wave and the winged flight of bird and bee." Isadora's earliest memory was of being tossed from the window of a building in flames; later, when her children had drowned and her father, whom she barely knew, died in a shipwreck off the coast of England, she compared the Duncan run of misfortune to the sorrows of the House of Atreus.

"The gods sell their gifts dearly," Isadora warned. "For every joy there is a corresponding agony. For what they give of Fame, Wealth, Love, they extract Blood and Tears and grinding Sorrow. I am continually surrounded by flames." Whether the fire she described as her first conscious experience ever really took place is a matter for academics to determine. Facts were not Isadora's concern. The records of her childhood, like the house she was born in on the corner of Geary and Taylor Streets in San Francisco, were lost in the earthquake of 1906: "Always fire and water and sudden fearful death."

Isadora was the child of American pioneers, the "Argonauts" of 1848-49 who opened the way to California and turned San Francisco, a forlorn collection of hovels and tents on the site of a Spanish mission, into a shimmering city known the world over for its forward spirit. No stories needed inventing to add a touch of glamour to the gold rush, but invented they were, not least by Isadora. At the end of her life, seeking to explain the genesis of her art, she put it down to a love of legend:

It has often made me smile — but somewhat ironically — when people have called my dancing "Greek." For I myself count its origin in the stories which my Irish grandmother often told us of crossing the plains with grandfather in '49 in a covered wagon — she 18, he 21 — and how her first child was born in such a wagon during a famous battle with the redskins, and how, when the Indians were finally defeated, my grandfather put his head in at the door of the wagon, with a smoking gun in his hand, to greet his newborn child.

That none of this was true, Isadora may have known. Her mother, Mary Dora Gray, the last child of the grandparents she describes, was born in St. Louis, a full year before the Gray family headed for San Francisco — by ship, through Panama, "the rich man's route." There were no prairies, no covered wagons, no "redskins." Still, said Isadora:

My grandmother, thinking of Ireland, used often to sing the Irish songs and dance the Irish jigs, only I fancy that into these Irish jigs had crept some of the heroic spirit of the pioneer and the battle with the redskins — probably some of the gestures of the redskins themselves — and, again, a bit of "Yankee Doodle" when grandfather, Colonel Thomas Gray, came marching home from the Civil War.

All this grandmother danced in the Irish jig, and I learned it from her and put it into my own aspiration of Young America, and finally my great spiritual realization of life from the lines of Walt Whitman. And that is the origin of the so-called Greek dance with which I have flooded the world.

Isadora's maternal grandfather, Thomas Gray, was indeed a veteran of the Civil War and, before that, the Black Hawk War, in which he had been friendly with Abraham Lincoln. A native of Cloghan, King's County (now County Offaly), Ireland, Gray came to the United States as a teenager in 1819, settling first in Baltimore and later in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. An 1880 census in San Francisco lists Colonel Gray as a sea captain, the operator of the first commercial ferry service between Oakland and San Francisco and a three-time delegate to the California state legislature. Gray's wife, Maggie Gorman, was "a Spanish type of beauty" (not uncommon among the Irish), and together they had eight children, including three daughters in addition to Isadora's mother: Ellen, Elizabeth, and Augusta, still living at home in her early thirties, whom Isadora remembered as a "remarkably talented" woman.

"She often visited us and would have performances of private theatricals," Isadora wrote. "She was very beautiful, with black eyes and coal black hair, and I remember her dressed in black velvet 'shorts' as Hamlet. She had a beautiful voice and might have had a great career as a singer had it not been that everything relating to the theatre was looked upon by her father and mother as pertaining to the Devil." The specter of the devil was undoubtedly strong in Isadora's imagination. Once, she asked her mother's sisters to tell her something about her father, and the answer came back, "Your father was a demon who ruined your mother's life." After that, said Isadora, "I always imagined him as a demon in a picture book, with horns and a tail, and when other children at school spoke of their fathers, I kept silent."

Isadora's father was Joseph Charles Duncan, a man of cheerful temperament and high ambition, "full of push and pluck," a poet, a ladies' man, and a luckless entrepreneur, "one of the most daring bank-wreckers that ever flitted above the financial horizons of the Golden Gate." Reports agree that Duncan's "arc of oscillation was wide" and that even repeated failures and scandals failed to quell his brazen spirit. Isadora's brother Raymond confirmed with pride: "My father knew General Grant.... He said he never knew if or when he was beaten, so he just kept on going."

Born in Philadelphia in 1819, Joseph Duncan was effectively of the same generation as Isadora's grandfather, Colonel Gray, and his early life reflects the same pioneer spirit and continual migration: from Philadelphia to Maryland, New York, Illinois, New Orleans, and, finally, San Francisco. Joseph Duncan's father, Joseph Moulder Duncan, had been a teacher, a professor of belles lettres at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. In 1827 the first of the family fires broke out and the college burned to the ground. A local newspaper reported that the Duncans' loss was more severe than any other: they were "deprived of nearly every article of property [they] possessed. Mr. Duncan has been in an instant, as it were, stripped of his all and left in a destitute situation, with a wife and two small children." The pattern of disaster would assert itself inexorably in the years ahead.

From Maryland, the Duncan family moved to New York — Manhattan — where bad luck followed them: fire, "Asian cholera," and the financial panic of 1837, when the New York economy collapsed and an estimated 100,000 people fled the city. Shortly afterward, Isadora's father set off for Indiana and Illinois with his younger brother and partner, William Lorenzo, where they busied themselves "buying up produce and horses and hogs, shipping out stocks to St. Louis and the then rapidly developing city of Chicago." But the scent of belles lettres was still strong in the air. In Bloomington, Illinois, Duncan edited what was described as the first literary magazine in that state, The Prairie Flower, "containing original tales, poetry, sketches of the west, illustrations of history, letters from the east, biographical sketches, anecdotes and literature in general." Within a year, the magazine failed. About the same time, Duncan contracted his first marriage, to Elmira Hill, a Virginian, who bore him four children, Isadora's half sisters and brothers: Caroline, Harriet, William, and Joseph. Society notes in the Bloomington newspaper reveal that in 1846 Duncan attended temperance meetings, though whether as a thumper or a penitent, it's impossible to say.

Duncan landed in California in September 1850, at almost the same moment Colonel Gray got there. Fifty thousand people arrived in San Francisco in 1849 alone; two years later the city already rivaled Boston and New York in foreign trade. "There evolved a democracy of happy greed," writes historian Tom Cole. "Distances were so great and the city's needs so unpredictable that Eastern merchants were simply filling up boats with whatever they thought might sell in San Francisco and sending them off with a prayer." In the absence of warehouses, goods were kept, when not on the streets, in the holds of ships, which also served as hotels, banks, business offices, brothels, drunk tanks, "and, in the case of the Euphemia, [as] a much-needed jail and refuge for lunatics." San Francisco was a city of freebooters, thieves, soldiers, "pols," vigilantes, snake-oil salesmen, and Emperor Norton — a British-born forty-niner who, having lost everything in a bid to control San Francisco's rice trade, declared himself "Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" in 1859. Norton printed his own money, abolished Congress, fired Abraham Lincoln, outlawed the Democratic and Republican Parties, and dropped dead on California Street in 1880, when Isadora was three, one of many extravagant characters who gave San Francisco its legacy of outrageousness.

"I have seen purer liquors, better seegars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier cortezans, here in San Francisco than in any place I have ever visited," said a satisfied migrant, "and it is my unbiased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America." On reaching the city, Joseph Duncan helped organize a lottery, in which he subsequently lost $225,000. Because money was locally printed, however, and because everyone around him was in the same boat, the failure had no effect on his ambition. Fifteen years later Mark Twain arrived in San Francisco and found "a wild, free, disorderly, grotesque society" still gripped by gambling fever:

Stocks went on rising, speculation went mad; bankers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, laborers, even the very washerwomen and servant girls, were putting up their earnings on silver stocks, and every sun that rose in the morning went down on paupers enriched and rich men beggared. What a gambling carnival it was! ...And then — all of a sudden, out went the bottom and everything and everybody went to ruin and destruction! The wreck was complete. The bubble left scarcely a microscopic moisture behind it.

In the course of his career, Joseph Duncan would edit three newspapers, the Morning Globe, the Evening Globe, and the Mirror, as well as a treacly Sunday supplement drenched in contented wisdom, the California Home Journal. Earlier, when one of his printing presses burned, he emerged as proprietor of the "Chinese Sales Room" on the wharf in San Francisco, selling "Bandas and Pongees, Mantillas and Mantelets, Silks Embroidered by Patient Hindoos, Work-boxes of Bombay, Scented Sandalwood, Grotesque Carriages from Japan, etc., etc." As an "art importer," Duncan made buying trips to Europe, and once — while also listed on San Francisco's delinquent tax list — he negotiated the sale of rare miniatures of George and Martha Washington to the tsar of Russia.

In 1856 J. C. Duncan & Co. auctioned the jewelry of Lola Montez, the Irish-born adventuress and "Spanish dancer," who may have been Duncan's lover - he would have been one among many. Montez's career as an international beauty, author, dancer, huckster, courtesan, philosopher, and Bavarian countess had taken her from Limerick through the courts of Europe to Munich, where she seduced King Ludwig I of Bavaria and helped bring down the monarchy in 1848. Later she settled in Grass Valley, near Sacramento. "The international bad girl of the mid-Victorians," Montez had also been the mistress of Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas and was known across Europe as La Grande Horizontale.

While the most notorious, Montez wasn't the first or last of Joseph Duncan's needy female clients. By the 1860s, as founder of the San Francisco Art Association, he was "the admitted authority on all matters appertaining to art on the Pacific Coast" — a grand and onerous claim not forgotten by his daughter. Duncan's poems appeared in magazines and handsome anthologies (one of them edited by his friend Bret Harte), and he was the first to publish the work of Ina Donna Coolbrith, red-haired niece of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and the woman who became California's first poet laureate. Before she died in 1928, Coolbrith would acknowledge Duncan as the love of her life, "so gentle, so great an idealist and so fine a poet." His "art spirit" and splashing personality remained a source of pride to Isadora, even when scandal and bankruptcy had ruined her family on Duncan's account.

Isadora's parents were married when her father was past fifty and her mother, Mary Dora Gray, not quite twenty-one. Duncan's union with Elmira Hill had dissolved along the way; their children were grown, and it couldn't have been happy for the Gray family — Catholic, with notions about the devil — to see their daughter and sister married to an Episcopal speculator, poet, and bon vivant thirty years her senior. Nothing is recorded of the Duncans' meeting or courtship, only that the wedding was performed on January 21, 1871, at the home of the bride's father and that Mary Dora "was a forerunner of the feminists, boldly printing her first name on calling cards and wearing low-cut dresses, much to [her] father's chagrin."

Of the four children of Joseph Duncan's second marriage, Mary Elizabeth was born first, in November 1871. Augustin followed in 1873, Raymond in 1875, and Isadora, last, in 1877. That year, on October 13, she was baptized at Old Saint Mary's Church on California Street, just five days after the worst disaster of her father's career — the collapse of the Pioneer Land and Loan Bank, popularly known as "Duncan's Bank," which Duncan had founded after two decades of auctioneering, publishing, and "homestead enterprises." In her autobiography, Isadora fudges dates and improves the tale, but she hardly exaggerates the atmosphere of storm that attended her first months of life.

"The character of a child is already plain, even in its mother's womb," she wrote. "Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and iced champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance I reply, 'In my mother's womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne — the food of Aphrodite.'" All her life, she insisted that her father's disappearance had coincided with her birth, that she was "born in America in the city of San Francisco on the day when a revolution broke out there," as she declared in a speech in Russia in 1924: "The revolution, of course, was a 'golden' one; it was the 'golden' day when all the banks in San Francisco went bankrupt. Furious crowds raged in the streets." A mob had stormed the Duncans' house on Geary Street, crying, "Hang Duncan!" and menacing the family with torches and pikes. If Isadora invented these stories, she was telling them already as a little girl; her mother, reputedly in labor in the midst of the riots, "expected a monster."

"This child that will be born will surely not be normal," Mrs. Duncan predicted. "And in fact," wrote Isadora, "from the moment I was born it seemed that I began to agitate my arms and legs in such a fury that my mother cried, 'You see I was quite right; the child is a maniac!'" It would be another three years before her parents were divorced, but their separation was fact by the time Isadora was baptized. Mrs. Duncan said later that "if her four children had not been [born] so close together," if Duncan hadn't had so many "woman friends" or had refrained from melting down the table silver and pawning her jewelry, their marriage "might have succeeded."

The collapse of Duncan's bank, while described in San Francisco newspapers as "a swindle of more than ordinary magnitude," was part of a larger and drastic reorganization of the city's finances and enterprise, a period of crushing reversals that attended the closing of the silver mines and the conversion of the local economy to less speculative pursuits. Most of the Pioneer's customers were workingmen and women — "laborers and servant girls predominating" — who, beginning in 1874, had entrusted their savings to Duncan in return for "the highest rate of interest ever paid by a like concern." Duncan was chief stockholder in his own company, its "projector" and organizer, but he was assisted in business by one of his sons; his brother, William Lorenzo; a son-in- law, Benjamin Le Warne; and his new wife's father, Colonel Gray, who became the Pioneer's nominal president.

At its peak, the Pioneer Bank had some three thousand depositors. The five-story building that rose to house it on the southeast corner of Montgomery and California Streets was the work of architect William Patton and an ornament of the city, "visited by every stranger" in San Francisco. Duncan himself was hailed in the newspapers as "the poor man's friend," a family man, a Sunday-school teacher, "the disinterested financier of modern times."

By 1877, however, as one San Francisco bank after another shut its doors, Duncan found himself trapped in the larger crisis of the time. He panicked, recklessly speculating in stocks and raising shares to stay afloat. When the Pioneer's vaults were opened, most of them were empty; an employee testified later that the bank had never had more than $8,000 cash on hand. On October 8 the Pioneer shut down, and "by noon the town was ripe for lynching." A crowd gathered in Montgomery Street, clamoring for Duncan's head. Later Duncan insisted that he had done all he could to rescue the bank, that he had "not intended to defraud anyone" and had "transferred no property" to himself or anyone in his family. In the meantime, prudently, he went into hiding.

DAINTY DUNCAN, read the headline in the Oakland Tribune on October 10: HIS DASTARDLY DOINGS. DUNCAN'S DEPRAVITY GROWS GREATER EVERY HOUR. Suddenly, the poor man's friend was an "oily old hypocrite," "addicted to drink," "about as pious as the average polite thief of the last half of the nineteenth century," according to a vituperative essay in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The wildest excitement" prevailed in the city. Ships were searched and attics combed. Until Duncan was finally apprehended in a rooming house on Kearny Street, four months later, San Francisco police chief Captain John Kirkpatrick bore the weight of public outrage. That Duncan was captured in a house right next door to Kirkpatrick's did nothing to salvage the reputation of the police: he had been hiding there for weeks, "in a bureau with a makeshift bed." A Captain Isaiah Lees was the hero of the hour, who quietly knocked on the door of Duncan's hideout and threatened "to blow off the top of his head" if he tried to escape.

Duncan was arraigned on sixteen charges of forgery and one of felony (for "false swearing"). An investigation revealed that, for much of his hiding, he had walked around San Francisco disguised as a woman. A search of the Kearny Street cupboard produced "a chemise with a lace border, a skirt with suitable bustle attached, ...a wig of woman's chestnut hair, a cute black velvet hat with a pretty bunch of violets on the crown, and a thick brown veil." Apparently, Duncan hoped "to board an outgoing vessel and make good his escape" while disguised as a prostitute. "I am wrecked," he confessed, "financially, physically and mentally."

Over the next few years, Duncan was brought to trial four times. Three juries split, and the fourth voted for acquittal on a technicality, by order of the judge. It was no secret in San Francisco that Duncan still had powerful friends and that many of them, including his father-in-law, Colonel Gray, were significantly mixed up in the business of the doomed Pioneer. Duncan's crime seemed larger than most, however, since it wasn't the rich whose lives had been disrupted in the crash, but the working poor. Newspapers spoke of "ruin on all sides. Men and women prostrated by the wiping out of their life's work became despondent and in many instances reckless. Lives were blighted and shattered. Models of sobriety became drunkards, and men and women of unquestioned morality turned into outlaws against society."

The date of Joseph Duncan's divorce from Mary Dora Gray is no longer known (a casualty, again, of the San Francisco earthquake). More than a banking scandal moved Isadora's mother to such a drastic solution: at the height of the crisis, she had discovered "perfumed letters" in Duncan's office, signed by another woman and outlining plans for escape from the maelstrom. It was a betrayal Mary Dora never forgave. Her divorce was probably final by 1880. Duncan stayed in the Bay Area for three more years, operating as "a broker" on Montgomery Street, until, finally, he went south to the boomtown of Los Angeles. There he remarried — the sister of the wife of one of his grown sons — and began a new career in real estate.

"When the boom in real estate came along he was in the forefront of the speculators," the San Francisco Examiner reported. "He bought and sold property day and night. At one stage of the boom he was reputed to be worth easily $250,000 in cash.... But a second time he overreached himself, and when the bottom dropped out of the boom Duncan was practically a pauper." On October 14, 1898, with his third wife, Mary, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Rosa, he was sailing from London to New York on the S.S. Mohegan when it crashed on Manacle Rocks near Falmouth, in Cornwall: "There had been a dance aboard the Mohegan that night and the crew were tipsy." More than a hundred people died in the disaster, "and a few hours after the wreck the waves, with strange caprice," laid the bodies of the Duncan family "one after the other on the shingled beach of St. Keverne." Joseph Duncan was seventy-nine.

Later, with utmost seriousness, Isadora Duncan insisted that her "first idea" of movement, of the dance, came from "the rhythm of the waves," that she was "born by the sea," and that all the great events of her life had taken place by the sea. Her mother, meantime, shamed and outraged, gave advice to both of her daughters. "Don't trust men," said Mrs. Duncan. "Don't marry them."

In her autobiography, apart from mentioning his poetic soul and the "tremendous impact" his absence would have on her life, Isadora describes her father only once:

When I was seven years old, we were living in two very bare rooms on the third floor [in Oakland], and one day I heard the front door bell ring, and, on going out into the hall to answer it, I saw a very good-looking gentleman in a top hat, who said:

"Can you direct me to Mrs. Duncan's apartment?"

"I am Mrs. Duncan's little girl," I replied.

"Is this my Princess Pug?" said the strange gentleman. (That had been his name for me when I was a baby.)

And suddenly he took me in his arms and covered me with tears and kisses. I was very much astonished at this proceeding, and asked him who he was. To which he replied with tears, "I am your father."

"Delighted," Isadora rushed inside to tell the family:

"There is a man there who says he is my father."

My mother rose, very white and agitated, and, going into the next room, locked the door behind her. One of my brothers hid under the bed and the other retired to a cupboard, while my sister had a violent fit of hysterics.

"Tell him to go away, tell him to go away," they cried.

Isadora went back to the hall, "much amazed," but managed to summon her finest manner. "The family are rather indisposed," she declared, "and cannot receive today." Then her father took her by the hand and led her to an ice-cream parlor, where he "stuffed [her] with ice-cream and cakes." She remained in a state of "bewildered enchantment" for as long as the idyll lasted, but at home she found her family "in a terribly depressed condition."

"He is a perfectly charming man," said Isadora, "and he is coming tomorrow to give me more ice-cream." But he didn't: "The family refused to see him, and after a time he returned to his other family at Los Angeles." All her childhood, Isadora wrote, was passed in "the black shadow of this mysterious father of whom no one would speak, and the terrible word divorce was imprinted on the sensitive plate of my mind. As I could not ask anyone for the explanation of these things, I tried to reason them out for myself." The task seemed more urgent in light of her mother's constant warnings — apparently, Mrs. Duncan never scrupled to tell her children that if they met their father, he would kidnap them. By the time she reached her teens, a winsome, sturdy girl with light brown hair and gray-blue eyes, Isadora had already decided that marriage was "a pretty low-down proposition," resolving then and there "to fight against marriage and for the emancipation of women, and for the right of every woman to have a child or children as it pleased her, and to uphold her right and her virtue." The "Christian education," Isadora concluded, "does not know how to teach children Nietzsche's superb phrase: 'Be hard!' Only from an early age some spirit kept whispering to me, 'Be hard.'"

Isadora was "a joy" to her family from the moment of her birth, according to her brother Augustin, "a lovely child, sweet and kind. She was docile as a girl, too." Like her mother, she was called Dora, sometimes Dorita, and quickly lived up to the prophecy that she would be an aid to her family in distress. After her divorce, Mrs. Duncan moved with her children to Oakland, where, at different times over the next dozen years, they lived in a succession of walk-ups, rooming houses, hotels, and cold-water flats — on Fourth Street, Eighth Street, Tenth Street, Sunpath Avenue, and, briefly, on a rented farm in the Napa Valley, where they "hid out ...miles from anywhere," and Mary Dora nursed her wounds.

"Although she was an educated woman," Isadora remarked, "she was barely able to earn a bit of bread for herself and her children by giving music lessons. Her earnings were small and not enough to feed us. Whenever I remember my childhood, I see before me an empty house. With my mother at her lessons, we children sat by ourselves, generally hungry, and in winters generally cold." A friend remembered Mrs. Duncan as "a very critical and outspoken woman" with an aversion to "grown-ups." She preferred the company of children to any other and was incapable of managing money. Florence Treadwell, Isadora's best childhood friend and schoolmate in Oakland, ventured that the Duncans were by nature improvident: "They either had abundance or nothing. There was no frugality; no thrift.... They were governed by impulse. On getting a little money they would go to the city and have a big French dinner with wine. On one meal would be spent money that could, if spent judiciously, have fed them the following week."

Oakland in the 1880s was a pleasant, tree-lined community of about fifteen thousand people, connected to San Francisco only by ferryboat and prized for its less turbulent weather and the illusion it gave of country living. Florence Treadwell remembered Oakland as "a great meadow with generously distributed groups of magnificent old oak trees ...dairy farms, cool, shady canyons, and homes with palm trees and windmills." Later, when they knew each other as expatriates in Paris, Raymond Duncan confessed to Gertrude Stein that he and Isadora had often stolen apples from her father's orchard. The Steins, who moved to Oakland in 1880, "had ten acres where they had every kind of fruit tree growing, and they had cows and dogs and horses and hay making, and the sun in the summer dry and baking, and the wind in the autumn and in the winter the rain beating and then in the springtime the hedge of roses to fence all these joys in."

In fact, Oakland was a railroad town, the western terminus of the transcontinental railway. When times were good, as they sometimes were, Mrs. Duncan employed servants. A Chinese cook is mentioned, along with a nurse, Mary Ward, whom the Duncans teased for her Catholic faith.

"If God created man," the children cried, "who created God?" They were raised in an atmosphere of aggressive freethinking and hedonism, their mother having "revolted violently to definite atheism" and broken with the Catholic Church at the time of her divorce. Mrs. Duncan became a disciple of Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, whose anticlerical maxims included the advice "with soap, baptism is a good thing" and "many people think they have religion when they are merely troubled with dyspepsia." More important, Isadora found in Ingersoll's writings the thread of her own life's philosophy: "Art in its highest forms increases passion, gives tone and color and zest to life.... It is careless of conduct and consequence. For a moment, the chain of cause and effect seems broken; the soul is free.... Under the influence of art the walls expand, the roof rises, and it becomes a temple."

While teaching music in Oakland, Isadora's mother also earned money by knitting mittens, hats, and scarves, which she sold to local shops and stores and which figure prominently in Isadora's catalog of formative experiences. Later, she recalled her childhood as "a perpetual state of terror ...a continual changing of address from one lodging or small cottage to another." But the youngest Duncan was also "the most courageous," in her own account, the winning child who went to the butcher and the baker to beg for credit when the last coins were spent. One day she found her mother weeping on the bed. Mrs. Duncan had failed to sell her knitting, and Isadora gave way to revolt. If her brother remembered her as docile, she grew out of it quickly enough:

I decided I would sell these things for Mother and at a good price. I put on one of the little red knitted capes and caps, and with the rest in a basket I set forth. From house to house I peddled my wares. Some people were kind, others rude. On the whole I had success, but it was the first awakening in my childish breast of the monstrous injustice of the world. And that little red knitted cap that my mother had made was the cap of a baby Bolshevik.

Isadora raised a memorable ruckus at Oakland's Cole Elementary School one Christmas in the 1880s, when her teacher gave out candy with the words "See, children, what Santa Claus has brought you."

"I don't believe you," Isadora piped up; "there is no such thing as Santa Claus."

"Candies are only for little girls who believe in Santa Claus," the teacher replied.

"Then I don't want your candy," said Isadora.

She was called to the front of the class and ordered to sit on the floor. Instead, she turned to her classmates and made "the first of [her] famous speeches."

"I don't believe lies," Isadora cried. "My mother told me she is too poor to be Santa Claus; it is only the rich mothers who can pretend to be Santa Claus and give presents." The teacher grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to force her to her knees, "but I stiffened my legs and held on to her, and she only succeeded in hitting my heels against the parquet."

"There is no Santa Claus! There is no Santa Claus," Isadora chanted. She was sent to a corner and finally home, still shouting, "There is no Santa Claus."

"Wasn't I right?" she asked her mother. "There is no Santa Claus, is there?"

"There is no Santa Claus," Mrs. Duncan replied, "and there is no God, only your own spirit to help you."

In fact, there was more. There was music, and there was art — art with a capital A. For the length of Isadora's childhood, wherever the Duncans lived, a copy of Botticelli's Primavera hung conspicuously over the bookcase. "It came to me what a wonderful movement there was in that picture," Isadora wrote, "and how each figure through that movement told the story of its new life. And then as Mother played Mendelssohn's Spring Song, as if by the impulse of a gentle wind, the daisies in the grass would sway and the figures in the picture would move." At night, Mrs. Duncan read aloud from Shakespeare, Browning, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Thackeray, Burns, and Whitman, whose "Song of Myself" would become Isadora's religion. "I am the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman," she declared:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Notwithstanding the continual hunt for money, poetry and music came first in the lives of the Duncans. For hours Mrs. Duncan sat at the piano, playing "Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Schumann." Isadora remembered these evenings as enchanted idylls and said that her "real education" was gained while lying on the rug at her mother's feet. Her formal schooling proved "absolutely useless." No one could learn "with an empty stomach, or cold feet in wet shoes"; Isadora's teachers had revealed "a brutal incomprehension of children."

"I remember that in the classroom I was either considered amazingly intelligent and at the head of my class, or quite hopelessly stupid and at the bottom of the class," Isadora wrote. "It all depended on a trick of memory, and whether I had taken the trouble to memorise the subject we were given to learn. And I really had not the slightest idea what it was about." She was a clock-watcher, waiting impatiently to leave school each day for Oakland's public library, where she, like "Gerty" Stein, was taken under the wing of the librarian, Ina Coolbrith, the Poet of the Pacific, whom Isadora's father had published and loved. Legend maintained that when Coolbrith's mother fled Mormon polygamy in 1851 and headed for California, haunted all the way by visions of the Donner Party, Jim Beckwourth had lifted ten-year-old Ina into his saddle for the last day's ride, so she could be "the first white child" to see the promised land. "There, little girl," Beckwourth said, "there is California! There is your kingdom!" It having been conquered already, Stein and Isadora would both turn their backs on it. "The dominant note of my childhood was the constant spirit of revolt against the narrowness of the society in which we lived," Isadora wrote, "and a growing desire to fly eastward to something I imagined might be broader." At the age of ten (so she said), she quit school.

"I informed my mother that it was useless for me to go to school any more," she wrote, "as it was only a waste of time when I could be making money, which I considered far more important. I put my hair on the top of my head and said that I was sixteen. As I was very tall for my age every one believed me." Her mother wasn't in the habit of contradicting her — or, indeed, restricting her movements at all. "Fortunately she was blissfully unconscious," said Isadora. "I say fortunately for me, for it is certainly to this wild, untrammelled life of my childhood that I owe the inspiration of the dance I created, which was but the expression of freedom. I was never subjected to the continual 'don'ts' which it seems to me make children's lives a misery." To the dismay of her staid relations, Isadora swung carelessly on a backyard trapeze, hanging by her heels, or ran away alone "into the woods" or to the deserted beach below the Cliff House in San Francisco.

"And there I danced," she wrote. "I felt even then that my shoes and my clothes only hindered me. My heavy shoes were like chains; my clothes were my prison. So I took everything off. And without any eyes watching me, entirely alone, I danced, naked by the sea. And it seemed to me as if the sea and all the trees were dancing with me."

© 2001 Peter Kurth