JEROME ROBBINS: His Life, His Theater, His Dance
By Deborah Jowitt. Simon & Schuster. 619 pp. $40 While Jerome Robbins, who is best known for his conception, direction and choreography of "West Side Story," was widely and bitterly disliked, Deborah Jowitt gives only the slightest indication in this new full-length biography that he was not universally loved. There is nothing in this book that could possibly be said to do any fresh damage to Robbins's reputation or to the memory of his artistic achievements. He was undoubtedly one of the great American choreographers, even on the basis of his ballets alone ("Fancy Free," "The Cage," "The Concert," "Moves," "Dances at a Gathering," "The Goldberg Variations," "Two & Three Part Inventions" and many more). He was also a deeply conflicted, self-doubting Jewish homosexual known for his inventive use of profanity during rehearsals and his often inconsiderate, rude behavior.
Jowitt was sought out by the executors of the Robbins estate and given access to the Jerome Robbins Papers, which were bequeathed to the New York Public Library but require the estate's permission for perusal. Certainly an uncensored publication of Robbins's journals and notebooks would be of great interest to dance and theater enthusiasts and scholars. This no-nonsense biography, which includes many snippets from Robbins's unpublished writings, seems not meant for a general reader so much as for scholars and academics seeking factual information about Robbins the artist. Most people look to a biography to give a full picture of the person; this book gives a flattering, too-simple picture of a complex man. Robbins was in psychoanalysis more than once, but he is not psychoanalyzed here at all, nor is there anything of substance about his experience on the couch.
Crammed with rather mundane descriptions of Robbins's often superb choreography and the justly esteemed Broadway shows he was involved in creating (including "Peter Pan," "Gypsy," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The King and I"), the book offers only a minimal suggestion of how his work and his life might be related. It is essentially a report on what Robbins did in his professional life to earn his place in the dance hall of fame, with brief forays into the most glaring and well-known mistakes he made along the way, such as his naming of Lettie Stever, Lloyd Gough, Madeleine Lee, Elliot Sullivan, Jerome and Edward Chodorov, Edna Ocko and Lionel Berman as people associated with communism to the House Un-American Activities Committee on May 5, 1953. Jerome Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918 in New York City. His father started out poor, became the owner of a delicatessen and then owned the Comfort Corset Company in New Jersey. Before the Depression, the Rabinowitzes lived well; after the Crash, they lived on less, but they always managed to give their two children good educations and access to cultural and artistic events, lessons, recordings and the freedom to pursue their interests. Robbins's father did not much like that his only son was a gay choreographer, but he got used to it eventually, especially when the choreographer became rich and successful. Shortly after Robbins directed and choreographed "Fiddler on the Roof," which was a huge hit on Broadway in 1964, Mr. Rabinowitz proudly introduced his famous son to a roomful of retired card players in Florida, who greeted him as "Mr. Fiddler."
Robbins's success came quickly. "Fancy Free," one of his most popular works, had its premiere in 1944 when he was just 25 years old. "On the Town," for which he supplied the choreography, opened on Broadway the same year. "West Side Story" opened in 1957, and Robbins continued to work as a well-paid and lauded choreographer and director of musicals and ballet until very close to the time of his death in 1998. All of this, and much more, is recounted here in great detail, in chronological order.
But there are numerous gaps and omissions. On page 435, we're told (in parentheses) that Robbins and his sister "finally made peace with each other after a long period of animosity." But all we had heard of this animosity was that she and her husband were "outraged and appalled" at his naming of names to HUAC more than 20 years earlier. In describing Robbins's life as a teenager, Jowitt tells us that he "earned money delivering eggs, selling magazines, painting screens for a New York photographer, selling tax bills (whatever this meant, it garnered a high school senior 75¢)." Anyone interested enough in Robbins to buy and read his biography would probably like to know a bit more about the screens he painted for a photographer, if not those mysterious tax bills.
Regarding Robbins's approach to performing the role of Petrouchka (his "obsession") with Ballet Theatre in 1942, Jowitt mentions a dream he'd had in high school "that he equated with the sad but dauntless puppet -- something about being trapped in a rubbish-strewn lot behind a tall schoolyard fence." Is that the best she can do? Is there no document or surviving confidant to tell us more about this dream? It seems important, a dream that a major 20th-century choreographer "equated" with Petrouchka, one of the best-known male dance roles, one the young Robbins performed many times. But this biography tells us nothing more about it.
When Jowitt describes Robbins's first homoerotic experience with an older fellow dancer, she omits his name. Does she not know who it was, or has she just chosen not to tell us? In fact, many (but not all) of the names of Robbins's paramours and boyfriends are omitted. Why?
Critics faulted a previous biography of Robbins, Greg Lawrence's 2001 Dance With Demons, for containing too much gossip. Jowitt's book contains too little. There is a point -- and not just a trivial or prurient one -- to knowing what people have to say about an important artist they once knew. The aim is to illuminate the personality in order to better understand the work. There's no virtue in a biographer shielding her subject from criticism or scandal, just as there's no shame in being imperfect. *
Rick Whitaker has written for Ballet Review, Dance Magazine and Dance Theatre Journal. He is the author of "The First Time I Met Frank O'Hara: Reading Gay American Writers."