Company Man

Company Man

Martin Duberman’s biography of Lincoln Kirstein is a case study of the relationship between art and power.


From the 1930s until the ’80s Lincoln Kirstein was a power broker of the ballet world, a mandarin of high art who was instrumental in transforming American ballet from a form of popular culture to a sophisticated art of the elite. Kirstein was the éminence grise of the New York City Ballet, the visionary who brought its co-founder, Russian choreographer George Balanchine, to the United States in 1933, stuck with him, defended him and funded him, ultimately sacrificing his own artistic ambitions to their common enterprise. He was also a prolific writer, a poet, a novelist, a brilliant if sometimes eccentric scholar of ballet and a penetrating critic whose interests ranged from Mexican mural painting to the martial arts of Japan.

A Harvard graduate from a well-to-do Jewish family, Kirstein was an elitist with the sympathies of a populist; he marched for civil rights in Selma, believed in high art at popular prices and even contemplated joining the Communist Party in the 1930s. He was an unflagging champion of American ballet and used his power to promote companies and artists he admired, which by the ’60s chiefly meant Balanchine, the New York City Ballet and its affiliated School of American Ballet (SAB). He could also be highhanded, even dictatorial. He had no qualms about hijacking foundation monies, eviscerating the Juilliard dance division or keeping modern dance from a place at Lincoln Center–all to secure the triumph of the company he had labored for years to institutionalize. He was the ultimate insider; yet he was an outsider, too, not only because he was Jewish (although he later converted to Catholicism) but also because he was gay. Kirstein’s life is a case study of the relationship between art and power.

Kirstein died in 1996 at the age of 88. He had outlived Balanchine by more than a decade and left, along with books, artwork and a carriage house off Gramercy Park, a trove of unpublished writings documenting his life since his teenage years. The most important cache, including the diaries he kept from 1919 to 1936, was at the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins dance division, a major recipient of Kirstein’s largesse over the years. The rest, scattered in dozens of archives, testified to the many facets of his identity as a collector, collaborator, patron, scholar, arts impresario and fundraiser. The Kirstein executors kept a tight lid on the NYPL materials, reserving them for use by Kirstein’s authorized biographers–essayist Claudia Roth Pierpont, who abandoned the project, and the distinguished historian Martin Duberman, who has written a compelling if flawed account of his outsize subject, by far the most substantive contribution to the celebrations marking the Kirstein centenary.

In many ways Duberman was an ideal choice for this daunting undertaking. He is the author of several highly regarded biographies, notably Paul Robeson, about the African-American actor, singer and activist, and histories such as Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community and Stonewall, which offer richly detailed, innovative accounts of the American cultural and social past. He is a playwright and a novelist, the founder and former director of the City University’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies–like Kirstein, a man of many parts. Moreover, as a historian steeped in archival research, Duberman had no fear of the boxes that awaited him. He was familiar with many of the histories that overlapped in Kirstein’s life. Moreover, as a scholar of the gay past, he could do justice to Kirstein’s sexuality, discussing it with intelligence and placing it in historical context. Although Duberman had little knowledge of ballet or the history of American dance, as he acknowledges, he could locate Kirstein in the far broader arena of American life.

In many ways The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein succeeds at doing just that, above all in the first half of this very long book, which follows Kirstein from his birth in Rochester in 1907 to New York City in the mid-’30s. With mastery and in sometimes overwhelming detail, Duberman describes an early life of privilege–boarding schools, Harvard, European holidays–infused with a sense of noblesse oblige inherited from his father, Louis Kirstein, a department store executive and philanthropist, who named his first-born son after the Great Emancipator. With his wide-ranging intellect and passionate interest in the arts, Kirstein fils made his mark early. In 1928, while still a Harvard undergraduate, he co-founded Hound and Horn, a literary magazine modeled on T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, editing and supporting it financially until 1934, when he allowed it to fold. In 1928, with his classmates Edward M.M. Warburg and John Walker III, Kirstein founded the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art. The Society was a forerunner of the Museum of Modern Art, with which Kirstein enjoyed a sometimes rocky twenty-year relationship as a member of the advisory committee, sometime curator and founder of MoMA’s short-lived dance archive.

Moving to New York City in 1931, Kirstein met everyone worth knowing in High Bohemia–the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten (who introduced him to Harlem), the radical salonnière Muriel Draper (with whom he had an affair) and the painters and composers he would later involve in his ballet activities. While living on an allowance from his father (with gifts from his mother to cover overdrafts), he gave generously to artists and writers, left-wing causes and, by the mid-’30s, the School of American Ballet and the first companies to emerge from his collaboration with Balanchine, the American Ballet and Ballet Caravan. Kirstein’s passion for dance was awakened by the ballerina Anna Pavlova and fanned by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which he saw in Europe in the mid ’20s; classes in New York with the choreographer Michel Fokine; and collaboration with Romola Nijinsky on a biography of her husband, the great Diaghilev star Vaslav Nijinsky, whom Kirstein venerated and made the subject of a coffee table book published in 1975. In 1933, after some hesitation and with the financial support of “Eddie” Warburg, he invited Balanchine to come to the United States to create what Kirstein called an “American ballet.” Although fifteen years would elapse before the New York City Ballet came into existence, the die was cast. Whatever his other interests, ballet would be Kirstein’s greatest love.

Kirstein related these events many times, most notably in Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein’s The New York City Ballet (1978). But as Duberman’s biography makes clear, the real story is far more complex. Thanks to Kirstein’s diaries, supplemented by his voluminous correspondence, Duberman gives the most complete picture yet of Balanchine’s early years in the United States–his first night in New York marveling at the skyline from a room at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel; his unhappiness at finding that the company he expected to direct didn’t exist; his many bouts of ill health, some possibly psychosomatic in origin; his troubled relationship with Kirstein, who wanted to play a creative role in their joint enterprise, a role the choreographer denied him–the revelations go on and on. Through Kirstein’s day-to-day impressions one glimpses the hopes and fears Balanchine never put in writing, or expressed in dances lost to oblivion. Yet amid the chaos and disappointments of Balanchine’s first months in America, Kirstein stumbled upon his future. As Duberman writes, “For the first time in his life, Lincoln knew in a profound and sustained way…where he wanted to concentrate his time, talent, and formidable energy.”

Duberman lingers on the early decades of Kirstein’s life so long, one suspects, because it is not yet a ballet story. There are numerous sidebars–Philip Johnson’s involvement with Huey Long’s neofascist movement and admiration for Hitler, Esther Strachey’s anti-Semitism, Warburg’s psychoanalysis–that add little to the core narrative. When it comes to dance, to be sure, he regales us with details–tiffs with Warburg, conflicts with Vladimir Dimitriev, who ran SAB with Kirstein, meetings with critics and collaborators, ideas for new productions, rehearsal schedules–but the implications often remain unexplored, in large part because Duberman has dipped only superficially into the ballet literature. He devotes two chapters to Ballet Caravan, the lively chamber company founded and directed by Kirstein to showcase American talent and produce ballets on American subjects, but says almost nothing about the ballets themselves or how works like the darkly compelling Billy the Kid (1938), set to a commissioned score by Aaron Copland, married populist themes with social criticism and modernist forms so typical of Depression-era art. Moreover, Duberman never quite places Ballet Caravan, which established Kirstein as a major player in the American dance world, within the context of ballet of the 1930s and early ’40s, a period dominated by “international” (i.e., Russian émigré) companies but increasingly challenged by nationalist-minded enterprises such as England’s Vic-Wells (later Sadler’s Wells) Ballet and Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan.

When Duberman begins to generalize, he often finds himself on shaky ground. For instance, he attributes Balanchine’s “sadism,” which Kirstein mentions several times in his diaries of the 1930s, to “unsettled health,” because “over the years the overwhelming bulk of testimony from dancers who studied with him comes down on the side of adoration and gratitude.” Yet there are any number of memoirs, including Edward Villella’s Prodigal Son and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, that reveal acts of cruelty and humiliation that the dancers seldom protested: Their jobs depended on their silence. Duberman ascribes the collapse of the American Ballet solely to Warburg’s withdrawal of financial support, without acknowledging Balanchine’s efforts to keep it going alone and the hints in the dance press that Balanchine might be jumping ship–that is, abandoning Kirstein and joining the Russian “enemy” demonized in Kirstein’s highly partisan tract Blast at Ballet: A Corrective for the American Audience (1938), which had a bald eagle on its cover. Balanchine didn’t join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1938, but two years later, as Duberman notes, he gave the first of several works to it, initiating a relationship that lasted for the next six years. Although Duberman echoes Kirstein in dismissing the “tired” repertory of the era’s émigré companies, it included, as Jack Anderson and others have pointed out, Léonide Massine’s “symphonic” ballets, the most important body of plotless works prior to Balanchine’s epoch-making creations of the 1940s.

Another major theme of Duberman’s biography is Kirstein’s life as a gay man. Although Kirstein married Fidelma Cadmus in 1941, he reserved his deepest feelings for men and preferred their company as friends. Duberman tells us more than we really need to know about Kirstein’s romances, his casual lovers, even his incestuous encounters with his brother George, publisher of The Nation from 1955 to 1965. Many of his collaborators were gay; indeed, because of Kirstein, Balanchine and his art stood at the center of a rapidly crystallizing network of gay visual artists, composers, photographers and dancers who gravitated to the ballet world in part because it provided a safe haven for them. Ironically, Balanchine’s art, which turned obsessively on the mystery, unattainability and power of women, developed in a context of homoeroticism. Duberman doesn’t have much to say about this, or about the glimpses of Balanchine’s erotic life in Kirstein’s diaries–the choreographer’s “casual fucking,” “obscene drawings” and interest in “screw[ing] a negress” and, the most astonishing revelation of all, that in 1936 Balanchine got the dancer Holly Howard pregnant and that she had an abortion, a procedure that was not only illegal at the time but also dangerous. One wonders how many other affairs and abortions have vanished from the official annals of Balanchine’s life.

For a gay man of his time, Kirstein lived a remarkably uninhibited and open life. He never came out to his parents, and only toward the end of his life did he intimate in print that he was gay. He stayed in the closet but didn’t hide there, or use it to stash inconvenient lovers and memories. Even during the darkest days of the McCarthy period, he followed his passions–creative, intellectual and erotic. Like Diaghilev, who founded the original Ballets Russes company, Kirstein was a gay hero. He lived to the fullest and left a mark on the culture of his time–the outsider who became the quintessential insider.

Duberman devotes close to 300 pages, about half the book, to Kirstein’s passage through the 1930s. The Kirstein who emerges is a young, impassioned idealist, bursting with ideas for ballets, books and collaborations, an artistic rebel of the upper crust willing to use his wealth, connections and unbounded energy to promote his sometimes idiosyncratic vision. But Duberman’s focus on the ’30s creates a structural imbalance. Kirstein’s activities beginning in the late ’50s and continuing until the early ’70s surely deserve more than the sixty or so pages Duberman allots them. Bouts of mental illness notwithstanding–Kirstein was bipolar and was hospitalized at various points in the ’50s and ’60s–it was in these years that he transformed the New York City Ballet from a precarious avant-garde undertaking into a mainstream cultural institution. He did this by means fair and foul. In 1959 he secured the first of several Ford Foundation grants for the SAB, followed in 1963 by an award of $7.7 million to NYCB and six companies, including two that had been in existence for less than a year, with close ties to NYCB. Unprecedented in the history of American arts patronage, these grants, which continued into the 1970s, conferred legitimacy upon the Kirstein-Balanchine enterprise at the expense of other dance organizations with a claim to foundation largesse. No other company, however, had a Kirstein in its ranks, someone who could pick up the phone and lunch with policy-makers like W. McNeil Lowry, the Ford Foundation vice president who developed the organization’s arts program and later published a two-part profile of Kirstein in The New Yorker.

Kirstein played an even more highhanded role in the machinations surrounding occupancy of the New York State Theater, where NYCB moved in 1964. Intent on securing the house for NYCB rather than sharing it with modern dance and other potential competitors, Kirstein enlisted his old friend Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, to give full control of the theater to City Center, NYCB’s legal “parent,” rather than to Lincoln Center, whose president, the composer William Schuman, wanted at least two permanent dance constituents at the Center. Thus, the Theater for the Dance, as the New York State Theater was often called throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, was transformed from a showcase for both classical and modern dance into a home for NYCB and its City Center sibling, the New York City Opera.

Modern dance suffered an additional humiliation with the 1965 agreement between SAB and the Juilliard School of Music. Signed by Kirstein, Balanchine and Juilliard president Peter Mennin, the agreement nearly destroyed Juilliard’s highly respected dance division and stirred up a storm of negative criticism from the dance world–as did the 1963 Ford Foundation grants and Kirstein’s public opposition to artistic diversity at the New York State Theater. Now that NYCB had entered what Kirstein gleefully called “the Big Time,” both his megalomania and his contempt for modern dance knew no bounds. Even as the world of modern and postmodern dance continued to flourish, he railed against it as a “sideshow” of “oddballs, freaks, and phonies.” Kirstein’s later writing was not only out of step with the dance world but also intellectually irrelevant to the growing community of dance scholars.

Duberman, alas, glosses over these pivotal episodes in Kirstein’s career as a power broker. Far more than in the earlier chapters, the limitations of Duberman’s method–his reliance on Kirstein’s letters and diaries at the expense of secondary sources–are evident, rendering Duberman unable to offer an interpretive corrective to partisan or self-serving claims. Too often, he merely echoes Kirstein’s judgments–i.e., ballet at Juilliard was poor, its dance program “wastefully bungled.” The appointment and dismissal of Robert Lindgren, the founder and longtime director of the dance division of the North Carolina School of the Arts, as president of SAB after Kirstein’s retirement, receives exactly three sentences. Kirstein “eventually saw that he’d made a mistake,” Duberman explains, but given the stories that circulated in the ballet community–that Lindgren had antagonized SAB conservatives by seeking to introduce modern dance classes into the curriculum and modernize the school’s administration–it also seems clear that in the dispute Kirstein refused to stand up to Peter Martins, the Danish premier danseur who had succeeded Balanchine as NYCB artistic director after Balanchine died in 1983.

Duberman’s cursory treatment of this incident, compared with the many pages he devotes to the debates over Balanchine’s successor at NYCB, seems odd, given the centrality of SAB to the Kirstein-Balanchine enterprise and to Kirstein’s elitist vision. He called it the Harvard of ballet, although by the 1990s its reputation as a national academy had slipped and its curriculum, in part because of its rejection of other idioms, had failed to keep pace with changes in professional ballet training elsewhere. Although Kirstein himself was a consummate intellectual, as president of SAB he never insisted that the school introduce an academic component. As he famously told the critic John Russell, “Our kids are taught to have brains in their feet. There may be one or two who’ve opened a book, but I’ve yet to meet them.” Kirstein’s loyalty to Martins in the face of growing attacks on his stewardship of NYCB revealed to what extent he was a company man.

Kirstein was a maverick, a larger-than-life figure who believed in the transcendent power of high art, the cause he served from his teens to his death. He was a patron with the vision of an artist, a power broker with the mind of an intellectual, a modernist fascinated by the idea of legacies and “apostolic” successions. He raised money and spent it generously, along with his considerable energies, on creating an institutional foundation for ballet and an aesthetic identity that earned it a permanent place in the American cultural polity. Like many people, Kirstein started out as a rebel and ended up a pillar of the establishment. He built institutions that will long survive him. His tragedy is that the obsessions of his later years rendered his vision increasingly irrelevant.

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