Martin Dubermans The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein portrays the New York legends lust for life, artistic idealism, and inner conflicts.
The saga of a protean gay icon
By Michael Ehrhardt
The challenge presented for a reviewer of Martin Dubermans authoritative The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein remains a mere bagatelle compared to what must have been a genuinely daunting exercise for the biographer of such a protean subject. Indeed, the 700-plus pages seem hardly enough to contain a life so rich and influential in the arts of our great city, and a personality so expansive and forceful, that his vibrant legacy lives on in Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet, and the Museum of Modern Art all which he helped create. However, Duberman, the out and about prize-winning author of numerous non-fiction books, including Paul Robeson, Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion, and Cures: A Gay Mans Odyssey, and the play In White America, for which he won the Drama Desk Award, is supremely up to the task of portraying his subjects lust for life, artistic idealism, and inner conflicts.
Although Kirstein had published his own recollections in his lifetime, Duberman draws on previously unavailable sources and private diaries to flesh out his subject. Imagine a gay Jewish dynamo, with the driving ambition of a Roy Cohen, but minus the pathological self-hatred, and, as in Kirsteins own estimation of himself, endowed with a heart
full of affection
waiting to be spilled over; where Cohen made a pact with the devil and will live in infamy, Kirsteins expansive soul was on the side of the angels, and lives on in his monumental legacy.
Duberman tracks the odyssey of the son of a wealthy, liberal, assimilationist Jewish family, growing up in the very bosom of anti-Semitic Brahmin Boston, whose egalitarian father Louis sympathized with the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti, and was eventually accepted into partnership in Filenes landmark department store. In the first chapter, Growing Up, we get a first glimpse into Kirsteins indomitable, neurotically high strung nature, which will serve him well, and often hobble him, throughout his expansive career.
Louis Kirstein, deciding his first born son should be circumcised, calls in the family doctor instead of the traditional mohel, to carry out the procedure, but after botching the job, septicemia set in, and Lincoln nearly dies. To save him, the sweat glands in his groin were surgically removed, leaving physical and psychological scars, locker-room concealments, and castration nightmares that would haunt Lincoln into adolescence.
In 1920, at the age of thirteen, Lincoln was allowed to go to New York, accompanied by his vaguely disreputable sissy cousin Nat Wolfe, then a junior at Harvard, to see Anna Pavlova
(H)e was entirely smitten (she was wonderful); Duberman writes, he and Nat went back five nights in a row and the consuming passion of Lincolns life was born.
Through his fathers insistent wrangling, Lincoln attended all the right schools, such as the elite Exeter Academy, which he attended on a trial basis, and where he felt alienated, and later to Harvard. No doubt, a lot of Lincolns inner conflicts and bi-polar depression resulted from his square-hole-round-peg status. Being Jewish and gay in an ivy-league Episcopalian institution made him an outsider twice over, at an impressionable point in life.
At Harvard, gangly, introspective, and sexually ambivalent, Kirstein admires and is erotically attracted to the sportive all fair and beautiful students, whom he calls The Lads, who came mostly from upper-class, and were instinctively commanding and assured, marked by a graceful athleticism, depthless self-satisfaction, and an entire lack of interest in introspection. Kirstein, an avid diary keeper, keeps a running tally of his sexual conquests.
As an outlet for his pent up artistic nature and restless ambition, he puts together an avant-garde magazine, Hound and Horn, for new literary voices. Sloughing off negative predictions, Kirstein sets the ambitious, tenacious tone that will serve him well in all his future endeavors.
Though Lincoln could get flustered and overwrought, he had a core self-confidence that belied his outward agitation, Duberman observes. As he wrote in his 1927 diary, Whatever situation I may put myself in given enough time I feel sure my innate sense and past experience will pull me through.
From this point on, the chapter titles chart the course of Kirsteins phenomenal career from Museum of Modern Art, to Ballet and Nijinsky, detailing his attempt to publish a definitive biography in collaboration with Romola, the wife of the famous Russian dancer, and Balanchine. Even while forming what would become the New York City Ballet, Kirstein writes a book, Dance on the history of ballet!
Having turned twenty-eight on May 4,1935, he was more intent than ever on carving out an individual reputation apart from his behind-the-scenes role as the promoter of the talents of others, Duberman writes. Throughout the spring and summer of 1935, he bent his energies towards producing what would become the first comprehensive study in English chronicling dance history from ancient times down through the choreography of Balanchine. He succeeded brilliantly, producing an erudite work of wide-ranging commentary that placed dance performance within the cultural and political contexts from which it emerged. Distinguished dance historian, Nancy Reynolds, in a 1986 re-issue, pointed out that Dance appeared at a time when scholarship on the subject was virtually nonexistent, and asserted that in its quality of thought and powers of synthesis it has still not been superseded
One of the most stunning chapters, The Army, deserves a book all its own. It involves Kirsteins recovery of the Adoration of the Lamb, the so-called Ghent Altarpiece, the famous polyptych, by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck 1426-1432, which had been confiscated during the war by the Germans and hidden in a salt mine loaded with dynamite at Alt Ausee in Austria. Not only did they find the Ghent Altarpiece, but also, over the next few days, a multiplicity of other treasures that included paintings by Fragonard, Watteau
and, lying on a mattress covered with a piece of asphalt paper, Michelangelos marble Madonna from Bruges.
Later chapters detail the formation of the New York City Ballet, and Kirsteins sleepless nights over premieres such as Illuminations, Frederick Ashtons ballet about Rimbaud to music of Benjamin Britten, and Jerome Robbins Age of Anxiety, to music of Leonard Bernstein.
Even in debilitated old age in the mid-1990s, Kirstein was very much on the qui vive from his home on 19th Street where he lived with his beloved cats. He also commissioned Robert La Fosse to choreograph a childrens ballet for SAB, based on Puss in Boots. According to La Fosse, Kirstein actively contributed ideas to the project and sat in on rehearsals. When performed at SAB, the ballet was warmly received, but was never taken into the companys repertory, perhaps because La Fosse and Peter Martins had an adversarial relationship.
Politics and the interference of an arrogant moneyed Philistine, the pushy Ann Bass, finally managed to lay low the old Wotan of Lincoln Center. Although he would have remained active in New York City Ballet, Duberman writes that Kirstein felt deeply hurt at the attempt by (Bass, and others) to put him out to pasture, a hurt compounded by his antagonists lack of historical understanding of the struggles and setbacks that had finally brought NYCB to its current international status.
Kudos to Duberman for keeping Kirsteins name alive into the 21st century, where there is still no sign of another triple threat like our Lincoln.