- Historic Sites
1922 Seventy-five Years Ago
Topless Body in Humorless Town
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
On October 1 Isadora Duncan, the world-renowned pioneer of modern dance, arrived in New York City to begin her latest American tour. The trip started poorly when Duncan and her new husband, the Russian poet Sergei Esenin, were detained on suspicion of being Bolshevik agents. According to possibly embroidered recollections, Esenin had to promise not to sing the “Internationale,” and the promoter Sol Hurok was stripped naked in search of subversive literature before officials let them go.
Duncan began the tour with four well-received appearances at Carnegie Hall. As an orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav , she depicted the hardships of serfdom and the joys of liberation. In speeches afterward she appealed for goodwill toward the Soviet Union, to loud applause.
Boston, her next stop, was less receptive to Duncan’s mix of art and politics than Communist-friendly New York. Her costume was too brief and diaphanous for the staid Bostonians, and when she finished dancing—whether provoked by the audience’s tepid applause, too much Prohibition liquor, or her ever-uninhibited nature—Duncan felt moved to enlighten Boston on its lack of culture.
She mocked the plaster sculptures of Greek gods that ringed Symphony Hall: “They are false and you are as false as these statues.” She decried the “hidebound conventions that are the warp and woof of New England puritanism” and said, “Life is not real here.” Then she capped the speech by exposing one of her breasts and crying, “This—this is beauty!” The newspapers raised a furor, and Mayor James Curley reacted in traditional Boston fashion, banning future performances by Duncan to protect “the decent element of the community.”
In Indianapolis Duncan encountered another hostile mayor, Lew Shank, who came across uncannily like a Sinclair Lewis caricature: “Isadora ain’t fooling me any. She talks about art. Huh! I’ve seen a lot of these twisters and I know as much about art as any man in America, but I never went to see these dances for art’s sake. No, sir, I’ll bet 90 per cent of the men, or even 95 per cent, who go to see these socalled classical dances just say they think it’s artistic to fool their wives. … If she goes pulling off her clothes and throwing them in the air … there’s going to be somebody getting a ride in the wagon.”
Cleveland was cosmopolitan by comparison, treating Duncan to nothing worse than indifference. The poet Hart Crane, then an advertising copy-writer, wrote a friend that Duncan’s performance had been “glorious beyond words … a wave of life, a flaming gale that passed over the heads of the nine thousand in the audience without evoking response other than silence and some maddening cat-calls. … Glorious to see her there with her right breast and nipple quite exposed,” wrote the homosexual Crane.
In early February the San Francisco- born Duncan left “stupid, penurious, ignorant America” for the last time. Before her departure she criticized such American customs as monogamy (“What a preposterous thing that a woman should give children to the world by only one father!”), Prohibition (“Some of the liquor I drank here would kill an elephant”), and insufficient appreciation of Isadora Duncan (“I have been in sad financial straits in America. That is one grudge I feel towards my country”). Finally, she said, Americans “know nothing of Food, of Love, of Art.” With that she set off for the land of black bread and borscht, where her alcoholic, abusive husband would abandon her for a granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. Duncan’s commitment to Art, however, remained undiminished until her accidental death in 1927.