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Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Topless Body in
Humorless Town

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.

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