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Montage | Book Review

An Imperial American

The complex, contradictory Lincoln Kirstein

September-October 2007

Lincoln Kirstein ’30 combined a ferocious intelligence with manic energy, a belief that there was nothing he could not do, and a passionate conviction that if the arts and letters flourished, beauty might save the world.

Kirstein preferred a certain degree of personal ambiguity, if not mystery, which could be attributed to both an underlying shyness and a calculated slyness. In his College class’s senior album, he declined to list his field of study. (It was the fine arts.) During World II, he held the rank of private first class in the United States Army, but it was said that he delayed sewing the stripes on his custom-tailored uniform for as long as possible. Throughout his long tenure as president of the School of American Ballet and general director of the New York City Ballet, he was the formidable master-impresario, the creator and preserver of both institutions, but he seemed gleeful in pointing out that the uninitiated at Lincoln Center “have trouble figuring out who I am.” By the 1980s, however, public recognition of his contributions to literature, the fine arts, and dance had widened to the point that such anonymity was no longer possible. To John Russell, then chief art critic for the New York Times, he was “one of the most valuable of living Americans.” “A living national treasure,” declared Susan Sontag.

Book Review

book cover

Martin Duberman, Ph.D. ’57, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (Knopf, $37.50)

He appeared to dismiss such encomiums, yet Kirstein was intensely self-conscious in every sense of the word, and he had immortal longings. He documented everything he did. He had his own image preserved in oil, tempera, gouache, ink, pencil, and bronze. Guests at 128 East 19th Street in the 1980s had the pulse-quickening experience of conversing with their host against a backdrop of his portraits by Lucien Freud (powerful but unfinished after fisticuffs between subject and artist), Pavel Tchelitchew (a tryptych, including the subject as a standing nude in boxing gloves), Jamie Wyeth (who moved in for months to hone his skill in portraiture, clocking 58 sessions to achieve a likeness in a style reminiscent of Sargent and Eakins), Michael Leonard (Kirstein in khaki with cats), David Langfitt (Kirstein as a retired German submarine commander). Fidelma Cadmus (Kirstein’s wife of 50 years, who depicted him as suspicious and vulnerable), and Martin Mower (his Harvard faculty mentor), as well as an eerie self-portrait done in sanguine on paper when he was an undergraduate. He could be contemplated three-dimensionally in portrait heads by Isamu Noguchi (commissioned by Kirstein while at Harvard) and Gaston Lachaise, who also did a striding nude. These icons kept company with sculptures of Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Kirstein was not inaccurate when he told John Russell: “I’m an imperial American.”

Kirstein made sure that his homes and collections were elegantly photographed and his diaries and correspondence tucked safely into institutions that were likely to endure, particularly the Dance Collection, which he had founded in the 1940s (now part of the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center). Plainly, he wanted future chroniclers of his life to have a comprehensive body of material to help them while they were “figuring out who I am.”

Such a task is not for the faint-hearted. As early as the 1950s, when his achievements were far from over, Kirstein himself had hinted that he might withdraw from the world and produce a five-volume memoir. By the 1980s, his admirers were tantalized when they heard that the working title of “a monumental autobiography” was Memoirs of a Sly Fellow. Instead, in 1986, he published Quarry: A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs, a record of his New York house and idiosyncratic acquisitions, photo graphed by Jerry Thompson and accompanied by an autobiographical narrative. In 1994, less than two years before his death, Kirstein produced Mosaic, a slim, revealing, but not entirely accurate volume that brought his life only to 1933, on the brink of his fateful encounter with Russian choreographer George Balanchine.

Now, in time for the centennial of Kirstein’s birth, Martin Duberman has written a revelatory biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. Those worlds were remarkably disparate, yet Duberman has fully encompassed them in 631 pages, plus an additional 65 pages of notes. This is a tribute to his mastery of the archival sources, his interviews with Kirstein’s contemporaries, his grasp of the evolving American cultural scene, and his ability to construct a convincing psychological profile of a complex and contradictory arbiter of twentieth-century American culture.

Duberman, who is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at the City University of New York, brings to his elucidation of Kirstein’s life a long experience as a prizewinning biographer of other multi-layered American figures: Charles Francis Adams, James Russell Lowell, and Paul Robeson. A novelist and playwright as well, he is skilled at investing his story with drama, and his extensive research on homosexuality in America (he is the author of Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion), allows him to put in context Kirstein’s ever-present sexual adventures, which occasionally involved concurrent affairs with men and women. The diaries Kirstein kept from the age of 12 into the mid 1930s, which have been made available for the first time, allow Duberman to provide Kirstein’s own voice as he lives through adolescence and into the period of his first signifi cant achievements. Like many of his letters, the diaries are explicit; some readers may tire of Kirstein’s preoccupation with his own sexuality. Yet Duberman uses these sources effectively to shed light on the widespread homosexual activity—thoroughly liberated, though of necessity hidden—of the intellectual elite of Kirstein’s generation.

More enlightening, however, is what these sources reveal about his relentless artistic and literary pursuits. From the opening sentence about Rose Stein’s determination to marry Louis Kirstein against the wishes of her wealthy merchant family, Duberman keeps the narrative flowing. The prose—and even the notes—are dense with quotations, and the casual reader may not choose to linger over them all. But the book is a treasure trove for those who seek an intimate knowledge of how the brilliant, hypersensitive, occasionally enraged, and more often generous son of a self-made department-store magnate became an irresistible force—first among Harvard’s jeunesse dorée and then on a more conspicuous stage.

As Duberman demonstrates in hitherto unpublished detail, Kirstein was congenitally independent and compulsively productive. In 1928, as a sophomore, he launched Hound & Horn, one of the most thought-provoking literary magazines of its era. As a junior, along with classmates Edward M.M. Warburg and John Walker III, he brought forth the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, introducing many of the most significant twentieth-century artists to Boston for the first time. In significant ways, the Museum of Modern Art was its successor. At Harvard, Kir stein also concluded that the one perfect medium that would bring all the arts together was the dance. Three years after graduation, with the help of the Wads worth Atheneum’s director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., and other modernists he had met at Harvard, he arranged for the immigration of George Balanchine to America. Through the School of American Ballet and its company, which evolved into the New York City Ballet, he and Balanchine created in the United States a renaissance in classical dancing. During Kirstein’s 88 years, he supported individual artists and museum exhibitions, served as an invaluable member of the Monuments Commission that retrieved much of the art looted by the Nazis, assisted in the creation of Lincoln Center and the American Shakespeare Festival, arranged the first American tour of the Japanese Grand Kabuki, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Birmingham, and published more than 15 books and 500 pamphlets, articles, and program notes.

Duberman’s book moves chronologically, but he wisely focuses each chapter on a distinct subject for clarity (“Nijinsky,” “The Museum of Modern Art,” “Japan”). As is often inevitable in a work of this magnitude, there are occasional inaccuracies: in my own field, I know that the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford was not part of the Wadsworth Atheneum, nor was Hartford’s first significant collector of modern art, James Thrall Soby, connected with the Museum of Modern Art during the period in which he is first mentioned. But these are minor blemishes in what will surely be regarded as a definitive work.

Throughout the book, Duberman perceptively addresses Kirstein’s prodigious literary output on dance, painting, sculpture, photography, movies, biography, history, and poetry, acknowledging that his writing style ranged from lyrical clarity to language so compressed and arcane that it amounted to intellectual arrogance. As Duberman shows, the real Kirstein came through in his diaries and correspondence, never more authentically than in the two letters he wrote in the summer of 1933 when suddenly, with pulsating clarity, he saw Balanchine, the future of dance in America, and his own destiny coalesce and begged Chick Austin to help him: “This is the most important letter I will ever write you as you will see. My pen burns my hand as I write. Words will not flow into the ink fast enough. We have a real chance to have an American ballet within 3 yrs. time….Do you know George Balanchine…the most ingenious technician in ballet I have ever seen….Please, please Chick if you have any love for anything we both do adore, rack your brains and try to make this all come true….We have the future in our hands…” [and later] “This will be no collection, but living art—and the chance for perfect creation.”

Duberman’s monumental story ends on a somber note when the failing, bedridden Kirstein loses all interest in looking at the books on art that he had loved. Yet readers will have no doubt that on certain nights—from his seat at the New York State Theater, as he watched the dancers materialize on stage and bring to life one of George Balanchine’s miraculous gifts to the world—Kirstein knew that he was in the presence of the “perfect creation” that would not have happened without him.

Eugene R. Gaddis, the DeLana archivist and curator of the Austin House at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is the author of Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America and editor of the forthcoming Magic Façade: The Austin House.