Fabulous Fabulist

The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein BY Martin Duberman. Knopf. Hardcover, 736 pages. $37.

The cover of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

As every published writer learns, the regrets of authorship come to matter more: Time’s passage qualifies the enormity of our misdeeds, but our misjudgments, enshrined in print, assume a treacherous immortality, testifying to our fallibility not simply after we are silent but in theory until the day mankind is engulfed in analphabetic extinction. All it takes is one blatant rhyme to betray the elliptical poet, one cheap anachronism to corrupt convincing historical fiction—and one alluring but unsubstantiated anecdote to compromise eternally the scrupulous reconstructions of the biographer.

If only I had maintained my vigilance when researching my biography of Hart Crane and longing for the discovery of just one sailor beloved by the poet whose destiny was wedded to the sea. If only I had heeded the soft but skeptical voice that spoke when that sailor finally appeared—the artless enchanter, it transpired, not only of Crane but of Lincoln Kirstein, who devoted a chapter of his autobiography to the seafarer’s charms. If only I had tested that chapter before quoting it to someone who had known Kirstein as a young man. But by the time I met the editor in the early 1940s of Kirstein’s magazine Dance Index, it was too late. Donald Windham at once said out loud what the admonitory voice had always whispered— that even if the germ of the story was true, here in all essentials was a dramatization, since the photograph of the “sailor” was an anachronistic studio portrait and his conversation and life story were implausible, for all the carefully strewn minutiae of his waterfront life. But by then, there was no redress: Hart Crane (2002) had been published, complete with Kirstein’s fantasy, and all I could do was ponder aghast the change I had brought about— for under my supervision, an imposter had stolen into the poet’s life, and there forever he will remain, another sea-spume figment in a career that spawned so many.

Not that I blame Kirstein—it was his life to lead and his to reinvent, despite the ambition he declared to restrict his “natural gifts for drama” to the stage “rather than mixing them up with life.” We often renounce in maturity the vices that exhilarate our youth, but for Kirstein the embellishment of experience apparently proved too much to surrender: Mosaic, his autobiography, appeared in 1994 and demonstrated—as Martin Duberman fondly puts it in The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein—the extent to which, two years before his death, “the fantasist and trickster in Lincoln overpowered the historical stickler.” Yet one wonders why Kirstein thought his reminiscences required embroidery. If Knopf’s claim that Kirstein was among “the most crucial cultural figures” of the last century seems a trifle inflationary, his achievement in bringing America and the ballet together, to the enchantment of one and the reinvigoration of the other, is incontestable. Whatever is said against him, moreover—and much has been preferred— Kirstein had the courage of his convictions: He sponsored the introduction largely with his own money.

Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein, 1937, oil on canvas. On view in “Lincoln Kirstein” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through August 27.
Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein, 1937, oil on canvas. On view in “Lincoln Kirstein” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through August 27.

Born in 1907 in Rochester, New York, he was the second of three children: His sister, Mina, was a lifelong confidante, and his brother, George, a youthful sexual partner and later financial adviser whose expertise husbanded the fortune essential to a lifetime of patronage. The money derived from their father, who in 1911 became a partner in Filene’s, then a modest Boston clothing company, and helped transform it into one of the world’s largest department stores, emerging in the process as a major stockholder, a paragon of New England commerce, a board member of the Boston Public Library, an intermittent champion of Zionism, and a friend of Supreme Court justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. New England’s country clubs and educational establishments were not always open to a man with friends in Washington, however, and Louis Kirstein, a nonobservant Jew, had to found a club in order to play golf, and pull strings before any prestigious schools would consider his children. Harvard itself was increasingly, if unofficially, exclusionary, but Lincoln nevertheless gained admission on his third attempt, in 1926, by which time he was becoming what he termed a “false gentile” and developing an almost Proustian ambivalence about the old Boston dynasties whose citadels he could enter but never penetrate.

For Kirstein, however, ambivalence would not become the stuff of art. He attempted fiction—the published novels failing to satisfy an impulse still playful in the senescent autobiographer—but his destiny was as a patron rather than a creator, a destiny he embraced as an undergraduate with the establishment of Hound and Horn in 1927 and the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art in 1929. The former, an avant-garde literary magazine with associate editors as distinguished as Ezra Pound, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters, survived until 1934 and—despite rejecting Hart Crane’s “The Tunnel”—was hospitable to many writers of future renown. The latter, eager to reconcile Beacon Hill to modernism and from its inception receptive to American and European innovation alike, was an inspiration for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Hence Kirstein’s presence on that body’s Junior Committee, where he engineered a photographic exhibition devoted to Walker Evans and a mural show conceived as the cavernous lobbies of Rockefeller Center neared completion. Both ventures were concerned with the encouragement of American artists, but if the photography exhibition established Evans and further legitimized the camera, the mural show revealed all too clearly the Depression’s early indoctrination of art and portended the notorious confrontation in May 1933 over the mural in the RCA Building between Diego Rivera and Nelson Rockefeller.

Kirstein himself patronized numerous artists—but the work of Gaston Lachaise, Paul Cadmus, Isamu Noguchi, Pavel Tchelitchew, and his other beneficiaries was in practice a corollary to the demands of a more fugitive beauty, a beauty first divulged when he saw Pavlova in New York in 1920 and defined when he met the choreographer George Balanchine in 1933. Ballet, Balanchine suggested, was “a breath, a memory gone,” and to Kirstein, whose life fed on impermanence—on itinerancy, casual sex, abrupt severances, and the restless espousal of ideas—his words had the force of a spell. Kirstein urged Balanchine to abandon Paris and, like a missionary among pagans, to bring ballet to America; when the Russian arrived in New York a few months later, the two men began a collaboration that was vindicated in 1948 with the appointment of their troupe as the New York City Ballet. In the interim, and well into the 1950s, when the NYCB was internationally acclaimed and widely mooted as a likely tenant of Lincoln Center, there were innumerable tantrums, sprained ankles, and financial crises, all of which Duberman chronicles with dutiful, if not laborious, detail. But biography addresses historical context as well as quotidian frustration, and there is nothing here of the legend and traditions of the Russian Imperial Ballet or Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, implicit though they were in Balanchine’s choreography, and nothing of the developments of Kirstein’s boyhood that set the stage for later balletomanes, developments that included the American debuts of Pavlova and Nijinsky in 1910 and 1916 and the pioneering dance criticism that they inspired in Kirstein’s friend Carl Van Vechten.

A biography of this length could surely have accommodated such background, just as it should have included a greater breadth of opinion about its subject. Kirstein knew many distinguished figures in the arts on both sides of the Atlantic, yet one somehow closes this book without knowing what any of them, even his sometime lover, mentor and mother-confessor, the bohemian hostess Muriel Draper, really thought of him. By contrast, we are seldom left in doubt as to what he thought of them, since Duberman, relying on his subject’s letters and diaries to propel a narrative that should have been more equitably apportioned, too often gives Kirstein the last word. But that, it seems, is what he liked: Even the most casual student of mid-twentieth-century American culture, having read of Kirstein’s significance, soon hears also that he was despotic with underlings— not to say snobbish, disagreeable, and cruel to his wife, the poignant Fidelma Cadmus, no less a cipher here than she was in her marriage.

Instead of confronting these allegations and trusting to Kirstein’s achievements to balance them, Duberman proposes to honor him as much for what he was as for what he did and accordingly supplies a detailed account of his credentials as a modern archetype. He attempts, in other words, to trace a life of allegory, a technique that in Paul Robeson, his outstanding biography of 1989, allowed him to suggest the defining tragedy of American history. Here the epic implied is that of tortured twentieth-century man redeemed by intellectual and doctrinal openness—what saved Kirstein, as he contended with thwarted creativity, homosexuality, bouts of severe depression, and unresolved ethnicity, was his Whitmanian capacity for reconciling antithesis and contradiction, a capacity, the text insists repeatedly, that “makes him feel like a contemporary.” Readers will decide for themselves on the validity of this equation, noting along the way Duberman’s nervous excuses every time his subject forgets his contemporary significance with a politically incorrect thought or deed. In the meantime, reading Kirstein himself, they should remember that besides embracing innovation and tradition, Bolshevism and Judaism, order and chaos, he sought also to reconcile the opposing claims of memoir and novel, fact and fiction.

Clive Fisher is the author of biographies of Hart Crane and Cyril Connolly. He is at work on a biographical study of Carl Van Vechten