Isadora and Essenine
IN Berlin I put an advertisement in the English newspaper and then left for Berg Dievenow, a tiny fishing village on the Baltic, where my fifty dollars would last me for a long, long time. A week later I had a wire in response to my advertisement. It was signed ‘Isadora Duncan.‘
It was n’t Isadora at all, however, who was awaiting me at the Berlin address mentioned in the telegram. It was a young American boy — an art student, I believe — by the name of Miltoun. He introduced himself as Isadora’s friend and we went out to a café to discuss the business. He had seen my advertisement, he explained, and, knowing Isadora’s predicament in not being able to talk to her Russian husband, he thought I might do for a secretary. And now he was to decide whether or not I should do. . . .
We talked and we drank coffee while this young man was sizing me up for the job of being Isadora’s and Essenine’s secretary. After half an hour’s conversation, which covered a great deal of territory, from Bolshevism to art, he exclaimed: —
‘You will do! You are just what she needs. And all those languages . . . splendid! Now let’s go and send the wire. Can you leave to-night? She is in Wiesbaden, you know. And let me tell you something,’ he added confidentially, ‘don’t take too much luggage. Isadora is always on the go. She may tell you she wants to stay a week in some town, and a couple of hours later you will find you are leaving.’ Prophetic words!
We parted with a handshake. I rushed to my hotel, packed, and took the next train for Wiesbaden.
Next morning, rather breathlessly, I knocked at the door of Isadora’s suite at the Hotel Rose. A pleasant voice said, ‘Come in,’ and I entered.
A fat, middle-aged woman in a salmon-colored negligee was reclining gracefully on the couch. She had a small head with Titian curls, a beautiful but cruel mouth, and sentimental eyes; she spoke with a sort of clipped accent. When she rose, later, and began to move about the room, I saw that she was not fat or middle-aged; she was beautiful, she had an innate, a marvelous grace. This was Isadora. . . .
After a while a young man in white silk pyjamas came out of the adjoining bedroom. He looked like a Russian dancer from an American vaudeville show; pale golden, curly hair, naïve eyes of cornflower blue, and the grace of a very strong, muscular body. This was Essenine. . . . Later I discovered that he was not always naïve. He was sly, too, and suspicious, and instinctively clever. And he was very sensitive, just like a child, and full of twists and complexes — a peasant and a poet, both.
After their marriage in Moscow, Isadora and Essenine had flown to Berlin. There he was fêted by the Russian art colony in a series of real Russian libations which finally affected his health. It even began to affect Isadora, who could stand more than he and who, in the days when I knew her, was actually the better for a few drinks — more mellow and charming. However, I believe she was a little jealous of all these numerous noisy Russians and their boisterous adoration. So she took Essenine to Wiesbaden for a rest and a cure. It was here that the doctor who examined Essenine told her that his condition was serious; he must stop drinking for at least two or three months, or she would have a maniac on her hands. Essenine, who had just had a sort of nervous breakdown and was suffering from neuritis, promised to comply with the doctor’s orders.
All this I learned from Isadora a few days after I joined them in Wiesbaden. I understood then, too, why Essenine’s face was so gray and his lips blue, and why he was often so terribly tense. He had been drinking for several years, drinking heavily, as most Russians do, and this sudden complete stop must have been a bad strain on his nerves. And Isadora’s love, very tender and kind, was also a bit too smothering and devouring. It must have been but another shackle or strain to the savage and sensitive poet. ... I understood, but Isadora, unfortunately, did n’t, and the complications which arose thereupon were manifold. . . .
I had been with Isadora and Essenine fully a month before I saw her dance. It was in Brussels, where she had a three-day engagement. I must confess that as the day drew near my curiosity and excitement were tinged with an odd feeling of fear: Isadora was middle-aged and almost corpulent, and, although the inimitable grace which imbued her every movement had already captured my imagination, I was actually frightened that when I saw her dance I might be disappointed. This, I felt, would be nothing short of a calamity. Also, she had only a few short days of actual preparation or exercise. Throughout the weeks that I had been with her, I had never seen her take the least precautions in her diet, or practise or do any of the things that dancers are said to do.
When I got to the theatre, it was crowded, and the atmosphere was charged with that anticipatory tenseness which is present when an audience expects a big thrill. The curtains parted and revealed an empty stage, save for an upright in the corner, with the pianist seated at it. Around the stage were draped Isadora’s famous blue curtains.
When the inevitable murmurs and noises had subsided, the pianist started to play. From the opposite corner the blue curtains parted ever so lightly and Isadora appeared.
And now I am coming to the hardest part of my story, for how can anyone ever describe the magic that was her dance? All I remember now is that I sat in that box in a rapture which one can compare only to a sort of religious exaltation. All my absurd fears vanished as if they had never been. I was filled with joy and a profound humility before this miracle of beauty.
If someone asked me to describe the individual dances I should also be hard put to it. Each dance was like a little, rounded-out composition or poem, charged with emotion and meaning. There never seemed a single unnecessary gesture or movement: like all geniuses, she seemed to achieve a maximum effect with a minimum of means. There was not anything, of course, that could be called ‘pretty’ or ‘frilly’; every line was of divine simplicity and beauty. In the final analysis, I should even hesitate to call it dancing, for, although the range of the various movements varied from the very slowest motions to some really high jumps, there was never such a thing as a ‘step.’ One movement flowed out of another as inevitably and naturally as the leaves grow on a tree, and each dance was one beautiful, undulating line, a magic fluidity of motions of which each single one, arrested, would have revealed a composition worthy of the greatest sculptor.
Withal, though hardly any of the dances could be definitely labeled, they were full of profound meaning. They seemed to reveal all the different emotions through which a human being, or humanity itself, passes in a lifetime. They were universal. There was one Chopin prelude, for instance, in which Isadora merely walked from one end of the stage to the other. How to describe these dozen steps that were yet one continuous line? It might have been called ‘Despair, Death, and Resurrection’; or ‘Sorrow and Joy.’ It started at medium strength, ebbed to a point of complete stillness, gained vigor, and slowly reached a climax. There was the famous Schubert ‘Moment Musical,’ where all the beautiful emotions of motherhood seemed consecrated in a few simple, unforgettable motions. Who can ever forget the inimitable grace of her lovely arms with which she seemed to rock a baby, those poor arms which had been empty so long? And then the Brahms waltzes — one in particular where Isadora was like a Goddess of Joy strewing flowers around her. I could have sworn I saw children on the stage — there where I knew was nothing but the bare rug, where Isadora smiled and danced, bending joyously right and left. It was pure magic. . . .
One does n’t need a language to make love; one does n’t even need many words for ordinary daily intercourse. A few words and some pantomime can accomplish a lot. But in an argument we all like to prove our point and we all like to drive it home.
While in Russia, Isadora had picked up a sort of Russian, a quaint language of her own, twisted, naïve, and broken, but very charming, which quite sufficed for everyday use with Essenine. As a matter of fact he liked it enormously, as I did also, and sometimes when we talked together we used some of Isadora’s quaint expressions for the fun of it. However, in a serious discussion of any kind this pidgin Russian was wholly inadequate. That is where I came in, translating for both of them.
Isadora and Essenine were talking of art. Said Essenine: —
‘A dancer can never become very great, because her fame does n’t last. It is gone the moment she dies.’
‘No,’ said Isadora, ‘for a dancer, if she is great, can give to the people something that they will carry with them forever. They can never forget it, and it has changed them, though they may not know it.’
‘But when they are gone, Isadora? These people who have seen her? Dancers are like actors: one generation remembers them; the next reads about them; and the third knows nothing.‘
I was translating and Isadora listened with that perfect attention and sympathy she always had for Essenine. He got up slowly, leaned against the wall, and folding his arms, a habit he had when talking, looked at her tenderly and said: —
‘You are just a dancer. People may come and admire you — even cry. But after you are dead no one will remember. Within a few years all your great fame will be gone. ... No Isadora!’
All this he said in Russian, for me to translate, but the last two words he said in the English intonation, straight into Isadora’s face, with a very expressive, mocking motion of his hands, as if he had waved the remnants of the mortal Isadora to the four winds. . . . ‘But poets live,’ he continued, still smiling. ‘I, Essenine, shall leave my poems behind me. And poems live. Poems like mine live forever.’
Beneath the obvious mockery and teasing tone there was something extraordinarily cruel. A shadow passed over Isadora’s face as I translated what he said. Quickly she turned to me, her voice very serious: —
‘Tell him he is wrong; tell him he is wrong. I have given people beauty. I have given them my very soul when I danced. And this beauty did not die. It exists somewhere. . . .’
Suddenly she had tears in her eyes and she added in her pitiful, childish Russian: —
‘Krasota nie umiray.’ (‘Beauty not dies.’)
But Essenine, already completely satisfied with the effect of his words, — for there seemed in him often a morbid desire to hurt Isadora or to belittle her, — became all gentleness. With a characteristic gesture, he pulled Isadora’s curly head toward him and patted her on the back, saying mockingly, ‘ Ekh, Duncan.’ . . . Isadora smiled. All was forgiven.
Thinking it might be time for me to retire, I strolled to the window and, waiting for a minute or so, said casually, as if the scene I saw out there had just suggested it to my mind, that I would go down to the beach.
‘Oh, don’t go yet,’ said Isadora; and with a dry little smile, but complete good humor, she added: ‘Sergei might want to say more sweet things to me and you will have to translate, you know.’
I stayed. Isadora went out to sit on the balcony and Essenine picked up a book. Presently he lifted his face, his eyes shiny and bright, and said: —
‘There is no one like Pushkin, after all. What beauty! Listen.’ And he read a little poem — four lines. I remembered it, for I had it in school. But I had never realized how beautiful it was until I heard Essenine say it. He read another, then a third, and went into raptures over these simple, beautiful lines of Russia’s most famous classic poet. . . .
Then there came a poem with the word ‘God’ in it, and, remembering something funny, Essenine grinned and said: —
‘The Bolsheviks have forbidden the use of “God” in print, you know. They even got out a decree to that effect. Once when I sent in some poems the editor returned them to me requesting that all the “Gods” be replaced by other words. . . . Other words!’
I laughed and asked him what he did.
‘Oh, I just took my gun and went to the fellow and told him he would have to print the stuff as it was, decree or no decree. He refused, so I asked him whether he had ever had his mug beaten, and then I went into the composing room and reset the type myself. That’s all.’
Hearing the murmur of our voices and our laughter, Isadora returned from the balcony and wanted to know what it was all about. I told her briefly.
For a moment she said nothing, and then, to my surprise, she said in Russian : —
‘But Bolsheviki right. No God. Old. Silly.’
Essenine grinned and said with mock irony, as if talking to a child that was trying to be clever and grown-up: —
*Ekh, Isadora! Viedz vsio oi Boga. Poezya i dazhe Tvoyee tantsy,’ (‘Oh, Isadora! Why, everything comes from God. All poetry, and even your dances.’)
‘No, no,’ replied Isadora with great intensity, in English. ‘Tell him that my gods are Beauty and Love. There are no others, How do you know there is God? The Greeks knew this a long time ago. People invent gods to please themselves. There are no others. There is nothing beyond what we know, what we invent or imagine. All the hell is right here on earth. And all paradise.’
She was standing upright, like a caryatid, beautiful, magnificent, and fearful. And suddenly she stretched out her arm and, pointing to the bed, said in Russian, with tremendous force:—
‘ Vot Bog!’ (‘This is God!’)
Slowly her arm came down. She turned and went back to the balcony. Essenine sat in his chair, pale, silent, and completely annihilated. I ran out on the beach and lay down on the sand and cried, though for the life of me I could not have told why. . . .
Isadora had a trunk — one of the eleven with which she traveled in those days. It held all of her love letters, the books she most cherished, innumerable photographs, and the programmes of her recitals and clippings about them from newspapers. It was, in short, a sort of résumé, a printed résumé, of Isadora’s life: her life as an artist and her life as a woman — or shall I say courtesan? For I think she was the greatest courtesan of our times, in the rich, grand old sense of this word.
Well, there was that trunk. And there was I — in charge of it, so to speak. And I did n’t do much about it. Isadora would say: ‘Oh, I wish you would get at this trunk some day and straighten it all out. It’s a dreadful mess.’ And I, thinking of it as a job, just a job of sorting out a lot of old, musty stuff, would say: ‘I will. Just as soon as I can get a whole free day to do it. I have to go to the bank this morning and see the French Consul in the afternoon.’ And thus I kept putting it off, putting off the job!
Then, one day in Düsseldorf, I tackled the thing. I spread myself generously on the floor of Isadora’s salon and began to put the stuff in separate little piles: books, magazines, letters, old contracts, and funny odd scraps of writing in Isadora’s characteristic, almost illegible hand. They were precious scraps — her thoughts on the dance, on art, on the education of children. Some of them are probably now embodied in that lovely book of hers, which Sheldon Cheney edited after her death, gathering in it all of her expressions and convictions about her art. It is a beautiful book, holding in its grand pages the very essence and spirit of Isadora’s thought, and those who think that she was merely an eccentric dancer and a courtesan should read it and discover the great artist. . . .
There were programmes innumerable in all the languages of the world; there were thousands of press clippings — bunches of them in rubber bands and stray ones which fluttered about the trunk and the room. There were packets of letters and many single ones, letters beginning with ‘Dearest’ and ‘Darling’ and ‘My very own,’ which I sorted according to their handwriting and which I did n’t read. And then there were the photographs — of many men; clever men, old men, middle-aged men, and young men. Beautiful young men.
Never had I seen so many beautiful photographs in my life, so many fascinating faces. There was one which still haunts me to this day. It was the face of a young man, and there was in it that ultimate refinement of features, a blending of masculine strength and sheer, tender beauty, which happens once in a million times. I looked at it for a long time and finally put it down on its pile — face downwards. I put them face downwards, for once during that long afternoon Essenine came in and, seeing all the photos of the handsome men, he grew pale and his eyelids grew pink, which was a sign that he was vexed.
It was late in the afternoon when I got through. Everything was sorted in neat, separate piles, and among these I sat on, dreaming. . . . Isadora had had such a rich life, so many affairs. Some of them must have been real and she must have been hurt. . . . And she had had two lovely children and had lost them, but still she went on, still she enjoyed life. She had Essenine, I thought. . . . She is forty-eight and she is young. She is younger than I, for she is alive and I am dead — I have been dead since I left that room in Warsaw where I once had prayed: ‘Dead God, don’t let me ever love any more! Please, God, don’t let me feel!’ I am not going to be dead any more; I am going to try to be alive. . . .
And so I sat there, dreaming.
‘Heavens, what a mess!’ said Isadora when she returned. ‘How are you getting along?’
‘Beautifully, just beautifully,’ I said. ‘I have just figured out how I can put some order into this stuff.’ But I did n’t tell Isadora that her trunk had also helped me to put a little order into my own soul. It was n’t exactly a thing one could talk about. . . .
(To be continued)