While searching my shelves for acting and theatre books, I found three old favorites from early in life. They aren’t the only books I’ve owned about remarkable women, but they’re among the earliest and they’re all stage folks, which is a deep part of my inner world. Each is presented as memoir.
THEATRE STREET: The Reminiscences of Tamara Karsavina” with a foreword by J.M. Barrie. (E.P. Dutton: 1931)
ARTIST’S LIFE by Angna Enters (Coward-McCann Inc.: 1958)
MY LIFE by Isadora Duncan (Garden City Publishing Co, 1927)
I was startled to see that Isadora Duncan’s book was bought by my father in June, 1939, which would have been about halfway through my mother’s pregnancy with me. I must have found it at home -- not the library -- and I certainly read it when I was so young that when Duncan rhapsodized about sleeping with her lover, I thought she meant exactly that: sleeping. I didn’t know it was a euphemism because I didn’t know what people actually did when they had intercourse. But she was right -- it IS good to sleep with a lover in both senses. I appreciated Isadora’s appetite for life, no matter where it led, through grief and hardship, glory and adulation.
But why did my father buy that book? In those days one didn’t know the gender of a baby until it was born, but he had some kind of alter ego that he encouraged me to assume once I was arrived and female. It was a thing about princesses or something. My mother was NOT this type, nor was his mother. In fact, my mother was wary of my notion that I should be a veiled dancer, even if it was only wearing window curtains in the backyard. My father never did anything indecent but he would have loved to have been a hippie or bohemian of some kind. Our city bus went to downtown Portland through the part of town that had gypsies and burlesque houses. I expressed interest in the latter and he offered to take me to one as soon as I was of legal age. My mother and I never talked about it, but both our eyebrows went up. (When did HE go there?) I never learned to be sexy -- in fact, counter-sexy.
I wrote my name in the front of “Theatre Street” with green ink, which means I was a teenager. The price was fifty cents. “Angna Enters” was full-price: $5.75 -- also green ink. At Northwestern I saw her on the stage with her solo mime production and was smitten. None of this stuff of being trapped in an invisible box or walking against a wind. Her production featured, for instance, the acting out of the enrobing of a dauphin or a pope -- I forget which now. Layer upon layer of underclothes, slips, petticoats, surcoats, vestments, robes, capes. We were sure we could see each item though we really had no way of knowing what such a person actually wore. Talk about the Empress’ new clothes! I remember that Alvina Krause admired her, but I did not know that Enters had taught in the Stella Adler Studio, a “Method acting” center.
Karsavina moved among famous -- I should say “notorious” -- people like Diaghileff and Nijinsky. Again, I read it innocently with no concept of what was hinted at. If I read it now I would pick up dark subtext. All three of these women talk about Pavlova with awe for that strange mixture of near S/M discipline in a powerful sinewy extended body expressing ethereal yearning love. Karsavina, Duncan and Pavlova are on YouTube. I suppose a movie like “Black Swan” was intended to be a modern version of their lives, but maybe “Being Julia” catches other aspects better. These were grownup women, not teeny-boppers.
These grown woman made life itself their art form, all the while mounting stage and gallery productions that had to mean an investment of hard work and practicalities behind the scenes. Our culture doesn’t admire the type much. Unless it’s played in a movie by Helen MIrren or Vanessa Redgrave: neurotic, sexual, uncommitted to any adult male unless he’s a rich old man or a clever little boy.
Over the years I’ve come to know the sons of such women. Maybe they see me as an attentive, seen-everything, indulgent version of an older woman who is not likely to cling. Someone safe. These guys were attracted to AK as well. They dearly loved their glamorous mothers but found them demanding, even smothering. Still, they loved to watch a woman “enrobe” for an evening out -- in those days it meant garter belts, girdles, maybe corsolettes. Diamonds at night, pearls in the daytime. Earrings had screw-posts that took time to fasten through pierced ears. Chanel or Arpege.
In the Fifties lips were Cherries in the Snow, eyelids were Cleopatra enamel. My high school drama teacher taught me how to pull the eyelid taut to draw a line and put that little eyelash curve at the outside end. Mascara came in a tiny red slide-out box. It was nearly stage makeup. In a Chicago bitter winter I went to the stage door to wait for Vivian Leigh: it was worth it. Black fur held up around a slender little white face with impossibly thick eyelashes. I can understand how such a woman would create a longing to cross-dress. In fact, sometimes yet I feel it myself.
The preface to “Theatre Street” was written by J.M. Barrie, that seemingly innocent but somehow suspect author. He tells this story about her convent-like school: “The girls were counted every day after one of them disappeared with an officer of the Horse Guards, leaving behind her the story of her love adventure which was found long afterwards when a wardrobe was being re-papered. She had written it on an inside wall of this piece of furniture, and the girls who read the narrative said it was thrilling, and, what was more, that there was a dash here and there to be filled in by the reader.”
The other story he tells is a day the Emperor Alexander decided he wanted to eat pancakes with the theatre company to which Karsavina’s father belonged. Trestle tables were set up on the stage, the equipment for the pancakes was brought and Marie Feordorovna herself, in a little apron, put them on the plates. In our high school senior class play, “Anastasia,” I played Marie Feodorovna, Dowager Empress. At one point, as I spoke, I heard someone in the audience sob.
Strange mixtures of sex, mystery, power, consoling domesticity, dress-ups so fabulous that they are at the edge of mockery, and a resisted mother/son dynamic that has nothing to do with King Oedipus. Rather it is some kind of gender-envy that even a plain woman can feel. It is a sharp goad to achievement. They know all about it in Paris.