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Isadora Duncan’s San Francisco
by Susan Saperstein
Isadora Duncan is considered the mother of Modern Dance. Her dance movements were borrowed from Ancient Greece, and she danced in flowing costumes, bare feet, and loose hair—revolutionary at the time. Although she created her reputation in Europe and Russia, Isadora Duncan started in San Francisco. She was born Dora Angela Duncan in 1877 and baptized at Old St. Mary’s Church on California Street. Her family home at 501 Taylor Street near Geary was adjacent to a vacant lot where they kept their cow. The present day building on the site hosts a commemorative plaque. Isadora’s maternal grandfather, Colonel Thomas Gray, was a California State senator and established the first ferry between San Francisco and Oakland in 1850. Her father, Joseph Charles Duncan, was a connoisseur of the arts and had a life as colorful as his daughter’s. He had a number of professions, including newspaper editor and publisher, jewelry raffler, real estate developer, and banker—he was one of the founders of the California Safe Deposit Bank of San Francisco. He was also a founder and president of the San Francisco Art Association. He and Dora Gray, his second wife, had four children. Not long after Isadora’s birth, her parents divorced. According to Samuel Dickson, author in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s of many articles, radio programs, and books about San Francisco personalities, Joseph Duncan fell in love with another woman who was later to become Oakland’s first city librarian and California’s first Poet Laureate–Ina Coolbrith. Joseph Duncan did publish Coolbrith’s work, and when she first came to San Francisco he did introduce her to the art and literary scene. But it’s likely that Dora Dun-can left her husband when he was impli-cated in a stock speculation scheme. When California Safe Deposit Bank suspended op-erations and later collapsed, a warrant was issued for his arrest and the family was bankrupt. Dora Duncan moved her children to Oakland. She introduced them to the arts even as they lived in genteel poverty. At age 10, Isadora was teaching neighbor children to dance. With her sister Elizabeth she gave lessons in a dance school in their home. When Isadora was 16, her father was back in the family. They were living in a house called the Castle Mansion located on Sutter and Van Ness. She and her sister Elizabeth started a dancing school there. This site had later incarnations as the Scottish Rite temple of the Freemasons, the Avalon Ballroom during the psychedelic 1960s, and the Regency Theater for films. They were only in the house for a year when Joseph Duncan lost his fortune again. And by 1898 he was out of the picture after he died in a shipwreck with his third wife.
In her teenage years, Duncan traveled to Chicago and New York with family members, working and performing in various plays and vaudeville shows. She came back to San Francisco in 1896 to dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Baldwin Theater on the corner of Market and Powell where the Flood Building is now located. The theater was part of the Baldwin Hotel building, owned by Elias “Lucky” Baldwin. He came to San Francisco in the 1850s and made a fortune in real estate and stocks before moving to Southern California to make another fortune in land development. All the great touring performers of the day appeared at the Baldwin until it was destroyed by fire in 1898 Duncan was not as popular in the United States as she was in Europe. It was when she went to London that she found an audience, first performing in the homes of upper class ladies, and then moving on to stages in London and Paris.
She became known for defying social constraints and embracing free love, and she had numerous love affairs. One source indicated this may be why her mother stopped traveling with her in 1905 and returned to San Francisco. Duncan founded several schools in Europe and Russia dedicated to her philosophy of dance for young girls. The schools were a financial drain and forced her to tour and perform, even though she disliked the commercial aspects of performing. Her last visit to San Francisco was in 1917, when she was received enthusiastically for sold-out performances at the Columbia Theater, now the Geary Theater. She met noted pianist Harold Bauer and had an affair—until Mrs. Bauer threatened a scandal. After one of her managers left with all the money from these lucrative shows, Duncan and Bauer performed an all-Chopin show, enabling her to get some money from this trip. Isadora Duncan had tragedy in her life, and a tragic death. Her two children, Deidre and Patrick, were drowned with their governess in the Seine river. And she died in a bizarre car accident in 1927 on the French Riviera when her fringed shawl caught in the open-spoked wheel of the car in which she was riding. She died instantly from a broken neck.
Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation
Historical files on Isadora and Charles Duncan in the San Francisco Library History Center
Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public
Baldwin Hotel and Theater in 1896 when Isadora performed there.
The Columbia Theater around the time of Isadora's last San Francisco performance.
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