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Texts / Mary Desti
Isadora the artist & Isadora’s death
Isadora the artist
From far antiquity came Isadora bringing to moderns all the grace of
movement, suppleness of body, charm and lightness of raiment, long sealed in the
secret archives of sculptural Greece. Once in many cycles such a being is born
and no matter in what earthly guise or in what form the message is delivered, it
is always religious. No religious ceremony has ever moved its believers to a
higher ecstasy than did Isadora’s dance. I have seen men weep like
children—women stifle the sobs that shook their very souls—young ballet dancers
who came to scoff, sit pale and trembling at this miracle of art—and who that
saw the dance recital Isadora gave in the East Side Yiddish Theatre in New York
will ever forget the streaming eyes of the hundreds of Jewish women as she
danced the Ave Maria?
This goddess in a poor frail human body, what glimpses of heaven she gave us through her pure inspiration and marvellous interpretations of art!
Her constant cry was—“Give me the worker, the artist, the poor, they understand. I am not an amusement for the rich. Give me my friends, the artists, for them I created and danced the Resurrection.” And we who were privileged to see it felt our very souls sway in the profound spiritual light that streamed from her as she lifted our hearts to the throne of eternal redemption.
Her dancing has been described, praised, and explained by artists in every language and each has written his own meaning, interpreting the inspiration he received from this marvellous source.
Rodin once said to us as we stood beside him, Isadora and I looking over his shoulder as he held up one after another, marvellous sketches of his masterpieces, “Now, what do you say that is?” And no matter what title we gave, he said, “Yes, yes, that’s it. Whatever you find in it, that’s it.” He refused absolutely to tie a work down to any name and so I feel about Isadora’s art, when I have been asked to explain it, because I have been so near, so constantly dazzled by the ever changing purity and beauty of it, that no words of mine could ever give the faintest hint of what it all meant, so I will insert a few articles of the many I have conserved, by those so much better qualified than I to express the meaning or describe Isadora’s art.
The following is an excerpt from an article which Isadora loved, by her
devoted friend, Mary Fanton Roberts:
“Such dancing as this is at its best out in the sunlight, with harp and flute and woodwind strains; yet so great is the magic of Isadora Duncan’s dancing that, even in a modern theater, she makes you forget that you are hedged in by foolish walls, and with music and motion she carries you with her back to wild woods and the god Pan, with his flute and dancing nymphs, made with the sun and the wind and love.
“From the moment the orchestra begins and the folds of a green curtain part, and a figure clad in gauze of a sunlit hue or the gray of moonbeams or the azure of pale dawn blows past a background that gives the effect of a soft pale cloud-bank, ‘the dull thoughts of to-day’ drop away and the vision is filled with the great, majestic, simple beauty the dawn of years. If the Winged Victory could sway and bend from her high pedestal in the Louvre, the motion would be surely the same as that which Isadora shows us in the series of dances picturing ‘Iphigenie en Aulide,’ which she has created for the music of Gluck. And though Greek in effect, because we are accustomed to think of the most perfect dancing as Greek, and because there is no lovely frieze of pagan Athens that is not recalled, it is truly the natural dance of the world. There is such abundance and splendor of beauty in each different movement that the fecund strength of Earth herself, the worship of all gods, the gentle joy of all childish hearts, the glad welcome of all lovers, is there. Your heart beats and your eyes are moist, and you know that such perfect moments are years apart, even in happy lives. And then the figure melts back through the green folds and you remember that when Isadora danced in Paris the great artists and poets, unafraid of tears, wept and congratulated each other for such rare joy. It is most extraordinary—the impression this woman leaves with you even when the dance is over and the stage empty! You fancy a blue dome arching overhead, with glimmering stars to catch her eyes and sweet winds blowing all her draperies and flowers growing thickty for so light a foot to tread.
“You do not recall a single ‘step’ of all the dancing, for this woman of the hilltops has no practiced ‘stunt’ to remember and repeat. And there are no imitators of Isadora Duncan, because, as yet, there have been no other women to give their whole lives to seeing clearly what beauty means, to seeking it sincerely, to relinquish all that is not in harmony with Nature’s simple, perfect ways. Isadora dances as she feels, and so to imitate her dancing would necessitate first of all the work and study that would enable one to acquire her quality of calm, lucid thought and serene spirit, for one does not put on greatness with a smile after a term of lessons.
And this sensitive, understanding criticism by Yvette Guilbert, whom Isadora regarded as one of the finest French artists, pleased her beyond all others.
“Saturday she gave us proof of her genius at the Mogador Theatre. It was one of those rare moments of the season, Parisian,—ultra-artistic. For two hours it seemed good to be alive and aware of the souls of others. She who in her youth had revealed a lost art in reviving the ‘Greek Art’ in the bounding pagan nudity dear to the antique revellers of Caesarian orgies had now revealed to us another lost art in her sculptural maturity.
“A sumptuous hour has struck. Isadora has become Gothic. Once a lascivious figurine, a bacchante, to-day she is a statuesque architected mass wrought in stone by the great ‘primitives.’ A Power, disconcertingly expressive and profoundly eloquent.
“Just a pair of arms, but with what a symphony of expression; a pair of arms which speak and epitomize all the thoughts in the orchestra. One sees arms, hands and shoulders, and one hears them sing. Yes, yesterday I heard them, actually heard them sing! It was a revelation!
“In her youth Isadora bounded and prattled. To-day she is eloquent, profound, overwhelming, sacred!
“Her art is unique and all the artists in Paris may learn something from her. For myself,—what things she suggests! Her first pagan dances were easily copied by a thousand slender young women, but her new ‘Gothic’ mood will not be so readily imitated, for the merciful silences of her muscles were difficult to achieve. They are composed of a profound pensiveness that has in it something almost sacred. It is easy to be pagan, it is not so easy to be religiously divine.
“When Isadora had rendered the Ave Maria of Schubert, a Parisian lady in a box near mine murmured, overwhelmed, ‘I am completely bowled over.’ As for myself, I give you my word that I was choking with emotion. During the Funeral March of ‘The Dusk of the Gods’ I saw the immense and sublime figure of the Victory of Samothrace begin to march!
“Let’s have done with the reiteration that one must be twenty and skinny to be a dancer. Dancing in the absolute and Greek sense signifies ‘an expression of gentle sentiment and tragic passion.’
“We went to see ‘Ph?dre’ dance and we found that the one-time priestess of Adonis and Aphrodite, Isadora Duncan, had become a gorgeous Gothic epitomized in stone.
“What a Mary of Nazareth at the foot of the cross you would be, Madame!
“Thank you for the splendid lessons you have given us. The ovation that will accrue to you will revive our courage as artists.
“Thank you, Madame, thank you.”
How can I explain just what happened? As the car started slowly, it had
hardly gone ten yards, when I noticed the fringe of her shawl, like a streak of
blood, hanging down behind, dragging in the dirt. I called, “Isadora, ta chale,
ta chale.” Suddenly the car stopped and I said to Ivan, “Run quickly to Isadora
and tell her her shawl is hanging down and will be spoiled.”
I believed they had stopped because I called, and I rushed towards them. Several machines had stopped, and Buggatti was screaming, “J’ai tue la Madonne, j’ai tue la Madonne.” I ran to Isadora, and found her seated just as she had left me two seconds before, except that her beautiful head was drawn down against the side of the car, held fast by the shawl.
This powerful racing car was a very low, two-seated affair. The seat of the driver was a little in advance of the other occupant, so that Buggatti would have to turn around to see her. There were no mud guards on the car, and as Isadora threw her shawl around her neck and across her shoulder, the heavy fringe hanging down behind caught in the rear wheel on her side. Naturally a few revolutions of the wheel dragged her poor beautiful head forward, crushing her face against the side of the car and holding it as in a vise. The very first revolution of the wheel had broken her neck, severing the jugular vein, and as she had always wished, had killed her instantly, without one second’s pain or knowledge of what was happening.
Not realizing that she was dead, but believing the shawl was strangling her, I instantly tried to loosen it from her warm, soft neck. Calling for a knife, I ran to the balcony of the restaurant, snatched a knife and ran back. Realizing its uselessness, I called for a scissors, which somebody handed me instantly. Ivan cut the fringe and part of the shawl from the wheel.
I called frantically for a surgeon, for help, but people seemed dazed. A car had stopped just beside us and I begged two or three of the men to lift Isadora in, not knowing to whom the car belonged nor caring. I sat beside her in the back seat, and held her in my arms, while the driver and his wife sat in the front.
I urged and urged them to go their fastest, remembering never to lose
my head for a second, realizing that Isadora’s only hope was my being calm. We
had been on our way to the hospital about five minutes, when the police stopped
us. Begging them not to interfere but to come with us, they stood one on each
running board, and we continued straight ahead like mad for the hospital. All
the while I was trying to get Isadora to breathe but when I saw her dear eyes
blinded from the blow against the side of the car and her beautiful little nose
which she so prided herself on, destroyed by the sudden impact and disfigured
forever, somewhere deep within me, I never wanted her to come back to all that
horror and suffering.
A peculiar change had come over her face. I felt her pulse, but in spite of its stillness, I couldn’t realize, I couldn’t, that there was even a possibility that she was dead.
At last we arrived at the hospital, where they did not want to let us in, believing she was dead and they are not allowed to take dead people in. But I so insisted and even took one end of the cot myself on which they had placed her, that almost unconsciously the attendants helped me, and we carried her inside. I begged them to get the best surgeons and doctors immediately, to spare no expense; but already there was a doctor kneeling beside her who said, “Madame, calm yourself; there is nothing to be done. She was killed instantly.”
Oh, God! oh, God ! There was I alone, and Isadora lying dead. I tried so hard to be brave, to hold on to my senses, which were swimming. The chief of police, taking me by the arm, asked me if I could give him any information about the accident, and at the same time, giving instructions to have Isadora taken to the morgue. “I will do anything you ask, answer all questions, if you will permit me to stay beside Isadora.”
He told me that was impossible; she had to be taken to the morgue. At this I became frantic, saying, “No, never, over my dead body. I will never allow you to take her to the morgue. I couldn’t endure it; it’s a sacrilege to take Isadora Duncan to the morgue. But if you will permit me to take her back to her studio, I will do anything you like. For God’s sake do this. Can’t you see I’m all alone and I must stay with her?”
Never will I forget the kindness and courtesy of all these people. The Chief said, “If the landlord will permit her to be placed in her studio, I myself will attend to everything for you.”
“Then you will give me your word of honor that they will not move her from here until we get the landlord’s permission?”
Like one in a daze I was led out to a car. First we went to the Police Station, where they asked me countless questions, and where, Heaven be thanked, were all our newspaper friends of the day before. Those dear kind press men with whom she had laughed and danced just a few hours before. They attended to sending telegrams to the family and helping me in every way.
The Chief of Police and I returned to the studio, where we found the proprietor, who instantly gave us permission. Everything belonging to Isadora was then locked up by the Chief, and I was taken to the hotel, where he locked our rooms Avith everything in them, sealing them legally, and then he left me on the balcony of the little cafe, saying, “Wait here, and I will bring her back. You can depend on me.”
After about two hours, which seemed an eternity, I heard the tramp of horses carrying our Isadora home. They placed her on one of her lovely couches, but in spite of all my entreaties to stay with her, they brought me out and closed the door. So there alone was left all there was of the greatest being of our time. Most of the night I stood at the window, looking in. I couldn’t bring myself to go near the hotel.
The next morning I had to go to the police at nine o’clock to identify the cursed shawl, and when they held it out, and also the other woollen one, both saturated with her precious blood, I thought the end of all things would come. Quietly I went back to the studio, and already they were bringing me cables from America, where the news had carried.
Among them was a cable from the Bell Syndicate, saying they had accepted her contract for the serial rights to her Memoirs, and the money had been cabled to a Paris bank. What a mockery life is! This money she had been waiting so eagerly for had been following us about for three days, from Juan le Pin, to Nice and then to the studio.
When the coroners and doctors had finished, I dressed Isadora in her red dress and her dancing veils, and there, in the midst of her great couch, surrounded by myriads of the flowers she loved best, she looked like a little Tanagra figure lying in a garden. We lighted the studio with hundreds of candles, and with flowers everywhere, it was like a blue chapel. Across her feet I had thrown her purple mantle which made a pool of light like a reflection from heaven.
People told me afterwards that it was so beautiful that they stood breathless when they entered. She would love it so, that was what made it possible. After they had made arrangements to take Isadora to Paris, they placed her in a zinc-lined box. Across her breast I placed one solitary red rose, with just my heart’s blood, and three sprays of lilies of France, one from Augustin, one from Elizabeth and one from Raymond. Then a single flower from each of her dearest friends across the sea—Mary Fanton Roberts, Ruth Mitchell, Eva Le Gallienne, Mercedes D’Acosta, Preston Sturgis, Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, and a little bunch of roses from her school, her adopted children. Then they solemnly closed it and soldered it fast. I threw her purple mantle over it all. This was the mantle she always wore when she danced the Resurrection.
At the station I entered the car and covered the floor and windows with her favorite flowers, until it looked like a beautiful garden. Lohengrin had never left me from the morning after the accident. All that was done was done by him. We never spoke. We just did things as we knew, the way she would love them.
Raymond and Vida had come from Paris and went back with us in the train. As the train was pulling out, Lohengrin with a heavenly kind smile handed me a pillow, saying, “Try to rest a little, Mary.”
The train had scarcely started to move, when the most extraordinary thing happened. It had been pouring rain all day, but the instant that the train started, the sky darkened, and a perfect hurricane almost blew every one out of the station. They say they had never known anything like it before in Nice.
As there were no sleepers on the train—a funeral train never carries any sleepers—Raymond, Vida and I rode in a day coach. When we arrived in Paris, Elizabeth and a group of friends met us. As the casket was being taken from the train, I just remember draping her purple robe over it, as I couldn’t bear any one’s seeing the coffin, whereas her cloak was part of her. The next thing I remember, some one was saying, “Mary, why haven’t you gone on with Isadora?”
It seems that Raymond and Elizabeth had gone off with Isadora in the coach, and had left me there. Perhaps I had moved aside. I don’t remember. I had not been asleep for many hours, and must have been dazed, and probably had wandered off, pushed by the surging crowd. A friend took me in a taxi and we arrived at Raymond’s studio before they did. Once again Isadora’s blue dancing carpets covered the floor, and her beloved blue curtains hung about.Everything took on the same atmosphere as her studio at Nice.
After they brought her in, I again draped her purple cloak across the casket and right across her heart was placed a great spray of red lilies. On the streaming red ribbons was written, “From the heart of Russia, which mourns Isadora.” Flowers and telegrams continued to come from everywhere. An appealing message came from Irma Duncan, Isadora’s one pupil who remained with her to the end, and who was off touring with the school in faraway Russia, “Try to await me. I am on the way.” Unhappily this couldn’t be done.
All the greatest souls in Paris—painters, sculptors, musicians, actors and actresses, diplomats, ministers, editors, names that had gained a place in the world, came to honor Isadora. Isadora’s dear friend Ralph Lawton played in the adjoining studio the music Isadora had danced, and the great funeral march as she was carried out.
As it was American Legion Day in Paris, there was great celebration, and the cortege had to make many detours which brought us through all the weird French quarters of Paris. How Isadora would have loved this! These were the people who knew and loved her. Thousands lined the streets, most of whom had seen her dance. The populace of Pans adored her, and there was scarcely a dry eye all along the road.
Paris was wildly decorated with American flags. Every one thought they were meant for the soldiers, but I knew that America unconsciously had decorated Paris for one of its greatest Americans. She had brought her American art to all parts of Europe, and while all Europe bowed in sorrow for this great artist, old Glory waved her a grand farewell.
Just as we passed in front of the Trocadero Theatre, where Isadora had danced to five thousand people at a time and where many more had acclaimed her from outside because they could not gain entrance, there on the very pinnacle waved the Stars and Stripes of her native land, at the same instant, going in the contrary direction and right in front of the Trocadero, was passing the contingent from California. When they saw the Star-Spangled Banner, which Raymond had so sweetly and thoughtfully thrown over the casket at the last moment, they stopped to ask, “What American was passing?” We told them California’s pride. Hundreds of years from now California will be known as the birthplace of the greatest dancer—the greatest artist—and the greatest American of all time.
As we reached the cemetery, P?re LaChaise, over ten thousand people were there, crowding the alleys so it was impossible to move. Whole cordons of police tried to make way for the cortege. Old people hobbled near who had seen her dance twenty years before. Mothers held their children up, telling them to remember that they had seen the funeral of the great dancer, the great Isadora Duncan, and every one spoke in whispers of the cruel accident to her children.
The students of Beaux Arts sobbed aloud. Young soldiers stood with their heads bowed and it took a very long time before we reached the crematory. The last time I had entered there was to accompany the remains of Isadora’s wonderful mother and once before that, when I had accompanied Isadora to cremate her two little children and their poor nurse.
Memories, memories, memories! I will never enter that crematory again alive.
At last we had arrived at the steps that lead to nowhere— the crematory steps. The cordon of police with the greatest difficulty begged the surging crowd to give way to permit the family to pass. Elizabeth held my arm and somehow we mounted the steps and found ourselves within the chapel whose altar is a purifying furnace, leaving nothing but a handful of silvery ashes.
Albert Wolfe, the great conductor, who conducted Isadora’s last performance in Paris, had promised me he would carry out Isadora’s oft-repeated wish. She had always said, “My spirit will never leave this earth until it hears the strains of Bach’s great aria in ‘re.’ ” Edouard Mauaselin sang the Ave Maria with a wistfulness that almost broke one’s heart, while outside the great masses watched the spiral of grey smoke which later turned to white and wafted away to melt into the clouds. Raymond during this ceremony went outside to speak a few words to the multitude.
When he had finished, Elizabeth and I accompanied him up the steps. Then the most extraordinary ceremony took place. Behind the heavy curtain, and there before our eyes, they drew from the glaring furnace the asbestos couch containing the last remains of Isadora. Oh, God! How wonderful it was! Her ashes just formed a trace of her figure dancing. It looked like a white drawing of her. The only earthly tiling left was the dome of her exquisite little skull. At once Byron’s act in snatching Shelley’s heart from the flames came to me, but at the same moment the whole thing dissolved into ashes.
I wish I could describe the effect seeing that few handfuls of ashes had on all of us. Sorrow dropped from us like a garment. You could no longer mourn Isadora in these ashes. We felt instantaneously the nothingness of all earthly flesh, and that she was not and never could have been of this clay. Isadora, who was always all spirit, had now come into her own and the crowd outside who had seen the smoke ascend, had seen more of the real Isadora than we who now beheld her ashes.
If only all people would be brave and have the courage to cremate their loved ones, and look afterwards at their ashes, all the horror of death would pass away. True, nothing can help the void left in their lives, but their eyes and hearts will be lifted up to the skies, instead of shuddering at the horrible barbarous thought of the cold clay and worms.
We placed Isadora’s ashes beside those of her children and her mother, but she had made me promise that one day I would take these ashes and scatter them in the sea.
The great fearless brave spirit had passed away, but the message she left behind will live forever.
“Adieu, mes amis. Je vais ? la gloire!”
Isadora Duncan Pundect ©
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