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Margot Fonteyn: A Life

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I think discussing MF's romantic involvements is fine, but Daneman also just races through her stage work. Masterpiece ballets are described in a graph, but MF's hookup at some cocktail party is discussed for two pages. After several chapters of that, it can be equally as boring as a bio that just says, "and in 1968 he made this ballet..." instead it is "and then in Italy MF slept with this guy...everybody loved her robe..."

I'm on page 305 and I totally agree with you Dale. Talk about speaking ill of the

dead. I'm comparing Fonteyn's memoirs with Daneman's work. It seems to me that she had what G. Smakov said of Kchessinkaya's tome many ". . . slips of the pen." Its interesting to me that Daneman majors in the minors regarding her sex life. For example, the irrelevancy of a 90something-year-old man, who as an also ran, and in the interest of full disclosure, wants to get on record that he had a relationship with her. Daneman glosses over other things, which I think are far more interesting, like focusing on the 'how' of her artistry, and less on the 'why' and 'what' it looked like to those who witnessed it, (way before my time - or my parents').

In 'Autobiography' Fonteyn didn't delve too much into the area of how she arrived at her interpretations, or how they evolved, - except to emphasize the 'tape recorder' in her mind, and simply repeat what Ashton and coaches like Karsavina told her to do. It read like upbeat fiction - a ballet novel (ie 'E' True Hollywood Story stuff) only it was non-fiction. For example, Farrell thoroughly covered the 'how' of her artistry, which IMO is a much more rewarding memoir.

I do give Fonteyn the benefit of the doubt, though. I will allow that she lived in an era where scandal was to be avoided if possible, at all costs, and when the media gave celebrities and royalty a free pass. Today she'd be fair game. I also give her this: She was discreet, in that she knew how to keep her mouth shut. She was never the one who made a scene, (like Lambert's first wife). She knew how to charm and handle the press. When she was quoted, she sounded as gracious as a queen. She also had the added advantage of the loyalty and love of a company that wouldn't give or sell any of her secrets to the press.

What isn't cool for me was her propensity to be a freeloader, (ie. free servants, free vacations at the expense of others etc.). IMO, in the autumn and winter of her career she was calculating and ruthless with individual rivals, as well as the men she rejected, and unwilling to mentor younger dancers. Yet the paradox is that no one in the rank 'n file of the Royal would dare censure her - because she was egalitarian with them all. She knew the concept of CYA very well. Therein lies a wealth of professional wisdom. I hope I'm not being too harsh, but that's my take on her. I'll keep ploughing through til I'm done.

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I'm so fond of the arts (opera, ballet, theater, etc) that I've long ago given up judging performers who are perhaps rather "ruthless" with rivals, because I've found that dig hard enough, and NO ONE is completely innocent of this. It's not just Maria Callas shoving Renata Tebaldi out of La Scala, it's Tebaldi having a pretty iron grip on the Met and particularly, Rudolf Bing, who bent over backwards to please a diva known as "dimples of iron." Enrico Caruso, supposedly a "very nice" guy, who dutifully attended performances of up-and-comers and decided whether decisive action needed to be taken. Nellie Melba used to wire Covent Garden: "It's her or me." Today, I've even heard rather blood-curdling stories of Placido Domingo. And that's just opera.

In ballet, Natalia Dudlinskaya demanded exclusive rights to Giselle. I think essentially performers are insecure people, and they want to hang onto stardom. Some are more successful than others. They overplay their hands very often -- when Rosa Ponselle, neurotic and afraid of anything above the staff, insisted on Adriana, the new GM Edward Johnson decided to throw out Rosa with the bathwater altogether. It was a desperate move by a prima donna and a coldhearted one by the GM, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.

So I have no doubt Margot Fonteyn was very shrewd and hung onto stardom, but I also have no doubt that she was not alone, and probably nowhere near the very worst, of stars who could not tolerate other stars in tha galaxy. I mean, for every performer who humbly retires and devotes their life to teaching, there are just as many who stay too long, and say they'd rather starve than help the next generation. (In Rasponi's Prima Donnas, Renata Tebaldi declares she has no patience for the newer generation of singers, whom she calls "mosquitoes.")

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in response to cygent's comment, on fonteyn's artistry:...

'what' it looked like to those who witnessed it, (way before my time - or my parents')
please cygnet - NOT meaning to be at all rude, just explanatory or curious!...i can't help wondering how young you are! i am 'only' middle-aged ('middle-aged' being defined in my mind as half of a not IMpossibly reasonable lifespan, these days :thumbsup: ), and i have clear memories of fonteyn dancing with nureyev in giselle. i was about 10, as far as i recall... (yes, i KNOW i'm lucky!! )
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For example, the irrelevancy of a 90 something-year-old man, who as an also ran, and in the interest of full disclosure, wants to get on record that he had a relationship with her.

Cygnet, may I suggest with all courtesy that you might have a different opinion if you were that 90 year old and felt, rightly or wrongly, that you had become a nonperson in the life of someone who meant a great deal to you?

Without addressing the pros and cons of Daneman’s own choices and judgments, I would also add that biographers will often come across information that reveals someone to be more (or less) significant in their subject’s life than previously supposed -- in that biographer's opinion.

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I haven't been reading the links and don't have time to plow through them now, but just in case this hasn't been posted, here's Robert Geskovic on the book. Beware, the graphic quote in question is included. The Art of Pleasing

As for me, not at least yet a Fonteyn fan from the one video I've seen, in browsing the book I'm struck by her beauty.

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I haven't read the book yet, but on the issue of the account it presents of Fonteyn's sex life, I think that Daneman might have been prompted to include as much detail as she did by the prevailing image of Fonteyn as some kind of chaste saint. That image was formed in part by her stage persona, which a critic once described as "stainless," but it was also very much a creation of Fonteyn's own. When I read her memoirs some years ago, I had the impression that it was a conscious attempt to formulate a public image of herself, which after all is not unusual in autobiographies. In particular, I remember her writing that she had qualms about getting involved with Tito Arias because he was married when she met him, and "I believe it is sinful to take another woman's husband." (That's a direct quote, I went back and checked.) When someone is on record as saying something like that, the revelation that long before she met Arias she had experience in taking other women's husbands should not come as a surprise—and not to include such information would have been irresponsible on Daneman's part. Exactly how graphic such details should have been is a valid subject for debate, but from what I recall of the excerpts in the Telegraph, Daneman simply reported what Ashton had said about what Lambert told him, and did not vouch for the statements' accuracy.

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I dont think it's necessarily inconsistent to think that Fonteyn thought taking up with married men was sinful, but did it several times herself. She had a rather conservative upbringing, which was decidedly at odds with the freewheeling bohemian life of a ballet company. I bet if you asked her, "Do you believe homosexuality is sinful?" she would have said yes but it didnt stop her from becoming friends with a lot of gay men -- Nureyev, Ashton, among others.

I kind of think there's kind of a gender double standard. I've seen various articles/books that talk about Balanchine's spartan lifestyle and his piousness. They also mention in the same breath numerous marriages and the fact that he left a parapalegic wife for a woman who refused to marry him :wacko: A lot of people hold principles that, for one reason or another, they cant maintain in their actual lives.

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Peggy Hookham

"Margaret!" said Dame Margot in a filmed interview, cutting off the interviewer, "I was never 'Peggy', I was always 'Margaret'!"

Whether this is the absolute truth or not, it was obviously what she wanted believed, and from her vocal inflection, one recognized the steeliness that made her a worthy successor to Dame Ninette de Valois.

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What Ari said. :wacko:

As for me, not at least yet a Fonteyn fan from the one video I've seen, in browsing the book I'm struck by her beauty.

I had the same reaction. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of her beauty before, but in some of the photographs (which could have been reproduced a little better, IMO), especially the ones taken of Fonteyn on vacation (Fonteyn topless! Who knew? :)), she looks lushly gorgeous in a way that I’d never seen before.

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I still lean to what Alexandra wrote. I don't have a problem with exploring Fonteyn's relations. I don't think the writer should just repeat some second and third hand gossip. I guess it's OK to write 'this is what somebody said somebody told him..' Aren't biographers held to the same standards as journalists?

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Aren't biographers held to the same standards as journalists?

I think they should be, and the "two source" rule is not a bad one. It can be awfully tempting to quote the dead; they can't sue (and no one can sue on their behalf.) A friend of mine wrote a biography with controversial content, and the publisher's legal team went over everything and needed to know two sources, by name (even if the people were "a source close to the victim") who could be called to testify. That's not a bad standard.

I don't think anyone has said that there shouldn't be mention of Fonteyn's, or anyone's, assignations or sex life in a biography. It's the amount of detail, the kind of detail, and the amount of book time it takes up. Does every sex act have to be noted? Why not toothbrushing, cigarette smoking, meals? Sex sells. That's why the New School of Biography (which has been with us a long time) is obsessed with it. It has little to do with exploring the true nature of the subject, or correcting an imbalance in perception.

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But if you are writing a biography of someone who was born more than a certain amount of years ago, it simply may not be possible to find two sources for something and the one source you do have may be deemed completely credible in your mind. One simply needs to say at that point, "According to Mr. --" or "According to a man who lived next door and says that he used a telescope to watch Fonteyn -- ."

By the way, journalistic ethics and standards have all but vaporized during the last 15 years anyway. Remember Whitewater?

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The Washington Post still requires two sources for everything :wacko: (NOT that they're blameless....) I really don't think journalistic standards have slipped generally -- there have been some huge scandals recently, but the field does still seem to enjoy agonizing over them and investigating.

The problem -- and I'm now speaking generally, because I'm not saying that this is a problem with the book under discussion -- but it's just too easy to use the "Mr. X said" to manipulate your facts. I got some wonderful quotes of thirdhand gossip that would have helped buttress one of the main themes of my biography, and it really really hurt not to be able to use them, but when I'd check, and the person who was quoted n the thirdhand gossip "couldn't remember" that he'd said that, or two people said, "Oh, I can see how X would think that, but really...." and gave a good reason why my wonderful quote wasn't fair, then I couldn't use it. But I was writing for a university press, and the editors didn't pressure me to come up with anything juicy. I remember reading about Kirkland's autobiography, that she was pressured to come up with ANY story about a famous person. (Not a nice stoory, of course, not wanting to know if the First Lady had ever sent her a Christmas card.)

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But wasn't the Washington Post forced not long ago to issue an apology about its failure to cross reference White House leaks about those phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction?

OK enough about politics.

A third-hand source is very dicey. I've stopped even THINKING about including anything like that in my work, even with an explicit proviso included.

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in response to cygent's comment, on fonteyn's artistry:...

'what' it looked like to those who witnessed it, (way before my time - or my parents')
please cygnet - NOT meaning to be at all rude, just explanatory or curious!...i can't help wondering how young you are!

Hi Grace! Its not rude at all to be curious. I was an infant when Margot and Rudi were dancing. I'm post a post baby-boom/Generation Xer. :wacko: In response to Dirac about my comment re the 90 year old: I don't mean to come off as dismissing him as a 'non-person,' or that he was irrelevant in her life. Nor do I want to infer that I diminish what he believed he had with Margot. Far from it. It just seemed to me that Daneman gives him honorable mention (ie. short shrift) and just seemed, what's the word (?) - gratuitous - to me based on what had been

written prior to that portion of the text. With the other guys we get the whole record from first sight to break-up, and in Lambert's case, death, including all of

the casual stuff. It's Daneman's text that dismisses him. She even states that Margot doesn't comment about him at all in her memoirs. I think I'd let M have the last word on that for the obvious reasons. :)

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Halfway through the book and the thing that strikes me the most is how different this book is to MF's own autobiography.

I think the older we get the more we tend to filter the memories of our youthful romantic entanglements. Not that we are ashamed by them, although that may be part of it, it just our values and perceptions mature along with our minds and bodies. My feeling is that at the time she wrote her book, not only did MF have a certain chaste public image, she herself might have felt ashamed of her romantic past, hence the exorcising of it from her memiors. Also, she came from a era very different from today's celebrity tell all free for all.

Something else about this book and MF's autobiography is that with the Daneman we get loads of information about Fonteyn's sex life, romantic entanglements and so on but the subject herself remains a bit of an enigma. With Fonteyn's own book filtered though it may be, you at least get a sense of her personality, her warmth, her humor, her doubts. I just don't get that with Daneman's book.

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Another comment about the photographs in the book - I was disappointed! I have the Keith Money books and several others with fabulous photographs of MF - like the one on the back cover of the Daneman book, which I love (just look at her hands!). I thought the photos used were not the best available, and there were not enough of them. I know it can be difficult and expensive to get all the necessary permissions, and then print and bind in glossy pages, but ballet is such a visual art that it seems a real shame.

But, of course, Alexandra's book about Kronstam spoiled me with its wonderful range of clear and expressive personal, rehearsal and performance photographs.

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Copied from Frday's Links:

Jean Marbella in the Chicago Tribune on the Meredith Daneman biography of Margot Fonteyn:


While it might seem trivial that they danced on as the world crumbled around them, Fonteyn's performances won her a permanent place in her country's heart and sense of itself. During the harshest years, when resources were scarce, fans would leave for her at the stage door not flowers but their rations of eggs and steaks. At 672 pages, Daneman has written an immense book, but such was the life of Fonteyn that she more than fills that vast stage.
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Mindy Aloff weighs in, in the pages of The New York Observer:


Audiences around the world (and especially in New York, which she took by storm as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty when the Royal made its debut at the old Met in 1949) associated Fonteyn with eternal youth and a kind of untouchable purity. Among 20th-century ballerinas, only Anna Pavlova and Galina Ulanova inspired similar rapture and devotion on such a scale, and for similar reasons: The dedication to the art was relentless and unswerving; the dance effects were simple, large and exact; and, perhaps most important, each gave the sense that she was opening herself up from the inside—that, in the dancing, one saw the essence of who she was. Although all were showcased in virtuoso roles, none of them could be said to be a bravura dancer. The mystique was built on the illusion of being an utterly transparent presence. 

Aloff raises one of those there-ought-to-be-a-law points: An appendix with a list of Fonteyn's roles, with attendant details, would have been immensely helpful, especially in a career of such length and breadth. There was the same omission in Suzanne Farrell's autobiography. (One of the things I appreciated about Peter Martins' book "Far From Denmark" was the inclusion of a list of his roles, the year he assumed them, whether or not the role was made on him, and his partners. )

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OK, i am very late in getting a copy of this book. and pretty much everything has been said - and said so well - already.

but i JUST LOVED IT! and want to say so. :wub:

i really didn't want the story to end.

one thing it did for me, also, is that it took me back to the feelings i had when i was an adoring child looking at her photos and reading about her - and eventually seeing her dance (with nureyev).

and i, for one, REALLY wanted to discover the personal side, of someone who just simply was too perfect to be real.

i found that standard of behaviour - her standard - held up to me by myself, and by the values of the generation i was born into - SOOOOOOOO intimidating and impossible. it was SO reassuring to discover she was wonderfully and awfully human.

*THANK YOU* meredith daneman.

i LOVED re-visiting this time - the time when ballet was SOOOOOOOOOOOO special to me.

and in response to some criticisms above: i DID get

- more understanding of her personality,

- more knowledge of her approach to roles,

- a feel for the works i have not seen, etcetera...

but i agree that, with a couple of lovely exceptions (the swimming one, for example), the photos might have been more exciting.

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I've just read this biography and liked it very much. I was wondering whether any of those who had disliked it at first, put off by the reviews, had changed their minds.

I ask for a few reasons, one is that we do change, each time we read something, we, and it, are different, and another is that I loved the rounded understanding this biography gave . I thought it showed its subject in great clarity as a very conflicted amazing person, full of charm ,discipline, grace and blind spots. I also liked the insight about ballet given by the author where she says that dancers

"were already mutually possed of an anatomical familiarity that a married couple might almost consider indecent" p248. It seemed to me that the sexual dimension that appeared to give offense was really a very mundane and yet valuable part of the biography in that it gave greater understanding. Just as Julie Kavanagh's book on Nureyev illustrates the extraordinary clashes of social values developing at the time.

Also, when I contrast it with a new biography of Robert Helpmann by Anna Bemrose which is a very strong, heavily researched ,well written hagiography,I miss the gossip about Helpmann, which shows his wicked sense of humour and powerful personality, which Daneman has included in her Fonteyn bio. The gossipy aspect also gives a better understanding of social mores in an historical sense.

I think it is a very good biography. Have people changed their minds?

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