Reading Isadora Duncan’s autobiography.
There’s a story of Isadora Duncan and the press that has stuck with me since I read it years ago: “I’m going to Egypt to lay flowers at the feet of the Sphinx,” she told reporters in Boston. “At its paws, I should say. I’m going out on the desert … Remember that I said this mysteriously.”
The story of your life arrives in three parts: your self, your image, and the product of the two. When I started writing about Isadora, I knew only the product: her body of work, classical figures draped in silks. I knew that she was considered a spontaneous dancer, despite the methodical repetition, the hours of work behind that effortless flow. Only by reading her autobiography, My Life, did I begin to understand the distance between her life and her image.
I would soon find the gulf between the two was even wider than the distance she put between her home state of California and the apartment she kept in Paris. My Life has the guideposts of reality, but those guideposts are placed irregularly across a landscape of a fabulously fictionalized life. My Life is a potboiler of a tale written to rival the serialized romances of her time, featuring declarations of love and grief, men and women falling to their knees in ecstasy and agony. There’s a frenetic bit about her first audition and a man with “a big cigar in his mouth and his hat over one eye” sounding for all the world like a deranged circus ringleader; the story of a girl named “Nursey” attempting to murder Isadora on what she claimed were God’s orders; and a memorable passage about Gordon Craig, a lover with whom, Isadora wrote, she felt a “criminal incestuousness.” Some Isadora acolytes claim she was encouraged by her publisher to embellish for the purpose of sales. No matter why she did it, the result was a personal life shrouded in mystery presented as pulpy gossip.
Isadora spent her whole life straddling the gap between public perception and private reality. In writing Isadora, a novel set during a particularly dark year and a half of her life, I found myself having to pick through that reality, reality as Isadora wished to create it, and a third, emotional reality, which aspired to contain recognizable truths. As I pored through the layers of research and fabrication, I realized that the real truths were less important, and I chose to follow the spirit of her autobiography closer than the biographical studies of her life, sometimes even using her exact words, despite their probable inaccuracy. As Isadora herself said, “No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life.”
I turned my head. L. was there, staggering like a drunken man. His knees gave way—he fell before me—and from his lips came these words: “The children—the children—are dead!”
Isadora was at the height of her career when her children drowned, in 1913. It was an accident, after a late lunch in Paris; she had gone ahead to work in her studio that afternoon while her two children, ages six and two, departed with their nurse to spend the afternoon at home. Their car stalled on the way, the driver got out to work on the engine, and when he got it running again, the whole thing rolled past him over the low embankment and into the Seine. Rescue was impossible in the swift water.
One slim paragraph in Isadora’s telling of the tragedy contains the world I wanted to explore:
Only twice comes that cry of the mother which one hears as without one’s self—at birth and at death. For when I felt in mine those little cold hands that would never again press mine in return, I heard my cries—the same cries as I had heard at their births. Why the same? Since one is the cry of supreme joy and the other of sorrow. I do not know why, but I know they are the same. Is it not that in all the Universe there is but one great cry containing Sorrow, Joy, Ecstasy, Agony—the Mother Cry of Creation?
These passages are some of the more reserved pieces of Isadora’s autobiography and—with the exception of the paragraph above—heartbreaking in their austerity. She was no doubt undone by grief and not eager to write about it. Also, a nasty rumor that she had danced at the children’s funeral had agonized her; the reserved retelling might have felt right to do in contrast. When told by others, the funeral events are far more vivid: Isadora turning away a Catholic priest, declaring she was a Pagan; collapsing to the floor, calling her children’s names. Irma Duncan recalls Isadora sitting in a tall chair, “immobile, like a statue, her head thrown back and eyes closed, tears streaming down her face.” In the end, my way into these sections was through the only door Isadora didn’t want to open herself.
The children’s deaths would usher in a special kind of torture: to not only experience the death of your children but to know the world’s curiosity in experiencing it as well, to know that parents everywhere are experiencing an indulgent variety of relief, holding their children close with one hand, pushing death away with the other. Anyone who loses a family member must suffer the practical agony of planning a funeral while entertaining hundreds of condolences. For Isadora, that agony was compounded by the scrutiny of public attention she herself had spent many years cultivating, an attention that grew cruel after the children died and she found the courage—the audacity, even—to keep living.
“Why are you always weeping? Is there nothing I can do for you—to help you?”
I looked up.
“Yes,” I replied. “Save me—save more than my life—my reason. Give me a child.”
Isadora left France as soon as she could after the funeral, escaping to Greece and then Albania, taking her brother and sister along for company. “I know that my real self died with my children,” she wrote from the island of Corfu. That separation of self is recognizable to anyone who has keenly grieved. She traveled between Albania and Istanbul and into the Tuscan Riviera, to Viareggio, where she found her next chapter.
In My Life, Isadora claims to have met the man alone on the beach, a stranger asking how he could help a woman he had happened to find weeping by the water. In truth, she already knew the man from Paris, where he was part of Rodin’s circle and where they were lovers—he had even sculpted a bust of her when they were together there. But Isadora faced a complication of presenting the idea of concurrent lovers—her love affair with Paris Singer lasted through two of his marriages, and he came to see her again in Nice shortly before her death in 1927—to a mass-market readership, so her and the man’s ongoing relationship transformed into a charmed meeting on the beach in Italy, which resulted in her third pregnancy.
The whole truth of her life had to be massaged to suit the rigid bones of the day. She worked too hard on her artistic life to be remembered for her personal choices. In writing this scene, I drew from her fictionalized dialogue. My goal was to create a set piece, dialogue verging on camp tucked into lush depictions of movement. I wanted to create a sense of the time, but also of the distance between Isadora’s perception of herself and how she was perceived by the world. Which is why I couldn’t help but use her words as she wrote them in her autobiography. A dramatic height that still included some rational and rationalizing sense.
“I came to you first in 1908 to help you but our love led us to tragedy. Now let us create your School, as you wish it, and some beauty on this sad earth for others.”
By all accounts, including her own, Isadora’s relationship with Paris Singer was a tumultuous one. He was a married man living out what seemed to be an understanding with his wife, who was raising their four children in Florida. Paris kept homes in Devon and Paris and had a yacht that would bear witness to epic parties on the Mediterranean. There were glorious backbiting fights spanning whole seasons, affairs conjured in revenge and consummated with malice; a miserable way to live, but a hell of a story to tell. His tastes in dance were more cabaret than Isadora’s, and he would reportedly slip out when she began to entertain her guests with dancing at parties.
Supposedly, when she came to him to tell him of her experience in Viareggio, including her idea that the children would be reincarnated in this third child, he simply buried his head in his hands, then nobly lifted it to declare that love had led them to tragedy. It’s a natural impulse to edit after the fact—who wants to remember the screaming fights, the bottle smashed against the living-room wall. I couldn’t blame her for wanting this pleasant reality, this false, gentle exchange with Paris, and so I gave it to her.
Remember that I said this mysteriously. There is nothing more optimistic than Isadora’s hope that she would be remembered for all her mystery and wit, all the sensual brilliance she worked to bring to the world. Above all else and beyond her many flaws, I will always think of her as an eternal optimist. She saw herself building a legacy that would stand the test of time before she even had the right to vote.
Nabokov liked to think of reality as only having meaning within quotation marks, and Isadora might argue that “reality” wasn’t the most important part of the whole thing; it was her emotional life, that ephemeral light. I found it less important to verify the rarely recorded reality with the stories Isadora told of herself, creating herself, the same way she did every time she stepped on stage.
Amelia Gray is the author of five books, most recently Isadora. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and VICE. She lives in Los Angeles.