Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir

Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir

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Overview

The titanic choreographer, creator of memorable ballets, master of Broadway musicals, legendary show doctor and director, now revealed in his own words—the closest we will get to a memoir/autobiography—from his voluminous letters, journals, notes, diaries, never before published. Edited, and with commentary by Amanda Vaill, author of Robbins's biography, Somewhere, 2006 ("I can't imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written"—Terry Teachout, chief drama critic, The Wall Street Journal).

He was famous for reinventing the Broadway musical, creating a vernacular American ballet, pushing the art form to new boundaries where it had never gone before, integrating dance seamlessly with character, story and music, and as Associate Artistic Director, Ballet Master, and Co-Artistic Director, with George Balanchine, shaping the New York City Ballet with daring and brio for more than five decades through his often startling choreography in ballet's classical idiom. He was known as the king of Broadway, the most sought-after director-choreographer and show doctor who gave shape to On the Town (1944), Call Me Madam (1950), The King and I (1951), Wonderful Town (1953), Peter Pan (1954), The Pajama Game (1954), Silk Stockings (1955), West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Funny Girl (1964), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and many other classic musicals, winning four Tony Awards, two Oscars, and an Emmy. He shocked and betrayed those he loved and worked with by naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. ("I betrayed my manhood, my Jewishness, my parents, my sister," he wrote in a diary. "I can't undo it.")
Now, Amanda Vaill, Jerome Robbins biographer and authority, drawing on the vast and closely held Robbins archives, has put together a selection of his writings, giving us a sense of his extraordinary range as a thinker and artist, as well as a surprising and revealing glimpse into the mind and heart of this towering cultural giant.
Interspersed throughout, his correspondence with George Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Robert Graves, Lincoln Kirstein, Arthur Laurents, Tanaquil Le Clercq (the fourth of Balanchine's four wives, with whom Robbins was also in love), Laurence Olivier, Stephen Sondheim, et al.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451494665
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 529,614
Product dimensions: 9.50(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

AMANDA VAILL is the author of Everybody Was So Young, a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award, Hotel Florida, and Somewhere, for which she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has written on arts and culture for New York, Esquire, Ballet Review, Architectural Digest, Town & Country, and other publications. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

2

Apprenticeship: 1935-1944
 
Robbins graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in June 1935 and in the fall began attending New York University as a chemistry major. He’d hoped to study journalism, but his parents insisted he pursue a “useful” degree. Useful didn’t mean compatible, however: by the following spring Robbins was failing two courses (mathematics and French) out of five, and his father, struggling financially from the Depression, told him his college days were over.
 
Robbins wasn’t sure what would become of him at this point, but whatever the possibilities, he later recalled, “running the Comfort Corset Company was not among them.” He persuaded his parents to give him a year to establish himself, and set out looking for a way into the world he felt he was called to: the world of art. After an unsuccessful attempt to apprentice himself to the art puppeteer Tony Sarg, the Basil Twist of his day, he was accepted (following a rocky first meeting) into the experimental modern ballet troupe of Senya Gluck Sandor, where his colleagues included José Limón and where he attracted the notice of The New York Times’s dance critic, John Martin. (It was at this point that, at Sandor’s urging, he adopted a string of Anglicized stage names—Robin Gerald, Gerald Robyns, Jerry Robyns—before settling on Jerome Robbins.) He briefly worked backstage making props for the Stanislavski-influenced Group Theatre’s production of Johnny Johnson, and at the Yiddish Art Theatre he appeared in a near walk-on in I. J. Singer’s Brothers Ashkenazi (“someone coughed so I missed your line,” his aunt told him after she attended a performance). And following Sandor’s advice, he began studying ballet—which until then he had considered “false . . . , out of date, and constricting.” His first balletic appearance, partnering an older dancer named Lisa Parnova, was an awkward one, but he kept working and parlayed his studies—funded with odd jobs—into paid appearances in ballets by the Russian emigré choreographer Michel Fokine at the World’s Fair ground-breaking ceremonies and at Jones Beach’s outdoor amphitheater. Finally, after a brief post–Labor Day tryout appearance in 1937, he got a break that would help determine his future path: a ten-week, $200 job as a dancer for the 1938 summer season at a Pennsylvania resort, Camp Tamiment.
 
In the world of the 1930s, Tamiment was the equivalent of Club Med: the place middle-class singles went in the summer for sun, fun, and the opposite sex—and for the weekly Broadway-style revue directed by the camp entertainment director, Max Liebman. It was a training ground for Broadway (and movie) talent: among Robbins’s fellow entertainers were Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye, and Carol Channing, as well as such dance-world figures as Dorothy Bird, Anita Alvarez, and Ruthanna Boris, and under Liebman’s often-irascible and temperamental direction all were responsible for performing in, and sometimes creating the material for, the weekly revue. Robbins spent four summers at Tamiment, progressing from ensemble parts to solos, from working out dances anonymously with a small group of intimates to choreographing an entire revue, and his signature performing and choreographic style—fluid, expressive, full of sharply observed details—began to emerge.
 
While appearing in Keep Off the Grass, he heard about an ambitious new venture called Ballet Theatre, a dance company founded by a New England heiress named Lucia Chase, which would employ a permanent roster of principals, soloists, and corps members to present a mixture of classic European ballet and edgier work created by a cadre of contemporary choreographers—including Antony Tudor, Bronislava Nijinska, Agnes de Mille, and Eugene Loring—in regular New York appearances supplemented with national tours. The curtain had barely risen on its first short season at the now-demolished Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center than Robbins began bombarding management with audition requests until he finally won a contract, first as a summer temporary, then as a permanent corps member. At first, dancers’ terms of employment were erratic: the company was engaged for two months in the fall of 1940 at the Chicago Lyric Opera, then had a brief season in New York in early 1941, at which point it appeared financing for the venture would dry up. Robbins returned to Tamiment for one last season, as a choreographer, but Ballet Theatre struck a deal with the impresario Sol Hurok that ensured the company’s survival, and that fall Robbins went with them to Mexico.
 
For the next four years Ballet Theatre would be the nursery that brought forth Robbins’s mature talent, as a dancer (in such signature roles as Hermes in Helen of Troy and the puppet in Petrouchka) and eventually as a choreographer, broadening his horizons on tours around the United States and abroad and introducing him to a surrogate family of dancers, choreographers, composers, and other artists that gave him the camaraderie and acceptance he rarely found at home. The support was welcome, for this was a period of considerable conflict and anxiety for Robbins. His first real sexual attraction, to a man, had been followed by an affair with a woman, which had not been sustained; his family had accused him of consorting with “bad company” (code for homosexuals); and his professional ambition, always transparent, had brought him criticism that, in turn, made him doubt his talent and his worth. Traveling the country, he longed for a place to settle and call his own. He found friends, some of whom would be colleagues and companions for years, including the dancers Donald Saddler and Nora Kaye (to whom he would later be briefly engaged to be married), the director Mary Hunter, co-founder of the American Actors Company, and the playwright Horton Foote, with whom he had plans to collaborate on an elaborate danced and acted theater piece based on an African American folk myth. But even among these, he often felt lonely and vulnerable: “made crudely, painted badly,” as he described the title character in Petrouchka, who he thought was “me in so many ways.” He poured out his loneliness and conflicted emotions not only in his journals but in scenarios and fiction that he never sought to have produced or published.
 
In the end, his vision of a kind of American theatrical dance, and his drive to create it, prevailed against his self-doubt. In 1943, tired of dancing in Russian boots and wigs, frustrated from bombarding Ballet Theatre management with scores of overcomplicated scenarios—which featured Cecil B. DeMille–sized casts of thousands—in the hopes of getting a commission, he had an epiphany inspired by watching rehearsals of George Balanchine’s nearly minimalist ballet Apollo. He realized he could do more with less: a ballet about three sailors on shore leave in the big city and the three girls they meet. Following his usual practice in previous efforts, he outlined all the action in detail and even specified the tone and tempos for the music, leaving very little to management’s imagination, and when a work scheduled for the spring 1944 season fell through, Ballet Theatre—nudged by his ally, the company’s executive managing director, Charles Payne—gave him the empty slot. He cast two friends, the firecracker Harold Lang as the rowdy, boisterous sailor and the dreamy, sweet-faced John Kriza as the lyrical one, and gave himself the bravura role of their “smouldering” dark companion. Hoping to produce the ballet inexpensively, the company suggested Robbins work with their musical arranger to cobble together a score from existing popular songs, but Robbins had more ambitious ideas. Eventually he persuaded Ballet Theatre to commission the then-unknown Leonard Bernstein to compose the score; since Bernstein was tethered to New York City by his job as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, their collaboration had to be conducted long-distance, but on April 18, 1944, Fancy Free, with a set by Oliver Smith, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was an immediate, life-changing success. “To come right to the point,” said The New York Times’s John Martin,
 
“Fancy Free” . . . is a smash hit. This [is] young Robbins’ first go at choreography, and the only thing he has to worry about in that direction is how in the world he is going to make his second one any better. He has managed to get into this light-hearted little piece of American genre the same quality of humor which has always characterized his personal dancing, the same excellent actor’s sense of the theatre, and some first-rate invention to boot. [T]he whole ballet, performance included, is just exactly ten degrees north of terrific.
 
Overnight, in a stroke that could have come from the Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley film 42nd Street, the twenty-five-year-old Robbins had gone from youngster to star. His new life had begun.
 

 
How I Almost Did Not Become a Dancer
August 15, 1976
 
There was no money to allow me to continue college even though I felt I could do much better than the first year, [but] I extracted a promise from my parents that for one year I could try my hand at what I wished. I wasn’t at all sure what [things] I did want to do, but running the Comfort Corset Company was not among them.
 
I had always been fascinated by marionettes and had even constructed a small cardboard theater in the basement of our house and had made a number of marionettes, designed the clothes, painted, built and lit the scenery, etc. I had read some books on puppetry and was most impressed by one [written] by Tony Sarg. So I looked up his name in the Manhattan phone book—he lived in Greenwich Village—blindly dressed in my most adult-looking clothes, went to his address and rang his bell. He lived in a rather dark ground floor apartment in a brownstone. I remember a short man, in a dim light, who wanted to know what I wanted.
 
I said I wanted to be a puppeteer and would he take me on as an apprentice. His answer was a brief “no, he didn’t do that”—and I found myself in my best clothes out on the street again.
 
So then I decided I’d try dancing.
 
Because my sister had worked with him and because I had watched rehearsals, she arranged an audition and interview with [Senya Gluck] Sandor.  I felt about him then as I do about Balanchine now—he was very much in the limelight, and reviews by Martin were not uncommon. He was the most stimulating creative man that I ever encountered.
 
He greeted me (he knew me as Sonia’s brother) and asked me to change into my dance clothes (bathing trunks and a t-shirt) and then put me through some very elementary movements, running, jumping, rhythmic sequences, etc. Then he asked me to do some improvisations. First he asked me to write large numbers in the air, from 0 to 9 with my arms, then to write different numbers with different dramatic contexts—pleading, anger, as royalty, begging, etc. [T]hen he asked me to do one as Shiva, who both gave and took, blessed and damned. He put one gold spotlight on me and I took off. He said, very good—get dressed and we’ll talk. After I changed, he invited me for a tea or snack at the bar-restaurant across the street. I was very nervous; being with such a famous creative person, and honored and thrilled to be allowed to dine with him.
 
We went into the bar-restaurant, seated ourselves in a booth, ordered I don’t remember what, sitting opposite each other. Sandor must have sensed my anxiety. Then he said, I have to go to the bathroom—do you want to wash your hands or anything. I said yes because it seemed more agreeable than saying no, even though I didn’t need to wash my hands again. So, with Sandor leading the way we entered the narrow little john consisting of one urinal, one toilet, a sink, mirror and towel rack.
 
While Sandor relieved himself I washed my hands, using the liquid soap that hung in an inverted jar extended out over the wash basin. You tapped up on the little peg on the bottom of the container jar and it released the soap with that particular certain public toilet odor. As I was drying my hands, in silence, Sandor took his turn at the sink and began washing his hands and then next he leaned forward toward the wash basin to splash some water on his luxurious black long hair before combing it. But as he leaned into the bowl I noticed that his head bobbing up and down was about to hit the short peg of the soap dispenser and I quickly passed my hand under the peg to stop that disaster. But an even more terrible disaster occurred. My hand pressed against the peg and out poured a stream of liquid soap down onto and into the black head of hair of Sandor, who, not knowing what was happening, continued to splash water on his head. A shampoo commercial could not outdo the sudsy foam that ensued. Horror-stricken, I watched as Sandor finally felt something wrong, looked at his hands and lifted his head to see in the mirror what looked like a soapy Harpo Marx. He held still—then wheeled around and stared at me. I don’t know what my expression was like. All I know is that I knew for sure that my career as a dancer had come to a calamitous end in the bathroom of that bar-restaurant. Sandor, dearest man, must have seen everything in my face and he read all of it, the accident and my ashen-faced response to it and after a good look, he turned right back to the basin and washed the soap out of his hair as I stood by in complete misery. When he seemed rid of the soap he mopped up with his handkerchief, slicked his hair back with his comb and then we both went back to our booth and never ever to this day talked about what happened in the men’s room.
 
What he did say was something like this: I was, he felt, very talented, but my wanting to be a dancer was to be very discouraged. It was a hard terrible life, one that certainly would never earn [me] enough to protect a future, no less make a present living. Dance was not popular in the US, male dancers were thought of as freaks, and the effort needed and the rewards of succeeding were totally out of balance.
 
 
But he said, you think it over, and if you want to work with me I’ll take you on.
 
I thought it over then and there for less than a second and said, Yes, I want.
 
Flopping
September 9, 1976
 
The first notice I ever received was written by Anatole Chujoy. It was a review of a dancer named Lisa Parnova [who] did a concert of mostly solo dances at The Lexington YMHA. She was a dark beautiful woman, and I have no idea of how much ability she had as a technician. Needing a partner for two dances she’d asked Sandor for help in finding one—and he suggested me. It was [a] mistake, an ill match from every angle. To start with I’d had at that point four classes for beginner’s ballet. I scarcely knew the terms. I had absolutely no partnering ability. I’d never lifted a woman or protected her pirouettes. And lastly, I was a kid, still growing, physically smaller than Lisa, and certainly much younger.
 
We did two dances. The first was to Debussy’s “The Snow Is Falling”; it was full of bourrées & some pirouettes for Lisa. I had no idea how to keep her on balance as she turned. She was most patient, [but] she felt to me like a heavy telephone pole, and I never could get her back on center once she started off. She asked me what steps I could do. I liked sissonnes & tour jetés—so that’s what I did when on my own.
 
The other dance was a Strauss waltz—I had to come on stage as if I had a tryst with someone for whom I’d bought a small bouquet. I wore elegant clothes of the 1870s—including a top hat and white gloves, beige trousers and a fawn coat with tails [and] a starched high collar. The rented costume carried the name of a not-too-well known tap-dancer inked into its label—and I was thrilled to be sporting his clothes. I got on, running in full of excitement, then realized she wasn’t there, looked from side to side, and sat down despondently. Lisa tiptoed in behind me and tapped me lightly and darted away. Finally we waltzed—skinny me in my rented clothes and Lisa in her big hooped skirt. Chujoy put it aptly. “Robin Gerald’s partnering hindered more than it helped.”

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