Copenhagen, 1956: Tanaquil Le Clercq, known as Tanny, is a gorgeous, talented, and spirited young ballerina whose dreams are coming true. She is married to the love of her life, George Balanchine—the famous mercurial director of New York City Ballet—and she has become a star around the world. But one fateful evening, only hours after performing, Tanny falls suddenly and gravely ill; she awakens from a feverous sleep to find that she can no longer move her legs.
Tanny is diagnosed with polio and Balanchine devotes himself to caring for his wife. But after Tanny discovers she will never walk again, their relationship is challenged as Balanchine returns to the company, choreographing ballets inspired by the ever-younger, more beautiful and talented dancers. Their marriage is put to the ultimate test as Tanny battles to redefine her dreams.
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We danced at the Biennale in Venice while it was still hot, while the canals stank and rats skittered in the alleys and sunned themselves on the ledges of fountains. Then it turned brittle cold. The day we left I couldn’t distinguish between the fog and the puff of my breath.
In Frankfurt, we were informed that Stravinsky had suffered a stroke conducting in Berlin and was not expected to live. Almost nothing could have upset George more than the possible loss of his artistic father, collaborator, and friend. He couldn’t sleep at night, and I ended up sleeping in Mother’s room to get the rest I needed for performance. Everyone felt the pall of his gloom.
Making it worse, George and I weren’t getting along. I suspected that he was infatuated with Diana Adams, another dancer in the company who happened to be my best friend. I had no real evidence. My husband, far as I could see, attended to the usual sprains and emergencies, rehearsed replacements that had to be made. But I could feel it.
We called the long, late summer and autumn tour of 1956 the German tour, because of Stravinsky prostrate in Berlin. The previous year, so very different, we’d begun in Nice, on to the flowers and sea and palm trees of Monte Carlo. The grand duchess came backstage with a bouquet from the prince of Monaco. I didn’t like crowded Marseille, the rough stage ripped the satin right off our shoes. From there we took the train to Lyon, where they gave us a lovely reception in the park and the mayor invited us to the palace. Florence in May was warm and sunny, and we danced on a huge stage with a good floor. I didn’t care for Lisbon, we were like film stars there, the people threw belts, ribbons, men’s collars to autograph, they’d clutch at our clothes, and I couldn’t understand a word they said. In France it was easy for me, and in Italy too, though I don’t speak Italian. In Italy I spoke French, English, and pantomime. In Stuttgart I bought beautiful cobalt-blue pottery and two feather quilts, rose and moss green. Amsterdam was exquisite, the canals, the paved streets, and the little white houses.
I thought of that tour lying awake in Mother’s room throughout our stay in Frankfurt, then in Brussels, with the days getting shorter and colder, as if the earlier tour were extant, parallel, proof that happiness and ease weren’t myths.
In Antwerp I spun off the stage and nearly fell in the wings, catching myself by clutching at ropes. Upright again, I was soaked through with sweat. Mouths moved on girls rushing by, but I couldn’t hear them. Somebody had shut off the sound, and the girls looked like ghosts. Sounds shot back and boomed, and I started violently shaking.
George came to my dressing room, a cramped trap that had a wide upholstered chair, where I huddled, cloaked in my old flannel bathrobe. He got in the chair beside me and rubbed my arms, and I calmed.
“No more sleeping with Mama,” he said. I could see he was worried about me. We had just learned Stravinsky was stable, and I tried not to link George’s openness and care to mere relief.
“You don’t love me,” I said. He didn’t answer, but he didn’t leave.
In the morning I felt better. Mother said if I lost one more ounce, the audience wouldn’t be able to see me. Since Venice she hovered, bringing me milkshakes thick with cream, white as her hair. It was quite strange because overall I was dancing effectively. I would drink Mother’s elixir, gag down a couple pieces of steak, and go on as if my muscles weren’t seizing. Onstage they revived, and in Paris I danced the best swan queen of my career.
I remember little of Paris. Ordinarily on trips to Paris I went to museums and cafés, I bought out the shops of gloves and perfume, but that year I stayed in and rested. This time Paris was a mission, saving myself, compressing myself into dancing well, showing George, proving that I could go on regardless of our future as a couple, and proving to myself that I wasn’t sick.
At night I lay in the bath then slid into bed and unconsciousness easily, dimly aware for a minute or two of George quietly moving about the room so he wouldn’t disturb me.
On the morning we disembarked from Cologne, I discovered that I hadn’t brought enough of the powdered dextrose many of us used in those days. I was riveted by the conviction that I couldn’t dance without it. I asked girls on the train and nobody had any. Mother hadn’t brought any extra, and as my options gave out I turned desperate. George claimed a cup of coffee would work equally well, that we girls were basically taking, “What they call? Placebo. The kick’s in your heads.”
I’m finished, I thought.
Arriving in Scandinavia, clammy in my coat, mittens, and hat, I thought, just get through Copenhagen, Stockholm. . . . Mother and George believed I felt a cold coming on, and with each day Stravinsky remained on the planet George acted more chipper.
We finished unpacking in our room with the brocaded wallpaper, in Copenhagen, before going over to the theater for a run-through.
“Did you pray for Igor?” I asked.
George sniffed, unsure it wasn’t a mock.
“What do you mean, did I pray? I always pray.”
“I mean especially hard?”
“Since when you take interest in religion?” and he picked up his keys and said, “Let’s go. I’ll let you out fast, you can come back and rest.”
I sat on the horsehair mattress smelling of straw. “Do you pray in Russian?”
I tried to laugh, but it hurt my chest. I said, “Tell me a prayer.”
“Come on, I will on the way over.”
“In Russian,” I said.
Shoving me through the door, he said, “Sure, Russian.”
A car waited for us downstairs and we rode to the theater with Diana and another dancer, who hopped down the sidewalk in the cold.
“Diana!” George called. “Yvonne!” I watched, a fist in my throat, as he greeted them—beautiful, long, dark-haired Diana, and equally dark and beautiful, voluptuous Yvonne.
The Royal Opera House was magnificent, red velvet and gilt, carvings and soaring arches, a cathedral of art. George was ballet master there in his youth for a season. But, wed to the past, the Danes didn’t want his ballets. George said Denmark grew the most beautiful women in the world like grass, but so what? They didn’t make anything of them. Since George had become such a star, the Danes had invited him back. He brought us and quietly gloated.
He let me go after only an hour’s rehearsal, saying I was out of Bourrée Fantasque for tomorrow. I would dance only one ballet for the opening and conserve my forces.
Outside the theater I did not hail a cab, I ducked away from King’s Plaza, dodging a streetcar that surged through teeming people on bikes, and set out along smaller streets, searching for dextrose. Ludicrous, because how would I ask for it? Where would it be? I had decided, however, that it would save me.
Copenhagen was handsome, rather like Prague. Because of dark autumns and winters, from four o’clock on candles flickered in banks and office buildings. In the lobby of our hotel you could barely walk for the pots of rust-colored and violet mums chockablock on the marble floor. Mother had threatened to steal one of the filigreed sterling sconces. Interiors in the north, George said, were everything.
I didn’t feel cold anymore. I smelled the sea. I thought of finding the Tivoli Gardens, but then I remembered they were closed. I knew Mother would worry if I didn’t head back to the hotel soon, and I was reminded of stories George told me about the mother of Tamara Toumanova, his first very young star, his “baby ballerina.” Mama Toumanova wore each new pair of Tamara’s slippers herself, tromping about, softening them so her daughter wouldn’t get hurt. Mama stood in the wings and called, “Four pirouettes, Tamara!” Yes, my mother, Edith, came on tour with us far too often and watched every one of my performances, but she wasn’t that bad. She even laughed at the sign on the dressing room door of the corps in New York at City Center, NO MOTHERS ALLOWED.
Damn, Tamara could dance. She could balance forever. George made the role I was now dancing in Symphony in C on Tamara, and I’d heard that at the difficult balance where the cavalier circles her in the grand tour, Tamara would let go of his hand. You had to knock her off pointe. I had yet to let go of the man’s hand, though I didn’t clamp on to it anymore.
It was pleasant out walking alone with nobody watching me, nobody asking how I felt. Strangers passed on the sidewalks and laughed inside yellow squares. Soon candles were lit. At cafés people sat outside wrapped in blankets, warmed by long metal heaters. I began to see stars.
There was a statue of the Little Mermaid nearby, perched on a rock by the water. I wished I could find her. Then I recalled that Hans Christian Andersen chopped out her tongue, as if the tail were not bad enough.
I didn’t see one single drugstore or grocery. You’d think in a large international city somebody might have a bag of corn sugar. Fatigue overtook me. I’d come to a park in a square and sat down on a bench. Cars, clusters of bicycles passed rapidly. I knew to go back, go to bed. But I watched the stars. I liked being out in the open air, free. I felt momentarily very good in my good old body. I could start over. I could do anything. I was twenty-seven years old.
The Danes saved their Jews. Thinking this churned my emotions, and I pictured the bombed buildings of Florence, the one bridge left spanning the River Arno—what was it? The Ponte Vecchio. What year had it been? 1952. Then I thought of my father, who was connected in a way I wanted to grasp to the problem between George and me. It wasn’t just that Mother and Father were separated. My father was a distinguished man, a scholar and a poet. George was as fascinated by him in the beginning as he had been by Maria’s father, who was marginally an American Indian chief. Father told George about Mallarmé speaking of a dancer as “writing with her body.”
I always liked dancing, but I was also always a bit of a lazy thing. Poor Father coped surprisingly well with my laziness, my lack of ambition in school: “What are you doing, Tanaquil?”
“Nothing,” slouched on the couch.
“Nothing will come of nothing.”
“So true.” What a brat, and Papa smiled mildly, continuing into his study. Despite his restraint, a father who named his daughter for an Etruscan queen had a few expectations.
When the dancing caught, he said, “Fine. Just do it well.” Mother was apoplectic with joy. In Mother’s St. Louis, becoming a ballerina wasn’t done. She read widely, traveled, married a glamorous Frenchman, and times changed.
There is a photograph of me at eleven months in Cannes, before we moved to New York. I’m holding on to a grille at the side of our building en pointe. Not technically, of course, but I’m already at the barre.
We were a family whose problem was we didn’t talk. Or I should say, our words were games, bilingual tennis matches. For us words themselves were too potent to trust as conveyors of emotion, of need, as if words taken seriously could kill or enslave. In fact, and this was the irony, words were everything for Father. As he and Mother drifted apart, while Mother got more involved with me, Father increasingly shut himself up in his study with liquor and books.
One night I dashed in distraught over a failed rehearsal and Father opened the study door, wafting brandy, eyes crimson in his narrow face. Swaying, but ever charming, he bashfully smiled and said, “Ma chère, I finished my translation of Villon tonight.” François Villon, poet-thief of Father’s cherished French medieval literature, though I’d had not an inkling of the project. We should have celebrated, with tea or cocoa at that juncture, yes. He could have read me a poem, I could have confided in him about my rehearsal—except Mother was finished with him. I copied her behavior, and nothing of this was discussed. The actual separation took years. I was a kid; I don’t blame Mother. Some women prefer kids to men and some want men forever and the kids are a big interference, and there are other gradations, such as how personalities mesh and so on. But inside, Father and I were alike, much more than Mother and I.
I wished in Copenhagen, face to the stars, that I hadn’t said, “Swell!” and hurried to my room. I wished I hadn’t been schooled to be light and gay and afraid of the passion in Father and in me. I wished George hadn’t fallen for me because I was funny and bright and long-legged and that, from the first, we had talked about more than dancing. I wished I had seen him more, seen Father more. Been more.
I wondered if Mother’s coming along this year on tour had spoiled the chance of a remedy, a renewal. I worried she served as a buffer between George and me, enabling him to do whatever he wanted with minimal questions and complications.
But as Mother herself might have said, how much could one affect, control? Father lived through written words as George lived through dancers’ bodies, and Father loved drink, and George got messed up as a kid in Russia eating cats off the street and replacing his absent family with music and girls.
The chill jarred me, the intricate scrollwork on a lamppost, the pristine condition of the park, its design, and the exoticism of the language I could hear snapped me back to my senses and I dropped the idea of the dextrose.
I stood like the Etruscan queen I was named for and hailed the gleaming black coach coming toward me. I deserved to be a queen, I thought, because I worked hard as a miner.
It had proved bracing, lingering outside alone, on my last walk through a city forever.
In the morning I awoke with a cold. Friday went swimmingly. George called music the water and us the fish. In his vernacular I could be angelfish, catfish, swordfish, or crab cake on a bad day. In another vein, my legs were columns, wands, whips, scissors, coltlike, needle-sharp, arrows, garrotes, and once, in an embarrassing class, he said, “Asparagus. Cooked asparagus.” Oh, the trials of learning to dance.
He checked on me as I lay in the bath on Friday after the opening-night performance and gala. In relief, or out of hysteria, I tried to get him to kiss me, but he wouldn’t.
“Rudolph red nose, I’m not getting sick.” His eyes skimmed my breasts, though, afloat in the water, and I began to believe I could get him back. I wanted him back. I said a silent pagan prayer that Diana or whoever the hell it was would elope and grow huge with child overnight. That was the one-way ticket out of the Balanchine kingdom.
I didn’t desire a child, being fully aware of George’s feelings on the subject. Other relationships of his had ended over “the baby question,” and anyway, having been in physical training since the age of seven, my plans for my postdancing life did not include labor. I thought I might lie around for a couple years and then play Joan of Arc on the stage and star in a sexy film with Sinatra.
There was the slightest heaviness in my left thigh. I lifted it from the water, testing. Champagne? The single glass I’d had at the party?
Back in the room, steam clung to the brocaded wallpaper, making the walls look swollen.
My thigh had this hitch, getting in bed.
Some said it took so long to become evident because I was strong. Others said the severity of my case resulted from my exertion during the incubation period. No one could pinpoint when I’d been infected, but George believed it had happened in Venice.
Saturday blurred. I was feverish. It is the repetition—the thousands of repetitions for each single motion you execute on a stage—that carries you through. I got through the matinee.
My back ached. I stretched out on my dressing room floor, deciding I’d stay there and rest until the evening performance. Dear Betty, our company manager, brought me a thick rug and one of the long metal heaters, a Danish delight!
I must have slept. George opened the door in pitch-dark. I knew it was him by the click of the knob, the efficient care he took doing all things, by his firm light tread, and his cologne—too cloying, I’d thought at first, then it mixed with the warming earth of him and I grew to love it.
The light. I drew my arm across my eyes.
“You don’t tell anyone your plans?” he asked me.
You care? I thought. I didn’t say it, too sick. I sat up. “I’m tired,” I said.
“Come,” he said, and, taking his warm dry hand, I stood. “Can you eat?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Can you dance tonight?”
We stood face-to-face, his bow tie slightly askew—I corrected it—his hair less tidy than I preferred—I pushed back dark strands twinkled with silver, gathered them through the others. His charisma, his mystery, his genius, and his fame too, yes, attracted me to him, and yet more than anything it was our world together, the studio and the classes and the tours and our apartment with the stupid plants I kept buying although they got dusty and died because we’d be gone—our world I most loved, one running on music and muscle and, heavens, more even than that: his body. His strong lean body.
“Hug me,” I said, and he wrapped me, full-body hug—our lengths together, his chin against my shoulder and head against mine.
“You’re hot,” he said.
“Not too.” I felt better.
“Where do you hurt?”
“My back.” My left leg is heavy, I said only in my mind.
“I’ll get you massage tonight.”
“Yes.” Dear Rat, I thought. I wouldn’t have said it aloud. But it was part of his sweetness, and I needed that. His parents left him as a child at the Imperial School. They shaved his head. With the head and the teeth and his sniffs and his, even then, supercilious expression when inanimate, when he wasn’t consumed by laughter, dance, music—well, the kids at the school called him Rat, and he ran away. Brought back, he secluded himself, playing piano. But one day he had looked through a keyhole at older dancers, three ballerinas at practice, and he saw something interesting. It appealed to his intelligence. They looked as though they were solving a puzzle. He thought he could do it. He liked it. He gave himself to it and it saved him. So, Rat. My Rat.
He pulled back. “You’ll be all right?”
“I’ll have them bring milk.”
He grazed my jaw with the backs of his fingers and left, and the space he had occupied rang.
I washed, redid my makeup, and crosshatched my slippers. I danced.
The next day’s matinee I danced Afternoon of a Faun, a ballet created by my good friend Jerome Robbins—easy steps, short, you came on, and out of motion wove an impression, and the Europeans went wild. I adored Jerry’s Faun for its atmosphere and its poetry. I stood in the wings pretending it was a hot summer day. I knocked wood and went through the door, stepping into the white silk room drifting as if from a breeze—fans blowing backstage—against the blue cyclorama of sky. Debussy’s music held me, told me the manner of the ballet. Swimming through my partner’s arms, staring into the mirror, the water—reflection. Such bliss: lifts, sudden surges, flicking my hair off my neck. Toward the end, Jacques kissed my cheek. My hand touched the spot. My eyes turned to him and, slowly, turned back away to aloneness, lost once more in self, and then I was going, walking those wonderful deer steps of Jerry’s offstage. Soon came the applause. I listened that day. I’ll never forget how that day I listened.
As I rested limply in my dressing room the sickness took me, traveling through me and pushing out of my pores, spilling heat that seemed to glow and settle like sand on the mirror, the lights, the brushes, the tube of greasepaint on my dressing room table, my costumes, those skins hanging on their glowing wires. I sank to the edge of a chair, too weak to do more than pick up my robe, could not even put it around my sore shoulders. Hearing a voice in the hallway, I called to it, any voice, told it to bring George, and he came. I said, “It must be a very bad flu.” He got me changed, bundled me in my coat, hat, and mittens, but we didn’t take off my makeup.
Mother creamed my face back at the hotel. I lay in the bath, I lay in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Nothing helped. Hours passed, George in and out, Mother imploring me to drink water, but I couldn’t. I asked who was dancing for me tonight. Otherwise it was just ache and time and the swollen flocking on the wallpaper turning to fanciful shapes—orchid, pinwheel, a rabbit scampering onto the dresser.
George leaned over me and I nearly retched at the scent of vodka on his breath—crossing the Atlantic from Paris to New York, I was three, Mother was seasick, and I saw again her green face, her pale lips, Oh, gods—she rocked in the berth—curse the odor of onion soup.
“Do you want a doctor? Tanny?”
Shook my head no, no doctor, afraid of what he might find. “Sleep,” I said, and at dawn it came.
Smoke. George was out on the balcony having a cigarette. Morning light, hazed by the drab day, filled the room like dirty dishwater.
What was yesterday?
I got sick.
I must be better.
I didn’t ache nearly so much.
Letting him smoke, I sat up. But I couldn’t swing my legs over the side of the bed.
I pulled off the cover. I tested my toes. Nothing. Ache, though. It was still there. Flex?
Wouldn’t. Knees wouldn’t respond. The heavy left thigh was heavier. So was the right. Even my hips weren’t mine. Wait. Try again. No response.
When I spoke, my tone was steady. I was too disoriented to panic. It was all too odd.
I called, “George, I want to get up and I can’t move my legs.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Master's Muse includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Varley O'Connor. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It is often said, behind every great man, there is a great woman. In the case of celebrated and esteemed choreographer George Balanchine, there were several. The Master’s Muse is the spectacular reimagining of his fifth and final wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq. At just twenty-seven years old, Tanny’s brilliant career as a ballerina was ended and her entire world shattered when she contracted polio. She lost her ability to dance, and with that, feared the loss of her husband’s affection and desire. Varley O’Connor masterfully enters the mind of Tanny and delivers a first person perspective on life as a ballerina, polio victim, and muse to one of ballet’s most famous figures of the twentieth century.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Master’s Muse is broken up into three parts: “polio,” “Being Russian,” and “The Body.” Discuss the significance of these three part titles as they relate to the story, along with the quotes that open each one.
2. In the prologue, Tanaquil reflects on her marriage to George: “I didn’t realize to what extent dance, for George, was love.” (p. 8) How does this prove true throughout the rest of their story? How does their inability to dance or collaborate together after Tanny contracts polio affects their relationship?
3. When the polio paralyzes Tanny’s legs, it puts an end to her career as a ballerina and completely changes her life. She recognizes her loss, thinking: “my legs that were once everything . . . My legs: my weapons, my wings.” (p. 34) What do you consider your weapons or wings? What would be most difficult to have taken away from you?
4. Compare Tanny’s relationships with George, Jerry, and Carl. How does she love each of them and how does each of these men affect her life—for better or worse?
5. At a few different points in the narrative, Tanny reflects on the different versions of herself. On page 8, she says that the events of the 1956 tour “created a ‘me’ to posterity that superseded anything I had been before—and the ‘me’ inside of what happened.” Later, she discusses about waking up and remembering she has polio, at which point she “would have to decide all over again to get up and be who I was now” (p. 107). How do you interpret her use of “me”? Have you ever felt you’ve become a new or different “you”?
6. After Tanny decides not to take her own life, she believes that George really would have helped her to end it if she wanted to. Do you agree? Do you think he ever even got the pills? Why or why not?
7. Tanny’s father tells her that he thinks “All men should have children. It’s an unrecorded fact that men need to have children more than women do.” (p. 161) Discuss the merit of this statement—do you agree? How would you apply this concept to the characters in The Master’s Muse? To people you know?
8. Discuss Tanny’s different reactions to George’s infatuation with other women. How do her feelings about Diana differ from the way she feels about Suzanne? Why do you think she’s able to be cordial with Suzanne and be friends with Diana?
9. Why do YOU think George doesn’t want to get divorced when Tanny first asks him to leave, and then later goes behind her back in Mexico? Why do you think George and Tanny stayed together as long as they did?
10. George said, “Energy’s endless . . . You think there isn’t anymore, and then there is.” (p. 210) How does the idea of resurgent energy recur as a theme throughout the book? How does it apply to George and Tanny’s relationship?
11. When visiting George in the hospital, Tanny confides in him that she should have married Carl because it was what he wanted; it was something she could have done for him. Is that enough of a reason to marry someone? Why do you think she was resistant to the idea when Carl first brought it up?
12. Who do you think is the master’s muse? Is it Tanny? What do you take away from this title having now read the book?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Many of the characters in The Master’s Muse really existed. Learn more about them by picking up one of George Balanchine’s biographies, such as All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine by Terry Teachout, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb, or Balanchine: A Biography by Bernard Taper.
2. Tanny developed a passion for cooking, and even put together The Ballet Cookbook, which was published in 1966. Copies may be hard to find these days, but that shouldn’t stop you from incorporating some Russian treats into your book club discussion. Choose from dozens of authentic and delicious looking recipes at www.ruscuisine.com.
3. Luckily, the polio vaccine has made cases today almost nonexistent. To get a better understanding of the virus and its history, visit www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio.
4. Check out YouTube to see an actual recording of Tanaquil Le Clercq dancing Afternoon of a Faun with Jacques d’Amboise at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmnnhq_ZXlw. How did watching this video affect your idea of who Tanny was and your overall reading of The Master’s Muse?
A Conversation with Varley O’Connor
While a very different book, your last novel, The Cure, is also about the destructiveness of polio. What interests you about the topic and made you want to write about it in two separate books?
My father contracted polio as a child, when he was three. His entire childhood was about braces and surgeries and, finally, beginning to walk again. But the journey shaped his personality. His polio made me curious about how illness and disability determines who people become, in positive as well as negative ways. My father had a tremendous power of will, as Tanny does.
What attracted you to Tanaquil Le Clercq as a narrator for a novel?
She became a huge international star, married one of the most famous men of her time, and then she was suddenly crippled. I thought readers would be fascinated to hear what it was like to live a life of such extremes. I certainly was as I delved into research, especially interviews she gave and stories people told about her.
Describe the experience of creating a work of fiction about real people. What were the challenges and how was it different than the experience of writing any of your other novels?
I had to do a lot of research, but I like research. What was hardest was digesting the research. In a novel, you don’t want the research to stick out. So I’d read my facts over and over, pretty much memorizing them. That way, the facts came through organically in the story. Or I hope they do.
Did you ever consider writing from someone else’s perspective or alternating perspectives for The Master’s Muse? Why or why not?
I never thought of using any perspective other than Tanny’s. She was the person who originally drew me to the story, and I learned that she never wrote a memoir. So I wanted this to be her story. I tried to write the book of her life she never wrote.
How did you go about your research for this novel? Are there any parts of The Master’s Muse that aren’t true, or required more creativity and imagination than research?
Because there was no memoir or biography about Tanny, the facts were scattered over many resources. It was quite a job connecting the dots! That’s where my imagination came in. So much is written about Balanchine that recreating what their relationship must have been like wasn’t that difficult. Harder were the parts in the novel when Tanny is alone. Carl, for instance, is an invented character.
Was there ever a time in the course of writing this book that you wished you could change the facts? Did you find that history or truth ever got in the way of good storytelling?
I became so fond of my main characters that I wished Tanny and George would have gotten back together. But in terms of storytelling, the fact that they didn’t get back together probably makes a better story. It’s more complicated that way, there’s more suspense, and it challenged my inventiveness as a writer. I had to find ways to make the facts work dramatically.
How did you decide where to begin and end Tanny’s story?
I knew very early in the process where it would begin and end. For me, the polio was a sort of refining fire for both Le Clercq and Balanchine. It reshaped them in many ways, as individuals and as a couple. And it had a huge impact on Balanchine’s work. So I knew I’d start with the polio, that great terrible challenge. As for the end, I saw Balanchine’s final illness as in some ways parallel to Le Clercq’s polio. He helped her through her illness, and she helped him through his.
What kind of ending might you have given George and Tanny if you could have written their real story?
I have no idea. It took such belief and commitment to write the book as it is, that at this point I can’t imagine it happening any other way.
What are you working on next? Do you have any new projects coming up?
I’ve started research on a new novel. It’s again based on a true story. There are two main characters, a young girl and a woman. It also involves illness and fame. And, at least for the woman character in the story, it is also driven by romantic passion.
If you could ask Tanaquil Le Clercq one question, what would it be?
I hope she would like the novel. Perhaps that’s what I’d ask her. I did everything in my power to write a book true to her essence and her world.