Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

by Martin Duberman

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A rich and revelatory biography of one of the crucial cultural figures of the twentieth century.

Lincoln Kirstein’s contributions to the nation’s life, as both an intellectual force and advocate of the arts, were unparalleled. While still an undergraduate, he started the innovative literary journal Hound and Horn, as well as the modernist Harvard Society for Contemporary Art—forerunner of the Museum of Modern Art. He brought George Balanchine to the United States, and in service to the great choreographer’s talent, persisted, against heavy odds, in creating both the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Among much else, Kirstein helped create Lincoln Center in New York, and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut; established the pathbreaking Dance Index and the country’s first dance archives; and in some fifteen books proved himself a brilliant critic of art, photography, film, and dance.

But behind this remarkably accomplished and renowned public face lay a complex, contradictory, often tortured human being. Kirstein suffered for decades from bipolar disorder, which frequently strained his relationships with his family and friends, a circle that included many notables, from W. H. Auden to Nelson Rockefeller. And despite being married for more than fifty years to a woman whom he deeply loved, Kirstein had a wide range of homosexual relationships throughout the course of his life.

This stunning biography, filled with fascinating perceptions and incidents, is a major act of historical reclamation. Utilizing an enormous amount of previously unavailable primary sources, including Kirstein’s untapped diaries, Martin Duberman has rendered accessible for the first time a towering figure of immense complexity and achievement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307549679
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 736
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is the author of some twenty books, including Charles Francis Adams (winner of the Bancroft Prize); James Russell Lowell (finalist for the National Book Award); Paul Robeson (winner of the George Freedley Memorial Award); Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion, Essays 1964–2002; Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community; and Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey. His recent novel, Haymarket, has been published in several languages. Duberman’s play In White America won the Drama Desk Award. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Growing Up (1917–1926)

When Rose Stein told her family in the summer of 1893 that she wished to marry Louis Kirstein, she met with instant and strenuous opposition. The Steins, after all, were among Rochester’s most prominent Jewish families, partners in the flourishing Stein-Bloch men’s clothing company, pillars of the community—even if, but one generation back, their mother had been a wet nurse in Posen, Germany.[1]

Who was this Louis Kirstein? A nobody in their view, a large, coarse-looking man with limited education and income—and even more limited prospects. He did currently hold down a salesman’s job for an optical firm, but though admittedly bright, congenial, and ambitious, he hadn’t found work that genuinely engaged him or offered promise of a secure future. Nor did his history inspire confidence that he ever would.

Alarming tales had reached the stodgy Stein clan: Kirstein, it seemed, had only a grammar-school education, had left home at sixteen, ridden the rails as a hobo, worked as a janitor in a St. Louis brothel, and once been held in jail overnight for trying to peddle a worthless patent medicine. He had, though still in his late twenties, already gone bankrupt three times—once as part owner, player, and manager of a bush-league baseball team.

The words “sporting type,” “maverick,” and “outsider” clung to his name: he was said to like fine Cuban cigars (Corona Coronas) and well-tailored clothes, was a habitual (and lucky) poker player—and wasn’t an observant Jew. Not that the Steins were, either, but somehow Louis should have been, given his otherwise unorthodox ways. No, Rose was told, the match was entirely unsuitable.

But Rose refused to yield. She felt certain that the man she’d fallen for couldn’t be summarized by his hard-luck past, nor could his earlier missteps be taken as an accurate gauge of his character. The Louis Kirstein she knew was a charismatic man of integrity and generosity, a man of shrewd intelligence, unflagging optimism, and a tremendous appetite for life. Far from being a “sporting type,” he believed strongly in the ideal of “service”—in using one’s gifts and good fortune in behalf of those less fortunate. And, far from being a “fancy man,” he adhered to standard middle-class values of hard work, civic-mindedness, and devotion to family. No, she would not give him up. (Nor would she be at all surprised when, within a decade, Louis would begin a rapid ascent to wealth and influence.)

Rose’s obstinacy was not an entire surprise to her family. Though she’d grown up a conventional enough child, and was now seemingly content with the decorous confines of well-to-do womanhood—a keen interest in fashion, embroidery and lace, museumgoing, the arts and concerts—her six siblings had been warned at an early age, so one of them later remembered, “never to cross Rosie because she might have one of her crazy tantrums.” Her daughter Mina would later write of her, “She was not given to revealing her feelings, only exploding when they were injured.”

Ultimately Rose’s parents gave their reluctant consent to an engagement. But they stipulated that marriage could not take place for three years, during which time they confidently expected their daughter to change her mind. She didn’t. When the three-year waiting period was up, in January 1896, she and Louis quietly wed—and promptly moved to Boston. This further aggravated family disapproval. Rose’s parents didn’t cut her off, but when she gave birth to her first child, Mina, a year later, it was not her own mother who came down from Rochester to stand by but rather Louis’s widowed mother.

Once settled in a modest rented apartment, Louis went to work for the well-established opticians Andrew J. Lloyd & Company, and began to spend considerable time on the road selling eyeglasses. His own father, Edward, had been a lens grinder in Jena, near Leipzig, a city that for a time had been a center of liberal thought and home to Fichte, Hegel, and Schiller. Edward and his wife, Jeanette, had been adherents of the revolutionary uprising of 1848, and in the wake of its failure, had fled Germany, along with hordes of like-minded social radicals, for the United States. There Edward had found work with the Bausch and Lomb optical company in Rochester, the same city where, some dozen years later, Rose’s father, Nathan Stein, became a wealthy man—thanks to contracts he secured during the Civil War to make uniforms for the Union army (uniforms, it was widely rumored, that were cut from shoddy material).

The Steins’ ongoing condescension to Louis dissipated somewhat with the birth of Mina, in 1897; to them it apparently signified seriousness and permanence. The renegade couple was invited to return to Rochester, and Louis offered employment with the family company, Stein-Bloch. He took his time accepting: the Steins had treated him as unworthy, and Louis had a settled sense of self-regard.

Still, he missed his mother, who’d remained in Rochester, living modestly in a small gray frame house in a decaying section of the city. Kindhearted, politically liberal, courageous (she was crippled with arthritis but never complained), and cultivated—her special passions were Goethe and Heine—Grandma Kirstein was the only religious member of the family; she read the Old Testament in German, prayer books in Hebrew, and insisted that Louis attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Despite her limited means, Grandma Kirstein (who died in 1914) would treat visitors to a spread of marzipan, pretzels, Apfelstrudel, and licorice sticks. Should Louis be in town, his favorite preserve, quince jelly, would be served, and should Mina accompany him, Grandma made her favorite—Küchelchen, little drops of sponge cake dipped in fat.

An additional reason for returning to Rochester was that Rose also missed her family, and especially two of her sisters, Molly and Jane. (She felt less close to her other siblings, and downright distant from her two difficult, somewhat showy bachelor brothers, one of whom summered in a palatial “cottage” and the other notoriously “not nice” to his female help.)

In 1901 the Kirsteins finally decided to return to Rochester, and Louis accepted a job with Stein-Bloch as a traveling salesman. They moved into a modest-size house on Portsmouth Terrace, around the corner from Rochester’s most elegant street, East Avenue, which boasted the pillared mansion of George Eastman, inventor of the box Kodak camera. Louis had once worked for Eastman and became a personal acquaintance; it was rumored that he’d rejected Eastman’s offer to join the Kodak firm, convinced that the new “toy” was a passing fad.

The Kirsteins’ house was securely nestled within a cluster of Stein homes. Rose’s widowed sister, Molly, lived next door with her daughter; sister Jane lived two houses down the street with her husband, Martin Wolff, owner of Rochester’s prestigious Lyceum Theatre, and their two children. Young Mina Kirstein soon decided that her favorite neighbors were not her relatives but the firemen who lived around the corner, fed her pears from the tree, and lifted her up to pat the heads of their beautiful white horses.

Rose managed to give the interior of their home some distinction through a generous sprinkling of potted palms, large ferns, and a number of marble statues—a near life-size Fisher Boy, the bust of a Gypsy atop a twisted green marble pillar, and in the sitting room, a small Cupid and Psyche. She bought a big Morris chair for Louis, stocked the bookshelves (Rose was herself a devoted reader), and provided Mina, who’d early been labeled “precocious”—at seven she was reading Shaw’s You Never Can Tell—with piano lessons, dancing school, a governess who spoke both French and German, and clothes imported from the fashionable New York stores Best and Peter Thompson.

Both of Rose’s bachelor brothers, and a brother-in-law as well, worked in the Stein-Bloch business. Nathan Stein, the quick-tempered family patriarch, required (until his death in 1908) that all family members attend him daily at lunch in his impressive Gibbs Street brick mansion, with its ornate mirrors, cut-glass vases filled with fresh American Beauty roses, superb Belter rosewood chairs—and two servants on duty behind his chair to prevent his ever being kept waiting. After lunch the men would retire for a game of billiards—which Nathan somehow always won. Though a considerable despot, he had a soft spot for his grandchildren, and Mina seems to have been a favorite. As an adult she would remember him as having been “very kind” to her, sending her off every Saturday for a shampoo and manicure with a Mrs. Davenport (whom Mina, later in life, suspected had been Grandpa Stein’s “special friend”).

Rose Kirstein gave birth to a second child, a boy, on May 4, 1907, and Louis (who was forty-one at the time of his son’s birth) named the baby Lincoln in honor of his idol, Abraham Lincoln. Ten-year-old Mina’s reaction was less benign. “He looks like a lobster!” she screamed on first seeing him—and Rose promptly ordered her from the bedroom, into the arms of her comforting father. The two loved each other deeply, and Louis reassured Mina that her special place in his heart was inviolable. The essential family alliances, never rigid, had been formed: father and daughter, mother and son.

Mina quickly came round about the new baby, however and on the nurse’s day off, took to wheeling the infant, whom she now declared “ravishingly beautiful,” along the street, demanding and getting admiring exclamations from the neighbors. Mina would become Lincoln’s closest confidante when he was growing up, the person to whom he would turn in distress—the “Dearest” of his youthful letters. When the Kirsteins’ third and last child, George, was born two and a half years later, Lincoln’s initial reaction was even more murderous than Mina’s had been toward him; allowed to watch baby George being bathed, Lincoln grabbed a tin of talcum powder and tried to bash his brother’s head in. But in the case of Lincoln and George, the relationship would never grow into anything approaching a profound connectedness.

Though Louis and Rose were not observant Jews, he—unlike Rose—felt deeply committed to his social obligations as a Jew and would later, in his son Lincoln’s affectionate words, become Boston’s leading “bully and blackmailer” in raising money for assorted Jewish causes and charities. When in 1914, for example, Louis was denied, as a Jew, the right to play golf at any of the area’s country clubs, he began a yearlong fight to establish the all-Jewish Kernwood Country Club (and was promptly elected its president). “True to our traditions,” Louis said in his speech inaugurating the club, “we were not discouraged. Rather, we were determined . . . [to] show that we had the will, the force and the character to accomplish what we deemed necessary for our development.”[2]

Similarly Louis insisted all his life on adhering to a limited number of Jewish rituals: he faithfully attended synagogue on the High Holy Days, and he automatically assumed that his newborn son, Lincoln, should be circumcised. But instead of turning to the traditional religious specialist, a mohel, to carry out the procedure, the Kirsteins decided to let the family doctor perform it. He botched the job, septicemia set in, and Lincoln nearly died. To save him, the sweat glands in his groin were surgically removed, leaving physical and psychological scars, locker-room concealments, and castration nightmares that would haunt Lincoln into adolescence; and leaving as well a small knot of loosely attached flesh that at age twelve he would—in what he subsequently described as “a fit of hysterical nervousness”—hack off with his mother’s nail scissors. When George was born, he was left uncircumcised.

The terror of nearly losing her baby left Rose prone to panic every time Lincoln had a sniffle, hint of infection, or mood swing—and there were many, since he grew up a sickly child, given (in his own words) “to fits of anxiety . . . and despair.” Late in life he laconically summarized the intertwined incitement to hysteria between himself and his mother: her “fathomless apprehension determined more of my character than was necessary.”

In 1911, when Lincoln was four, the Kirsteins left Rochester and returned to Boston. The move was propelled by ongoing tension between Louis and several male members of the Stein clan; the persistent hint that he could never expect to become a full partner in Stein-Bloch had combined with the simultaneous beginnings of friendship between Louis and the Filene brothers, Edward and Lincoln. The Filenes had inherited their father William’s clothing and piece-goods store in Boston and had begun to build it into what would become one of the world’s largest—and most socially progressive—department stores. The friendship between Lincoln Filene, the more amiable and modest of the two brothers, and Louis had steadily deepened since its inception, and in 1911 he offered Louis a junior partnership in the rapidly expanding company.[3]

For the next two years the family lived in the Hotel Ericson on Commonwealth Avenue, a prestigious Boston address. During that time Louis quickly consolidated his position at Filene’s. He could be excessively competitive and a bit of a bully who sometimes looked (though rarely was) formidably angry. But Louis also had a pronounced sense of humor, and his essential fair-mindedness and integrity made him popular with buyers and employees alike. He and the testy (as well as highly innovative) older Filene brother, Edward, never took to each other and at times were openly antagonistic. But the friendship between Louis and Lincoln Filene continued to grow, and before long Louis became head of merchandising and was allowed to invest heavily in the company.

Rose’s energy, meantime, remained centered on traditional household and cultural pursuits, but with a twist: she never bothered herself much with domestic chores or the routines of child care. Lincoln (and later, George) were turned over to the daily care of a full-time nurse, the kindly, ever-on-call “Bodie” (Helen Bodine). Rose herself, as a young girl, had gone for a time to a genteel finishing school in Manhattan, where she’d been taught the niceties of Continental deportment and speech and an appreciation for Parisian fashions and elegant furnishings (at one point she created a “Turkish” room for herself in the Kirsteins’ home, and later, a Chinese one).

Rose decided that Mina should be given comparable advantages. But though patently intelligent and bookish, Mina for a time failed to gain admission to any of the well-regarded boarding schools. A number of headmistresses initially expressed enthusiasm—but then discovered that the family was Jewish. Finally Miss Capen, who ran her prestigious school for girls in Northampton, Massachusetts, agreed to admit her, assuring Rose (after Rose had said it was perfectly acceptable for Mina to go to church) that she herself had no prejudice whatsoever against “Hebrews,” indeed admired the “race” for its many “geniuses.” She had instituted a quota system, Miss Capen explained, only to satisfy the large number of parents who objected to their daughters being “over-exposed” to Jewish people. Fortunately, she added, the quota (which turned out to be 2 students out of 120) had not been filled for the upcoming year.[4]

Mina initially failed to appreciate her great good fortune. Miss Capen’s School was strict and old-fashioned, and Mina was soon writing home about her unhappiness and her wish to leave. Louis (not Rose) wrote back a series of affectionately blunt letters admonishing her against quitting: “I really thought you had a real fighting spirit . . . you must not think of beginning so young in life to lay [sic] down . . . don’t just think that Dad is only preaching again, as I try hard not to do too often.” Mina, though hardly dutiful, decided to grin and bear it (actually, she later described her time at the school as “two happy years”) knowing that she would be going to Europe in the summer and that in September 1914 she would be entering Smith College as a freshman.

That same month the Kirsteins moved into a rented, furnished five-story house at 506 Commonwealth Avenue. (Louis would all his life refuse to buy property, unconsciously haunted, perhaps, by his parents’ ever-present fear in Germany of imminent persecution and the need for instant flight.) The house stood at the far—least fashionable—end of the street, near the Kenmore Square trolley station. Unlike many homes on Commonwealth Avenue, it had not been designed by the illustrious firm of McKim, Mead & White and was not architecturally distinguished.

Still, it was on Commonwealth, and it did have a number of special features, including an elevator. The unadorned limestone facade boasted a set of attractive bay windows, and the interior was made up of high-ceilinged, well-proportioned rooms—except for the raw pine cubicles on the fourth floor where two maids, a cook, and a laundress were installed. Some of the furnishings were of fine quality, including a few Louis XVI pieces, superb Lyon velvet portières and curtains, and a huge seventeenth-century Dutch painting by Melchior d’Hondecoeter that hung above the dining room sideboard.

[1] For this opening section about the Stein and Kirstein families the most significant archival sources have been the Lincoln Kirstein Papers (henceforth LK/DD) housed at the Dance Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. His papers consist of two main collections, each called the "Lincoln Kirstein Letters," but with separate call numbers, *MGZMD 97 and *MGZMD 123 (the latter contains his diaries for 1919-37). Also important for this opening section are the extensive Louis Kirstein Papers at the Baker Library, Harvard (henceforth LEK/BLH), and the Mina Curtiss Papers at the Sophia Smith Library, Northampton, Massachusetts (henceforth MCP/SS), which includes her unpublished memoir, "The Past and I." I'm indebted to Mina Curtiss's executor, Lynne Robbins Knox, for allowing me to read Mina's "Slices of Life," a variant memoir in her possession; it contains a number of important details not found in "The Past and I."

[2] For this and the following two paragraphs: Curtiss, "Past," MCP/SS, 9; LEK speech, June 17, 1915, "Kernwood Country Club," LEK/BLH; LEK to MC, Sept. 25, 27, 30, 1913; MC, "Chosen?" Massachusetts Review (1983); LK, "Cut of Kind," LK/DD. As an adult, LK would usually say he'd been named for Abraham Lincoln, but he'd sometimes say he'd been named after Lincoln Filene (and given his middle name, Edward, after Filene's older brother of that name: e.g., LK to Buckle, July 30, 1983, Richard Buckle Paperes at The Ransom Center, the University of Texas, henceforth RB/UT).

[3] For this and the following two paragraphs: Leon Harris, Merchant Princes (Berkeley Books, 1980), and George E. Berkley, The Filenes (International Pocket Library, 1998). Both studies contain useful material, but need to be used with caution, the Harris book being the less reliable of the two. A brilliantly researched study by Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (University of Illinois Press, 1986) contains a significant amount of material on Filene's; see esp. 37, 64, 145, 158 ("the progressive Filene store"), 165, 209, 232.

The lengthy 1965 interview with Fred Lazarus, Jr., who was closely associated with Louis Kirstein in Federated Department Stores, is filled with unique insights into his personality and business skills (Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, henceforth COH).

[4] For this and the following four paragraphs: MC, "Past," MCP/SS, 62-63, 78-80; Louis to Mina, Sept. 25, 27, 30, 1913, LK, Mosaic (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), passim; MC, "Chosen?" Massachusetts Review (1983), MCP/SS.

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