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  • The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein
  • Written by Martin Duberman
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307549679
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The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

Written by Martin DubermanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Martin Duberman

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On Sale: February 04, 2009
Pages: 736 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54967-9
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Synopsis

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.


From the Hardcover edition.

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.

Notes
[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.


From the Hardcover edition.
Martin Duberman

About Martin Duberman

Martin Duberman - The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

Photo © Joanne Chan

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.
Praise

Praise

“The arts in America owe plenty to Kirstein–a brilliant, omnivorous personality who died in 1996. From the 1930s to the 80s he worked as a presenter, promoter, fund-raiser and impresario. He made his mark on the dance world by cofounding the New York City Ballet with choreographer George Balanchine. But Kirstein’s worlds were not all highbrow and haughty: Duberman dares to consider Kirstein’s tumultuous, sometimes clandestine and juicy private life as evidence of his high tolerance for risk–a necessary quality when bringing bold new art to a suspicious public.”
Time Out Chicago

“Impressive . . . gripping . . . Duberman digs deeply, and compassionately, into [Lincoln Kirstein’s] queer core, illuminating how Kirstein’s sexuality shaped his impact on American arts, from the New York City Ballet to Lincoln Center. Dance fans will delight at Duberman’s astute, unsparing critical summation of his bitchy, brilliant subject’s relationship with dance choreographer George Balanchine . . . [Anyone] interested in Manhattan’s gay demimonde will have great fun connecting the homosexual dots.”
The Bottomline

“The encomia have been arriving this spring, for [Kirstein’s] centenary. He is credited with bringing ballet to America . . . [and] it was [Kirstein and George Balanchine’s] efforts that, in time, created a truly American style of dancing. . . . Duberman enumerates Kirstein’s many endeavors in this important biography, the first. Among other things, Kirstein started the literary journal Hound and Horn and also founded the scholarly journal Dance Index; he helped create a groundbreaking art society at Harvard; he had a role in shaping Lincoln Center; wrote fifteen books and countless articles on dance, literature, art, and film; laid the foundation for a Latin American art collection at the Museum of Modern Art, which was ahead of its time; and endorsed or otherwise was linked with seemingly everyone who mattered in the arts before midcentury . . . Kirstein’s network reminds us how much American arts and letters at midcentury were shaped by a relatively small, largely Harvard-educated, mostly gay group of men who always complained about each other but together accomplished remarkable feats. No one worked more selflessly than Kirstein . . . . Kirstein’s combative letters and diary [entries], quoted at length, enliven Duberman’s biography. . . . In addition to biographies of Paul Robeson, James Russell Lowell, and others, Duberman has written various memoirs and histories of gay culture. He treats Kirstein as a kindred soul, with sympathy . . . [in this] admiring but balanced [biography].”
–Michael Kimmelman, The New York Review of Books

“One hundred years since his birth, historians, critics and aesthetes alike are still trying to figure out just who Lincoln Kirstein really was . . . The title of Kirstein’s first biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, implies the magnitude of the project. Kirstein, best known for luring Balanchine to America and co-founding with him the School of American Ballet in 1933, and the New York City Ballet in 1946, had his hands in so many pioneering cultural institutions, his social circles strewn across so many continents, that culling together all the necessary sources is in itself a Brobdingnagian task. As part of the 100th anniversary of his birth, City Ballet has dedicated its entire 2007 season to him. The Whitney Museum has mounted a show highlighting works from Kirstein’s personal collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will do the same this fall. And the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will open an exhibit of Kirstein’s papers and artworks at the end of this month. Amid the crush of interest, Kirstein’s religion plays no small role. In fact, Duberman’s widely reviewed and well-received biography draws many of its conclusions about Kirstein’s character from his complex religious feeling.”
–Eric Herschthal, The Jewish Week

“Last Friday was the 100th anniversary of Kirstein’s birth, and among many tributes to him now, none can be finer than [the] extraordinarily fine biography of him by Martin Duberman. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein is wonderfully written, in every way. Like Boswell’s Life of Johnson, this book is great company. . . . Duberman [is] both a first-rate English stylist and a major queer historian . . . [He] has the rare ability to imagine how it was back then without letting go of the perspective we have now.”
–Paul Parish, Bay Area Reporter

“Few people have contributed more to ballet in America than Lincoln Kirstein, who imported George Balanchine and with him founded the New York City Ballet. Kirstein was also instrumental in creating Lincoln Center. One of the most perspicacious analysts of American culture, Duberman has painted a subtle, detailed portrait of a hard-driving force of nature. In addition, his profound knowledge of the byways of gay life in 20th-century America makes him superbly qualified to help us understand what made his subject–butch yet sensitive, bisexual yet lastingly married–tick.”
The Atlantic Monthly

“A careful, well-assembled portrait of a man who gave his life to the arts he loved. . . . Duberman has done a fine job with a remarkably difficult biographical subject, doing justice to Kirstein’s often-ineffable contributions to projects, and offering a glimpse into the complex consciousness of a talented, irascible, generous and occasionally maddening individual. While not without his faults, Kirstein was a giant of American arts, a colossus who single-handedly paved the way for the flourishing, well-established arts community of today.”
–Saul Austerlitz, San Francisco Chronicle

“[Kirstein] will always be remembered for bringing George Balanchine to America and nurturing the glorious exploit that was the New York City Ballet. But he was also a creative spirit in his own right, the author of audaciously imaginative books about sculpture and dance, as well as of several enduring experiments in the art of autobiography. . . . [His] life was almost incredible in its richness. Kirstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Boston and went to Harvard, where in his early twenties he founded and co-edited a now legendary avant-garde magazine called Hound and Horn and organized the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which is widely viewed as the precursor to the Museum of Modern Art. His energy and drive, which sometimes seemed almost superhuman, were eventually complicated by periods of acute mental distress, some of which climaxed in hospitalizations. And his personal life has other intricacies, combining as it did a deep and enduring marriage to Fidelma Cadmus, the sister of the painter Paul Cadmus, with many love affairs with young men. . . . Duberman is a very able author. He has produced a book that is fluid, lucid, intelligent. He evaluates the tangled strands of Kirstein’s private life with sensitivity and generosity. . . . What comes through in [his] biography is a tale of two generations–how the old-style philanthropic populism of the early twentieth century was transformed into the avant-garde populism that would give its greatest expression in George Balanchine’s company, the New York City Ballet. . . . Kirstein’s career is a rare, perhaps unique case of old-fashioned public-spiritedness carried to the level of artistic genius. His accomplishments boggle the mind. . . . Nobody has done more to give the loftiest artistic achievements their rightful place in a democratic society. . . . Duberman gives an excellent sense of Kirstein’s almost instinctive genius in organizational matters. . . . In his fierce individualism and his passionate sense of community, in his desire to both safeguard the mysteries of art and make art available to a widening public–in all of this Lincoln Kirstein was quintessentially the American artistic spirit.”
–Jed Perl, The New Republic

“Barely a quarter of the way through The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, Martin Duberman’s new biography of the arts patron who, through his partnership with choreographer George Balanchine, transformed American ballet, the subject has undertaken–with varying degrees of success–more projects, met more fascinating people and had more lovers than most of his contemporaries, or most anyone else for that matter, would in a lifetime. . . . Kirstein, it seems, wanted to do everything: write novels, plays and poetry; paint; hobnob with the greatest artists and writers of his time; perform the role of a manic impresario with one finger, or arm, in every branch of the arts. As Duberman aptly puts it, he was ‘temperamentally incapable of focusing exclusively on a single project.’. . . . He was restless, full of curiosity and energy and ambition, but unsure of how to apply them or of whether he had the talent to make anything truly great of himself. . . . His personal tragedy was that he was not El Greco, or W. H. Auden, or Balanchine. Indeed, the contrast with Balanchine–whose shadow lurks around the edges of every page–is particularly stark. As Kirstein opines, schemes, suffers doubts and makes plans, one feels the presence of a silent Balanchine working away, making masterpiece after masterpiece, harboring neither the time nor the inclination for self-doubt or distractions. . . . Intermixed with the discussion of the efforts needed to sustain the dance company, Duberman provides an account of his subject’s many other activities . . . [and] also gives an infinitely layered and detailed account of Kirstein’s personal life. . . . There are also long and engaging digressions devoted to Kirstein’s travels . . . Perhaps the most engrossing is Duberman’s account of Kirstein’s World War II experiences. . . . Most remarkably, he was involved in the discovery of an enormous cache of art looted from Europe’s museums in a salt mine in the Rhineland. . . . The impression one is left is of a manic life, with many loose ends and a few casualties, but this can be said: By the time he died, in 1996, his life’s work had been accomplished. . . . This is Kirstein’s centenary year, an appropriate time to consider this accomplishment, and a perfect moment for the publication of Duberman’s tome, the first book devoted entirely to his life and works. Duberman shows himself to be up to the task.”
–Marina Harss, The Forward

“Lincoln Kirstein–patron of the performing, visual, and literary arts; novelist; poet; critic and historian of dance, photography and painting–was one of nature’s titans. . . . But what made him exceptional was that he acted as if his main motto were not ‘I am’ or ‘I do’ but ‘I serve.’ . . . This inspiring self-denying quality is at the heart of Martin Duberman’s new biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. . . . The book is at its best when Kirstein is successfully engaged on multiple fronts. Mr. Duberman quietly marvels, as any reader must too, at how it was not enough for Kirstein in 1948 to forge the New York City Ballet, his life’s single greatest project. Despite immense struggles of organization and fund-raising that that task required, it also turns out that in 1948 Kirstein was busy in the art world: He organized an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. . . . He also gave a lecture tour ranging from Boston to Chicago and presented the Hunter College premiere of an opera he commissioned. Kirstein had many other years as busy as that, and on just as many different fronts. Mr. Duberman’s biography, drawing on vast resources of unpublished diaries and correspondence, steers us through. . . . [and] once Kirstein’s plural worlds are all well defined, Mr. Duberman is driving in top gear. The narrative for 1945, for example, is particularly exciting, as Kirstein, serving with the American Army in Europe, is central to the recovery of the van Eyck ‘Adoration of the Lamb,’ which the Germans had stolen in 1942 and hidden in a salt mine in Austria. Since the world of performing arts is littered with old sexual gossip, we need biographies as sensitive as this to connect private life to public art with honesty, seriousness and a sense of proportion. It has never been a secret that Kirstein, an intensely sexual creature, was involved with a number of men. . . . Just how he combined this with some serious heterosexual relationships in his youth, and with his marriage to Fidelma Cadmus, is where Mr. Duberman is at his most delicate. . . . And his Kirstein becomes especially vivid when in the company of women. . . . The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein is so richly detailed that it must be consulted by those interested in all whom Kirstein’s life brushed. . . . Much new material emerges here about George Balanchine above all. . . . [Mr. Duberman] shows us, powerfully, the titan’s work, his strength and his incidental afflictions. The book has a gathering force.”
–Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times

“How fitting that one Renaissance man should write the long-overdue biography of another. A playwright, novelist, biographer, and chronicler of queer history and culture, Duberman took on this Herculean task and succeeds brilliantly in bringing a legend to life. He does not neglect Lincoln Kirstein’s accomplishments in literature, art, criticism, dance historiography, and philanthropy, but he necessarily concentrates on Kirstein’s crowning achievement of helping to bring George Balanchine to America and establishing the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. Duberman also shows the private man–the outsize personality plagued by self-doubt; the turbulent relationships with family, friends, and associates; and the lifetime of sexual ambiguity. In the end, you may feel you know Lincoln Kirstein almost as well as you know yourself; Duberman’s research is prodigious, yet he doesn’t let it get in the way of a good story. This extraordinary book is an essential purchase for academic libraries with dance collections and also highly recommended for larger public libraries.”
–M.C. Duhig, Library Journal

“Lincoln Kirstein was, for most of the 20th century, America’s mightiest cultural swizzle stick. He was a skilled critic, historian, art collector and diarist, and a not-bad poet and novelist. But his real gift was for flushing out and nourishing the talent he spotted all around him. . . . Kirstein is best remembered as a ballet visionary . . . In 1933, when he was just a few years out of college, Kirstein brought George Balanchine to America . . . [and] pulled dance to the vital center of American arts. . . . [T]hanks to the crazy brio of its subject, the first half of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein roars past at terrific speed. . . . In many respects, Duberman is ideally suited to telling this particular story. An adept biographer, he possesses a maverick streak; Duberman publicly announced his homosexuality in 1972 in his book Black Mountain. . . . Kirstein’s own complicated sexuality provides the emotional core of this new book, which is about how a quintessential outsider–‘a queer, Jewish intellectual,’ in Duberman’s words–became the century’s consummate cultural insider. . . . [Duberman] links Kirstein’s sexual obsessions, with grace and insight, to his other achievements. . . . [Kirstein] had enormous charm . . . . [but] among his close friends he exhibited a campy and terrifically bitchy side, and thank God for it, and also for the diary he kept. . . . Kirstein’s [voice] is in living color. . . . [The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein] becomes genuinely moving in its final chapters as Kirstein, who suffered for decades from bipolar disorder, has mental breakdowns and undergoes electric shock. Most affecting is his desire to remain relevant, in the mix. . . . Kirstein’s personality ran to extremes; raging blowups were followed by acts of extreme kindness. . . . ‘You are a pearl of an angel, and yet Mephistopheles as well,’ a friend wrote. The phrase ‘Mephistophelian angel,’ as Duberman notes, is not a bad description of the man . . . [The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein] faithfully captures the busy doings of a 20th century cultural angel.”
–Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

“[The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein] is not only a portrait of a person, but also the map of a sociological matrix–with some of the culture fomented by Kirstein himself. This was a life lived large. . . . [Kirstein] brought Balanchine to New York in 1933, after concluding that Balanchine was the choreographer to establish an American ballet. Before starting several companies that preceded City Ballet, Kirstein founded and funded the School of American Ballet, which would become the training ground for a new breed of dancer–the Balanchine ballerina. . . . [Kirstein also] worked as a government operative in South America under Rockefeller while collecting paintings for the Museum of Modern Art; he brought kabuki theater from Japan to America; he championed the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Conn.; he managed to turn a stint in the Army into a giant art project. Just as large were his appetites, both physical and intellectual. . . . In the opening chapters [of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, Duberman] deftly establishes the combination of nature and nurture that informed Kirstein’s character. There was a lot of sex in Lincoln Kirstein’s worlds, some with women but mostly with men. Throughout the narrative, there are lucid explanations of tricky entanglements, as well as an ongoing catalog of the more casual occupations of a man who was, as Mr. Duberman puts it, ‘no slouch at sexual slumming.’ Mr. Duberman is no slouch at telling about it. He also asks questions, often the same ones we find ourselves asking as we read. And he delicately suggests answers. . . . Kirstein pursued his mostly homosexual sex life alongside his marriage to Paul Cadmus’ sister Fidelma. Their long union was marked by attentiveness, love and mental breakdowns on both sides. . . . [Kirstein’s] is the kind of accomplishment that argues for madness as the grim handmaiden of greatness. . . . It’s Martin Duberman’s great accomplishment that he’s given us a unified, empathetic notion of Lincoln Kirstein, entire.”
–Nancy Dalva, New York Observer

“Lincoln Kirstein was one of the 20th century’s great impresarios of art and culture. He started the important literary magazine Hound and Horn, helped in the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art and devoted much of his life and family fortune to sustaining both the School of American Ballet and the much-loved New York City Ballet. Over the years, he also wrote standard histories of dance, essays and monographs on choreographers and artists, a volume of poetry, and even a play that starred the young John Lithgow and Tommy Lee Jones. Kirstein promoted several once-little-known South American artists, and eagerly introduced classical Japanese theater to New York. He was also instrumental in launching the Stratford (Conn.) Shakespeare Festival. Few have contributed more, or more directly, to the artistic enrichment of the nation. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, written with authority and elegance by Martin Duberman, is thus an eye-opening account of what one might call the shadow-side of cultural history. For artists, no matter how bohemian their lifestyles, need commissions, theaters, galleries, patrons, critics, students and, sometimes, comforters. All these Lincoln Kirstein worked hard to provide. His friends, and usually his debtors, cut across all the arts. . . . Certainly every headlining name in American dance appears in these pages–from Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille to Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. [We] already know a good deal about most of these eminences, though literary and artsy gossip is always welcome. . . . Where Duberman truly excels is in giving equal attention to the people behind the scenes. . . . Martin Duberman has written a superb biography of a man who early on recognized that literature and the fine arts don’t only need creative spirits, they also need champions. Lincoln Kirstein spent his time, his energy and, not least, his money well. We are his beneficiaries.”
–Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
“‘He had more arms than Shiva,’ an acquaintance said of the late Lincoln Kirstein, the arts impresario whose 100th birthday is being widely celebrated this year. Among many other things, Kirstein organized the first exhibitions of murals and plainspoken photography for the newly formed Museum of Modern Art, founded an influential literary magazine and, most important, brought George Balanchine to the United States. Together in 1934, the two men opened the School of American Ballet . . . Fifteen years later, they established the New York City Ballet. Without Balanchine, ballet may never have taken hold in this country. It’s not easy to draw a portrait of someone who never sat still. It’s especially hard when that person’s genius consisted of laying the groundwork for other geniuses. Acclaimed historian and biographer Martin Duberman succeeds in The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, the first biography of the impresario, because he paints Kirstein’s life as the restless man lived it–great aesthetic ambitions alternating with cruises to waterfront dives. Duberman has written memoirs of his own gay youth and middle age, award-winning plays and biographies, and dozens of essays on civil rights. As a pan-intellectual himself, he knows not to make too neat a sense of Kirstein’s life. [He] looks outward through Kirstein’s sardonic eyes at the whole world parading by–high society and bohemian fringe, from the 1920s onward. . . . Kirstein thought ballet could ‘restore to the world the human scale again’–if only Balanchine would cooperate. . . . Balanchine treated Kirstein as an office boy with a wad of cash, and kept him out of the loop. Eventually, Kirstein came to understand that Balanchine didn’t need American themes to make a ‘sharp, abrupt, jazzy’ American ballet, and that it hardly mattered anyway how American his art was. . . . On his end, Balanchine finally committed himself to the idea of a New York company. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein is a gripping account of the birth of an institution: the steps and missteps; the perpetual hunt for money; the fact that it wasn’t clear whether the goal could be achieved or what precisely the goal was. Duberman also offers an absorbing portrait of an era. . . . As a scholar of gay history, Duberman is particularly good at setting the Kirstein story within the shifting terms of what it meant to be gay. . . . The biography is emotionally satisfying. . . . We come to love [Kirstein]–and ache for him. The institutions to which he was most devoted–the New York City Ballet and its school–achieved great success over time, but his own life was increasingly overtaken by mania and depression. This fierce, good giant ended his life by closing the shades. When a friend brought by some art books that had once interested him, Kirstein said, ‘I don't care anymore,’ and went back to sleep.” –Apollinaire Scherr, Newsday, cover

“Engrossing . . . Unfailingly generous . . . The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein is a necessarily intrepid work. It is the first book entirely devoted to [Kirstein’s] prodigious life and career and Duberman’s mission has been made especially daunting by the quantity of material that Kirstein left behind, as well as by Kirstein’s tendency, in his autobiographical work, to obfuscate, exaggerate, and lie . . . The happy news is that Duberman has proved equal to the difficulties both of the job and of the highly outspoken, often irascible man. He dispels the fog of myth that has spread around Kirstein’s early years; he gleans hard facts from tricks and poses; he stands up to Kirstein’s prejudices and carefully explicates his most gleefully outrageous opinions in a way that informs us broadly about the subject as well as about the workings of Kirstein’s mind. . . . Lincoln Kirstein [dedicated himself early on] to the construction of a full-scale unreal world–magic, music, color genius . . . . He had so many choices, talents and interests . . . [He] had a good hand for drawing and a strong desire to paint. But he was also ‘deeply addicted’ to ballet, and he had literary ambitions that were nearly as pressing: while a freshman at Harvard he started a magazine, Hound & Horn, that drew support from Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and he went on to write criticism, poetry, at least one ‘moral tragedy,’ and a novel. In his junior year, he helped start the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which was a forerunner of the Museum of Modern Art, where he signed on as an advisor in 1930, when he was not quite twenty-three. Three years later, he brought the young Russian choreographer George Balanchine to America, and together they founded both the School of American Ballet and its attendant company, New York City Ballet. . . . Kirstein carefully transcribed Balanchine’s promise, ‘he could do wonders.’ And, thanks to Kirstein, he did. . . . In the nineteen-fifties, he [also] played an important role in the American Shakespeare Festival. . . . The shear breadth of Kirstein’s endeavor has made him appear to many people to be the last historical example of the Renaissance man. . . . When times were good, a splendid social life was overseen by his wife, Fidelma, and the guests–from the dancers of the corps de ballet to W. H. Auden–were the very best in body and mind. . . . About Kirstein’s enduring personal appeal, despite the inroads of [mental] illness, Duberman leaves us in no doubt. . . . Like all good biographers, Duberman is part detective and part judge, but the most appealing aspect of his book is that he seems to love his subject more than Kirstein ever loved himself.”
–Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker

“[As] cofounder of the School of American Ballet in 1934 and as the éminence grise who battled so valiantly for three decades to create New York City Ballet [Lincoln Kirstein] became one of the most dedicated and impassioned patrons of the arts in 20th Century America. . . . [He] was a precocious intellectual who founded a distinguished literary magazine called Hound and Horn while still an undergraduate at Harvard University. . . . [and was deeply] involved with the Museum of Modern Art from its creation in 1929. . . . [But above] all, [he] created a haven for brilliant Russian émigré George Balanchine. . . . Kirstein’s great gift to the American people [has been] the forms of classical ballet displayed through native themes. . . . Martin Duberman, the author of the highly compelling new biography The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, has ideal credentials for such a complex project. Distinguished professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York. . . . he has interviewed countless people who knew Kirstein, which enables him to separate scandalous rumors from realities, and also to judge the veracity of Kirstein’s diary entries. . . . [He] has [also] written three biographies, including one of Paul Robeson, and several volumes about his own life as a gay man. . . . His insightful preparation for this work informs it throughout. . . . [a] narrative [that] concerns art, first and foremost, with Kirstein’s sexual affairs [with both men and women] interwoven. . . . [The] result is an empathetic portrait that nevertheless includes warts and all. Kirstein was not an easy man, given to tactless and hysterical outbursts, especially as he aged, and the profile we receive is exceedingly judicious. . . . [The book will appeal to] anyone engaged by the sheer complexities of a highly creative human personality driven by a worthy and challenging goal. . . . [Kirstein’s] explosive persona, always larger than life, is richly illuminated by Duberman’s splendid achievement.”
–Michael Kammen, Chicago Tribune

“George Balanchine may have given ballet in America its signature look and rhythm, but it was Lincoln Kirstein who provided the push that made it all possible. This month and next, New York pays homage to the grandfather of American ballet with a biography, exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, among other institutions, and, perhaps most fitting co-founder of the New York City Ballet, an entire NYCB season, ‘Kirstein 100: A Tribute,’ dedicated to the man who brought Balanchine to America in 1934.”
–Joel Lobenthal, The New York Sun

“Duberman is uniquely qualified to chronicle the many faceted life of influential arts advocate Lincoln Kirstein. . . . [He] details Kirstein’s herculean efforts to establish choreographer George Balanchine in the U.S. and tells phenomenal stories. . . . A crucial force in the vitality of the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center, Kirstein led a complicated personal life. . . . Duberman offers a remarkably candid and profoundly insightful portrait of a man of dazzling gifts and convictions.”
–Donna Seaman, Booklist

“A central figure in 20th-century American modernism, Lincoln Kirstein edited a pioneering literary magazine and was the driving force behind George Balanchine’s revolutionary New York City Ballet. Bancroft Prize—winner Duberman reveals in his absorbing biography a man blessed, agonizingly, with great artistic taste and vision unaccompanied by artistic talent . . . [Kirstein’s] was a high-wire life sustained by a stupendous manic energy (later darkening into demented fits that necessitated electroshock) and enlivened by a parade of lovers of both sexes . . . Kirstein met everyone from Martha Graham to General Patton. Through Kirstein’s funny, perceptive diary jottings and letters, Duberman paints an engaging portrait of bohemian New York and its high-society patrons . . . Duberman conjures an indelible sense of a creative urge that became a torturous pilgrimage toward an enigmatic muse.”
Publishers Weekly


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