The Accidental Biographer
by Tina Sutton
My background is as a longtime culture, arts and fashion writer for newspapers and magazines, currently The Boston Globe. I also spent many years as a color trend-forecaster and have co-authored two popular books on the subject. I quite enjoy ballet, but am by no means a devotee. So why did I write a biography of a famous classical ballerina of the last century? Good question.
I learned about Alicia Markova purely by accident. I had taken on a fascinating freelance project writing web biographies of collectees at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Collectees are noteworthy people in a variety of fields – authors, playwrights, performers, politicians, etc. – who have donated their professional, and often personal, materials and memorabilia to the Gotlieb Center where they are organized, archived and made available to both scholars and the public.
I so enjoyed researching the lives of these extraordinary people – war correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s writing was completely heartbreaking – that I volunteered to organize a recently donated archive. It turned out to be boxes and boxes – and more boxes – of public and private writings and items that once belonged to Dame Alicia Markova. The world-renowned prima ballerina had begun donating her professional material – photos, performance programs, books, etc. – to the Gotlieb Center in the 1990s, but after she passed away in 2004, her surviving sister eventually sent along a lifetime of accumulated “stuff” left behind in their London flat. It was a gold mine.
The process of sorting through the seemingly endless material was slow, and at times tedious. But then suddenly, a revelatory gem would appear. It soon became apparent that amidst the many programs, reams of press clippings, and jumble of mundane paperwork was a cache of illuminating personal letters, Markova’s never published remembrances, and very revealing business correspondences. It was like a treasure hunt with constant payoffs. I found Alicia Markova endlessly fascinating.
In addition to becoming one of the greatest classic prima ballerinas in history, the British-born dancer was a complicated, self-reliant, and adventurous woman way ahead of her times. Prima ballerinas are typically cosseted by their companies, allowing them to spend all their time on nothing but dance. Markova, it turns out, handled her own business affairs, contracts, costume design, and negotiations. She also co-founded several ballet companies, one of which – the English National Ballet – continues to thrive today. But Markova chose to hide her business acumen from the public for fear it would detract from her on-stage ethereality.
That the multi-talented dancer started life as a painfully shy and sickly Jewish girl – with foot and leg deformities no less – makes the story even more remarkable.
Markova was truly an anomaly in the insular, hierarchical world of ballet. Forced to overcome enormous societal obstacles – poverty, bullying sexism, rampant anti-Semitism, and prejudices against her British heritage and ethnic looks – she remained fiercely proud of her religion and steadfastly refused to have her prominent nose “fixed,” a frequent request from male impresarios, dancers, and choreographers. Compare that to the very pretty, and very Christian, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn who immediately had a nose job – unfortunately botched – upon being told she looked a “little Jewish.” You’ve got to admire Markova’s integrity, no matter the personal cost.
She was also an egalitarian, firmly believing in ballet for everyone, not just the wealthy or highly cultured. To that end Markova made it her mission to popularize ballet everywhere by becoming the most widely traveled ballerina of her generation (at great physical and financial expense I might add) and keeping ticket prices affordable. The woman could sell out 30,000 seat stadiums – for ballet!
But as someone who has written for newspapers my entire career, I was perhaps most surprised by what a marketing visionary Markova proved to be. As far back as 1932, she was the first ballerina – and one of the very first performers ever – to appear on television, an untried medium few of her peers understood and most thought beneath them. Twenty years later, 30 million viewers tuned in to watch Alicia Markova host Sid Caesar’s musical/comedy program “Your Show of Shows,” an appearance so popular, she was later offered her own television show.
Astutely, Markova also grasped the power of the press as an invaluable tool for making ballet seem less rarified and high-toned. Rather than explaining the fine points of dancing Swan Lake to reporters – ho, hum – she discussed issues of the day that most affected the average theatre-going public. A world-famous ballet star addressing the hopes, needs, and desires of hardworking career women and housewives was a revelation. She even gave practical make-up and fashion advice.
By so doing, Markova made herself, and ballet, appear all at once accessible, engaging and inspirational. Women in England and America loved her for it and became ardent fans. So too were American soldiers in World War II who wrote fan letters thanking Markova for her emotionally cathartic performances, not to mention her chatting – and jitterbugging! – with them at Stage Door Canteens across the country.
Oh, and did I mention Sergei Diaghilev wanted to adopt her, Matisse and Chagall personally designed her costumes, and her musical accompanists included everyone from classicists Igor Stravinsky and Arthur Rubenstein to American songwriter Cole Porter and the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman? Markova’s life and archives are a Who’s Who of the most famous choreographers, dancers, Hollywood stars, stage actors, musicians, artists, and photographers of her day. It’s a helluva story and one I couldn’t resist sharing.