Greg Lawrence exposed a monster (Dance with Demons, 2001), and Deborah Jowitt honored a choreographer (Jerome Robbins, 2004), but Vaill captures a human being in her account of the man who transformed 20th-century Broadway and ballet.
As she did in her biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy (Everybody Was So Young, 1998), the author takes what seems like a shopworn subject and refreshes it with her discerning eye. In her view, Jerome Robbins (1918–98) was driven by the fear that sooner or later he would be exposed as, in his words, “not talented . . . a little Jewish kike.” His art always yearned for a place where he would be accepted and wholeheartedly loved—the “Somewhere” of West Side Story, the paradigm-altering musical Robbins conceived, choreographed and directed in 1957. That fear may have fueled his notorious cruelty in rehearsals (acknowledged but not dwelled on by the author) and his reluctant naming of names for HUAC in 1953 (Vaill blames his lawyer, possibly an FBI informant). It might also explain his tendency toward three-sided affairs that precluded permanent commitment to a man or woman. (Famous bedmates included Montgomery Clift, Slim Hayward, Nora Kaye and perhaps Leonard Bernstein; the predominantly homosexual Robbins had a deep need for female companionship and love.) On the subject of his brilliant career in two fields, Vaill does better with the Broadway side—On the Town, Gypsy, The King and I, etc.—but capably covers his efforts to make ballet an American form, from Fancy Free when he was only 25 to his years with New York City Ballet as resident choreographer second only (but always) to Balanchine. The author doesn’t really try to parse Robbins’s complex relationship with Mr. B., nor does she spend much time considering why he walked away from Broadway at the height of his commercial success with Fiddler on the Roof for the more austere rewards of ballets like Dances at a Gathering. She emphasizes the artistic commitment and courage of an amazingly unhappy, neurotic man whose triumphs were commensurate with the tortures through which he put himself and everyone around him in order to achieve.
All the Robbins biographies have their merits, but this empathetic and accessible take is the one most likely to appeal to general readers.