A well-detailed if unevenly paced life of the renowned American dancer, who craved and courted fame and earned it even in the manner of her death.
Magazine journalist Kurth has carved a niche as a biographer of trailblazing women; his Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra (1995) focused closely on the German-born Russian empress, while American Cassandra (1990) portrayed the difficult life of journalist Dorothy Thompson. Here, he takes on the legendary, self-possessed dancer Isadora Duncan, the scion of California pioneers who introduced a kind of raw-boned American primitivism (which she claimed were channeled into her by the Greek gods themselves) into forms borrowed from ballet, inventing modern dance in the process. Duncan’s eventful, borderline life, a swirl of love affairs, international tours, and alcoholism, often outpaces Kurth’s narrative, which sometimes struggles to keep up with a wealth of sometimes contradictory details. (Was she a Bolshevik? A proto-fascist? A libertarian? To judge by Duncan’s own words, her politics depended on her mood du jour.) Still, Kurth gamely follows the dancer from one blaze of glory to the next as she captivates audiences on stages throughout Europe, tends to orphans of the Russian Civil War, preaches and practices the doctrine of free love (“there is nothing so terrible or immoral as a virtuous woman,” she once declared), and descends into an alcoholic fog that ends in an unfortunate, but trademark, demise. A demerit: Kurth tends to be uncritical or apologetic when confronted with evidence of Duncan’s megalomania and, more unpleasantly, racist views. On the plus side, though, he capably captures Duncan’s bohemian, sometimes revolutionary milieu, populated by the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Andrei Bely, Francis Picabia, Edward Steichen, and Sergei Yesenin—the last the great but hopelessly drunk poet whom she married, to her regret.
Duncan’s star has faded somewhat, and Kurth’s life should restore some of its shine. Fans of modern dance and 20th-century cultural history will find this rewarding.