Lady Talky

Alison Light

  • Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes by Judith Mackrell
    Weidenfeld, 476 pp, £25.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 297 84908 7

Why does she want the red shoes? She wants to be special and she wants to be looked at. In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, Karen, a peasant girl, goes barefoot in summer and in winter wears wooden clogs that rub her feet raw, but the mirror tells her she’s lovely and she thinks that wearing the red shoes will make her feel like a princess. Like selfish Heidi and tomboy Katy, Karen is a mid-19th century girl crippled by egotism. The shoes force her to dance non-stop and to display herself ‘wherever proud and vain children live’. Though it seems simply a punitive response to female narcissism, this is a Christian morality tale intended to warn against the sin of self-love. Karen is cast out of her community and her church; she has her feet hacked off, and the story ends with her repentance. What we remember, though, is not the final image of her blissful reunion with God but the red shoes, with the little feet still in them, going on dancing. Shoes were a homely and powerful symbol of status for Andersen, the son of a cobbler, a lonely, ungainly outsider. He was greedy for fame yet tormented by guilt at his success; ‘The Red Shoes’ inflicts a cruel comeuppance on exhibitionists and social climbers like himself.

Judith Mackrell suspects that Lydia Lopokova was being mischievous when she chose to read ‘The Red Shoes’ on the wireless for the BBC in 1935. Lopokova was a born show-off but she never sold her soul to the dance. She was unusually free of ‘the psychological perils of her vocation’: ‘masochism, obsession and narcissism’. In fact she was always ‘hopping off somewhere’, as Lydia Sokolova, a fellow dancer in the Ballets Russes, recalled. Lopokova played fast and loose with Serge Diaghilev, the company’s formidable impresario, making and breaking contracts, abandoning dancing for acting when she felt like it, putting her love life first. After her marriage to Maynard Keynes she continued to work, but when his health began to deteriorate in the late 1930s she devoted herself to caring for him. As his widow she more or less withdrew from public life. Despite Mackrell’s title, Lopokova certainly wasn’t a ‘Bloomsbury ballerina’, if that implies cliquishness and hauteur. Though hailed as one of a new breed of dancers who turned ballet into an art form for the avant-garde, she was also ‘Loppie’, a huge favourite with British audiences in the 1920s. Mackrell, the dance critic for the Guardian, restores her to her rightful place in the history of ballet, but equally engrossing, and more unusual, is the story of a woman who refused to be sacrificed on the altar of her art and was equally happy out of the limelight.

Lopokova’s life was often dogged by good luck. Though she grew up in a cramped St Petersburg flat, her father, an usher at the prestigious Alexandrinsky Theatre, managed to wangle auditions for his children at the Imperial Theatre School. Fed, clothed and housed courtesy of the tsar, Lydia earned twice her father’s salary even as a junior dancer. She was pretty, with a natural sense of drama and rhythm, and blessed with remarkable leg muscles. Almost as soon as she arrived – aged nine – she became a show-pupil. If she was lonely and homesick, or suffered under the harsh discipline of the school, she learned to hide her feelings (she told Keynes that she had dreamed of running away to the circus).

She responded instinctively to the expressive choreography of Mikhail Fokine, his rebellion against the stiff academicism of the classical style, and her chance came when she was chosen to join the Ballets Russes – Fokine was then the choreographer for Diaghilev’s troupe – on their European tour in 1910. Diaghilev picked her out from the corps, casting her as a sweetly naughty Columbine in Fokine’s Carnaval, and, by contrast, as a baby-faced peasant girl whirling to Borodin’s frantic tribal rhythms in the Polovtsian folk dances. She even took the lead in Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu (though one journalist thought her less a flaming phoenix than a delicate hummingbird). Tiny, fast and feather light, with a leap almost as high as Nijinsky’s, at 18 she was the latest sensation of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev knocked a year off her age and promoted her as a child star.

Mackrell is astute about Lopokova’s handling of her early celebrity and her ‘cultural doubleness’. ‘La Précose’ already had an eye on her future. If she returned home she would soon be back in the corps: she was the wrong shape and size for the grand roles and there were already plenty of prima ballerinas in St Petersburg. Offered eight months’ work in America and a fee of £13,000 a month, she broke with the Mariinsky and crossed the Atlantic, accompanied by Alexandre Volinine from the Bolshoi and her brother Fedor, whose contract was an extra inducement. In the US, Lydia learned to ‘work her assets’: her high spirits, her Russianness and her juvenile appearance. Nicknamed ‘Little Pet’, though she was nearly 20, she was the darling of the press, as cute and dimpled as that other little sunbeam, Mary Pickford. Of all the things she liked in America, ‘the very most’, she told reporters, ‘is the shortcake strawberry’, charming the pants off them as she waved ‘goodbysky’. Though ‘Little Lydie’ seemed demure in her sandals and simple frocks (they made it easier, she said, to run and dance), there were already rumours of lovers and marriage offers. She enthusiastically praised American democracy and Americanised her name from its original Lopoukhova. Mackrell suspects she was thinking of getting US citizenship and thus being able to travel back to Russia. The Mariinsky had washed its hands of her.

Mackrell has scoured the press for details of Lopokova’s career in the US, tracking her across the continent. Americans had seen very little ballet except bowdlerised classics offered as light entertainment. Russian dancers had a reputation for immorality and their performances were censored or toned down (when the Ballets Russes played Kansas City the Police Department threatened to come up on stage if there was any funny business, complaining that ‘Dogleaf, or whatever his name is, couldn’t understand plain English’). Lydia managed to keep her nice girl image, but she learned more about showbiz than art. Demoted to a ‘toe dancer’ in musical interludes sandwiched into popular musicals, playing vaudeville alongside ‘Loughlin’s bicycle-riding dogs’ and other novelty acts, billed with singers, comics and Isadora Duncan wannabees in clunky revue imitations of Diaghilev, she was increasingly adored by audiences and increasingly weary of being an Americanised ballerina. Her ebullience just about kept her afloat until finally, after performing yet another dying swan solo in a Broadway operetta, she had had enough. She holed up for months in the Catskills, announcing that she was resting and practising her elocution with a view to a theatrical career. There may also have been a miscarriage or an abortion.

With no private income, Lopokova had to keep on dancing for her supper or look to men for security. Lovers were played off against one another. She dumped her nice American fiancé, the journalist Heywood Broun, in the heat of a reunion with Diaghilev in 1916, and married the company’s business manager, Randolfo Barocchi, instead. A ‘glossy man of the world’, he stole her earnings and – luckily – turned out to be a bigamist; meanwhile, in the midst of a wartime European tour, she had an on-off affair with Stravinsky, who was married and already attracted to the Parisian actress Vera Sudeykina (she eventually became his second wife). Shortly after her triumphant premiere with the Ballets Russes in London in 1918, Lydia suddenly disappeared again. She pleaded a breakdown but it was probably a desperate attempt to escape Barocchi; there was also a lover, a mysterious Russian general who might have offered a way back to Russia. Mackrell has trouble getting to the bottom of it all, though clearly one of Keynes’s attractions was his capacity to become her protector and manage her finances without turning into a Svengali.

When the Ballets Russes arrived in London, they brought a frisson of the avant-garde. Mackrell deftly weaves Lopokova’s performances into an account of the company’s fluctuating reputation at a time when ballet was a ‘modernist battlefield’. Diaghilev’s latest choreographer, Leonide Massine, far more experimental than his predecessors, had collaborated with Picasso, Cocteau and Satie on Parade (for which Lydia had donned a unitard as a female acrobat), grandly advertised in Paris as ‘the world’s first Cubist ballet’; his La Boutique fantasque brought André Derain’s designs to the Coliseum, then a music hall. The story of two cancan dolls who elope from a Victorian toyshop, it provided a satirical view of 19th-century mores, its human characters more like ironic cartoons and its dancing toys – Massine and Lopokova – strangely sinister as well as touching. Everyone loved it: the ‘kid glove and tiara set’ in the stalls, the balletomanes in the cheap gallery seats – bearded young men and intense young women with bobbed hair – and leading intellectuals too. Clive Bell praised the absence of naturalism and the emptying out of the characters; T.S. Eliot argued that on stage Massine embodied all that was ‘most completely unhuman, impersonal, abstract’. No longer clogged by Romanticism, soaring or sinking into emotion, it was possible to tell the dancer from the dance.

Keynes met Lopokova when she was on the verge of becoming a cult figure. Her final frenzied cancan with Massine, which transformed her from an inert doll into a bacchante, sent her fans crazy; they stood on their seats, clapping and chanting her name. It wasn’t long before ‘Lydia’ dolls were being sold. The British press loved her because she was more like the girl next door than an exotic Slav; she was a ‘London sparrow’ with an ‘exquisite plebeian beauty’. Lopokova was a fan of the music hall and her childlike, wistful face could imbue a role with Chaplinesque dignity and pathos. Nor was she above a bit of clowning. When her knickers slithered to the floor as she danced the lead in Les Sylphides – the most poetic of ballets – she threw them into the wings with a flourish (she used other such ‘accidents’ to play to the gallery). In 1921, hoping to bring in the crowds, Diaghilev staged a lavish version of The Sleeping Beauty. The production flopped. The critics felt it was a retrograde step and London’s postwar audiences were too jaded for romance. Except for Keynes. He sat every night in the stalls, enchanted by Lydia as the Lilac Fairy casting spells over the cradle.

Keynes had been an avowed homosexual since the age of 16, and now at 38 was apparently settled into an agreeable life divided between his teaching at Cambridge and his ‘London family’, centred on Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who had been the great love of his life. One of Lydia’s charms, he told Vanessa, ‘is the most knowing and judicious use of English words’, and Mackrell makes the most of their courtship correspondence, which was for both of them a source of erotic excitement and a release. Lydia fashioned a tender, affectionate language of arousal in her humorous, transliterated Russian, quite free of English prurience or smut. She wrote of ‘gobbling’ and ‘regobbling’ him, ‘detaining infinitely our warm wet kisses’, ‘tasting’ his ‘buttons’, ‘warming’ him with her ‘foxy lips’, or saluting his ‘slender’ and ‘subtle’ fingers. Lopokova was unfazed by his history (Nijinsky and Massine had both abandoned Diaghilev for wives) and sometimes played the part of a boy or man in her letters, flirtatiously conjuring up images of herself in trousers or pyjamas. Much more diffident about his appearance and less sexually confident, Keynes warmed to her easy physicality and her seductive ‘Lydian English’ – sending ‘many touchings’ to ‘his dearest pupsik’. Not for her the ‘left-handed’ or ‘intermediate’ relationship of Bell and Grant (who confided to his diary that in the absence of male lovers during the war ‘it is a convenient way the females have of letting off one’s spunk’), or a ‘marriage blanc’ like that of the Woolfs. Both wanted sex and a home, perfection of the life and the work. ‘I would come to your study,’ Lydia promised, ‘sit on the couch and you speak simple words to me, peacefully joyful.’

Lydia was Maynard’s escape route from the airless worlds of Cambridge and Whitehall. Her opinions were fresh and untainted by education; he thought her a natural poet, and, above all, she was an artist, a free spirit like Grant, as accomplished in her own sphere as Keynes was in his. Keynes never lost his reverence for the arts, part of his commitment to the moral philosophy of G.E. Moore which had so influenced him as an undergraduate, with its ideals of beauty and friendship. She, in turn, revered his intellect and knew how lucky she was to be tutored by him: ‘You do develop my cranium miely Maynarochka.’ If he found her Russianness and nomadic past romantic, she found his faith in rational argument, his sense of duty and honesty equally exotic. ‘Is there any resemblance between you and me?’ Lydia asked. ‘No! So different it becomes attractive.’ But perhaps only a foreigner could have coped with Keynes’s tendency to show off his cleverness; he too had been a horribly precocious child. Marriage to Keynes, Mackrell writes shrewdly, was another country to which she would acclimatise herself, but some of the territory was already familiar.

Keynes and Lopokova became lovers two weeks after meeting, but it took two years to wean him from the bosom of Bloomsbury. Initially untroubled by the liaison, Maynard’s circle were more and more appalled at their most brilliant mind falling for a ‘half-witted canary’, as Lytton Strachey described her. Bell and Grant were anxious about losing their friend but worried too about the prospect of losing his cash, which supported their work and subsidised Charleston, Vanessa’s house in Sussex (Keynes went on pouring funds into Bloomsbury’s projects). They barely tolerated Lydia, tried to keep her out of the Charleston ménage and, when marriage was on the cards, Vanessa suggested all kinds of places the couple might live, as long as it wasn’t in Maynard’s own house, 46 Gordon Square, where she and Grant were his tenants. Lydia was an extrovert who loved luxury, shopping and silly pranks; she was unapologetically foreign and blithely full of herself. ‘Maynar’ liked your article so much Leonar’,’ Virginia mimicked to Vanessa; Lydia’s ‘spiritual home’ was Woolworths, Clive Bell sneered. Admittedly ‘Lady Talky’ (as Keynes liked to call her) chattered merrily to Vanessa when she was trying to paint, ruining the precious little time she had to work; but they certainly looked down on her as a prole. When Virginia remarked snidely that Lydia had been racketing about the world ‘with the daughters of publicans’, it had its grain of truth: Lopokova’s great ally, Sokolova, was born Hilda Munnings in East London, where her mother had run an off-licence (she had a brief spell as ‘Munningsova’).

Yet Bloomsbury’s snobbery, Mackrell points out, was less surprising than their parochialism: there was a complete lack of curiosity about this woman who had danced before the tsar, seen the dead piled in Palace Square in St Petersburg on ‘Bloody Sunday’, travelled across continents and worked in the vanguard of the arts. There was also a failure to appreciate her intelligence: ‘How we all used to underestimate her,’ E.M. Forster had the decency to write with hindsight. If Lopokova was hurt by this she said little about it; her letters are remarkably uncatty. At Charleston she often found better company in the kitchen with Grace Germany, Vanessa’s housekeeper, or with the children and grandchildren (Quentin Bell remembered her ‘complete lack of side’). When Mackrell tells us that one of Lydia’s first acts of ‘festive rebellion’ after her marriage was to whitewash over Bell and Grant’s murals at No. 46, the reader wants to cheer.

Did the marriage work, as Mackrell suggests, because it was full of separations for the first ten years? With Keynes teaching at King’s for a large part of the week (and having lunch with his parents every Sunday in Harvey Road in Cambridge), Lopokova was free to cultivate her own motley crowd of theatre folk in London. She marvelled at Keynes’s ferocious capacity for work and never tried to trim his sails, though she thought economists a sad bunch: ‘tiresome, no wide outlooks, no touch with life, inferiority complexes and no great ideas’. She fussed over his digestion and his underwear; he kept track of her menstrual cycle, and felt his mood swings sympathised with hers. Their quietly connubial times at Tilton, the house they rented up the track from Charleston, were their happiest. Lopokova discovered the pleasures of ‘losing time’ and took up gardening and rambling between her daily ballet exercises. Domestic routine – thanks in large measure to Ruby Weller, their cook and housekeeper, who stayed with Lopokova for 50 years – made Keynes even more productive: he wrote a 20,000-word memoir of his economics teacher, Alfred Marshall, in their first two months at Tilton. Lopokova’s imaginative insights and spontaneous judgments appealed to what Robert Skidelsky, in his biography of Keynes, called the ‘liquidity’ of his mind. She didn’t pretend to understand his theories in detail but she responded to the patterning of his thought. His final book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, she found ‘beautiful like Bach’.

Lopokova had been unable to visit her family since the 1917 Revolution until ‘Maynarochka’ managed to take her there as a wedding present. In 1936 her brother Fedor’s new ballet, The Bright Stream, with a score by Shostakovich, was condemned for ‘aesthetic formalism’; he was stripped of his post and his librettist sent to the gulag; her mother would die, half-starved, during the Siege of Leningrad. And there were no children though they had both wanted them. Then, after being weakened by pleurisy, Keynes’s health began to go downhill. In 1937 he collapsed after an attack of angina (he was a very heavy smoker). Mackrell follows Skidelsky, mining Lopokova’s diary and her letters for details of the bizarre and seemingly effective treatments Keynes underwent with the unorthodox Janos Plesch, whom Lydia called ‘the Ogre’: a regime of coffee, tea, raw cabbage and sour oranges; icepacks placed for hours on his chest; homemade shock treatment when Plesch bounced up and down on the mattress while Maynard lay feeling ‘like Desdemona’; and injections with a red dye called Prontosil, an early antibiotic. Lopokova kept a journal monitoring Keynes’s health; she policed his diet and made sure he got enough rest; she cheered him and nursed him and accompanied him on all his Treasury missions across the Atlantic between 1941 and 1946. When she got the chance, she went shopping, and when she shopped, Maynard proudly reported to his mother, Lydia shopped for Britain, buying ‘some two hundred objects’ in a week in Washington: 18 pairs of shoes, 40 pairs of stockings, a large trunkful of food – the list goes on. Lopokova would certainly have spent her way out of a recession. But without her constant attention and her joie de vivre, Keynes might not have made it to Bretton Woods.

Professionally, in her forties, Lopokova made do with odds and ends of broadcasting, translating and the occasional foray onto the stage. Her most successful role was as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, Keynes’s gift to Cambridge and to Lydia. The couple provided crucial support to the Camargo Society, which helped keep British ballet alive in the 1930s; in 1933 Lopokova danced her last dance as Swanilda in Coppélia for Ninette de Valois’s new company, the Vic-Wells Ballet, and later the Keyneses were backers of de Valois’s Royal Ballet. In the late 1930s, when Lopokova reprised her reading of ‘The Red Shoes’, this time for BBC television, ballet fever was on the rampage. Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, which was top of the children’s bestseller list, had been prompted by a memory of seeing Edris Stannus (aka de Valois) performing the Dying Swan as one of Lila Fields’s ‘Little Wonders’; a more recent inspiration was the latest baby ballerina of the Ballets Russes to take London by storm, the 14-year-old Irina Baronova. Lopokova’s gory warning against hubris would have fallen on deaf ears. All across the country, in makeshift dancing academies, in pubs or chilly village halls, little girls were longing for tutus and tarlatan, dreaming of glory and pointing their toes for ‘Madame’.

Mackrell divides Lopokova’s life into two, before and after marriage. But it is actually a life of three parts. At the age of 54 Lydia was widowed. She had been married to Keynes for 21 years. Mackrell writes that she lived her ‘last years’ in ‘obscurity’: these decades – Lydia’s sixties and seventies and eighties – become a brief coda of 27 pages entitled ‘After Maynard’. Partly, as Mackrell says, it’s a problem of sources – much less Bloomsbury tittle-tattle. I also think she is genuinely baffled by Lopokova’s retreat from public life. She briskly comments that ‘even two years’ after Maynard’s death, Lydia was ‘still’ grief-stricken; she sounds mildly suspicious that ‘it took her, she claimed, five years to get over her grief’ and surprised that ‘even after that, she never left the UK again.’ Yet she acknowledges that Lopokova had been globetrotting since her teens, and that the last nine years with Keynes had left her very little time to herself. Perhaps mourning gave Lydia another chance to go AWOL and the licence to leave off being Lopokova. She did not need to go on creating what Frederick Ashton saw as her special gift – ‘the illusion of spontaneity’.

Mackrell doesn’t idealise her subject: Lopokova was often ‘outrageously childish’, deliberately provocative in company, and inclined to lord it over her servants. Widowhood meant life on her own terms. She grew ‘nostalgic and insular’, sour about income tax and the Labour government. Not nostalgic enough, though, to pick over old memories with prying journalists and fans. She never traded on being the great man’s widow. She carried on his tradition of Sunday lunch in Cambridge with his parents, and embarrassed a new generation of students in the Keynes box at the Arts Theatre, applauding when she felt the dancers needed it: ‘I know how difficult it is,’ she insisted. But she gradually withdrew from the ballet world: she wasn’t going to spend her last years teaching or giving master-classes, strenuously groomed and coiffed. She just seems to have been glad to have had her day and to spend the stipend Keynes left her, though it meant wrangling with his trustee, Richard Kahn, and complaining constantly about a lack of cash. Eventually she dug in at Tilton, where she was, one visitor observed, ‘very comfortable in her own skin’. More so, one imagines, than the hikers who glimpsed her sunbathing naked in her seventies from the public footpath which bordered her garden.

Biographers often have trouble with old age. They want their subjects to go on dancing. But Lopokova was hardly a hermit, nor was her life uneventful – it depends what you mean by an event. She told friends she was relishing ‘contemplative idleness’. I wanted to know more about her final pas de deux with Logan Thomson, the farm manager of Tilton, who moved into the house and became her companion. He was 16 years her junior, a man of few words, and always called her ‘madam’; their relationship was mildly feudal but deeply intimate, though not sexually. The romantic in me wanted to see Lopokova’s old age as her last bid for freedom, and obscurity as the final adventure. Not seeing people, not bothering with proper meals, dressing like a bag lady: all this could be a way of turning one’s face to the sun (quite literally – Lydia and Logan had their armchairs installed in the hall so they could sit with the front door open and get a blast from an overhead electric heater too). But Mackrell’s final picture of their ‘nest’ is sobering: an increasingly dilapidated house, a squalid tableau of mouldering newspapers, old shoes and rusty tins, like a scene from Beckett, the actors’ heads just showing above the debris.

Dancers, as Mackrell knows, are hard to memorialise, their fleeting physical presence, their grace and energy surviving only in the memory of those who saw them. Lopokova looks lumpen on film. Virginia Woolf, who finally came to admire Lydia’s intelligence and acknowledge her artistry, thought biography was a compound of granite and rainbow. But I found this biography entirely enjoyable. Mackrell captures the fizz of Lopokova’s personality, her loveability, and makes her come alive. There is also a happy ending of sorts, a rapprochement with Charleston, when Vanessa Bell’s ten-year-old granddaughter Henrietta discovered by chance the funny, crinkly old lady who lived up the lane. They had sausage for elevenses or a glass of Sauternes for tea and Lopokova chatted gaily about ballet and death. ‘To have wrinkles is to be noble,’ she told her visitor. ‘We all of us grow old, what matters is how you age. We all grow old, very old and then we die.’