“My dear, he’s such a snob!” Balanchine was taken aback by his friend’s harsh reaction to the mention of his mystery guest the Windsors. As someone who dealt with artistic temperaments for a living, he remained silent as his friend continued on the phone.
“The Duke of Windsor has never really liked me, you know. We never got on well. And his face! His face is what happens to a person whose life has no purpose. His face shows his empty life. Tragic, actually: He rather resembles a mad terrier, haunted one moment, then with a flick of the hand he laughs fecklessly.”
At Balanchine’s silence, Cecil Beaton, famed British photographer, realized he’d gone too far. Lamely, he ended it,
“But, I suppose, he is your friend. His wife, the Baltimore divorcee, is rather fun at parties,” he sniffed.
Then, coming around, Beaton added,
“Actually, Wallis has been a good friend to me, I like her. She is a good friend to all her friends. There is no malice in her. There is nothing dislikeable. She is just not of the degree that has reason to be around the Throne.”
George Balanchine was invited to elegant parties all the time. As he began to plan his own, he considered mood and tone with the same care he took in composing a new ballet. Balanchine recalled the parties of one of the city’s most successful hosts, Leo Lerman, a magazine editor.
Lerman held impromptu parties in his Upper East Side townhouse. He served what he called ‘nasty wine,’ old biscuits and cheddar cheese.
Despite Lerman’s meager offerings, his home always was filled with the most interesting collection of artists and other elites crowding into stairwells and even into his bedroom where he often held court from bed.
Once, Balanchine was surprised to come upon Rudolph Nureyev seated on Lerman’s floor discussing Kremlin architecture with Lerman and several other guests perched on his bed.
On the other end of the party spectrum were parties thrown by Bennett Cerf, Random House editor for Truman Capote and many other noteworthy authors. At ‘Chez Cerf,’ every detail was done to formal perfection. His wife, for instance, insisted there be an equal number of men and women.
Edna Ferber, a frequent guest, thought the rule ridiculous, observing that guests were getting together to eat, not to mate.
In 1958, change was in the air. Rock and roll co-existed in popular culture with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The chemise and jet travel were coming online, white tie, and physical contact with your partner on the dance floor were exiting. General Charles de Gaulle was France’s new premier, General Dwight David Eisenhower was President, Elvis Presley entered the U.S. Army.
Also, that spring, the novels, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” by Truman Capote, and “Exodus,” by Leon Uris, were bestsellers.
The Lerner and Loewe play, “My Fair Lady,” opened to critical acclaim April 29 in London; “Gigi,” premiered in New York City in May. The United States National Air and Space Administration (NASA) opened its doors for the first time, and World Cup soccer competition was set to take place in Sweden.
Balanchine, A man about New York
The Russian transplant loved everything about America and his adopted city of New York.
Just as his ballets freely mixed the traditions of Petipa with the modern classicism of Stravinsky’s newest compositions, so too, it was a safe bet, would his party mirror contemporary society. He was a traditionalist who was cognizant of the new age and all it had to offer. No one ever caught Balanchine standing in the past for long.
In the rarified air of New York City’s theatrical and cultural community, he was a celebrity, but he was also a common man in many ways. While other successful artists tended to live guarded lives in their own private spheres of narcissism, Balanchine walked the streets of New York, breathing it all in.
Some days, he would notice the city’s distinctive street smells. Other days, he would look skyward, appreciating the city’s unique architecture, gargoyles, and all. Everything and everyone interested him, in no apparent logical order. He was like a clever Russian squirrel, collecting experiences for the winter.
Little escaped his keen notice.
Friends and acquaintances
By the same token, his many acquaintances fell into every conceivable category.
Some, like him, are well known. Others, he ran across in the course of running one of the world’s finest, most innovative ballet companies. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to his haphazard collection of friends located around the world.
Rene answers the phone that day to Cecil Beaton, British photographer and Hollywood set designer.
Beaton had re-decorated Windsor Castle, photographed the privileged, designed memorable sets for Balanchine and the Metropolitan Opera, and traveled the world as an erudite and amusing homosexual house guest to the elite. Beaton, like Balanchine, was a circumspect observer of humanity.
It was clear he took pains to nurture his friendship with the ballet master.
The Duke and the Divorcee
The man so critical of the Duke of Windsor at the same time was appreciative of Balanchine’s down-to-earth qualities: The ballet master is a fan of science fiction (he was ecstatic about the creation of a new American space agency,) TV westerns and American ice cream. He wore bright pearl buttoned shirts, black string ties, a gambler’s plaid vest, and frontier pants.
Today, Beaton’s call caught the ballet master at home, ironing his shirts.
Besides the men’s professional collaboration, Balanchine always enjoyed the witty commentary this well-traveled insider shared. The men’s conversations typically began with stagecraft and set design but wound up with Beaton’s latest artistic rants that invariably included juicy gossip about people whose acquaintances they both shared.
From his kitchen listening post, Rene quietly monitored the call. He waited for a discreet amount of time before inquiring. Later, on his second vodka, Balanchine finally opened up.
“Cecil was in top form today. Full of stories, as usual. A funny thing about Michael Redgrave: Tony Quayle said Michael Redgrave’s problem is he’s in love with himself but he’s not sure if it’s reciprocated.”
“A British actor.”
“Mr. Beaton is always amusing. Did you invite him to your party?”
He offered to help. He thinks, and I agree with him, that more elegance is a requirement. This apartment needs his fine hand. If we are to entertain properly, I wish to provide a more appropriate backdrop. I am well aware, Rene, that things around here have grown sadly eclectic with Tanny’s situation. Beaton will change all that. He will be our stager. Such a busy man, what with his London opening of “My Fair Lady,” and his film, “Gigi” opening here this month.”
“I must say he was less than enthusiastic about my mystery guest.”
“I thought Beaton and the Windsor’s were friends. Didn’t he photograph their wedding?”
“A bit of a love-hate relationship, I imagine. They are fellow Brits, after all. Travel in the same circles. After all, the Duke and Duchess were Beaton’s guests only last month in London for the opening of his play.”
“My Fair Lady.”
“Yes, Beaton designed the costumes and sets for it. And the Windsor’s were there. And who knows? Perhaps they also were in Cannes for his film. After all, they live nearby in Paris.”
Finishing up, Balanchine carefully wrapped the electrical cord around the iron.
“Do not concern yourself, Rene. They will be fine. These cats and dogs will play together.”
Balanchine replaced the iron in the linen closet.
As he walked away, Rene heard Mr. B. muttering to himself, “Cats and dogs.”
Later, Balanchine picked up where he’d left off.
“Cecil and I discussed manners as an art form and we agreed the man with the most exquisite manners of any person we know is the Duke of Windsor.”
“You know, Rene,” continued Balanchine, warming to his subject, “it is a fact that manners are not the result of good breeding or intelligence for we know many well-born and highly intelligent people who are boors. I, myself have known certain day laborers in the village where I grew up who had superb and quite unselfconsciously good manners.”
“True good manners are a lot like charm. You either have them or you don’t. You cannot teach people these things. While manners may seem to be a question of opening and closing doors and folding chairs and standing up when a lady comes into the room, etcetera, it really has more to do with acting with a sort of indefinably unobtrusive grace. Such as my friend, David.”
“Of, course. So, it seems, ‘Gospadeen,’ that your mystery guest is the perfect man.”
“’Da.’ ‘Da.’ ‘Konechno.’ I think so.”
Several days passed.
Rene noticed Balanchine was rarely without an envelope peeking from his pocket. Periodically, he would pause, let out one of his dry giggles, and add another name. Finally, the man whose idea the party was to begin with, got a look at the list. The names were as surprisingly eclectic as their host. Rene could see this would be a party like no other.
The Duke and Duchess, it seemed, were only the beginning.