ISADORA DUNCAN (1877-1927)

Commissioned By LOIS A. FLOOD


Part I

Isadora writing her memoires in Paris, in 1926, told a young American journalist William Shirer, “How can we write the truth about ourselves. Do we even know it?” She died tragically over eighty years ago, but still fascinates. What is the truth of Isadora’s art and amazing life? Dorothy Parker wrote just after her death in 1927, “Here was a great woman; a magnificent, generous, gallant, reckless, fated fool of a woman. There was never a place for her in the ranks of the terrible slow army of the cautious. She ran ahead where there were no paths.”

But let’s start at the beginning!

Isadora was born Angela Dora Duncan, May 26th, 1877, at 501 Taylor Street in San Francisco. Her mother Mary Dora Gray was a gifted pianist, who had already given birth to three other children. Elizabeth born in 1871, became the greatest teacher of the Duncan Dance technique. Augustine born in 1873, would became a famous actor, who for many years was head of the Actors Guild. Raymond born in 1874, was an eccentric artist who qualifies as the first “hippie”. A dedicated vegetarian, he let his hair grow shoulder length, wore sandals year-round and founded an ascetic cult colony of all things Greek. At one point he kept a herd of goats in a Paris apartment, for their the putrid consternation of the landlord and other tenants!

Their father was Joseph Charles Duncan, born in Philadelphia in 1819. He was a business entrepreneur, banker and published poet, who started off working in a newspaper in St. Louis and later moved to San Francisco during the 1848 Gold Rush. By the time he married the twenty year old Mary Dora, in 1869, he was a fifty year old widower, with four grown children. In 1877 with the birth of the last child Isadora, the marriage was in its final stages. Joseph Charles was a very restless man, who won and lost at least four fortunes over the course of his life.

The constant financial instability meant that the family was forever moving household and exchanging ownership for smaller rentals. Soon after Isadora was born, the house on Taylor Street was sold by Joseph Charles, who also abandoned the family, leaving Mary Dora and the children stranded. As the deed and title was in his name he simply sold it out from under them. Another major strain on the marriage had been his numerous amorous affaires. The most recent one becoming public knowledge, with the publication of a perfumed letter, as a result of his own bank, The Pioneer Land & Loan Bank's collapse in October. An arrest warrant was issued in his name and he went into hiding, with a five thousand dollar reward posted “dead or alive”. February 25, 1878 he was found and arrested, dressed as a woman hiding out in a flop-house downtown in the “tenderloin” district of San Francisco. The scandal was the stuff of legends and caused considerable family shame. As Mary Dora’s own father, Colonel Thomas Gray was figure-head president of the failed bank, he was tarnished as well. There was some talk of him losing liberty and fortune but he pleaded “insufficient knowledge” and except for his reputation, survived the angry depositor’s wrath, and the long arm of the law. Father and daughter were not on good terms for a long time afterwards, though she had nothing to do with her husband’s shady financial dealings.

Mary Dora and Joseph Charles legally separated and she moved the children into Henry House, now called The Portland Hotel, on Ninth Street in Oakland, to get away from the scandal and vicious gossip. Besides, Oakland was cheaper to live in than San Francisco, being out “in the sticks”, as they used to say.

The entire situation seems to have precipitated a spiritual crisis for Mary Dora, along with the economic, logistic and matrimonial ones. She lost her faith soon after she had all the children baptised, at Old St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, at 660 California Street, in San Francisco. She may have been held up to it, by her devout parents, as a proviso for financial assistance during the family transition. We don’t really know? However, the children’s baptisms were her last act as a Christian. She never remarried, became an atheist, following the ideas of secular humanist writer, Robert Ingersoll. Isadora maintained the rest of her life, “I am a pagan.”

To earn a living a living Mary Dora took to knitting, gave music lessons and cared for other people’s children at her own home, during the day. These babysitting activities are probably the basis of Isadora’s and Elizabeth’s first dance classes. The family knew poverty and the four children sometimes went hungry. The end of the marriage brought Mary Dora no financial settlement, neither did any social assistance exist in that era. Because of non-payment of rent, they periodically were forced into a nomadic existence. For the next fifteen years they were living exclusively in Oakland.

From 1877 to 1893 the Duncans lived at the following addresses. In 1880, they lived at 746 Fourth Street before moving onto to 1254 San Pablo Avenue. They also lived at 1365 Eighth Street. In 1887 they were in residence at 1156 ½ Seventh Avenue. The children all went to Franklin School at Tenth Avenue, where Gertrude Stein was also a classmate.

Joseph Charles’ trial was finally heard in July 1882 and dismissed “owing to the failure of important evidence relied on by the prosecution”. The next year he packed off to Los Angeles and opened up for business, married for the third time and had a ninth child, a daughter.

In 1893 he resurfaced in San Francisco and purchased an estate called Castle Mansion, which stood at the north-east corner of Sutter and Van Ness. It is now the site of the Regency Theatre. He offered its use to Mary Dora and the children. It included a large garden, tennis courts and a barn which Augustine and Raymond promptly turned into a theatre. But that didn’t last long. In 1895 he again suffered financial losses and sold the estate out from under them. That crisis precipitated a final break with San Francisco for the Duncans, who looked east for recognition and fulfillment of their artistic visions. More on that in a minute.

But what of the ideas and education that formed the Duncan Clan? Mary Dora’s own relatives influenced the intellectual and artistic development of the four children. Her sister Augustina had wanted to be a professional dancer. She taught the children jigs, reels and other dances from the era minstrel shows. Isadora said later her maternal grand-mother had passed these dances down to the family. A cousin of Isadora’s on her mother’s side was a child education theorist and reformer, who had long discussions with Isadora and Elizabeth how children should be raised “naturally” outside of the current Victorian norm. His ideas became their matrix, though they chose dance as the core for their own child based educational development plans. The basis of it was very revolutionary, as it intended to train the body as well as the mind and spirit, holistically. The curriculum would include lots of outdoor activities, clothed in non-restrictive clothing and of course use the greatest art, music and literature of Western civilization, with an emphasis on the Ancient Greeks. One of Mary Dora’s maternal uncles was a professor of Greek at a university in Philadelphia, so the Greek connection was a strong influence in her family.

Isadora and Elizabeth studied ballroom dancing with a Mr. Massborn, of San Francisco, and the German language at a local German cultural center. They also took a few ballet classes but they instinctively rejected the technique as not fit for young children’s “natural” development, or their own artistic inclinations and vision.

As Elizabeth later wrote in an autobiographical sketch titled “Greek Is Living, Greece Once More!”

“My siblings were all artistically gifted. Since our early childhood we have been involved with dance, expressive and theatrical art. Our equally gifted mother always gave us freedom as children to pursue our inclinations and talents in a playful manner and she supported us in her habit of reading to us from the works of major authors.”

At age ten Isadora piled her hair up on her head and passed for an older girl. She dropped out of school and spent hundreds of hours reading in neighbourhood libraries. At one of them she met Oakland poet and librarian Ina Coolbrith, who took an interest in her literary explorations. Did Isadora know at the time that Ina had conducted a long affair with her father? We will never know?

In 1894 both Isadora and Elizabeth were registered in the San Francisco Directory as “dance teachers”. By this time they had already toured up and down the Californian coast, appearing professionally as a family in small skits, theatrical readings and dances that utilized mime. The boys acted and declaimed poetry, while the girls made the dance their specialty.

When in 1895 Joseph Charles sold the Castle Mansion on them, Mary Dora and the children decided enough was enough. A family conference ensued and it was decided that San Francisco would never be the place for artistic acceptance and recognition. Mary Dora and Isadora left the other three family members and went east, first to Chicago and then on to New York, where the rest of the family eventually also headed. Isadora first appeared as a professional dance soloist in Chicago at the Masonic Roof Garden. It was an artistic flop. A smoky room, filled with men looking for skirt-dancers and suggestive gestures, while she was trying to communicate high ideals, beauty and an artistic vision based on Greek art and natural movement. The job didn’t last long, the managers probably thought she was too rare a bird to please a semi-drunken crowd bent on titillation.

In October of that year, 1895 she joined Augustn Daly’s Theatrical Company. He was a world famous theatrical impresario with offices in London, New York and Chicago, and multiple companies touring across North America and Great Britain continually. She appeared as a dance soloist or mime in various Shakespeare plays and two plays “Miss Pygmalion” and “The Geisha”. Whether Daly prompted her or not, Isadora briefly studied ballet while she appeared in Daly’s productions, with two former ballet stars. In London she studied with Kattileen Lanner and in New York with Marie Bonfanti. What they gave her artistically we will never know? She never acknowledged them later in her life and was obviously more determined than ever to follow her own star. She quit Daly’s company, returned to New York, where Elizabeth already had a thriving dance school in a downtown hotel, and started giving “salon recitals”. During the summer seasons, she went up to Newport and performed in the marble mansions of the elite rich. She was treated as a pet and an artistic diversion, for their various charity events and parties.  They weren’t interested in her theories of child education through dance or the resurgence of classical dance as more than a decadent art-form, which must have galled her. When a the hotel fire destroyed the family belongings and closed Elizabeth’s New York dance school, the Duncan family held another conference and decided to Europe they must go, to finally make it. After a few fundraisers they collectively performed in, Isadora, Mary Dora and Raymond left for London on a cattle boat to follow their star, while Gus as he was now called and Elizabeth stayed behind in New York at real paying jobs. The Europe bound Duncans had no prospects when they left the harbour, and wisely knew they would need a financial back-up.