This is the grave of Isadora Duncan.
Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Duncan grew up very poor. Her father was initially well off, but got busted for some sort of banking fraud and I guess was blackballed from being a professional. Her parents divorced after that and she and her siblings went with their mother. As they got a little older, Duncan and her sisters proved to be good dancers and they would teach local children, making a little money. But she was a long way from international stardom, just a poor California girl. But she was very ambitious and confident. She wanted to travel and so as a young woman, took a train to Chicago and started auditioning in dance companies. She got hired on by the famed theater impresario Augustin Daly, who was impressed by her talent, but her improvisational style had no real home in American theater of that time. So she moved to London in 1898. She became a big hit there, made enough money through her performances, often in the homes of the rich, to live and then moved to Paris in 1900, where she became a central figure in the international art scene there.
Duncan’s fame soon allowed her to travel and perform around Europe and America in very successful tours. She didn’t like it all that much though. She really wanted to educate and inspire others to dance. So she invested her money into dance schools, starting in Germany in 1904. She actually adopted six of the girls at that school and they performed together for some years before finally breaking with their demanding teacher, who was outraged when they did things such as fall in love, shortly before her death.
Duncan was a huge star by the 1910s. She moved back to New York in 1914 and started a school there. She was supposed to be on the Luistania on its infamous voyage in 1915 when the Germans sunk it, but probably because she was short on money, she bailed. Good call. She was also excited about the establishment of the Soviet Union, as were many leftist artists in its immediate aftermath, and hoped it would become a place of artistic as well as political experimentation. She started a school there, but of course the Soviets didn’t follow through on their promises around it and the great potential artist paradise was shut down by communist puritans quickly anyway.
Duncan lived the perhaps expected wild personal life of the artist. Openly bisexual, she had two children of her own out of wedlock, was a proud atheist and communist who talked about this on stage of her American tours during the heart of the Red Scare. She also gave up her American citizenship and became a citizen of the USSR. Sadly, both of her children drowned in a 1913 car accident where the nanny drove into the Seine. She also had the all-too-typical downsides of a life like this–a massive booze problem and a chronic shortage of money. As so often happens, the alcohol began getting in the way of the art and she sometimes appeared drunk on stage, not a great combination with artistic dancing.
And there’s her famous demise. I wonder how well Duncan would be known at all today if she hadn’t been strangled to death by her own ridiculously long scarf getting caught in the wheels of a moving car. Not a great way to go.
I am not even going to begin to comment on her dancing, a topic about which I know absolutely nothing. My knowledge of dance makes my knowledge of opera, which is almost nonexistent, seem encyclopedic. There is a little bit of film footage of Duncan, if you are interested.
Isadora Duncan is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.
If you would like this series to cover other legends of American dance, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Michael Jackson, who certainly is a legend of American dance among other things, is in Glendale, California, while Fred Astaire is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.