I had never heard of Isadora Duncan until I was searching for an example of a scandalous woman from the 20s for a presentation as part of our local public television station’s Downton Abbey premiere. Isadora Duncan was incredible. She created modern dance and fought against the “unnatural” strictures of ballet. She refused to marry and followed her heart–several times. She had children with two different men, lived in multiple countries, lived as if money didn’t matter and was always rescued by the very wealthy people whose privilege she rejected with her populist and eventually communist politics. She danced for kings and paupers. She combined movement and poetry and painting with philosophy and politics and architecture and religion. She inspired others’ passions and rages. And in the late 1920s she wrote a painfully honest account of her life and her ideas.
Several times in reading this book I had to turn back to the copyright page to confirm that it was originally published in 1927. By the second chapter I had to begin listing the important people who had inspired her and how. Her world was full of shining stars. She was often the center of the constellation. The fin de siecle shines through as she attempts to lose her virginity and the men at whom she throws herself run away, honorably preserving her virtue. When she says that her critique of marriage is common now but twenty years earlier was unheard of, I was crushed by the recursive nature of history. The progress she saw in the late 20s disappeared in the heat of the second world war and the fifties.
Isadora’s pilgrimage throughout Europe and the United States and through the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, into the First World War, are well worth a read. Her life, while scandalous, is far from the staid rhythms of Downton Abbey’s characters, but her world was real. Her scandals and tragedies real. They are so real that I was relieved at the last page to realize I would not have to read about her tragic death shortly after the publication of her memoir. At the same time I realized that her tragic death was fitting and likely welcome
Isadora’s star continues to shine in her memoir.