Magritte Shaving


There’s a story of Isadora Duncan and the press that has stuck with me since I read it years ago: “I’m going to Egypt to lay flowers at the feet of the Sphinx,” she told reporters in Boston. “At its paws, I should say. I’m going out on the desert … Remember that I said this mysteriously.”

The story of your life arrives in three parts: your self, your image, and the product of the two. When I started writing about Isadora, I knew only the product: her body of work, classical figures draped in silks. I knew that she was considered a spontaneous dancer, despite the methodical repetition, the hours of work behind that effortless flow. Only by reading her autobiography, My Life, did I begin to understand the distance between her life and her image.

I would soon find the gulf between the two was even wider than the distance she put between her home state of California and the apartment she kept in Paris. My Life has the guideposts of reality, but those guideposts are placed irregularly across a landscape of a fabulously fictionalized life. My Life is a potboiler of a tale written to rival the serialized romances of her time, featuring declarations of love and grief, men and women falling to their knees in ecstasy and agony. There’s a frenetic bit about her first audition and a man with “a big cigar in his mouth and his hat over one eye” sounding for all the world like a deranged circus ringleader; the story of a girl named “Nursey” attempting to murder Isadora on what she claimed were God’s orders; and a memorable passage about Gordon Craig, a lover with whom, Isadora wrote, she felt a “criminal incestuousness.” Some Isadora acolytes claim she was encouraged by her publisher to embellish for the purpose of sales. No matter why she did it, the result was a personal life shrouded in mystery presented as pulpy gossip.


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