- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbinsby Greg Lawrence
In the spring of 1950, Jerome Robbins should have been on top of the world.
At the age of thirty-one, he was already a commanding creative force. On Broadway, he had choreographed five musicals, including the groundbreaking On The Town, and his work with Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet had established him as an artist of astonishing diversity. In the decades to come, he would transform Broadway, as both a choreographer and a director, with such shows as West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Fiddler on the Roof and Jerome Robbins' Broadway. In ballet, he would create more than sixty works that became the cutting edge to a homegrown revolution; dances, as he put it, "paced with an American tempo," airy sylphs and enchanted princesses banished in favor of earthly themes and a language of movement all his own. For all this, he would win five Tony Awards, two Academy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of the Arts and the French Legion of Honor.But in the spring of 1950, Robbins felt it all slipping away.
His reputation as an up-and-coming new star had won him a coveted invitation from Ed Sullivan to appear on his television show that Easter Sunday-but now Sullivan had canceled him. In the Senate, Joseph McCarthy held sway, and Sullivan's sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, had instructed him to clear all of his guests with a right-wing publication called Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts to Combat Communism before allowing anyone on the air. And Counterattack had just named Robbins as a suspected Communist.
Robbins' agent desperately arranged a meeting with Sullivan to try to get him to change his mind, and the night before, Robbins had dinner with his cousin Bob Silverman.
"Jerry said, 'I got a call from Ed Sullivan, and he wants me to come to his office tomorrow morning. He said he wanted me to give him the names of the people who were at that party-you remember the party at my place that Lena Horne gave?' I said, 'Of course.' That party was a benefit for Soviet-American friendship. Jerry says, 'Do you remember who was there?' I said, 'Sure. I remember who was there.' He said, 'Shhh! Don't talk so loud.' He was in a panic, looking around. I mean he was really paranoid. He was looking at the waiter who was coming by at that point. Jerry said, 'I don't know what to do. What would you do?' I said, 'I wouldn't give 'em the time of day. You can't give them names, Jerry. You can't tell on your friends.' He said, 'Right.'
"So we finished dinner and went our ways. He had an appointment in the morning with a lawyer before he met with Sullivan. But you know what Sullivan told him? I heard Sullivan told him that if Jerry didn't give the names [of fellow Communists] that he [Sullivan] was going to run items in his newspaper column about Jerry being homosexual. You have to know what that means. In those days, that was death. That was death in your own family, first of all...because that was not what good Jewish American boys did. So that had to be a real terror for him. That's why I thought about it all these years. God, what he had to go through, the pressure they put on him."
The terror was further compounded by Robbins' certainty that Sullivan was only the beginning-he was sure to be called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)-and he didn't know what he would say to them. He couldn't afford to let his sexuality be known (although as one of his colleagues, actor James Mitchell, later pointed out, "He was living in some kind of dream world. Who didn't know?"). But if he didn't cooperate with the Committee, then the details of his sex life would be spread out all over the newspapers.
It was also all bound up for Robbins with his turbulent relationship with his father, the man he never seemed to be able to please. "His father had imbued him with the sense," says lyricist Sheldon Harnick, "that because he was Jewish and because he wasn't that talented, but particularly because he was Jewish, no matter what he accomplished in his life, no matter what prizes he won, no matter what money he made, ultimately everything would be taken away from him. And so he said that to go up before the Committee, that was like his worst nightmare."
For the rest of his life, it would all be hopelessly tangled, his creative genius and his demons. His attitude toward his sexuality would remain so conflicted that it would be his relationships, engagements and near-engagements with women that he would present to the world, while his affairs with men remained as clandestine as possible. His father's attitude toward his early dancing career, says Bob Silverman, basically would have been, "My son's a fag-how can I talk to him?" His driving fear of failure produced work of stunning achievement, but also led him to a perfectionism that many felt bordered on the sadistic (one day, his dancers simply watched as he backed up until he fell down into an open orchestra pit-said one eyewitness, "Nobody said, 'Watch it!' Nope. Off he went").
All of these spectres came together for Robbins when he was confronted by the threat of exposure. He never did convince Sullivan to put him on his show. And when HUAC did indeed call him to testify three years later, he quickly caved in, giving them the names of eight Party members of his acquaintance. "It won't be for years until I know whether I did the right thing," he confided to playwright Arthur Laurents.
"Oh, I can tell you now," said Laurents. "You were a shit."
In fact, his conscience was already bleeding. While his career and artistry flourished to ever-greater heights, he lost many friends, and the memory of his decision to inform haunted him until his death. He refused to let anyone write his biography, intent on concealing everything that was most precious in his life, except for the art that was his legacy.
Only once did he seriously attempt to deal with his demons publicly. In l99l, at the age of seventy-two, he decided to stage an autobiographical drama, called variously The Jew Piece, The Home Play, Rabinowitz by Robbins, Robbins by Rabinowitz and, finally, The Poppa Piece. While Robbins struggled to create scenes directly from the emotionally charged raw material of his memories, the performers never knew what to expect from one day to the next. They were often given newly scripted pages at the last minute and could never be sure if they would be called in on a particular day or not.
As the rehearsals progressed, one of the actors, Jace Alexander, sensed Robbins' frustration. "As we began to get closer to stuff that would touch on HUAC, which all of us always felt like he was dancing around-all of us felt like he wanted to go there, like he finally wanted to go to this place. It was very therapeutic, the whole thing, but every time he came close to it, that's when the rehearsal would end and the scripts would change."
Finally, without any formal announcement, Robbins simply gave up on the project. He couldn't go through with it.
"I think it was too hard," another cast member, Ron Rifkin, speculated. "I think Jerry was too old. I think he had too many losses. I think it brought up too much shit for him."
Dancer Joey McKneely agreed. "He would have had to go to a deeper place, a darker place, where he might not have wanted people to see."
Dance with Demons is the story that Robbins was unable to tell. It is based on years of research; done with the help of dozens of Robbins' friends, family members and colleagues; and meant to be the full measure of both the artist and the man. While many of the great and near-great move through its pages-names such as Balanchine, Bernstein, de Mille, Kazan, Clift, Mostel-it is Robbins himself who stands at the center, a figure of towering achievement and tortured complexity-a searching portrait of light and dark.
From "Dance With Demons" by Greg Lawrence
(c) May, 2001
Putnam Publishing Group, Used by Permission.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like