The Guest Blogger returns: this post is by
the book: Hello Goodbye Hello by Craig Brown
from the chapter Isadora Duncan upstages Jean Cocteau
[Isadora Duncan, who is nearly 50] is a well-known sight in Villefranche, walking around the streets barefoot in a scarlet negligee, all topped off by hair of vivid magenta. She generally heads to the jetty, on the lookout for young men. Sometimes she attracts abuse from the less bohemian citizens of Villefranche. She imitates their tut-tuts: ‘That Bolshevik! She’s always carrying young men with her! She says he’s her secretary!” …
On this particular day [in 1926] a party is being thrown at the Hotel Welcome to celebrate the seventeenth birthday of a painter called Sir Francis Rose. His mother, Lady Rose, has appointed Jean Cocteau master of ceremonies, and he has decided to make the most of it. Dressed in a beige suit lined with black satin, with his chair covered in red velvet, he has a bust of Dante on the table beside him. …
To the horror of Lady Rose, her son Francis, crowned with roses, arrives at his own party arm-in-arm with Isadora Duncan, who is wearing a diaphanous Greek toga and is wreathed in flowers.* Cocteau describes her as ‘very fat and slightly drunk’, and ‘enveloping the young man like a placenta’. …
A deathly silence turns the guests to statuary. Isadora laughs, and continues to drape herself over the birthday boy. ‘She even dragged him into the window recess,’ recalls Cocteau. ‘It was then that Captain Williams, a friend of the family, played his part… He strode across the dining room, approached the window, and shouted in a tremendous voice, “Old lady, unhand that child!”’
*Isadora prefers a bare minimum of clothes, if that. In Boston in 1922, she electrifies a room by lifting the folds of her scarlet tunic to reveal her naked body and crying, ‘You don’t know what beauty is! This – this is beauty!’
commentary: This book by Craig Brown – irrelevantly an uncle of Florence, as in And The Machine – is subtitled ‘A Circle Of 101 Remarkable Meetings’. He says all the stories are true: it’s probably more realistic to say all the meetings, between famous people, actually happened. Whether the accounts and dialogue are accurate is in the hands of the sources, mostly diaries, memoirs and biographies of protagonists or witnesses. (So we can’t really blame Brown for that bizarre use of the word ‘placenta’ – a good example of when a word seems very apt as long as you don’t think about the image for more than a second.)
It would be easy to make a stodgy book with this material, but Brown knits his quotes and linking material together well. Everything races along, but he has time to explain who the people are, and why they are (or were) famous, and to give the background that makes the anecdote sing. This comedian is very serious when off duty, that politician makes Boris Johnson look like the smoothest suavest diplomat ever, this stately actor fancies himself a psychic, Princess Margaret is a lousy singer but no one dares to stop her ‘entertaining’ them. That sort of thing.
There are many great stories here, and some sad or moving ones. Some are funny, but sometimes only because they happen safely in The Past. Everyone appears twice, and most people get to look good in at least one of the encounters… even Hitler. I particularly like the fact that every story is exactly the same length – excluding footnotes, anyway – so you know where you stand. Always a plus when you mostly read on public transport or in pubs, like me.
As for Isadora, she may well have liked the way she comes across in this story (which ends in a fight, a seriously violent but comical fight, in which she gives as good as she gets after being attacked and injured by Captain Williams, and a rotund lady in a frilly green dress gets covered in mayonnaise.) She seems to have been a person who genuinely didn’t care for convention, rather than a self-consciously eccentric soul who merely loved the attention. She was photographed a huge amount in her life, usually in full dancing flow. I’m only 99% sure the fantastic main picture is of her: the internet likes to think so but can’t be entirely sure, and there are some suspiciously similar pictures of a dance pupil of hers called Anna Duncan, no relation I think, in what looks like the same outfit on what looks like the same beach. But if it’s not Isadora it’s absolutely characteristic of her.
Jean Cocteau was a fantastically stylish dude, and there are many pics of him looking superb in suits. But I couldn’t resist this pic of him in Rome in 1958, rocking a duffel coat like few people before or since. I’m sure the average CiB reader won’t need me to tell them one of the women is Coco Chanel. Feel free to tell me which arm she’s on…
Thanks yet again to Amy Newton for the book.
--------And thanks to the Guest Blogger. You can see more of his posts by clicking on the label Colm Redmond below. Jean Cocteau's early memories have featured on the blog - Isadora Duncan is mentioned - and a picture of the dancer adorned this entry.