“I was thinking of these things yesterday at Palm Beach. Then, the idea came to me … listening to the eternal vulgarity of the fox trot,” said Isadora Duncan, while being interviewed at the Royal Poinciana Hotel on January 26, 1917. Her visit had overlapped with the arrival of her patron Paris Singer, making for an intriguing parallel with the following year’s scenario when Singer would transform his altruistic convalescent facility for shell-shocked soldiers into the private Everglades Club.
But let us not get ahead of ourselves, as Isadora Duncan’s days along the Jungle Trail and nights in the Cocoanut Grove had begun weeks earlier.
New York-Havana-Palm Beach
On December 21, 1916, Isadora (“One name should be enough …”) and her secretary-consort, Scottish poet-writer Allan Ross MacDougall boarded the Ward Line’s SS Morro Castle in New York for a cruise to Havana. After several weeks of Como estas? the world’s most famous barefoot dancer and her companion moved on to Palm Beach, checking into The Breakers in one of her signature Grecian gowns on January 9, “… her stay prolonged at least until the height of the season.”
Back then, Palm Beach in early January would have been relatively quiet. Devil-may-care Caleb S. Bragg was registered at The Breakers, having shipped his airplane and autoped scooter ahead of his arrival. Henry Carnegie Phipps would be arriving in his private rail car the following week, as would Crocodile Sam, to freshen up his cement-pond alligator farm just south of Gus’ Bath before a late January opening.
For Isadora, along with the delight of the island’s diversions, this pre-season calm gave her the opportunity to reach “capitalists from all portions of the country” about her plans for “building an amphitheater along Greek architecture lines of high order for 1,000 to 1,500 spectators … and there was no spot in America so perfectly adapted for such an enterprise than …” Yes — Palm Beach.
In her interview with the Palm Beach Post, Isadora expressed what Palm Beach’s raison d’être should be, “Friedrich Nietzsche has told us all of our northern art needs to be Mediterraneanized. That is, he realized the sun is the great life-giving power — the wellspring of life and art. The Indian, the Egyptian, and the Greek, living strongly beneath blue skies and fiery suns, have the power to look upon life with that great view which has given us the wise works of the Indian philosophers and the tragedies of the Greeks.”
She continued, “Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy could direct us if only we heed its teachings of the secret lost for over two thousand years … That theatre would be the temple for drama, music, and dance …”
“I was thinking of these things yesterday at Palm Beach. Then the idea came to me: Why in this land of beauty, this charming climate, should not someone build an open-air Greek theater? Think, just at sunset when the lights are most tender and mysterious … what it would be to hear words of great poetry such as the Pleiades of Euripides, or the heartbreaking plaints of Trojan women, or to hear great noble strains of music — Gluck, Mozart, or Beethoven — or to see inspired forms in lovely movements of the true dance.”
“Such a theatre could be built easily here … might make this place a Mecca to which lovers of art would flock from all over the world … There is every belief that active work on this atelier of ancient art will commence at an early date.”
Thus spoke Isadora, as Nietzsche might say.
What could have possessed Isadora to promote plans for an arts multiplex at Palm Beach when these same plans were publicized the previous month for Madison Square Garden with her as director of that project? Since I realize Isadora’s recollections did not always intersect with events as they were widely reported, it is difficult to decipher whether she was either attempting to rewrite history, it was part of some complicated plan, or she had unintentionally forgotten what actually happened.
Palm Beach and/or Madison Square Garden?
Isadora had moved from The Breakers to the Royal Poinciana when it opened on January 15. According to Duncan’s autobiography My Life, published within weeks of her death in 1927, Paris Singer had arrived on Palm Beach at The Breakers during the last weeks of January with American poet Percy MacKaye.
It was then that Singer told her he and investors, including Otto Kahn, were buying Madison Square Garden, and that they had publicized her plan for a dance school and Temple of Art. In her book, she wrote of her enthusiasm for the MSG project but that she was not in favor of it “in the middle of the war. She wrote, “It was this that finally irritated Singer to such an extent … he cancelled the sale upon our return to New York.”
Hmmm … not quite. According to Singer, he discussed with Isadora his acquisition of MSG to house her dream for a Temple of Art following her late November, by-invitation-only performance at the Metropolitan Opera House.
In early November 1916, The New York Times reported that the F & D Corporation, owner of Madison Square Gardens, filed a petition for voluntary bankruptcy with an auction sale set for December 8, 1916. The previous June, the New York Life Insurance Company filed a foreclosure suit against F & D Inc., as it held a $2.3 million first mortgage plus there was an additional $550,000 second mortgage held by the estate of J. P. Morgan.
At the December auction, New York Life bought back MSG for $2 million. During the following weeks, it negotiated with William Carman Roberts, Paris Singer’s straw buyer. Roberts was married to Mary Fanton Roberts, who worked for Paris Singer and who Singer had set-up as his editor-publisher of Touchstone magazine. Both Bill and Mary were close friends of Paris and Joan Singer. The Mary Fanton Roberts archive that includes numerous telegrams and letters from Paris Singer can be found at the Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian.
During late December-early January, coinciding with Duncan and MacDougall’s respite in Old Cuba, Paris Singer’s plans to convert Madison Square Garden into a civic center made national headlines. New York newspapers credited Isadora Duncan for having dreamed up the Temple of Art. Reports read that Duncan would take “personal charge” of producing the dance program with classes and dance pageants.
“Miss Duncan is said to have interested him and his friends in the project of using MSG as a civic center, where the poor of New York, and of the entire country, may have the best of all types of art. Although Miss Duncan has gone south, her friends said that if the project goes thru it will fill one of her cherished dreams. Isadora’s scheme would include classes in classical Greek dancing for the children of the city.”
Paris & Isadora
Isadora’s search for a permanent school was never-ending. In 1912, it appeared she would establish a Temple of Dance in Paris “with the help of Paris Singer.” Singer and Duncan’s relationship was believed to have begun in 1909, followed by the birth of their son Patrick in 1910.
And then … “Trouble starts …”
Rignaux reported Paris Singer “looked like a Greek god” who became angry when dramatist Henri Bataille “kissed Isadora Duncan’s foot.” Singer demanded a duel and vengeance. Suddenly, “jealousy spread.” Madame Poirier’s husband drew a sword and threatened to cut off the head of a Hungarian who was attentive to his wife. Bertha Zabet, the actress, became jealous of Madame Bey, the former Mary Desti Biden Sturges, a Duncan biographer and mother of Preston Sturges, when she had earlier danced with Henri Bataille.
Mary Bey’s husband, Vely Bey, they married in 1912, became so enraged he condemned his wife to seclusion with only Asian women. The son of the Sultan of Turkey Abdul Hamid’s court physician, Vely Bey opened beauty shops. Maison Desti, in Paris and Deauville. The couple eventually divorced. Gunaburgh slapped the face of a Russian who sat at the feet of comic actress Cécile Sorel. Pianist Hener Skene wept on the shoulder of Countess de Berreau because Gabriele D’Annunzio lisped his last poem into her ear.
The morning after Isadora’s Oriental Ball, there were “serious consequences.” Singer left for London. But not before he cancelled Isadora’s Greek Theater and plans for a research institute in Paris. While Singer continued to support Duncan’s artistic projects and provide support for their son, both moved on with their personal relationships.
January 27, 1917
Isadora and Alan MacDougall boarded a night train for New York. Isadora never returned to Palm Beach. There was never another word about building an open-air amphitheater for 1,500 spectators on Palm Beach.
A week after Isadora returned to New York, Paris Singer bought a cottage on Peruvian Avenue at Palm Beach that became known as the Chinese Villa. In January 1918, Singer returned to his seaside cottage, bringing with him architect Addison Mizner and Joan Bates. Following Singer’s December 1918 divorce from his wife of 30 years, Cecilia “Lillie” Graham, Joan became Mrs. Paris Singer. With his four sons having served in the armed forces during the war, and his French and English houses utilized as hospitals for the wounded, during the spring of 1918 he set about building the Touchstone Convalescents’ Club for Shell-Shocked Soldiers at Palm Beach. After World War I ended, Singer repurposed it into the Everglades Club.