Hamlet without one of the principal players. That is the way that accounts of European culture between the two World Wars now begin to look after René Blum & The Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life. For Blum was a distinguished playwright, editor, critic, impresario, and curator, but above all artistic director of the Monte Carlo opera house from 1924 until 1939. During the 1930s he was crucial in a revival of the Euro-Russian ballet culture that had been forged by Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet troupe but thrown into disarray when Diaghilev died
Blum was born into a French mercantile family in 1878. A Jew whose brother Léon became the first Jewish (as well as Socialist) prime minister of France in 1936, René Blum was killed by the Nazis in 1942. Praised by colleagues in print, and in personal recollection during his lifetime as well as in ensuing decades, his story has, however, remained largely untold. It is with manifest satisfaction that Judith Chazin-Bennahum works her restitution. She has succeeded in producing a biography that is an important, even essential, contribution.
Chazin-Bennahum is an academic and former dancer. She undertook this project at the urging of dance historian Janet Rowson Davis. Rowson Davis acquired a voluminous archive of material about Blum but was unable to devote herself to completing the book she had originally envisioned. Despite being privy to Rowson Davis’s material, major gaps in the historical record remain, as Chazin-Bennahum makes a point of reminding us from time to time. In 1939, a publisher advertised that Blum’s autobiography was going to appear imminently; in fact, it was never published, and his manuscript has never been found.
Nevertheless, there is more than enough paper trail to establish Blum’s extraordinarily diverse and productive pursuits. Chazin-Bennahum chooses a vertical rather than strictly linear integration for her earlier chapters. Here Blum’s journalistic and belle-lettrist activity is discussed, including his promotion of, and friendship with, Marcel Proust. There are also chapters on his long liaison with the much-younger actress Josette France, and his service in World War I. Once Blum’s theatrical career moves into full swing in Monte Carlo, calendar chronology and the book’s evolution go hand in hand.
It’s surprising how many recent West End dramatic successes Blum programmed in Monte Carlo especially to please the vacationing British. We also learn about a number of now largely forgotten but highly popular theatrical attractions he booked. During the mid-to-late 1920s, Sergei Diaghilev’s epochal troupe touched down for annual seasons in Monte Carlo as it had in the years before World War I. Blum’s friendship with and admiration for Diaghilev inspired him to continue to present such ballet as he could after Diaghilev died. In 1932 Blum began a partnership with the ex-Cossack Colonel Wassily de Basil. Their Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo featured Diaghilev alumni George
Balanchine and then Léonide Massine as chief choreographers and reaped success throughout America and Europe. But Blum’s frequent claims to have been marginalized and exploited by de Basil seem to have been true. In 1936, having extricated himself from de Basil, Blum created his own Ballets de Monte-Carlo. It boasted among its signal achievements the artistic rejuvenation of the great choreographer Mikhail Fokine, who had created many of Diaghilev’s early successes. Chazin-Bennahum’s coverage of Fokine’s work is welcome; too little attention has been paid to this chapter in Fokine’s career. (In 1937 he decamped to de Basil, and then in 1941 to the newly founded [now “American”] Ballet Theatre, where he died in harness in 1942.)
Producing repertory seasons of ballet was then and forever a matter of perpetual financial shortfall, exacerbated in Blum’s case by increasing tension between the French government and the principality of Monaco. Much correspondence survives detailing Blum’s sale of his ballet company in 1938 to American financiers. Revealed in perceptive detail by Chazin-Bennahum is Blum’s guilt and anxiety about divesting himself of leadership responsibility as well as his determination to strike a deal that did not exclude him entirely from the artistic process.
Chazin-Bennahum’s writing adheres to a straightforward but, at times, somewhat clunky template of much respectable academic writing. Perhaps because of her earlier career, there are also welcome episodes of idiosyncrasy in her conception. These include thumbnail portraits of Blum’s surviving descendants whom she interviewed, encompassed within her acknowledgments. There is also a “whatever became of—” epilogue that concerns these and others, including Blum’s troubled son
I’m afraid that publishing cutbacks have made it almost a given that manuscripts are not combed through as meticulously as they should be: Some of the flubs here are almost amusing. For example, the author quotes ex-ballet star Frederick Franklin citing in an interview with her “Massine’s Coq d’Or, which was a terrible flop.” Actually it was not Massine but Fokine who re-choreographed his 1914 Le Coq d’Or in 1937 for de Basil. In the footnotes, Chazin-Bennahum references dance historian Lynn Garafola’s partial correction of Franklin, which only serves to compound the dancer’s and the author’s original error of attribution. “Garafola noted that Franklin may not have remembered correctly, as it was well known that Massine’s Coq d’Or was a huge success.” To which one can only respond with a resounding Huh?!
The scourge of anti-Semitism both opens and closes the book. Blum’s young adulthood unfolded amid the scapegoating of Jews in France that incited the Dreyfus affair, and it was the Holocaust that ultimately claimed his life. Chazin-Bennahum describes the way that ballets of the late 1930s produced under Blum’s aegis projected a foreboding that seemed then, and even more so in retrospect, to parallel world events. But artistic catharsis is another thing entirely than real-life atrocity; no story bridges the gap and defines the distinction more than Blum’s.
Early in 1940 he was in America touring with the latest, and now-American-controlled, permutation of his troupe. He was warned by associates not to go back to France, which fell to the Nazis in June; but he went. In December 1941 he was arrested. His relation to Léon Blum naturally aroused the particular enmity of the Nazis and their French collaborators. Blum spent the following year in increasingly miserable health at detention camps in France, from which he was deported to—somewhere. It has long been listed in reference books that Blum died at Auschwitz; Chazin-Bennahum does not establish this conclusively but does report the horrific findings of a biographer of Léon Blum, Ilan Greilsammer. Greilsammer printed the recollections of a prisoner at Auschwitz, who worked in the crematorium. He claimed that Blum had, in fact, been stripped naked and tossed alive into an oven.
Here the author departs from any pretext of authorial detachment. Whatever the specific cause, Blum’s death, she confesses, “has colored all” that she “learned and knows” about him: “It is more than we can bear that such a marvelous person could be killed . . . and begs us to question the human capacity for cowardice and cruelty.”
Joel Lobenthal, senior dance critic for City Arts and associate editor of Ballet Review, is the author, most recently, of Tallulah!: The Life and Times of a Leading Lady.