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