January 23, 2006
Happy 100th birthday.
Here we are, the old guard, fading, with fond remembrances still; some fighting to assure your “legacy,” some living it. Would you care?
Your eye was on your art and your human concerns, not on history or your place in it. That was where your beauty was, and you were beautiful. True and inner beauty is never self-concerned. It is unconscious of itself. It was your profound involvement in what you were doing that was beautiful and effective. It was your complex capacity to identify yourself with your work, and the life you led, that was beautiful, short as it was. You were no dilettante, no poseur.
Few were able to accomplish so much in so short a time. Few were able to affect, influence, move and inspire so many in so short a time, …. for so long a time.
One of the many,
After we parted, I wrote a poem
about Lester Horton. It began, “I knew a man, kinder
than sleep, wiser than knowledge and more beautiful than the
earth. I knew he was these things, because I knew he was these
Lester died at 48, in 1953 and I am writing this 51 years later. His picture is on my wall, and he is still alive in my memory. In his 48 years he built a technique, a repertory, and had students who are still remembered in the field. I am not one of them. His papers are in the Library of Congress. He is acknowledged as a seminal figure in Modern Dance, and as the creator of the Dance Theater concept.
(I am less than a footnote in history, having as much impact, as my late friend Alexander King, would have said, as flatulence in a windstorm. Nevertheless, I was part of Lester’s life for two years, and he was part of mine.)
There have been tributes, commentaries and books about him, but the man seems to disappeared into his events, accomplishments and history. Even physical descriptions are at odds with reality. I have read him described as five foot ten, yet I was five ten, and he was two inches taller. The ideal artistic proportion for a man is said to be seven and a half heads high. By proportion, Lester was seven heads tall or less. He had a large head and a long torso. Both made him in turn appear shorter than he was.
I came into his orbit this way. Harriet Jackson, my ex-girlfriend, invited me to watch her and her sister take a class at the studio. I was at loose ends having just dropped out of UCLA, following a summer job cleaning up at the Hollywood Bowl. We had worked shirtless at the Bowl and my skin was a deep brown from the sun. This accounts for the dancers at the studio not realizing that I wasn’t Mexican for the approximately six months it took to fade.
Harriet was an actress, a fine, fine actress. We had been in a production of Winter’s Tale at high school. I was Leontes to her Paulina, or she, Paulina to my Leontes. She studied with Max Rinehart, and did the lead there in his Maedchen in Uniform. Her performance so moved me that I was in trance for hours afterward.
While she was a superb actor, she was good but less than superb as a dancer. I was better at dance and far less as an actor. The dance I had had was ballet and tap. I was also a gymnast of reasonable accomplishment. The point being, I brought something to my experience of Lester’s class, and that she was my avenue of connection.
Lester was seated during the class, a drum beater with a gray wrapped yarn head in one hand and a tambour in the other pounding out the rhythms as the dancers sweated their way through the hour. I was dazzled. I found the class work powerful, masculine and vital, and stuttered my admiration and appreciation when I was introduced. In the beginning, it was the dancers who impressed me, later it was the source, Horton himself.
It was paradoxical that he was the source of this vital masculine movement style, since he was obviously effeminate in his manner. Lester had an exceptionally erect posture and a long upright neck. His clothes were demi costumes. One of his favorites was what was called a fireman’s shirt whose fastenings were formed by a medallion of buttons.
With a customary generosity, he invited me to take a class. I did, and I was hooked.
Although he had just awarded someone a scholarship, he shortly did the same for me. It was not that the school made money. On the contrary, rent parties were held regularly. These were quasi social affairs where there was social dancing to recorded music and his troupe performed.
Still, there was about him a sense of perpetual supply. After the last evening class, if there was not a rehearsal, he would take a group of us to the nearby McDonnells, not to be confused with McDonalds, for tea, coffee and desert.
I was hungry to learn and made reasonable progress; so much so that in six months he invited me to be in the performing arm of the school known as the Horton Dance Group. These dancers were the ones who had knocked my socks off at the first class.
The stars of the group were Bella Lewitzky and Jim Mitchell. At that time there were also Herman Bodendorfer, later Herman Boden, Jerry Faubian, May Shweig, Eleanor Brooks, and Saul Rapport, later Paul Steffin. Bella’s husband, Newell, was retiring from the group and it was he I was replacing.
This disturbed some of the group because the rule was that one could not become a member of the group unless he or she had studied at the school for a year. The group was structured and had rules. My understanding was that it was organized along the lines of a communist cell, and included self criticism sessions. This was less stringent by the time I became a member.
At that period of our history, the late thirties and early forties, the Communists and their sympa-thizers carried the flag of humanitarianism, and there were many among the artists, and in Hollywood. Jim, for example, received his copy of the Daily Worker at the studio under an assumed name. The Horton Dancers appeared regularly at Worker’s parties and fund raisers.
The studio was a little north of La Brea Blvd. on Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles on the second floor. It was up red tiled stairs, next to the Spanish Kitchen and a drugstore. Below in the basement Lester and Bill Bowen, his collaborator and friend, lived amid a chaos of costumes, easels, paints, a sewing machine, props and assorted objects, such as a cow’s pelvis. Bill was a painter and an instructor at UCLA. He was the same height as Lester. His hair was darker and his body softer.
I was used to white walled studios lined with mirrors. Our studio, for it was mine by now, had no mirrors because, as Lester said, he wanted the students to rely on their kinesthetic rather than their visual sense. The walls were like a landscape. They were painted a raw umber below and a cerulean blue above. The curtains were sewn of the same colors. The reception area was a pale canary yellow.
I was astounded to learn that Lester was not held in as high a regard as I held him. At that time and in that Group, he was more regarded as a Holy Fool. What seemed implicit was that if they had only had the talent they could have done it much better. But of course they didn’t.
Lester was the most democratic of Aquarians. He was friendship personified. He seemed the friend and brother of all mankind. He related to all levels and ethnicities without condescension or superiority.
On rare occasions he could be petulant and childish, but predominantly he was a man preoccupied with his work. He seemed always in a state of meditation, abstracted or concentrated. He was a knower without an apparent source of knowledge. He had an exceptional combination of intuition and intelligence. To my limited and naive perception, intuition predominated. He had a knowledge of biology, which he had studied. At one point I remember him reading Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. He was Aquarian, too, in his preoccupation with the leading edge of things.
Francis Roberts Nugent, my high school art teacher, introduced me to Art, to the classics, from Michelangelo to Rembrandt. Lester introduced me to modern art and ethnic art. He seemed to know everything, but without bravura of any kind. I painted, and he gave me a copy of The Materials of the Artist, wrapped in silver paper, tied with gold cord and decorated with three perfect sable brushes. This was at my 19th birthday, while we were shooting White Savage on the Universal lot.
We did two pictures there to supplement our finances. Before my time the Group had performed at Ciros, a night club on the Sunset Strip. We were later to perform at Clifford Fisher’s Folies Bergere in New York, where Lester and I came to our parting of the ways.
When I started at the studio, I was still living at home. Often I would skate the eight miles there, take class, and skate back, blessing each time I would hit a patch of smooth black tar pavement. At one point in my travels Bill Bowen, Lester’s friend and companion, left to get married.
Lester offered to allow me to stay at the studio. By that time I was of some use to him. I was the junior member of the Group, I taught some of the children’s classes (they referred to me as ghost eyes) and Bill had taught me how to sweep and mop the studio, which was a daily necessity because of the floor work. He also taught me egg tempera technique and dry brush.
There were three classes a night and rehearsals most days. For me it was intense and a delight, and I got to spend the 24 hours of the day with Lester. Our time was spent largely in an engrossing silence. Occasionally he would give me some private dance instruction.
He also straightened my big toes, ruined by shoes worn too small. He managed this by taping a tongue depressor to the big toe side of my feet and putting another tape around the arch and the instep at the other end. This worked over a period of about a week wearing them to bed at night.
I loved learning and dancing and Lester. At the same time I had no homosexual inclinations. I could understand how our relationship appeared to others, but my adoration and the opportunity to be with him overrode considerations of appearance.
Lester fed me and clothed me. I took all my classes and was at all rehearsals. I cleaned the studio and taught the children. When we did film work, my salary went to him and to the school. I can’t say that he got the better of the deal, but he never complained. To me there was a rare rapport between us, an in sync-ness, a oneness, that lifted my consciousness and kept it there.
My education continued. We went to the art theater on Fairfax and saw Port of Shadows (Quai de Brumes) and iconic Eisenstein films. Harriette Freeman was a friend of his, and we visited the Freemans in their Aztec fortress of a Frank Lloyd Wright on the hill. We visited George Antheil, the composer who wore his sweater inside out and backwards, because once put on he was superstitious about changing it.
Lester taught me to use chopsticks, and we visited Chinese and Japanese stores where he was comfortable and known to the owners. We started a collection of porcelain horses, Quan Yins and soapstone sculptures. One that I still have is a dwarf stealing the peaches of immortality from the Queen of the Western Heavens.
He bought me a copy of An Actor Prepares by Stanislavsky as an aid to my dance performing. I was learning the repertory of the time: Tierra y Libertad, Something to Please Everybody, The Drum Dance, Bahia and Boogie Bali Woogie. I created a mask of Quetzcoatl for Jim Mitchell in the pre Columbian section of Libertad.
During all this time Lester never showed me the slightest favoritism, nor gave any overt signs of approval. For me it was enough to exist on the same planet with him.
When I first arrived, he seemed to live on cigarettes, coffee and an occasional Vermouth Cassis. This may account for the fact that his mouth looked like a gold mine when he smiled despite only being 36 or 7 at the time.
I was the son of a Phys Ed teacher and former Olympic swimmer. Health was a great concern of mine, and I was fiercely puritanical. He gave up cigarettes for me, and because I needed to eat regularly, he did as well. This may even have added a year to his brief life. Our day would begin with huevos rancheros at the Spanish Kitchen, down the studio stairs on the left.
Did I mention that the skin of Lester’s hands and feet were quite pale, blue veined and beautifully formed? His beard was scant. He shaved starting with his muzzle. My father always started with the broad stretch of his jaw bone. It made sense to start with the area around the mouth since it was more difficult to shave and would get the sharpest edge of the blade for that day.
I fancied that he looked rather like early Rembrandt self portraits. He was not handsome, though he photographed well. The lines from Charles Laughton’s Rembrandt also reminded me of him, something about looking on his model as the sun, the air and the rain looked on earth, looking with a loving depersonalization. His voice during this period was warm and husky, little above a whisper. It was another endearing quality. Years later I learned that the quality was not his natural voice but the result of nodes on his vocal cords.
As a creator it seemed that things came to him from another dimension. When they did, they could be semi inchoate. This is where Bella came in. She was the form giver and count maker for his intuitive gestures and movements; a high priestess to his priest.
She apparently could do anything technically, and do it with mind boggling ease and control. She was small and dark with a dark fire. She tended toward a sardonic humor. She seemed large because of her intensity and power, so I was unprepared for how slight and feminine she was when I held her when we danced at one of our rent parties. She wore a particular orange-red lipstick that we called Bella red.
There was a clear hierarchy within the Group. Lester was beyond hierarchy, but Bella Lewitzky and James Mitchell were the male and female leads and ideals, through talent, skill, appearance and experience. Bella was acknowledged superior to all others. Eleanor Brooks and Herman Boden came next, then Jerry Faubian and Saul Rappaport, finally May Shweig and me, scrambling to catch up.
We did concerts, our primary purpose. On our trip to Tucson, Lester paired me with Jim as room mates. This was before my moving into the studio. This was uncomfortable since, while I admired Jim’s cool competence, I had developed an antipathy for his coldness and for his cruelty to others. There are femmes fatales, and there are L’Hommes fatales. He was one. He left what seemed to me a string of reasonably decent male lovers in his wake without compunctions or second thoughts.
We traveled to Tucson by bus. On the way back Lester sat in the back of the bus. He sang Indian songs with a hoarse reassuring voice under a miraculous starry desert night.
After I was living with Lester, he paired the two of us again. It was suggested that Jim and I stay with the director of White Savage while we were rehearsing and shooting. It seemed a bizarre idea, but since it came from Lester, I agreed. The pretext was that it would be closer to the studio and more convenient for us.
Arthur was bright, sophisticated and entertaining. He had a man servant, a chauffeur and a multi-leveled house on the side of a steep hill. Arthur taught me not to rest the tip of my knife on the edge of my plate.
Jim and I were a little more comfortable with each other by then. It was, so to speak, an armed truce in which we treated each other politely. I agreed with him that we would not to leave each other alone with Arthur, an agreement Jim abrogated the last night we were there. Arthur’s birthday gift to me was a close up in the film. This was part of my surprising 19th birthday that included Lester’s gift of book and brushes.
Then, it was back to the routine of the studio and to life with Lester. I was reasonably adept at the technique now. There was another film with a different director and I wasn’t farmed out. A while later, after a concert at my demi alma mater UCLA, the New York offer for the Folies came through. Lester went ahead to prepare. He was to choreograph the show. We were to dance in it as well as do our own numbers. I was left in charge of the school.
Three of the company members were not going to New York. We took two people from the school. At the time Lou Harrison played for class and composed music for some of the concert pieces. He was a slender, good looking, brown haired, dour young man. His boy friend was to join us. BIll was an agreeable person, perhaps too agreeable, but hardly qualified. Like Browning’s Last Duchess, he smiled too much. The girl was someone I liked. She was a tall intelligent young woman who had worked in a well-known puppet troupe. Since Paul and Herman were unable to come, Lester was to audition for a boy in New York.
In a sense Jim and I were thrust together again, this time because we were the two original male members of the Horton Dance Group. Physically, we were the same height and same coloring. He was Apollonian. I was more Dionysian.
The war was on, and it was the summer of 1943. Our two lady agents had made all the arrangements for our five day trip by train. It was a trip that seemed to go on endlessly and sootily. I arrived in huaraches, pegged pants a la Lester and a gray suede Jacket, a California anomaly.
Horton was there smiling, waiting for us on the platform, wearing his familiar glen plaid suit. After embracing us all, he and I took a cab to the Edison Hotel, where the Folies Bergere was to be presented. I was rooming with him and things seemed relatively as before, though there was some subtle difference under the surface. It might have been his return to Vermouth Casis. It might have been his absence from me, or the effect of the city itself. For me, though I had never been there, New York had a feeling of deja vu.
We began rehearsals and began the semi awkwardness of meeting the people involved. There was Fisher himself, and Erte’ the costume designer. There were chorus girls, showgirls, and the new boy Horton had selected.
For me, he was a mincing disaster. While the others in the original group were gay, there was little overtly feminine about them.
Imogene Coca was on the bill, and Henny Youngman. There was a Risley act. All these disparate consciousnesses were thrown into the cuisinart of the show.
I hated Erte’s costumes for the Group, and I hated the way they were made. Lester always made pants with a gusset in the crotch for freedom of movement. The sewing machine in the basement was his. I was fiercely pro Lester and thought his designs far more elegant and beautiful. The only reservations I had where Lester was concerned were his paintings. I didn’t consider him a real painter. Bill Bowen was a painter. I was a painter. Lester was a talented amateur.
One of Horton’s early jobs in L.A. was painting faces on the Stuberg mannequins. He had introduced me to mother and daughter at their factory. Lester was particularly close to Katherine, the daughter, and I approved. I liked her. She had seemed straight forward and fond of him. If he had ever had a straight relationship that seemed the most likely.
After a week or so of rehearsal, Lester found an apartment on fifty fourth street between fifth and sixth. We moved. While we were there, he introduced me to the Museum of Modern Art close by. It was the time of the great Mexican show, with Esquires, Orosco, Tamayo and others. There were superb Henry Moores in the garden, and a Gustave Delachaise. There were Giacomettis. There was the Guernica Mural, in the flesh and twice as large.
We also visited the Kamin Dance book store, where he bought two Indian books on dance, inscribing them Lober Horton in his vertical stylish hand. The idea of a bookstore solely for dance astonished me.
For some reason or another one of the chorus girls, one he called by her last name, began hanging out with us. I used her last name too. She was beautiful, far too pretty to be considered beautiful by the Group’s codes, bylaws and standards. She had magnificent looking legs as well, was married and had a young child. We would go to the apartment on the dinner break between shows. We bought Lester a Silex Coffee maker together. She was adaptable and talkative. On occasion I did watercolors of her and of the brownstone bay windows across the way.
About this time the incomprehensible happened. Lester was fired. He disappeared for the night after his final rehearsal. When he appeared again, he explained that two of the showgirls had taken him home, consoled and scrambled eggs for him. Bella’s only comment was, “Their own?” As the choreographer of the Group’s numbers, he received a salary and he stayed on. We were prepared to hate the man Fisher brought in, but he was a pleasant hack and finished the show.
That changed things, but the next event initiated the real change. How it happened I am not really sure. Greb has her version and I have mine. We slept together one afternoon when Lester wasn’t there. For me it was a momentous relief and joy, one that soon became apparent to Lester and the cast.
Since this is about Lester, and not so much about me, it will suffice to say that we ended up in a Greenwich Village walkup together after some misadventures with her husband. He made scenes around the backstage of the show, and kidnapped her once at gun point. The end result was that Lester fired me. He gave me notice by a telegram that appeared in my cubbyhole backstage. Needless to say, my relationship to Greb had nothing to do with my continuing love for him. The reverse could not be said.
We fled when the notice arrived, and lived in the Midwest for a part of the summer. Gradually we made our way back to L.A. and to my father’s house. In the meantime Lester and the Horton dancers had returned. I went to the studio and asked if I could take classes. Lester said yes, but his positive relating to me had ended, and I couldn’t stand to be near him without the rapport I was used to. I left. When I had explained why I wanted to return, I said that I had so much to learn. In retrospect what I truly meant was I wanted to return because I loved him and I loved his work.
My direct contact with Lester happened only two more times before his death. I had been with him only a short time, but it was enough to shape the direction of my life. On my own I created dances in his style. Greb and I eventually became a dance team. Two and a half years later we took New York by storm, as the saying goes. We had a four page spread in Life magazine and were playing one of the best nightclubs on the east side.
That was where we saw Lester again. He was in town to choreograph a musical, Shooting Star. He was somewhat more his gracious self. He gave us a ride home and on the way offered me the lead in the show. I said fine, but only if Greb were in it as well.
I asked him what he thought of our act, knowing how much I was indebted. His comment was that it looked familiar. It may have been familiar but I had been meticulously honorable in not using any of his steps or movements. The year was 1946.
The last time I saw Lester was when he brought his troupe to New York for some concerts at the YMHA. This would have been in 1952. During the nine years that had passed, I had never studied with another Modern Dance teacher. I was loyal even in my exile.
I was dancing in the musical Wonderful Town. The only show of his that I could see was a Sunday matinee, because of my own performing schedule.
The concert was all I remembered that I loved about his work. The very young Carmen de Lavallade was magnificently beautiful and beautifully trained. She lacked only inner fire for perfection.
After the concert Lester was in the darkened auditorium, in the back on the left hand side. We met midway down the aisle. It was as if there had never been a rift in our love. He was grayer, almost white, a little heavier. His voice surprised me with its clear and piping tenor. The nodes that had given his words that hoarse warmth were gone.
His first words to me were that he now had a healthy Group. This was a theme I had harped on during my time at the studio with him. I had no clue about the troubles he was facing. I only knew that I loved his choreography and what he had achieved with his dancers. I only knew that we were friends again, that the man who was kinder than sleep, wiser than knowledge and more beautiful than the earth still existed.
A year later he was dead ... but not for me.