Margaret Putnam, 1941-2019

Justine Vanthilt, daughter of longtime dance critic Margaret Putnam, writes an appreciation of her mother. A memorial service and reception are tonight.

published Monday, June 3, 2019

Photo: From the Estate of Margaret S. Putnam
Margaret Putnam continued taking dance lessons

Dallas — Margaret Scobey Putnam, one of Texas’ longest-serving dance critics, died Wednesday, May 22, after a near 13-year battle with colon cancer in Richardson, Texas. She was 78.

The daughter of Ellis H. and Dorothy W. Scobey–the former a PhD in geology, the latter a teacher and member of Phi Beta Kappa–Putnam grew up in Midland, Texas and in 1959 graduated salutatorian from Midland High School. She attended Smith College, where she was still true to her Texas roots wore lipstick unlike many of her classmates. After receiving an AB in English in 1963 she moved to Manhattan. She took assorted secretarial and editorial jobs, but was frustrated by the rampant sexism, later remarking it was well-portrayed in the television series Mad Men. Her disillusionment prompted her to move to San Francisco.

In California she married and was later separated from Jeffrey Putnam, an opera singer and writer from New England. (He reappears later in the story). With Justine, her six-month old daughter in tow, Ms. Putnam returned to Midland four months pregnant and took up residence in a tiny cottage in the back of her parents’ home. Son Christian was born exactly two weeks before his sister’s first birthday.

Job opportunities were scarce for single mothers in the late 1960s. Companies often refused employment to women with infants or toddlers. Miraculously, she landed a high school English teaching position in San Antonio.

Juggling her full-time job and childrearing responsibilities she inched toward a Master’s degree with evening classes. After five years she moved to Austin with her two children and entered the PhD program in English at the University of Texas.

Ms. Putnam, whose dissertation focused on the Victorian novel, brought her work home to the extent of serving porridge for breakfast, insisting on linen napkins and drinking Earl Grey tea (a habit she finally broke two days before she died).

Upon being awarded her PhD in 1978, Dr. Putnam moved to Richardson to teach English literature at the University of Texas, Dallas. With no tenured positions available, she worked as a paralegal, in public relations firms, and as a technical writer. until Merce Cunningham’s 1980 performance at Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts prompted her to send an unsolicited dance review to the Dallas Times Herald.

For the next 38 years the byline Margaret Putnam was associated with authoritative dance criticism in North Texas, and sometimes in Playbill, Dance Magazine, and The New York Times. In the 1980s, she wrote several nationally syndicated travel articles as well as longform pieces for local media, such as one on afternoon tea for D Magazine.

Her coverage of local dance companies proved to be the mainstay of her career. Tough but judicious, Ms. Putnam once called out Dallas Ballet (during Flemming Flindt’s tenure) for marketing itself as “world-class.” In Ms. Putnam’s opinion, Dallas Ballet was merely a strong regional company. Her comment angered many patrons who felt the assertion detrimental to the dance community, whereas Putnam felt it was her duty to dispel any incorrect notion of “world-class” ballet.

Hate mail was a regular occurrence. Yet Ms. Putnam’s standing grew because of her knowledge of dance and devotion to it. From her childhood in Midland on up to her early seventies when she took adult classes at Brookhaven, Ms. Putnam studied ballet until the ravages of cancer made it impossible. This is why she could discern between a penché or arabesque, or appreciate the technical skill required for the 32 fouettés in Swan Lake, for example.

Ms. Putnam did not limit dance coverage to ballet. Modern dance was frequently part of the dance calendar she submitted to the arts editorial department. She made sure that troupes not typically reviewed, like Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico or any number of Indian classical dance companies were also included. Ms. Putnam would often convince her editors to run stories about contemporary dance groups from abroad like Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal and Adventures in Motion Pictures to extend the scope.

The arrival of the Bruce Wood Dance Company in Fort Worth in 1997 reinvigorated Putnam’s belief in the potential of the North Texas dance community. Marveling at Wood’s prolific versatility and musicality, Putnam became an early champion and later friend, adoring not only his “deep aesthetic,” but also his high standards and work ethic—not to mention his piercing wit.

Health issues would play a role in Ms. Putnam’s later life. At the age of 59 she had a stroke while walking her dog. A rare combination of exercise and an allergy to wheat had caused low blood pressure, which in turn precipitated a thrombosis. Within hours, she lost her ability to speak, read and write, and do simple math. The math part she never cared to re-learn, but it took eight months of grueling speech therapy to go from not recognizing the alphabet to writing her first dance review (albeit with heavy editing from the overnight editor). Eventually, her ex-husband Jeffrey became her longtime silent editor, ensuring that words like “crap” no longer slipped past the spell-checker when she meant “crab.”

She was honored in 2011 by the Dance Council of North Texas for her dedication to the arts which at the time culminated in over 3,000 dance reviews. After the Belo Corporation’s umpteen rounds of cuts to reflect declining newspaper subscriptions, Ms. Putnam was no longer asked to do reviews. She found a new home at the online arts magazine, TheaterJones, where she stayed as the Chief Dance Critic until 2017. She wrote one final review, in November 2018, of Bruce Wood Dance.

Ms. Putnam traded in her pen for gardening and held tea parties for the Richardson Heights neighbors she would meet while walking her dogs.

One of her last acts was to give her children a lesson in English usage and instruct them not to use the word “passing” for death. “Say died,” she insisted. After Margaret Putnam died, she was buried 23 hours later in nothing but a shroud at the Our Lady of the Rosary Cemetery in Georgetown, Texas amid Indian paintbrush and live oak trees. She was not Catholic, but wanted a green burial where she could return to the soil surrounded by Texas natural beauty.

Putnam is survived by her children, Justine P. Vanthilt and Christian Putnam; grandchildren, Alexandra Bos, Maximus Putnam, and Jeremiah Putnam; brothers John Scobey, Michael Scobey (her twin) and sister, R. June Scobey; niece and nephews Sarah E. Scobey, John N. Scobey, and Clay Hunn. The memorial service will be held in Dallas on Monday, June 3, Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration at 7 p.m. There will be a reception following at Sammons Center for the Arts. The family asks that instead of flowers, contributions be made to Bruce Wood Dance, Chamberlain Performing Arts, and the Dance Council of North Texas Margaret Putnam Scholarship for Dance Writing.


» Editor's note: In 2011, Justine Vanthilt wrote an appreciatation of her mother as a dance critic for TheaterJones. You can read that hereThanks For Reading

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Margaret Putnam, 1941-2019
Justine Vanthilt, daughter of longtime dance critic Margaret Putnam, writes an appreciation of her mother. A memorial service and reception are tonight.
by Justine Vanthilt

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