Nice Guys Finish Last

In her biography of René Blum, writer Judith Chazin-Bennahum investigates why the Ballets Russes leader wasn't more famous.

published Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Only hardcore ballet buffs and dance historians know the name René Blum, but Judith Chazin-Bennahum has set out to right this wrong. The story of his journey from director of the world famous Ballet Russes to a tragic death in Auschwitz is told in her new book, René Blum & the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

What was arguably the premiere ballet company in the world at the time, the Ballet Russes de Monte-Carlo was founded by Serge Diaghilev. Blum took over when Diaghilev died, basically saving the company from sure demise. Under Diaghilev, the company reached legendary status, elevating Monte-Carlo (an administrative area of the Principality of Monaco) to a more exulted cultural level than a gambling playground for the affluent, frivolous and famous. 

Diaghilev had the best dancers of the day, including his off-and-on-again lover Vaslav Nijinsky, who was the first in a line of superstar Russian male dancers that led to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikail Baryshnikov. Further, he commissioned ballet scores from the leading composers of the day, such as Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. As for choreographers, George Balanchine was one of his greatest. Balanchine went on to make the New York City Ballet into the première company it remains today. It was Blum’s nearly impossible job to continue this tradition and maintain the same level of excellence. 

So, why haven’t we heard of him? Certainly, Blum was a major figure in the history of dance and the arts in general in the period between the two world wars, but he lacked Diaghilev’s charisma. Chazin-Bennahum’s diverse group of sources describes Blum as a "nice man" and a "gentleman with the highest possible integrity and sense of duty to the art of the ballet." So, why has he vanished from the public conscience? Other than his blandness in contrast to the colorful Diaghilev, Chazin-Bennahum tries to present some other possible answers but this reader remain baffled. Perhaps his obscurity is explained as simply as the fact that arts managers are almost always invisible to the general public. 

The author lays out Blum’s story with great detail. The book is a blur of names of the great dancers, composers, choreographers, politicians, hangers-on, as well as a distinguished group of rascals bent on pushing Blum out of the management of the company. Someone with a strong knowledge of the history of dance will understandably get much more out of Chazin-Bennahum narrative and recognize many of the names. 

However, this background is not really necessary to enjoy the fascinating narrative of this book and the twists and turns of a difficult life. For example, the "why" of the climatic tale of his voluntary return to Paris in 1941 and subsequent arrest by the Nazis, when he was safely living in America, remains a mystery. The fact that his brother, Leon Blum, was the first Socialist and Jewish Prime Minister of France didn’t help but that was hardly the real reason. Chazin-Bennahum is unable to solve this riddle but she presents some most fascinating possible scenarios, one being that it was little more than the fact Blum was Jewish. 

Chazin-Bennahum writes in an adoring, almost worshipful, manner about her subject. She frequently refers to his accomplishments as "historical" and "…of far reaching importance," or said he "…made an ineluctable contribution to the French theater." 

One odd aspect is that, for a book on the ballet, there is little mention of homosexuality (there were gay relationships in that world). The few mentions about it are regarding Marcel Proust, who was only tangentially related. One other quibble is that there are not enough photographs and what few there are in the book are grainy. In a book about what is a completely visual art form, more photos of the dancers and historical figures involved would have been valuable. Although granted, photography then is not what we’re used to now. 

That aside, this is a fascinating book about an unjustly ignored, heroic and eventually tragic figure in the world of the dance, theater and the arts in general. Like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it is as much about the era as it is about the biographical details; the "plot," as it were. 

In a letter to Junkie Fleishmann, the president of World Art, Inc (who bought the company from Blum) as printed in the 1937 edition of  Dancing Times,  Blum gave the following self-appraisal. "After all, it is thanks to me that the Ballet Russes survived after Diaghilev died, and I have a weakness to love these young people whom I have seen grow up as if they were my own children. It is my duty to support them and defend them…And I have a love for this art and for the artists for whom I have sacrificed almost everything. Without any hope for return." Thanks For Reading

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Nice Guys Finish Last
In her biography of René Blum, writer Judith Chazin-Bennahum investigates why the Ballets Russes leader wasn't more famous.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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