The New York Times
Margot Fonteyn: A Lifeby Meredith Daneman
The legend of Margot Fonteyn has touched every ballerina who has come after her, and her genius endures in the memory of anyone who saw her dance. Yet until now, the complete story of her life has remained untold. Meredith Daneman, a novelist and former dancer, reveals the story of the little girl from suburban England who grew up to become a Dame of the British Empire and the most famous ballerina in the world. More than ten years of interviews and research, including exclusive access to Fonteyn's and her mother's diaries and letters, come together to create this definitive work. From the rumored affair and successful partnership between Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev to her final years in Panama, Daneman has created a compelling account that balletomanes and lovers of biography will cherish.
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By MEREDITH DANEMAN
VIKINGCopyright © 2004 Meredith Daneman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the earliest photographs, she is neither sleeping nor a beauty. Her hair, so sleekly coiffed in later life, stands scraggily on end. Her eyes, wide open, are of a dark un-Englishness that is not so much 'Chinese' (the word famously ascribed to her faintly exotic look in adolescence) as Semitic. She looks old, as the newborn sometimes do: she might grow up to be anything. There is certainly nothing about her pudgy cheeks that could be said to portend the fragile facial contours of a ballerina. The most promising features are her ears, which are neat and set close to the head. And, perhaps, her high eyebrows, although one suspects the photographer of having retouched them in the high style of the day; for it was at the dawn of the 1920s that Margot Fonteyn was born - between 4 and 5 a.m., on 18 May 1919.
She was christened Margaret Evelyn Hookham - Margaret after her father's (unmarried) sister, and Evelyn after her mother's (unmarried) mother - but the Margaret was soon down-graded to Peggy, which, combined with her unprepossessing surname, would, in its jokey unsuitability, come to delight the press in years to come. Peggy Hookham. Not an article could ever appear without some sniggering allusion to it. For it was, in its way, the perfect birth-name for the first truly British ballerina-to-be. It spoke of modesty, of the profound British distaste for overt aspiration. Fame was only acceptable if it took you by surprise. And how could anyone with a name like Peggy Hookham have presumed to greatness?
In reality, she was only British on her father's side. Her mother's parents were Irish and Brazilian - her maternal grandfather, Antonio Gonçalvez Fontes, known to Hilda Hookham as A.G., having been, according to a great-grandson, Michael Fontes, 'about the richest man in South America. I think the old man had quite a lot of illegitimate children - he had a simply huge family. He bought and sold things on a grand scale. The big thing to come out of England at the time was cotton cloth from Lancaster, so he must have fathered Margot's mother on a visit. He wasn't the sort of man who slept alone at night.' The girl who shared his bed, Evelyn Maud Acheson, whom A.G. had met at an ice-rink, was to die of cirrhosis at the age of twenty-nine, before the child conceived on that visit, and born in the Derbyshire town of Matlock on 19 December 1894, was nine years old. Hilda, fostered at first by a sweet-faced countrywoman, Mrs Moorley, and later brought up by her black-bonneted Acheson grandmother, was effectively parentless, glimpsing the dashing foreign gentleman who was her father but twice in the first twenty-one years of her life, and only remembering the young woman, who no one saw fit to inform her was her mother, as a tragic figure in a Victorian deathbed tableau, 'her long auburn hair flowing over the pillow'. Mrs Hookham's recall of her father is more detailed. In a memoir written when she was eighty, she tells of a surprise visit which he paid to the house of her foster-mother in Salford: 'I was frightened and hid behind an armchair till brought out and shown a beautiful doll he had brought for me. He was very well dressed and smelt nice, so after a while he took me on his knee and was talking nicely to me when he turned up my frock and looked at my underclothes to see if they (and I presumably) were being kept clean. I was most indignant and jumped off his knee, but have never really forgotten the incident - and that was the last time I saw my father for fourteen years.'
His disappearance from her life was due to a row which blew up when Hilda's Irish-Protestant grandmother refused to comply with A.G.'s wish to have the child brought up by nuns in a convent. Instead, Grannie Acheson took the six-year-old to live with her in Manchester, at 7 Cecil Street, Chorlton-cum-Hardy. There, although Hilda's companions were her cousin Stanley and her Aunt Cissy (later known as 'Purdie'), and despite the fact that the child shared a bed with her grandmother, physical affection was scarce: Hilda would only remember having been kissed by those women once, when she went on holiday to Blackpool. Nor did she ever kiss Stanley, until, at the age of eighteen, he left for the Great War, never to return. During her teens, Hilda changed her name to Nita, short for Juanita; but a new, Hispanicized flourish to her first name could do nothing to assuage the blushes which her sham surnames, Moorley Acheson, caused her: 'Only older people now will be able to imagine the disgrace of having an illegitimate child or, for that matter, being one. The Victorian attitude was merciless. You were an outcast, soiled goods which no man would want except as a mistress and finally, when he tired of you, you would have to keep on that path until you became a prostitute. Believe me that was drummed into me when I reached puberty, although at that time I did not know what sex relations were. Only that I must never let anyone touch me, or my clothes, or go into any house or place alone with a man, but no explanation as to what or why. I had no warning of menstruation either, and thought I was dying when my clothes were suddenly stained with blood and screamed for Grannie. When she told me that it was going to happen every month for nearly all my life I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible! I was shocked and ashamed later to find that men knew about it but it didn't happen to them.'
Nita, however, looked older than her years, and would later remember: 'While I was only twelve or thirteen, men used to look at me with apparent interest.' The men who interested her had tended to be foreign, until, at the age of twenty, an engineering student at Manchester University caught her eye. 'In the window at the side of No. 2 Cecil Street, a corner house opposite us, a young man was sitting holding his head and looking very sorry for himself. I looked up and laughed at him and made some silly remark at which he groaned. I went on home, but a day or two later we met again as he was coming in from college and I was coming in with some shopping. We got talking and he asked me to go for a walk that evening to which I agreed. He was very good-looking and seemed very nice, though I still didn't care very much for English students. However, after that we saw each other more and more and gradually over several months decided that we loved each other. His name was Felix, which I must admit I didn't believe at first, and have never really liked!'
On 2 June 1915, Hilda Acheson married Felix Hookham at St Bartholomew's Church in Sydenham, London. But the discovery, the minimum number of weeks thereafter, that she was pregnant caused Nita to feel not just 'scared and upset', but 'shattered'. The doctor who attended the birth of her son, Felix, did not help matters by asking: 'Would you like it slow and bad or quick and worse?' And although the baby, once delivered, amused her with its 'snorts and grunts, just like a piglet', motherhood struck so alien a note with Nita that she spent the first four months of her second pregnancy doing all that she could to abort England's future Prima Ballerina Assoluta - 'by means of... a strong peppermint essence called Penny Royal, which left one breathless for seconds; jumping down the stairs four at a time; doing violent exercises, and drinking some horrible herbal brew that someone recommended. All in vain, of course, so in the fifth month I gave up and resigned myself to the inevitable.'
As it transpired, the second half of Nita's term was even more precarious than the first, since she, her husband and her small son all developed scabies, caused by a mite which burrows under the skin to lay its eggs. So, when 'the inevitable' finally took place, Nita was understandably apprehensive. 'I had my previous nice old nurse with me, and the very first thing I said was "Is it all right?", fearing that all those weeks of irritation and my early efforts to terminate the pregnancy might have had some horrible effect.' But the object of Nita's dread turned out to be the source of her deepest gratification. 'Oh precious day that was in Reigate those many moons ago,' she would write in old age to her ageing daughter, 'how happy I was that you had arrived safely and were all complete. It is a pity I could not see all those good fairies that must have been around, the one that gave you a kind and loving disposition, another who gave you a beautiful body and face, another great intelligence, another grace of movement to give pleasure to millions of people. It certainly was the luckiest day of my life.' And, of course, those fairies did all roll up to the house called North Redlands, by the railway station, where Peggy lay in her crib. The Fairy of the Crystal Fountain. The Enchanted Garden Fairy. The Fairy of the Woodland Glade. The Songbird Fairy. The Fairy of the Golden Vine. And, to complete the cast, that most magical and protective of well-wishers, the Lilac Fairy. But I said all: the wicked Carabosse came too, old and ugly, the harbinger of bad fate. Fairy stories are all the same. You cannot have the light without the dark.
Like the Princess Aurora's, however, the child's early years remained unclouded. But that is as far as the royal comparison can be taken. For the Hookham side of the family prided itself - despite various bookish uncles and a composer grandfather - on its lower-middle-class orthodoxy and utter lack of exception. 'We settled down to ordinary family life,' writes Mrs Hookham, almost with relief, 'and I don't think anything remarkable happened. There were family things, children and things and household things, which made the years slip by.' Yet a mother who has no personal experience of being mothered is bound to be more singular than she realizes.
Wartime privation had dictated that the Hookhams share their Reigate house with another family, the Cullys, who also had a baby son. But although Nita was able to compare practical notes with the wife, Mabel, essentially she operated from an intuition which, though often sound, could be strangely inconsistent. Physically undemonstrative and emotionally contained, on the one hand, in her dealings with her children - to the extent that she would claim, later in life, hardly to know them - she possessed, on the other hand, a maternal instinct primal enough in its untutored power to be heedless of the normal barriers between parent and child. Her sense of identification with her daughter was, from the start, so acute that her own role and Peggy's could seem interchangeable. 'For instance,' she writes, 'when she fell and bumped herself and I picked her up crying, I had only to pretend I had hurt myself or that something was wrong with me, and she would stop crying at once. I would kiss her better and then she would kiss me better, and that would be the end of the tears.'
She'd had no such luck, however, in hushing the protestations of the boy, Felix, who lacked the placidity and responsiveness of his baby sister. 'He would wake at about 5 a.m., and of course so did everyone else, which was particularly hard on his father, who had to travel long hours and work at the Arsenal.' But, even if Peggy possessed the sunnier nature, she could yell much louder than her brother. Indeed, such was the capacity of her infant lungs that family lore would later have it that, had she not danced at Covent Garden, she would surely have sung there. She was not especially impatient to walk, having developed a speedy and efficient way of hauling herself about by 'putting out one hand and swinging her body out after it'. Her prime motivation for movement seemed to be the fanatical pursuit of her elusive brother, to whom, by the time she was three, she had become a devoted slave. 'If he was playing with building toys or anything,' their mother was to write, 'and something was missing that he wanted, it was she who went up to the nursery, kneeling on every step as she went up, and coming down, bumpity-bump on her bottom.'
A more imposing Tudor-style staircase was a feature of the newly built three-bedroomed house in Waldeck Road, West London, to which the Hookham family soon moved. The genteel suburb of Ealing suited them well, since Mr Hookham had, now that the war was over, been dropped from his engineering job at the Arsenal and was able to find work a mere bus-ride away - with the American Oil Company, in Westminster. Like many a wife of the time, Mrs Hookham seems, in her memoir, unsure of the precise nature of her husband's work; 'but I do remember a time when he brought home lots of oil-burning signal lamps and dotted them about the house to test how long the oil took to burn out under different conditions.'
It was on the polished oak staircase of the house in Waldeck Road that Margot claims to have had an experience of flying. Most of us would have called it falling, since Peggy was propelled into mid-air, and landed, unhurt, rather lower down the stairs than she had started. But the child was so excited at finding herself airborne that she made every effort to launch herself into free-fall once again. Luckily the footwork for the take-off proved, technically, just that little bit too demanding.
A year later, Peggy took her first dancing class. Yet, young as she was, she can hardly have connected holding on to a wooden rail, and being told to turn her feet out, with the transcendental urge to defer gravity. It was enough that a girl of her staid background should learn to stand up straight. Apparently she had a way of hunching her shoulders, and of screwing up her eyes when reading or concentrating, that was less than ladylike. It is her father, we are told, whom history has to thank for having casually remarked that dancing might be of benefit to his daughter's deportment. That, at least, is what the press, over the years, was either fed, or would cook up. Margot herself was more ambivalent. In a 1973 radio interview with Esther Rantzen she would argue: 'That's the story but I think it's just a legend. I have no idea whether it's accurate or not because my parents, who are the people concerned, can't remember.' Mrs Hookham, in her version of events, seems to remember all too vividly. And the discrepancy is worth noting since it illustrates Margot's curious and often perverse relationship with the truth. We are back to the thorny subject of ambition, from which perceived vulgarity Margot was keen, all her life, to distance herself. Yet the impetus behind that very first lesson is crucial. Esther P, antzen, in the interview, presses Margot to acknowledge some early sign of an obsession with ballet: 'Can you remember yourself the moment when it first caught your imagination?' But Margot will not play. 'I don't think it caught my imagination.' Poor Rantzen struggles on. 'I think for so many little girls across the country there will be a moment when perhaps they've seen you...
Excerpted from Margot Fonteyn by MEREDITH DANEMAN Copyright © 2004 by Meredith Daneman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Meredith Daneman, a graduate of the Royal Ballet School and former member of the Australian Ballet Company, has published four novels.
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