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Sisters of Salome

Sisters of Salome

by Toni Bentley

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As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, a short-lived but extraordinary cultural phenomenon spread throughout Europe and the United States-"Salomania." The term was coined when biblical bad girl Salome was resurrected from the Old Testament and reborn on the modern stage in Oscar Wilde's 1893 play Salome and in Richard Strauss's 1905 opera based on it.


As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, a short-lived but extraordinary cultural phenomenon spread throughout Europe and the United States-"Salomania." The term was coined when biblical bad girl Salome was resurrected from the Old Testament and reborn on the modern stage in Oscar Wilde's 1893 play Salome and in Richard Strauss's 1905 opera based on it. Salome quickly came to embody the turn-of-the-century concept of the femme fatale. She and the striptease Wilde created for her, "The Dance of the Seven Veils," soon captivated the popular imagination in performances on stages high and low, from the Metropolitan Opera to the Ziegfeld Follies.

This book details for the first time the Salomania craze and four remarkable women who personified Salome and performed her seductive dance: Maud Allan, a Canadian modern dancer; Mata Hari, a Dutch spy; Ida Rubinstein, a Russian heiress; and French novelist Colette. Toni Bentley masterfully weaves the stories of these women together, showing how each embraced the persona of the femme fatale and transformed the misogynist idea of a dangerously sexual woman into a form of personal liberation. Bentley explores how Salome became a pop icon in Europe and America, how the real women who played her influenced the beginnings of modern dance, and how her striptease became in the twentieth century an act of glamorous empowerment and unlikely feminism.

Sisters of Salome is a dramatic account of an ancient myth played out onstage and in real life, at the fascinating edge where sex and art, desire and decency, merge.

Author Biography: Toni Bentley is a former New York City Ballet dancer who is now an independent scholar and writer. Her previous books include Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal, Holding On to the Air (the autobiography of Suzanne Farrell), and Costumes by Karinska.

Editorial Reviews

This fascinating slice of popular culture will appeal to both social and dance historians.
Charles Rearick
No other historian has told the story of the femme fatale in nineteenth-century culture so well and so engagingly. Bentley brings four memorable women to life—women who seized the mythic role of Salome and used it creatively and powerfully.
[T]he personal stories of the four extraordinary women who embodied and embraced the freedom represented by Salome.
New York Times Book Review
A highbrow survey of what generally passes as a lowbrow art.
Publishers Weekly
Former NYC ballerina and independent scholar Toni Bentley offers a study of four famous women who created versions of the legendary femme fatale Salome (popularized by Oscar Wilde) in Sisters of Salome, a cultural study and the story of an obsession. Bentley explores the experiences of women who have tapped into the power of the nude female body, particularly four who found fame by portraying Salome: Maud Allen, Mata Hari, Ida Rubenstein and Colette. Bentley gives a sketch of each woman's life and what compelled them to dance their own versions of Salome, showing how she was "not only a misogynist, masochistic male fantasy, but a heterosexual, sadistic female fantasy as well." Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
New York Times
“Here is a book that will scare the pants off John Ashcroft. A highbrow survey of what generally passes as a lowbrow art. . . . The detail is as delicious, and as revealing, as a Dance of the Seven Veils.”—New York Times
Village Voice
“Bentley studies the figure of the fin-de-siècle femme fatale, in particular four women–Colette, Maud Allan, Mata Hari, and Ida Rubinstein–who chose the way of Salome. They danced exotically to wield their power, reinvent themselves, and, paradoxically, hide their sad pasts by becoming as nude as possible.”—Village Voice

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt


By Toni Bentley

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Toni Bentley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09039-0

Chapter One

The Wilde Story

From a few scant lines in the New Testament Gospels of Mark and Matthew - neither even call her by name - Salome's notorious reputation was born as the woman responsible for the death of John the Baptist, the prophet who preached the coming of Christ. This is a serious, albeit almost unbelievable, allegation against a nubile teenager - although Mark and Matthew do imply that Salome is a passive player manipulated by her angry mother. Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian of the ancient world, first named Salome as the daughter of Herodias in his histories, though he did not associate her with the death of the prophet. Historically, it is highly unlikely that a young girl would have held so much sway over such mighty matters, but Salome's value as an archetype of the castrating woman was born and still thrives today.

Salome's story is a fascinating blend of Roman gossip told in cautionary tales by Seneca, Livy Cicero, and Plutarch, New Testament Gospel, medieval legend, and Oriental Romanticism, all based on a dash of actual truth. As a creature of legend she has never been herself but always in bondage, serving men's ideas, desires, and fears about the erotic woman. She has been portrayed in virtually every style of art through the ages - Greek, Eastern, Byzantine, Gothic, and Baroque - and in every medium from illuminated manuscripts to miracle plays, from frescoes and mosaics to engravings and oils. During the Middle Ages she was an androgynous acrobat, during the Renaissance an exemplar of virgin beauty, and to clerics throughout the centuries, she demonstrated the evil that ensues from a woman who dances. Always defined by male sensibilities, Salome had yet to find her feet as the subject of her own life.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Salome went into artistic hibernation, perhaps preparing, phoenix-like, for her greatest entrance in history, at the turn of the twentieth century, when as a raging seductress, an inescapable siren, she left the holy man in the wings and finally took center stage for herself. It was none other than Oscar Wilde, in his 1893 play Salome, who gave this woman a voice and a dance, and she exalted in her freedom. The tale as told by Wilde - and further popularized by Richard Strauss in his opera that used the Wilde play as its libretto in 1905 - has become the definitive portrait of Salome to date.

The play begins one hot summer night two thousand years ago in Galilee. King Herod is hosting a banquet for his birthday, and with all the local notables and representatives of Rome in attendance, he is in a mood to celebrate. Herod has recently married his sister-in-law, Herodias, after imprisoning, and then executing, her husband, Herod Philip, who was also his own half-brother. Herod was now not only incestuously wed to his sister-in-law but was stepfather to his niece, Salome. Herodias is growing a bit shrill for his taste, but her teenage daughter, Salome, is a delight to behold.

Since Salome's father had vacated the underground cistern, its chains were employed holding down another illustrious prisoner. John the Baptist had been making quite a stir in the land by baptizing men and women and predicting the coming of the Messiah. While hundreds congregated at his baptismal waters, the Romans were suspicious of his message and his charismatic powers. Who was this "Jesus" of whom he spoke?

John the Baptist was also fond of condemning the marriage of Herod to Herodias as unlawful, preaching to the public of its iniquity and its bloody beginnings. Herodias, livid at being reminded of her crime, insisted that John be silenced, and so Herod had him imprisoned. But he would not execute the Baptist, as Herodias wished; he thought he might indeed be a prophet from God, and he dared not risk his soul to please his wife. And so, as John the Baptist howled the word of God from his cavernous jail, the birthday banquet proceeded.

Herod, drunk on wine, power, and pleasure, asks young Salome to dance for him. Bored with his demanding spouse, he longs for this Lolita to stir his loins. She refuses, and her mother applauds her decision. "You look too much upon my daughter," she berates Herod, seeing his lascivious eye. Herod insists and negotiates. He offers Salome magnificent rewards, even the mantle of the high priest and the veil of the sanctuary. When the teenager still refuses, trapped in his lust, he offers half of his kingdom, whatever she desires as payment. Salome now agrees to dance; she has a reward in mind.

Salome prepares. She removes the slippers from her dainty feet and is dressed in seven veils of seven hues. As she dances, she removes her veils, one by one, from her face, from her shoulders, then her waist, her legs, her breasts, and finally, in the last shudders of her hypnotic display, she loses the last veil revealing all and sealing her deal.

Herod, thrilled with her dance, asks what her reward will be and the princess stills the air with her request - "I want the head of John the Baptist on a silver charger!"

Herod is horrified. He begs her to accept any number of other beautiful and rare things: topazes pink as "the eyes of a wood-pigeon," opals that "make sad men's minds," onyxes like the "eyeballs of a dead woman," and one hundred white peacocks with gilded beaks. "I will give thee all that is mine, save only the life of one man." Encouraged now by her mother, Salome is adamant. But why does the young princess want John the Baptist dead?

Earlier that evening, Salome had heard the haunting voice of the Baptist crying in the night air and, intrigued, demanded to see the body of the plaintive voice. Upon seeing him, she is blinded by love. John abhors her. "I will not have her look at me.... Back! Daughter of Babylon! Come not near the chosen of the Lord."

But the princess of Judea has fallen in love and yearns for the holy man as only a virgin could. Her lusts are three - his body, his hair, his mouth - and each, in turn, is reviled by its inspiration. But obsession is a one-way dialogue, and Salome continues to voice her desperate longing. "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth," she begs. "Never! ... Daughter of Sodom! Never!" replies the original unavailable man.

Realizing her utter rejection, she is filled with pain and the desire for revenge that is its natural balm. The ability to execute that revenge is acquired later that evening during her dance for Herod, wherein she witnesses the power of her own beauty over a king. In deciding to use this power she becomes a woman.

Herod, in attempting to divert Salome's request, explains to her, "He is a holy man. He is a man who has seen God." When this appeal to the sacred fails, he tries the profane. "The head of a man that is cut from his body is ill to look upon, is it not?" Salome thinks not. After all, she craves that man; she wants his head.

Untempted by material or spiritual wealth, Salome remains steadfast. Her obsession is about possession at the expense of the possessed itself. Undone by his own oath, King Herod is rendered powerless, and John's severed head is produced on a bloody platter. Before her trophy, slave of her unrequited adoration, Salome delivers a magnificent ode of self-referential love: "Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire.... The mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death."

In a lurid gesture of necrophilia she kisses the mouth of the Baptist's disembodied head. It is their first - and final - kiss. She comments on "a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? ... Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love."

Her victory is bittersweet indeed. Herod, revolted by Salome's perversion, tells Herodias, "She is monstrous, thy daughter.... In truth what she has done is a great crime. I am sure that it is a crime against some unknown God." In the last line of the play he cries, "Kill that woman!"

Salome meets her own bloody demise beneath the shields of Herod's guards.

Wilde, writing in the early 1890s, was a medium for the imagination and fears of the turn-of-the-century male psyche, all the more fascinating by his being the most famous, and persecuted, homosexual of his day. Wilde was not, however, writing in a vacuum. Salome was being examined in the late nineteenth century by a number of other notable artists, but before Wilde, they were all heterosexual and Salome became their favorite femme fatale. This fictional female, whose erotic allure leads men into danger, destruction, and even death, was created by the male masochistic mind, resolving his contradictory desire for sexual connection and his even deeper fear of castration and annihilation.

Fears about the sexual woman were especially prevalent in both Europe and America during the late 1800s as a "medical" preoccupation with the virus of female insatiability gathered momentum. A new breed of experts, the sexologists, began defining and labeling their subject, and suddenly "nymphomaniacs" were seen on every street corner in search of erections along with other aberrant women: the "masturbator," the "lesbian," and the masculine "androgyne." The unmarried "odd woman" was considered such a serious threat that one journalist suggested maintaining a social balance by rounding up single women and shipping them off to the colonies.

The psychological climate in France during the late nineteenth century was rife with insecurity, fertile ground for Salome's insurrection. The devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the divisive turmoil of the Dreyfus affair filled political life with confusion, shame, and loss. The rise of industrialization challenged the individual's place in the world, while both rampant venereal disease and the legalization of divorce in 1884 left women vulnerable as scapegoats. As issues of women's rights edged forward, so did male anxiety. The French diarist Edmond de Goncourt recorded an image of a "vagina dentata" that had terrorized his sleep: "I dreamt last night that I was at a party, in white tie. At that party, I saw a woman come in, and recognized her as an actress in a boulevard theatre, but without being able to put a name to her face. She was draped in a scarf, and I noticed only that she was completely naked when she hopped on the table.... Then she started to dance, and while she was dancing took steps that showed her private parts armed with the most terrible jaws one could imagine, opening and closing, exposing a set of teeth."

However women were viewed, there remained a problem: both the highly sexed woman and the celibate woman might seek independence. This dilemma was synthesized in Salome, the oversexed virgin. With her nineteenth-century incarnation, the current gender debate came together in a single contradictory figure of icy allure - and sure death.

By the 1870s Salome was resurrected in an unprecedented glory of paint, poetry, and prose. This return to renown is inseparable from the prevailing passion for the Orient in late nineteenth-century Europe. Orientalism was the raging fashion in books, paintings, furnishings, and females. To Western minds, the East was ruled not by Christian morality and the Ten Commandments but by sun, sensuality, and opium. There were no "thou shalt nots" in the Sahara or the seraglio, only desires imagined and fulfilled and then preserved in a state of melancholy loss. The veiled woman stood at the center of this world of ageless pyramids - and Salome would emerge as her paramount personification, her seven veils echoing her mystery, for behind them lay the world of sex - transcendent, rapturous, mind-bending sex.

Gustave Flaubert actually went east in 1850 to research his Oriental woman and found her in the form of Kutchuk Hanem, a gypsy entertainer who delighted him with her "Bee" dance, a striptease. She surfaced as the heroine of his novel Salammbo, and as the Queen of Sheba in The Temptation of St. Anthony, where she states unequivocally, "I am not a woman, I am a world." In the detailed, sensual evocation of her dance in his 1877 short story about Salome entitled "Herodias," Flaubert's dancer would be the muse for a whole generation of writers and painters, Wilde among them. "Opening wide her legs, without bending her knees, she bowed so low that her chin brushed the floor; and the nomads accustomed to abstinence, the Roman soldiers skilled in debauchery, the avaricious publicans, the old priests soured with controversy, all with flaring nostrils shivered with lust."

The previous year, at the Paris Salon, Gustave Moreau, a middle-aged French painter, exhibited two startling images of Salome that took Paris by storm and drew over a half million spectators (fig. 3). L'Apparition depicted a semi-naked, bejeweled, and mystical Salome, a svelte dancer posing proudly in the center of a mammoth enchanted religious edifice. John the Baptist's head, levitating before her gaze, drips golden blood, a halo of sexual radioactivity.

Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Karl Joris Huysmans's 1884 novel Against the Grain, is obsessed with Moreau's Salome and stands mesmerized for hours before her image.

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, - a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

These fathers of Salome - Flaubert, Moreau, and Huysmans - demonstrated in their real lives a consistent and paradoxical pattern with women. While often indulging in sex with prostitutes - Flaubert, on occasion, liked to have his male friends watch his exploits - they never married and remained curiously faithful only to their mothers. Is this coincidental? Or is it indicative of men who needed the fatal woman and so created her?

Flaubert, after the death of his father and sister, lived with his mother until her death. Moreau maintained a mysterious twenty-five-year relationship with a woman named Adelaide-Alexandrine, who married someone else during their liaison with his approval.


Excerpted from SISTERS OF SALOME by Toni Bentley Copyright © 2002 by Toni Bentley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Toni Bentley danced with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for ten years. Her books include Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal, Holding On to the Air, Costumes by Karinska, and The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir.

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