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Sisters of Salome

Sisters of Salome

Toni Bentley
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Sisters of Salome
    Book Description:

    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 playSalomeand 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 Salomeis 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12725-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Colette’s Breast
    (pp. 1-16)

    The personal quest that led me to this book began years ago with a single image of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette’s left breast. I was eighteen when I discovered the French writer’s novels, and while interest quickly became obsession, I devoured as many of them as I could find in fast succession. I fell completely in love with this woman who seemed to speak the unspeakable about the pursuit of love, the pain of desire, and the tenderness that binds the two. Then I saw the photograph of my heroine that I would never forget (fig. I). She was posing in...

  5. Part I. Salome:: The Daughter of Iniquity

    • Chapter One The Wilde Story
      (pp. 19-26)

      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...

    • Chapter Two The Dance of the Seven Veils
      (pp. 27-32)

      Salome’s first scheduled public appearance in 1892 didn’t happen: she was banned. The first sister of Salome who longed to portray Wilde’s Oriental princess was none other than the most famous woman of her time, Sarah Bernhardt. She was fortyseven when she began rehearsing Wilde’s play in June, and while he did not write the play for her, he was certainly enthusiastic about the great actress taking the role.

      “What has age to do with acting?” he wrote to a friend. “The only person in the world who could act Salome is Sarah Bernhardt, that ‘serpent of old Nile,’ older...

    • Chapter Three The Salome Craze
      (pp. 33-46)

      When Salome made her dramatic entrance on the European stage in the first years of the twentieth century, middle-class women were largely invisible and silent in public as sexual beings—they were either at home tending their domestic dominion, bedridden with neurasthenia (the chronic-fatigue syndrome of the day), or just trying to breathe between corset bones. A few artistically inclined rebels who painted or wrote on sexual themes were generally dismissed by the male legion. While some notable women nurtured the beginnings of feminism as we understand the term today—trying to get women the right to vote, divorce, and...

  6. Part II. Maud Allan:: The Cult of the Clitoris

    • Chapter Four The Crime
      (pp. 49-57)

      Maud Allan, the Canadian dancer who ten years earlier had been the toast of London society, was on the witness stand in the Number 1 Courtroom of London’s Old Bailey. It was May 1918. Though she was the plaintiff in the libel suit, her accuser now had her on the defensive. Referring to the startling title of the article in his weekly political broadsheet,The Vigilante,Noel Pemberton-Billing, an Independent M.P., asked Maud whether she understood the termclitoris. She answered in the affirmative, and the courtroom tittered. Maud had incriminated herself. Wasn’t knowing the name of her own sexual...

    • Chapter Five The Vision
      (pp. 57-72)

      With attention, respect, and money as her priorities, Maud reflected on her options and concluded that a career as a concert pianist, despite her musical talents, would not satisfy her requirements. With an eye to being an opera diva, Maud decided to become a singer and pursued lessons with vigorous determination, studying with six teachers in the course of five years. Her inability to carry a tune soon put an end to this particular ambition. Classical music and opera, both arts with age-old traditions and numerous more-talented performers, had little room for ambitious newcomers. Dance, however, did.

      Maud was twenty-seven...

    • Chapter Six The Trial
      (pp. 72-84)

      The trouble began innocuously enough, with a small-print item inThe Timeson 10 February 1918 announcing two consecutive Sunday performances of Wilde’sSalometo take place on 7 and 14 April at London’s Prince of Wales’s Theatre. Though Maud at age forty-five seemed rather old to play the young seductress, she was still two years younger than Sarah Bernhardt had been when cast twenty-six years earlier. It must have been of some satisfaction to Maud that she would now play the same role, in the same city, in which her heroine had been banned. “She was the one woman...

  7. Part III. Mata Hari:: The Horizontal Agent

    • Chapter Seven Intoxication
      (pp. 87-89)

      The last year of World War I was not a good one for Salome. Across the English Channel in France another of her sisters had gone on trial, less than a year before Maud Allan. Her name was Mata Hari, and she, too, had been found guilty of treason. Though Maud lost her case, her image, and her respectability, she walked out of the courtroom a free woman, but Mata Hari, the most famous female spy of the twentieth century, did not. She was condemned to a death by firing squad and thus achieved the immortality that Maud Allan coveted....

    • Chapter Eight The Little Dutch Girl
      (pp. 90-95)

      You ask me if I would like to do silly things? Rather ten times than once! Just do whatever you want, for in a few weeks I’ll be your wife anyhow.”² Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was only eighteen when she wrote these flirtatious words to a man she had known only a few months. They suggested highly inappropriate activity for a well-brought-up nineteenth-century young lady. Her sexually adventurous spirit was already apparent, the embryo of the courtesan evident. Born on 7 August 1876, in a small rural town in the province of Friesland in northern Holland, to Adam Zelle and his...

    • Chapter Nine The Hindu Hoax
      (pp. 95-108)

      People were dancing in prewar Paris. The Belle Epoque was the age of risqué theater in dark alleys, legitimate cabarets-concerts, equestrian circuses, and packed houses at the Folies-Bergère and the Moulin Rouge, where gaiety reigned and the can-can had altered the perspective on pantaloons forever. Nightlife was real life, where entertainment and luxury were the key to the good life, whereas work was only for those whose circumstances were unfortunate enough to require it. Electricity was a novelty that forever altered the length of waking hours, and the American Loie Fuller, with her dances of colored veils, was crowned the...

    • Chapter Ten The Scapegoat
      (pp. 109-124)

      Only three short years after this abrupt departure from Berlin, Mata Hari, convicted of espionage against France, was to be found on death row in cell 12 of the notorious Paris prison of Saint-Lazare. Guarded against suicide by Sister Marie and Sister Léonide, Mata Hari spent her last days dressed in filthy prison frocks, furiously writing letters of appeal to the various officials who had condemned her and those who might save her. Like any self-respecting lady she also arranged with her maid, Anna Lintjens, for payment of her debts to her couturier. She hoped, to the very end, that...

    • Chapter Eleven The Legendary Backlash
      (pp. 124-128)

      Mata Hari’s usefulness to the war cause only increased with her execution. Her death was a victory for both French and German intelligence—the French had caught a German spy, and the Germans used her death as anti-French propaganda. Claiming her innocence, German intelligence called her “a Victim of War Madness” and, hypocritically, pounced upon her death as Allied hypocrisy. In 1930 an authorized German book on German spies during World War I stated that Mata Hari was “absolutely innocent. She was only a great paramour.”62There was no reason in 1930 to lie. Thus Mata Hari, in yet another...

  8. Part IV. Ida Rubinstein:: The Phallic Female

    • Chapter Twelve The Queen of the Nile
      (pp. 131-135)

      The year was 1909. A very distinguished member of the Salome sorority was about to make her Parisian stage debut. It was four years since Mata Hari had revealed her Javanese temple dancer at the Musée Guimet, and two since Maud Allan had performed her “Vision” at the Théâtre des Variétés. The vast Théâtre du Châtelet at the center of the Right Bank near the Seine was the site chosen for this particular unveiling. A sumptuous renovation revived this old theater to grand splendor with plush new seats, glimmering chandeliers, and an expanded orchestra pit. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with dancers...

    • Chapter Thirteen The Russian Salome
      (pp. 135-140)

      The young Lydiia Lvovna Rubinstein, who called herself Ida, was a romantic idealist, an appropriate response to her very privileged though sad start in life. She was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov on 21 September 1883 (old style),5though some sources list the year variously as 1885 or 1888. Her father, Lvov Rubinstein, was from an old Ashkinazim family that had amassed huge wealth from various commercial ventures and grain trade in the Ukraine. In marrying Ida’s mother, Ernestine, he linked himself to yet another fortune that derived from international financial interests as well as the lucrative railway...

    • Chapter Fourteen Diaghilev’s Dilettante
      (pp. 140-145)

      In the select audience for Ida’s high-class striptease was Serge Diaghilev. With his trademark streak of white hair, this dynamic man, heavyset, homosexual, highly intelligent, cultured, and of noble birth, embodied and defined for the twentieth century the termimpresario.His genius was to recognize genius in artists of all persuasions—painters, designers, dancers, choreographers, composers—and combine these talents into a single, unified vision. His was a difficult, jealous temperament, full of insecurity, enormous persuasion, magnetic charm, and massive ambition. In the early years of the century, he was the man who virtually single-handedly brought the beauty, innovation, and...

    • Chapter Fifteen The Male Martyr
      (pp. 145-154)

      While Ida was preparing to embark on a mammoth stage production that would publicly illustrate this remarkable reversal of both faith and gender, she was mirroring this ambiguous sexuality in her own bedroom. During her Parisian seasons with the Ballets Russes, she met the two people with whom she would initiate concurrent sexual affairs. Walter Guinness, an Englishman, was only three years older than Ida and fulfilled the role of consort to a Russian heiress. Handsome, dashing, and intelligent, Guinness was married with children, and, as heir to the British beer fortune, immensely rich. They began an affair so discreet...

    • Chapter Sixteen La Folie ∂’I∂a
      (pp. 154-160)

      Undaunted by the mixed reception ofSt. Sebastianand unrestricted by financial concerns, Ida proceeded for the next three decades to search out one forum after another in which to frame her image. She chose her roles from a distinguished pantheon of women—goddesses from mythology, queens from ancient history, nuns from medieval romance, courtesans from great literature—but none surpassed the magnificence ofCléopâtreandSchéhérazade.

      There was Helen of Troy inHélène de Sparte,and two more versions of Salome’s story: Wilde’s play with the text and head intact, and a danced version, where Ida appeared, precariously, on...

    • Chapter Seventeen Salvation
      (pp. 161-166)

      As her glory on the stage faded before her eyes, Ida looked up from the ashes of questionable honor and growing stage fright, and there she found God. Her interest in religion was not new, but her obsession with St. Sebastian in 1911 had stemmed more from his theatrical possibilities and his erotic mysticism than from his true spirituality. As she entered her sixth decade, the comfort and stability of a less tangible faith gradually came to supplant her need for theatrical display, and the last third of her life was devoted to the vast and invisible stage of God’s...

  9. Part V. Colette:: The Mental Hermaphrodite

    • Chapter Eighteen The Kiss
      (pp. 169-172)

      The Moulin Rouge, the most famous music hall in Belle Epoque Paris, was filled to the rafters on the evening of 3 January 1907. A well-distributed poster had recently announced a special addition to the regular program: a pantomime entitledLe Rêve ∂’Egypte(Egyptian dream). The stars were Colette Willy and the mysteriously named “Yssim.” There would be only ten performances, but everybody who was anybody was there for the first night. Among the elegant aristocrats were the marquis de Belbeuf and other aristocrats of the empire, members of the Jockey Club led by the Prince Murat, and various illustrious...

    • Chapter Nineteen Si∂o’s Masterpiece
      (pp. 172-174)

      The Scandal of the Moulin Rouge was not the first indiscretion of Colette’s long life, nor the last—and all related to her defiant acts of personal liberation. The seeds for this rebellion were sown when her freethinking mother, Sido, baptized her fourth child two months late. The neighbors were scandalized that this woman did not rush to protect her child’s soul from the devil, but the pagan Sido wanted to protect her beloved baby’s flesh from the cold January winter air.

      Later in her life Colette declared unequivocally that her mother was the most important person in her whole...

    • Chapter Twenty Willy’s Ghost
      (pp. 175-181)

      Mwilly was not huge, he was bulbous,” wrote Colette of her first husband—he was all curves at the edges, rounded shoulders and hips, with a soft face and drooping eyes standing on a neck the size of Scarlett O’Hara’s waist. “It has been said that he bore a marked resemblance to Edward VII,” wrote his wife. “I would say that, in fact, the likeness was to Queen Victoria.”10Despite this unattractive physique, Henri Gauthier-Villars—“Willy”—had considerable success with women: he was a dandy, importing his shirts from London and sporting a monocle and a full, well-curled mustache. Willy...

    • Chapter Twenty-One The Barrier of Light
      (pp. 182-190)

      Having lived Willy’s life for twelve years, Colette was ready to try a life of her own and, at the age of thirty-three, with a very public switch in sexual orientation, Colette began her descent into the music hall where the femme fatale resided. Colette’s lesbian foray and her newfound profession were intertwined experiments in a kind of veiled self-protection that would allow for a radical liberation of both her body and her mind. The exhibitionist would perform and the writer would watch.

      Colette’s sexual interest in women had begun long ago with her childhood crushes and schoolgirl trysts. Two...

    • Chapter Twenty-Two The Mature Se∂uctress
      (pp. 191-196)

      The object of Colette’s new passion was Baron Henry de Jouvenel des Ursins, an editor atLe Matin,the Parisian newspaper that hired Colette as a journalist at the end of 1910 following her success withThe Vagabond. The affair began with considerable drama in April of the following year during an evening of bohemian couple-swapping at a house party attended by Colette and Auguste Hériot, and Jouvenel and his current mistress, Isabelle de Comminges, known as “La Panthère.” A fire was ignited between the scandalous music-hall star and the ambitious, dynamic editor.

      By the end of May, Colette in...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 197-206)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-216)
  12. Index
    (pp. 217-223)