René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life

  • Judith Chazin-Bennahum
  • Oxford University Press
  • 304 pp.

A revealing biography provides a fascinating look at a major ― but long overlooked ― figure in the dance world.

Reviewed by Nancy Reynolds

René Blum is a significant figure in dance history, but aside from his contribution to the ballet, which lasted only a few years (roughly 1931-40), little has generally been known about his long, highly public, and very active life in the arts in Paris and Monte Carlo. This situation has now been rectified by the appearance of a splendid new biography by Judith Chazin-Bennahum. It is crammed with detail, full of generous quotations from his and others’ writings, and buttressed by excerpts from myriad documents pertaining to financial and administrative matters.

One could hardly imagine an author more suited to her task: a dance historian specializing in French subjects; a former ballet dancer, and later the director of the theater department of the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque; and an author of several books. Chazin-Bennahum is also of Jewish descent, surely an asset when writing of a French Jew residing in pre-World War II Paris whose life ended at Auschwitz.

Who was this man, who claimed to have continued the legacy of Diaghilev, and whose brother Léon was the first Jew and the first Socialist to become prime minister of France (in 1936)?

René Blum, one of five brothers, was born in 1878 into a Jewish merchant family. His mother kept a kosher kitchen; his father had a successful business selling lace and ribbons. Although assimilationists, they were all touched by the Dreyfus affair, which exposed a strong strain of anti-Semitism within French society.

Léon and René began their careers as writers and editors for the art and literary periodicals La Revue Blanche and Gil Blas. Léon drifted into politics, while René, a true polymath, published articles on theater, fine arts, decorative arts, music, film, new mechanical printing processes, stamps, copyright and more. He was very much a man about town and knew everybody, including Marcel Proust, on whose behalf he persuaded the publisher Grasset to issue Swann’s Way after four other publishers had turned it down. Chazin-Bennahum quotes from an extraordinary letter Proust wrote to Blum, in which the world’s most renowned literary hypochondriac analyzes his masterpiece and the role of the subconscious to riveting effect.

In 1924 Blum was appointed director of theater in Monte Carlo, the scene of lively arts activity and the winter/spring residence of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Over the years, Blum produced more than 100 theater pieces, including plays by Bernard Shaw and Marcel Pagnol (as listed in an invaluable appendix). He also became intoxicated with dance. When Diaghilev died in 1929, Blum hired his ballet master and some of his dancers with the intent of forming a new company in the image of the old, following the model of collaboration among composers, designers, choreographers and dancers that characterized Diaghilev’s troupe. This was Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, which presented its first season in 1932.

Early on, however, Blum acquired as a partner the unscrupulous presenter known as Col. de Basil, who gradually took over the company and renamed it Les Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. In 1936, Blum assembled another troupe, also called Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, which later also added “Russes” to its name. Together, these two Ballets Russes, which toured widely in America and Europe starting in the mid-1930s, introduced “Russian” ballet to America, where it took firm root. By 1937, however, despite artistic success, Blum was running out of money.

The final quarter of the book has all the suspense of a detective story. It traces Blum’s decline, blow by blow, through letters, telegrams and reports of meetings, stock swaps and collapsing deals. In the end, he sold his second company to Americans, probably out of financial desperation as well as the realization that Europe would soon be at war. Once again, he was marginalized.

In March 1940, when the Germans invaded France, Blum was traveling with this company in America and could have stayed in the States during the war. But he chose to return to Paris, with drastic consequences. He did so perhaps because his family was there; perhaps because his brother Léon was in a French prison awaiting trial for treason; perhaps because he was profoundly French at heart. Required to wear a yellow star, he was yet able to remain active for a short time before being picked up by the Nazis in 1941.

The last chapter, on Blum’s final days, is almost unbearable to read. Astoundingly, two inmates of one of the camps where Blum was held (known to be the last stop before Auschwitz) survived to write about him as a prisoner. Amidst all the gruesome details given, it is enough to know that the daily food ration was a single piece of bread and a water-based “soup.” There is also an infinitely touching story of a child in the camp who had been given a cookie. Starving like the others, he had nibbled it around the edges but was saving the rest to give to the mother he would doubtless never see again.

For all the book’s revelations, one might wish for more attention to Blum’s personal life.  True, there are many excerpts from his impassioned letters to the actress Josette France, the love of his life, who bore him a child but soon abandoned him for others. (Despite her seeming indifference, however, they were in correspondence until the end, and she saved his letters.) Blum never married, and his references to warm family life with his brothers, cousins and aunts, or to his son, whom he raised with Josette’s mother, are not elaborated on. There are intriguing hints that he was particularly close to his brother Léon.

For dance aficionados the book is a treasure house of information about life inside a ballet company from both artistic and financial points of view. The author deftly characterizes the aesthetic points of departure of the important choreographers of the day — Massine, Fokine, Nijinska, Balanchine — all of whom were employed by Blum. She describes a number of their ballets, many of which have not been performed in 80 years and are, to all intents and purposes, lost. On the business side, she cites countless fascinating documents that, taken together, serve to explain how such a cultured, artistic, sympathetic and dedicated man as Blum could lose control of two ballet companies in one lifetime. This happened partly because the devaluation of the franc destroyed his finances, partly because of the unstable situation in Europe, but also partly ― and fatally, alas ― because he was, as he himself once said, “too nice.”

Despite Chazin-Bennahum’s tireless digging, some mysteries remain. A major open question in dance history is why Balanchine left Blum’s original company after just one year. Was he fired to make way for the more famous Massine? Did he resign in a huff when Massine was hired? Did dislike of Col. de Basil motivate his departure? Here and elsewhere we would give our eye teeth to have access to the manuscript of Blum’s autobiography, Souvenir sur la Danse, the publication of which was announced in 1939 but never occurred. No doubt due to conditions of war, the manuscript has disappeared.

Even without it, this book is a wonder.

Nancy Reynolds, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, is director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation and the author of several books, including No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century and Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet.

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