In April 1944, Ballet Theatre, then America’s best-known classical dance troupe, premiered a new work by one of its dancers, a 25-year-old from New Jersey named Jerome Robbins. A lively vignette about three sailors on shore leave who compete to pick up a girl, Fancy Free was unlike anything the company had previously performed. Accompanied not by the romantic music of Tchaikovsky but by a jazzy score commissioned from a promising young conductor named Leonard Bernstein, it made use of popular dance steps to tell a story of contemporary life. At a time when most Americans assumed that ballet meant women in tutus, Fancy Free looked more like Top Hat than Swan Lake, and the opening-night audience responded by demanding 22 curtain calls. Eight months later, Robbins and Bernstein teamed up with Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write a musical inspired by the Robbins ballet. On the Town, a wartime tale of three sailors on a 24-hour pass who go looking for love in New York, was even more successful, running on Broadway for 462 performances and turning its youthful creators into celebrities.
By the time of his death in 1998, Robbins was generally regarded as the foremost American-born ballet choreographer, the maker of such modern masterpieces as The Cage (1951, music by Stravinsky), Afternoon of a Faun (1953, music by Debussy), and Dances at a Gathering (1969, music by Chopin). Yet he never cut his ties to commercial theater, establishing himself as Broadway’s top director-choreographer with West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). Like Bernstein, with whom he continued to collaborate, he worked in both classical and popular art forms with equal success.
But while Bernstein basked happily in the spotlight of fame, Robbins was far less at ease there. “Two weeks ago, I was just another dancer,” he told a reporter after the premiere of Fancy Free. “Now I’m supposed to be somebody, and I can’t get used to it.” One reason for his discomfort was that, as he explained to Arthur Laurents, with whom he collaborated on Gypsy and West Side Story, “the thing I’ve tried to avoid…is to talk about career, work, etc., and just let the pieces say it for me.” He believed, as did George Balanchine, his mentor, that discussing the “meanings” of his dances would interfere with the ability of viewers to respond fully to what they were seeing.
Robbins’s desire for discretion was not merely an aesthetic decision. He also had secrets to keep, the biggest of which was his homosexuality. Moreover, he was just as reluctant to discuss the fact that when subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 to discuss his Communist past, he had “named names” of eight other party members, reportedly telling friends that HUAC had blackmailed him into cooperating by threatening to reveal that he was gay.
Perhaps as a result, he felt a near-compulsive need to explore in writing the complexities of his personality. When Amanda Vaill went to work on Somewhere, her superb 2006 biography of Robbins, she discovered that he had amassed a huge archive of personal and professional papers that he had left to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Now she has edited a collection of his writings to which she has given the title Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawing, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir.1 Impeccably edited and designed with unostentatious elegance, Jerome Robbins, by Himself is something not far removed from Robbins’s never-finished autobiography, a richly involving self-portrait of one of the most characteristic American artists of the 20th century.
The problem of Robbins’s sexuality runs throughout Jerome Robbins, by Himself. What makes the word “problem” appropriate is that Robbins, like Bernstein, was primarily but by no means exclusively homosexual. While he never married, he had several serious involvements with women, going so far in 1951 as to announce his engagement to the ballerina-actress Nora Kaye.
It is clear from reading Jerome Robbins, by Himself that all things being equal, Robbins would have preferred to lead a heterosexual life. From childhood onward, his family had pushed him in that direction, and his diaries reveal that he was initially uncomfortable with his sexual urges, which he regarded as “guilty and bad.” Moreover, he knew that to live a more or less openly homosexual life would have made it harder for him to realize his professional ambitions. In the 1940s and for long afterward, classical dance was widely regarded in America as effeminate, so much so that Gene Kelly made a point of hosting a 1958 TV special called Dancing: A Man’s Game, in which he and Edward Villella, one of the stars of the New York City Ballet, appeared with such sports idols as Mickey Mantle and Sugar Ray Robinson in order to show that dancers and athletes had much in common—including their masculinity.
Robbins presumably shared Kelly’s concerns about the popular image of dancers, in part because Fancy Free and On the Town (in whose 1949 film version Kelly would star) had opened the door to artistic opportunities he had never before envisioned. While he intended to continue making ballets, he wanted them to be distinctively American in character, unlike the Russian-influenced classical dances in which he had performed with Ballet Theatre. As he explained in a New York Times article he wrote in 1945, Robbins’s goal was to turn ballet into “a people’s entertainment” that appealed to “a new audience who cared less for champagne out of a ballet slipper than for a good cold beer between ballets.” To win that kind of acceptance, Robbins knew that he would have to keep his sexuality under wraps. Yet he was irresistibly drawn to men, and after he became involved with Montgomery Clift, who was himself on the verge of becoming a (closeted) movie star, he decided that he had no alternative but to keep his private life strictly off-limits to journalists.
If anything, Robbins had even more equivocal feelings about his Jewishness. Born Gershon Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918, he was the son of a Russian émigré who spoke with a heavy accent and wanted the boy to follow him into the family business (Harry Rabinowitz was a corset manufacturer). Longing for acceptance by his WASP peers, Robbins was ashamed of the fact that his father, for all his assimilationist aspirations, was still as unmistakably Jewish as the people of the shtetl in which he had grown up:
I didn’t like my father—I didn’t like his accent….I didn’t like that he seemed drenched in some murky, foul, unclean, unkempt, mysterious filth and dirt which the whole of the Judaism, as it was practiced, seemed to be.
Robbins’s self-hatred grew more pronounced when he joined Ballet Theatre. Short, dark, and thin, he had always been “filled with self doubts & complexes” about his “homeliness & physical unattractiveness,” and the fact that he was now surrounded by conventionally handsome male dancers who aspired to the 19th-century elegance of the danseur noble made him ultra-sensitive about his appearance. “The feeling of being a fake (Jewish),” he recalled in 1976, “prevented me from ever achieving the relaxed gentlemanly attitude.” Instead, he decided to make ballets of his own in which he could shake off “that fake ‘niceness’ I disliked about ballet” and be himself—or, rather, a heterosexual, non-Jewish version of himself.
Ironically, it was the time that Robbins spent dancing at Tamiment, the Jewish adult summer camp where he first began to find his way into the raffish world of Broadway, that helped him cultivate this new artistic identity. Not only did he make dances set to such popular songs as “Strange Fruit” and Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche,” but he also worked closely with Imogene Coca, a dancer-comedienne from whom, he said, he “learned so much of the art of comedy.” Robbins would continue to draw on the lessons he learned from her, becoming one of the first ballet choreographers whose dances were charged with a distinctively American sense of humor, a quality that came no less to the fore in his Broadway work.
Nevertheless, Robbins was what he was, so much so that he escaped serving in World War II by telling his draft board that he was homosexual, thereby qualifying for an automatic exemption from the draft. And while he went out of his way to steer clear of explicitly Jewish subject matter in his dances, he found it difficult to ignore his Jewishness, thus planting a seed that in time would bear astonishingly profitable fruit.
Robbins was also, as his 1945 New York Times piece implies, politically conscious, enough so to have joined the Communist Party for a short time. He later claimed to have been attracted by the party’s support for minority rights and opposition to anti-Semitism, and he was presumably no less excited by the Popular Front–era cultural sensibility that had previously led Aaron Copland, another Party member, to incorporate elements of American popular music and dance into his own compositions. But Robbins seems to have viewed party discipline as a distraction from his professional ambitions, and in due course he let his Communist ties lapse.
When Ed Sullivan, then a prominent Broadway newspaper columnist, wrote a piece in 1951 suggesting that HUAC should investigate Robbins’s Communist past, the resulting uproar pressed all of the choreographer’s psychic buttons. By then he was established as an artist of importance, and he believed—not unreasonably—that failure to cooperate with the committee would have a devastating effect on his career. As he later wrote in a journal entry:
It was my homosexuality I was afraid would be exposed. It was my once having been a Communist that I was afraid would be exposed…the façade of Jerry Robbins would be cracked open, and behind it everyone would finally see Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz.
Robbins thus agreed to testify before HUAC, identifying eight people whom he knew to have been involved with the Communist Party. He would always be obsessed with his testimony, eventually writing a never-performed autobiographical theater work called The Poppa Piece (excerpts of which are included in Jerome Robbins, by Himself), in which he reenacted the hearing, portraying his father as a ghostly background presence who criticizes him for having changed his name and, in essence, renounced his Jewishness: “He plays at passing.…He stopped [being Jewish], and turned his back on us.”
But Robbins never discussed his HUAC testimony publicly, and it was not for another decade that he managed to come to terms with his Jewishness by making Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that seeks to fuse a sentimentalized but nonetheless artistically serious portrayal of shtetl life and customs with the assimilationist dream of Jewish acceptance into American culture that would be central to Robbins’s own creative life. Significantly, he stopped working on Broadway after Fiddler, thereafter devoting the bulk of his creative energies to the making of ballets. It would not be for another quarter-century that he returned there to direct what was to be his final Broadway show, a retrospective of his theatrical dances called Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in which Fiddler is prominently represented.
Despite his decision to abandon Broadway during his middle years, Robbins never felt that his work in commercial theater was in any way unworthy of his artistry. As he explained in a 1951 letter to the ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq:
I don’t want to do only ballets and work with ballet companies. I like shows when I get one to do, and [it] always gives me a much better perspective on ballets when I do do them.
In this respect he was fundamentally different in attitude from Leonard Bernstein. Suffering as he did from what Stephen Sondheim called “a bad case of importantitis,” which ultimately led him to believe that Broadway musicals were in some way beneath him, Bernstein squandered his creative energies on such pretentious pieces of musical costume jewelry as the “Kaddish” Symphony (1963, rev. 1977) and Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers (1971). In the end, Bernstein dried up almost completely, longing to make “major” artistic statements—he actually dreamed of writing a Holocaust opera—but incapable of producing so much as a single memorable song.
Not so Robbins, who withdrew from Broadway mainly because George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, with which he was closely associated from 1948 until his death, offered him the opportunity to work on dance projects of his own choosing at his own pace and under near-ideal circumstances. After Fiddler, Robbins had nothing more to say as a Broadway choreographer—nor did he have anything to prove, with Fiddler becoming the most successful of all Broadway musicals up to that point—whereas in ballet, his most productive years were ahead of him.
While the last section of Jerome Robbins, by Himself is largely devoted to the years of his ascendancy as a classical choreographer, it also contains a shrewd appraisal of the misguided ambitions of Bernstein, who had asked him to “show-doctor” 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), his last attempt to write a Broadway show, which closed after seven performances. Though brutal and not entirely fair, it is nonetheless an honest attempt to sum up what caused Bernstein the composer to go astray:
Lennie never learns: he f—s around with Christ, God, and his country, forgetting his best work came out of looking warmly at life around him—On the Town, Wonderful Town—He sees himself a Sage, Prophet, Einstein—& all gets stuffed into…LARGE & IMPORTANT pieces. They come out hollow, sentimental.
To be sure, Robbins himself often fell victim to “importantitis,” but it is clear from reading Jerome Robbins, by Himself that he never made the fatal mistake of looking down on the popular side of his art. In that regard—if no other—he reconciled his divided self with relative ease. He knew that he was equally gifted in popular and classical art, and he rejoiced in working in both spheres. Indeed, that bifurcation, and his acceptance of it, was part and parcel of what made him so quintessentially American an artist. Unlike Bernstein, he was secure in the knowledge that in the end, there are only two kinds of art: good and bad.
1 Knopf, 430 pages