Monday, January 2, 2017

My knees felt like macaroni

‘Sat around again and filmed the ending of Juliet, where I had to execute sixteen fouettés six times from different angles - that makes ninety-six fouettés. Afterward my knees felt like macaroni.’ This is Zorina Gray, a forgotten Broadway and Hollywood legend born exactly a century ago today, writing in a diary she kept when only 20 years old but already a star.

Eva Brigitta Hartwig was born in Berlin on 2 January 1917 to a German father and Norwegian mother, both professional singers. Brought up in Kristiansund, 100km or so west of Trondheim in Norway, she debuted as a dancer at the Festiviteten, Norway’s oldest opera house in Haugesund. She moved to Berlin where she was trained to dance by Olga Preobrajenska and Nicholas Legat. At age 12, she was spotted by Max Reinhardt, who cast her in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tales of Hoffman, and then took her to London. A performance at the Gaiety Theatre won her an invitation to join the  Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1933; soon after, she adopted the stage name of Vera Zorina.

Léonide Massine, the company’s main choreographer, cast Zorina in lead roles, for ballets such as La Boutique Fantasque, Le Beau Danube and Les Presages. Despite being only 18, she also became involved intimately with Massine and his wife in a ménage à trois. She left the company in 1936 to star in a London production of On Your Toes. She came under the influence of the choreographer George Balanchine, who was beginning to write all her roles, and married him in 1938. By this time she was dividing her time between Broadway (I Married An Angel, Louisiana Purchase) and Hollywood (The Goldwyn Follies, On Your Toes).

Zorina divorced Balanchine in 1946, and married Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records. They had two sons. She tried to return to ballet but with limited success. In 1948, she took the lead role in the first American performance of Arthur Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and went on to repeat the same role many times. In 1954, she played in a Broadway revival of On Your Toes. She and Lieberson had an apartment in Manhattan, and a ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was, for some years, director of operatic productions in Santa Fe, and, in the 1970s, was also director of the Norwegian Opera. 
Lieberson died in 1977, and in 1991 Zorina married the harpsichordist Paul Wolfe. She died in 2003. A little further information is available from Wikipedia, or from various newspaper obituaries, such as The Guardian, The Independent, or The New York Times.

In 1986, the American publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out Vera Zorina’s only book, her autobiography, simply titled Zorina. I don’t believe it has ever been reprinted, but second-hand copies are readily available at Abebooks, some even signed. In it, Zorina refers to a diary: ‘If I had not found the proverbial trunk, which had been stored in dusty cellars and somehow survived nearly fifty years, I would not have believed what I read in the diaries I kept from 1934. First of all, they were all in German, which I thought I had ceased to speak and write long before 1938 - the last year I kept a detailed daily diary. Perhaps I used my Kindersprache as a form of code - after all, it was a language no one else spoke in the Ballet Russe. I wrote not only in my Kindersprache but very often in typical Berlin slang, which like all slang is untranslatable. I have left the entries in their simplistic, teenage form because it would be false to translate them otherwise.’ She then quotes liberally from those diaries - here are some extracts.

12 October 1936
‘In the evening at Positano I looked over to the Isola dei Galli, where I had spent my vacation the year before with Massine. It lay far in the distance - like a part of my life - such a beautiful place, like a rough, craggy diamond in the sea. It could have been - I tried not to think about it.

Our leisurely Italian sojourn was at times troubled, because I was anxiously awaiting news about On Your Toes.’

13 October 1936
‘Called London because I hadn’t heard a word from [my agent], which drove me to despair - but understood very little. Afternoon tea with Mrs. Frost, sister of Lord Grimstorp, who owns the Villa Cimbrone. She herself has a perilously situated villa, which is built against a cliff. When you stand on the balcony to admire the magnificent view, it is best to keep your eyes on the distance because below you is an absolute chasm!’

1 November 1936
‘Made the acquaintance of Igor Markevitch, who is slightly mad, and who reminds me of Kyra Nijinsky in temperament. What is even stranger is that he knows her and said that Kyra has long, blond curls, which I find crazy, and that she expects a child!’

15 January 1937
‘Rehearsal at 11. Read through the play again. Then Jack Donahue and I rehearsed, because he will play Morosine, my temperamental partner. Tried out the Zenobia ballet - not bad - he is very strong.’

17 January 1937
‘Rehearsal also today (Sunday) and buttermilkday. Love rehearsing the ballet. I very much hope Donahue will be good. Afterward went through the whole play - it’s beginning to get some shape.’

19 January 1937
‘First rehearsal on the stage of the Palace Theatre. All the chorus people sat in the audience - got my first “laughs” from the dialogue - it’s such fun. In the evening, saw the second act of Gisèle at Sadler’s Wells with Margot Fonteyn - very good, but not as good as Markova. Nijinska was there with Pat [Dolin]. Very sweet to me - also lots of fans from Covent Garden.’

20 January 1937
‘At 10, practiced the pas de deux for an hour with Donahue - went very well - then in the Gaiety Theatre all day. Everything goes so well I’m almost afraid, I have so much fun - tried on costumes.’

22 January 1937
‘Rehearsal at 11 - before that, looked at costumes - now tired but happy at home. I find Jack Whiting very, very nice and sympathetic. I know I always have to have something “romantic” in the theater and he is exactly right for the role. Jack Donahue is nice - but too nice - also right for Morosine, so I can play my scenes better. Today the blue foxes for my costume were chosen.’

24 January 1937
‘Buttermilkday - rehearsals only in the afternoon - everybody was wonderful to me. Mrs. Whiting and Wiman -  I would say almost too much praise. In the evening, Abarbanell came for dinner and we worked afterward together - then played Halma for hours.’

31 January 1937
‘Buttermilkday - slept badly. Had nightmares [English] before I went to sleep because of the show. Everybody expects and predicts such a success for me that it scares me. Otherwise, rehearsals at the Gaiety - Jack Donahue’s waistband broke in the middle of the adagio so that he stood there nearly naked among the howling chorus girls.’

1 February 1937
‘Raced around the whole day - in the morning, in the Gaiety right through the show. Then to Annello [ballet shoes] - then Vega [shoes] - then more dress costumes - then Scala Theatre - then Nathan’s [costumes], and then Palace rehearsals - have a very beautiful star dressing room next to the stage - my own dresser, telephone, etc. All my “dresses” are wonderful - especially the Schiaparelli evening dress and the costume with the blue fox! The ballet costumes absolutely sweet and the striptease girl with hair like Garbo - but still very choruslike à la “burlesque girl”! It was so exciting to be again in full makeup! Dear God, if I’m not a success - what then? Because I have everything, beautiful costumes, a role just made for me - and, in spite of all the running around, I’m not even tired!’

2 February 1937
‘First dress rehearsal. Went quite well - I personally was very dissatisfied - didn't act as well as I have - danced dreadfully badly - and anyhow it was so peculiar in the bedroom scene - had to kiss Jack Whiting, which I found so embarrassing - have no idea after all how to kiss on the stage.’

3 February 1937
‘It was very exciting this afternoon - the public was present and liked it a lot. They died of laughter over Olive Blackney, who is such a marvelous comedienne. All my scenes went very well until the change from the striptease girl into the ballet costume, but Zenobia went without a hitch, which gives me a lot of confidence. Wiman and Henson were so sweet to me - one can’t imagine it - Henson: “I am so happy to have worked with you - and always keep your head as small as it is now.” Received long, long letter from Louis Shurr with big prospects for Hollywood.’

4 February 1937
‘Again dress rehearsal - but went for myself only, so la-la - Douglas Fairbanks was there and Pat Dolin came later - but that didn’t help, either. I’m glad that the premiere is finally tomorrow - this tension is unbearable.’

5 February 1937
‘What a day - but first things first. Slept late - then played all the rumba records [apparently that was soothing!]. Mama and I went nearly mad from nerves. Then I went to church - truly, God was with me yesterday. Then to the doctor and hairdresser, then into the blue Schiap cape and to the theater. My dressing room was filled with flowers, telegrams, costumes, and a thousand things - Doris [my dresser] found everything so glamorous, which pleased me the most - then Toi-Toi’s for good luck, and suddenly I was on stage singing “Ochi chornye.” Everything went the way I hoped - every little thing. The success was enormous - people poured into my dressing room. I simply couldn’t speak - everything trembled in me. Violet Tree said she had seen Bernhardt, and even against that she thought I was wonderful - oh my! People whom I didn’t know congratulated me. In the Savoy Grill, big applause - then to Leslie Henson’s, more people. The most beautiful day of my life. My mamile and I sat holding each other by the hand like two children. Everything was really like a dream - so beautiful - (and more), My God, what an evening - flowers - people - congratulations - Wiman - Henson - Fairbanks - Cochran - Asher - hundreds of people, and I was honored at the Savoy Grill!!!’

6 February 1937
‘Today Saturday. The reviews are fabulous. All kinds of people call to congratulate - my bathtub is an ocean of flowers. Very good performance. A man came from Fox films and wants to make a test.’

7 February 1937
‘Sunday. Slept and slept. Wrote letters - read reviews - all good. Someone rang and asked me for an interview. “It doesn’t suit me very well today, but maybe tomorrow?” - that’s Zorina! Then I went to church, where I felt overwhelmed by happiness, joy, gratitude for all that God has given me.’

9 February 1937
‘Took photos the whole day in the theater until 4:30. In the evening, big party in the Café de Paris for Wiman and Lina - so sad that they had to leave already - but the party was divine. Wiman absolutely wants me to come to New York for him and a new show.’

16 August 1937
‘Mama has bought a horse! You would think we are rich as Croesus. She is in seventh heaven. The horse is a thoroughbred and sweet - rode him in the afternoon and Balanchine watched. In the evening George and I went to the recording session of Alfred Newman, and I became angry because George whispered in my car, “What awful music,” and then said to Newman, “Very good.” Saw the test for Romeo and Juliet - adagio was beautiful, but the costume for jazz section awful.’

28 August 1937
‘The whole day on the set - tried on clothes, shoes, sandals, ballet shoes, stockings, tights, etc. - then all we did was the balcony scene and the kiss between Romeo and Juliet. We were both so nervous that our lips trembled. Dinner with George. He showed me his techni-film - excellent. [Balanchine had his own camera and made his own film during our actual filming on the set.] Then we talked and talked - he is so dear.’

29 August 1937
‘Sunday. George fetched me at three to go to Goldwyn for one of those Sundays. In the evening Goldwyn screened Broadway Melody with Eleanor Powell, and I was so surprised when he got up at the end and said, “It has no warmth, no charm, and, Balanchine, I want you to do for Zorina one or two minutes real ballet because I believe in it now after seeing this” - finally, finally, after weeks Goldwyn has come around.’

31 August 1937
‘Sat around again and filmed the ending of Juliet, where I had to execute sixteen fouettés six times from different angles - that makes ninety-six fouettés. Afterward my knees felt like macaroni.’

1 September 1937
‘Shooting had to stop today because Bill Dollar has a rash and they are afraid I might catch it - no rehearsal. Had dinner with George in the Café Lamaze. Then we went to his place and somehow we had a quarrel because he told me about his girlfriends. Of course it was my fault, because I wanted to know; then everything became very dramatic and I never wanted to see him again. My rimmel [mascara] began to run and it burned terribly, and I went home, ate ice cream, and felt fat as a barrel.’

2 September 1937
‘George called as if nothing had happened - we should go and try on wigs. He came and was very sweet - I was still “dramatic.” But he told me a funny Goldwyn anecdote: Goldwyn was absolutely thrilled by Traviata. He kept congratulating our conductor, Al Newman, over and over again, and after endless explosions of joy he said to Newman, “Do me a favor, congratulate Eddie Powell on the orchestration!” Mr. Verdi would be so pleased.’

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