Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio play button
0:00
0:00

Martha Graham

When Dance Became Modern

Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio play button
0:00
0:00
A major biography—the first in three decades—of one of the most important artistic forces of the twentieth century, the legendary American dancer and choreographer who upended dance, propelling the art form into the modern age, and whose profound and pioneering influence is still being felt today.

Time magazine called her “the Dancer of the Century.” Her technique, used by dance companies throughout the world, became the first long-lasting alternative to the idiom of classical ballet. Her pioneering movements—powerful, dynamic, jagged, edgy, forthright—combined with her distinctive system of training, were the epitome of American modernism, performance as art. Her work continued to astonish and inspire for more than sixty years as she choreographed more than 180 works.

At the heart of Graham’s work: movement that could express inner feeling.

Neil Baldwin, author of admired biographies of Man Ray (“Truly definitive . . . absolutely fascinating” —Patricia Bosworth) and Thomas Edison (“Absorbing, gripping, a major contribution to our understanding of a remarkable man and a remarkable era” —Robert Caro), gives us the artist and performer, the dance monument who led a cult of dance worshippers as well as the woman herself in all of her complexity.

Here is Graham, from her nineteenth-century (born in 1894) Allegheny, Pennsylvania, childhood, to becoming the star of the Denishawn exotic ballets, and in 1926, at age thirty-two, founding her own company (now the longest-running dance company in America).  

Baldwin writes of how the company flourished during the artistic explosion of New York City’s midcentury cultural scene; of Erick Hawkins, in 1936, fresh from Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, a handsome Midwesterner fourteen years her junior, becoming Graham’s muse, lover, and eventual spouse. Graham, inspiring the next generation of dancers, choreographers, and teachers, among them: Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.

Baldwin tells the story of this large, fiercely lived life, a life beset by conflict, competition, and loneliness—filled with fire and inspiration, drive, passion, dedication, and sacrifice in work and in dance creation.

“Rarely has a biographer stretched our knowledge of Martha Graham’s life and times as much as Neil Baldwin. . . . For anyone hungry to read about Graham and her world . . . this book will be challenging and satisfying.” —Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine

“Baldwin’s fresh approach looks to the intellectual and philosophical ideas that fill the pages of Graham’s choreographic notebooks alongside newly compiled primary source materials. . . . Documents from many of Graham’s dancers and collaborators give new dimension to her creative process. . . . [T]his book [is] an important read for anyone interested in 20th century arts in the United States. . . . The book’s strength lies in Baldwin’s engaging writing, source material, and scope. . . . Critic John Martin once said, ‘Martha Graham does the unforgivable thing for a dancer to do—she makes you think.’ Baldwin does the same for his readers, stretching us beyond purely dance history into multi-faceted evidence that much of what made Graham Graham—was her lifetime of intellectual curiosity and her search for artistic truth.”  —Laura Pettibone Wright, Journal of Dance Education

“Mr. Baldwin’s research is rigorous, his prose eloquent and muscular. . . . Here the ‘Picasso of dance’ springs—and lunges, and twirls—to life again, in all her fury and glory.” —Hamilton Cain, The Wall Street Journal

“Just as she determined every element of her revolutionary modern-dance performances, Martha Graham hoped to control her life story by destroying letters and other materials, but seasoned biographer Baldwin, an emeritus professor of theater and dance, mined a trove of archival treasures to construct this enlightening, engrossing, and richly illustrated portrait. . . . Vividly anchoring Graham and her singular achievements to the larger dance world, Baldwin profiles her numerous collaborators, beginning with composer Louis Horst, her most significant accompanist in art and life. Writing with dynamic clarity and fluid empathy, Baldwin details the creation of Graham’s profound and trailblazing works, parsing the inspiration she found in the ancient Greeks, the pueblo dances of the Southwest, and literature, and elucidating her ‘gift for ferocity,’ ‘fanatical energy,’ and the stunning catharsis of her demanding choreography with its ’economy of gesture’ and ‘intensity and integrity of mood.’ . . .  By bringing down the curtain in this vital and defining biography as Graham faces age’s first cruel salvo, Baldwin keeps the spotlight on her soulful, arresting, and indelible masterpieces, and rightly so.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)

“Mesmerizing. . . . The trailblazing Graham seemingly sculpted modern dance out of thin air, creating indelible works like Heretic, Lamentation, and Primitive Mysteries, always looking to the future. Provocative and passionate as the dynamo herself, this richly detailed and insightful page-turner will delight dance aficionados.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Neil Baldwin’s majestic biography of Martha Graham comes at a time in these comic book days when our souls need to be inspired by the austere passion of this American pioneer, this fanatical ‘prophetess’, whose dances unleashed primitive sacred energies in the earth and created a new vocabulary for the human body. Baldwin’s meticulously researched, immensely readable biography puts Graham shoulder to shoulder with those other avatars of the Modern, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gertrude Stein, who created frontiers that still demand exploration.” —John Guare  
 
“Comprehensive and engaging . . . Baldwin includes detailed descriptions of specific recitals, Graham’s jersey-fabric dance wear, the lives of her dance colleagues (Ruth St. Denis; Ted Shawn; Lincoln Kirstein) and artists of the time (sculptor Isamu Noguchi; composer Aaron Copland). Side trips into Graham’s sometimes-complicated personal life broaden the book’s appeal.” —Kirkus
 
“Neil Baldwin’s definitive biography of pioneering dancer Martha Graham is a compelling and brilliant study of a complicated, dedicated woman who gave everything she had to modern dance.  Baldwin reminds us what a modernist Graham was: she brought dance directly from the domination of ballet into a modern American idiom.  Baldwin brings his incisive knowledge of the stars in the panoply of modernism—from Mabel Dodge Luhan  to Lincoln Kirstein—to a dramatic narrative of Graham’s development and success.  Just as Graham made the many parts of a modern dance piece, from music to costumes, and, of course, her own brilliant vison for the piece, and performance—work together, so Neil Baldwin brings together all the elements of Graham’s colorful life, writing with wit, verve, critical discernment, and a powerful lyricism.  I greatly enjoyed this book and learned a lot.” —Mary Dearborn
1

Pittsburgh

The serried ranks of the glacier-scarred Appalachian Mountain Divide rise up, a broad, thickly wooded and granite-faced north-south fault line of ridges penetrated by the Tuscarora, Kittatinny, Blue Mountain, and Lehigh tunnels, long stretches of darkness breaking open into early-spring light diffused upon “the soft chain of hills . . . their shoulders tightly-bound into a provocative embrace” around the “vast amphitheater” of the Allegheny Plateau, the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers—Pittsburgh.

Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Mrs. Trollope, and Charles Dickens, popular biographer James Parton, on assignment from The Atlantic Monthly, visited the city in 1868, by which time it was known as a place where men carried “the obligatory extra white shirt” to work so “they [could] change around noon as the city’s soot blackened their original attire.” Parton’s article concluded with a dark observation: “It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting, but if anyone would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara,” the author observed, “he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into—hell with the lid taken off.”

Local historian Charles W. Dahlinger wrote in his romantic saga, Old Allegheny, that rivalrous Pittsburgh “cast longing eyes across the river at her smaller [and prosperous] sister. Several times she stretched out her arms yearningly to take her to her bosom.” However, these advances, in the form of the Consolidation Act of 1867, were rebuffed by majority vote of the citizens of Allegheny. Three more times over the next forty years, the proud “North Siders” rejected the Iron City’s annexation resolutions, “to take [their residential suburb] in by the heels,” demonstrating the stubborn independence and fierce pride of place for which Allegheny is still known.

The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway’s sprawling, sunken depot in the northwestern Allegheny City Second Ward included a roundhouse, a constellation of repair shops, a brass foundry, and a powerhouse. The company sold the adjacent land uphill and to the east across Marquis Way and Fremont Street to business owners and real estate speculators who put up rows of homes “on tightly-adjacent plots [. . . not as attached ‘party-wall’] row houses.”

This enclave of two- and three-story, mansard-roofed long and narrow redbrick houses with modern conveniences, windows in front and back, close together with narrow alleys between them and with small patches of land as coveted yard space, sandwiched between earlier blue-collar Mexican War Streets further east (named for battles—Buena Vista and Palo Alto—and generals—Taylor, Sherman, and Jackson) and grander Victorian mansions of the Manchester region across the depot tracks to the west, evolved into a magnet for Allegheny’s professional, independent wage-earning class.

Today the area is designated as the California-Kirkbride/Old Allegheny Rows Historic District. Fremont Street, renamed Brighton Place, eight lots long, runs on a gentle slope between Freedmore (formerly Fillmore/Franklin) Street to the north and Mero Way to the south. Halfway down Fremont/Brighton, a stone’s throw from where the railroad depot used to be, a faded stretch of lawn covers the gap where number 1531, the birthplace of Martha Graham, once stood.

On Saturday, June 7, 2008, at ten in the morning, at the intersection of Brighton Road and California Avenue, the Allegheny City Society, in alliance with the Heinz History Center, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council dedicated a “Historical Marker Honoring the Memory of Martha Graham (May 11, 1894–April 1, 1991).”

In golden letters against a blue background, the plaque reads, “Born near here, dancer, choreographer and teacher Martha Graham created a modern and unique movement style. In 1927 [sic], she founded her School of Contemporary Dance, revolutionizing the art of modern dance with innovative works such as Frontier and Appalachian Spring.”

The place-name comes from native Indian origins; according to sixteenth-century mapmakers, there once roamed an isolated, itinerant tribe called Apalatchi, meaning “the People on the Other Side,” because they hunted in the Great Path terrain along the northern banks of the thousand-mile Ohio River, “where virgin forest met the rushing waters.”

•  •  •

Named after her Irish paternal grandmother born in Newburgh, New York, Martha was the eldest of four children of George Greenfield Graham, MD, thirty-eight years old, and Jane (“Jennie”) Beers, fourteen years her husband’s junior. Jane came from the rural borough of Mars in Butler County along Breakneck Creek, north of Allegheny. She was “a compact, little wren of a woman,” the middle daughter of three: sister Annie was the older, and sister Mary (called “Auntie Re”) was the youngest.

Martha’s sister, also named Mary (nicknamed “Mimi”), was born on May 15, 1896; followed by Georgia (“Geordie”), on March 1, 1900; and on April 26, 1906, finally the precious “boy-child,” William Henry arrived.

The who’s who 1897 biography in Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Pittsburg and the Vicinity (solemn frontispiece declaring that “biography is the home aspect of history”), claimed the “prominent and skilful physician . . . [as] a native of Allegheny,” but Dr. Graham originally hailed from Washington County, Pennsylvania, center of the notorious 1791 Whiskey Rebellion. Dr. Graham’s father, John Jr., of Pittsburgh, moved to a plantation outside Hannibal, Missouri, before the Civil War; afterward, he took the family back to Pennsylvania. Dr. Graham’s paternal grandparents—John Sr. and Elizabeth—were Scottish. John Sr., beginning “in the hat trade,” became president of the Bank of Pittsburgh and vice president of the board of Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

After attending the University of Pennsylvania, George Greenfield Graham followed family tradition and embarked upon a short-lived business career before matriculating at the Baltimore College of Physicians and Surgeons in the fall of 1880. He earned an MD in mental disorders and was hired as a resident in the department of medicine and surgery at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill district, the first chartered public Civil War veterans’ hospital in town. In the spring of 1883, he joined the staff of the Dixmont State Hospital for the Insane as assistant physician.

On a parklike hilltop overlooking the Ohio River in what is now suburban Kilbuck, eight miles northwest of Allegheny via the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago line, Dixmont Hospital opened its doors in 1862 responding to a plea from Dorothea Lynde Dix, the Maine-born nursing and lunacy reform movement pioneer: “I call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this [Pennsylvania] Commonwealth in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, lashed into obedience!” When “she closed her eyes in death—and awoke to joy forever” in the New Jersey state hospital in Morris Plains on July 19, 1887, Ms. Dix was eulogized by John Harper, president of the Dixmont Hospital Board, as having given up “the quietude of home, and . . . the fascinating pleasures of refined society . . . for the grand purpose of self-sacrifice on the altar of suffering humanity.”

Dr. Graham spent ten years on the staff of Dixmont as—in the parlance of the day—an alienist, rising through the administration to become a member of the Committee on Lunacy and acting assistant superintendent of the facility, expanded to house more than thirteen hundred patients. Resigning from Dixmont on the brink of a crippling recession in the spring of 1893, Dr. Graham married the dark-haired, petite “Miss Jennie” Beers, daughter of John—a carpenter—and Mary (Hamilton), and hung up a shingle announcing his private practice from a surgery-cum-library in the parlor of their house on Fremont Street.

•  •  •

Martha Graham’s father emerges from fragmentary and occasionally lyric passages in her discursive Blood Memory as an array of vignettes. Of one thing we may be certain: “My whole life started with my father,” Graham said in her seventies; “I think I was my father’s favorite,” she wrote toward the end of her life. George Greenfield Graham was the tall, elegant, golden-haired, blue-eyed guardian of his daughter’s hermetic girlhood. He insisted that, as his eldest, the young lady must be the diligent figurehead for her younger siblings, representing what was best about the close-knit Presbyterian family. She had to be impeccably attired and groomed at all times, especially on Sundays for churchgoing—white gloves, white skirt neatly pleated, hair pulled back and tied with a ribbon.

When in consultation with a patient, Dr. Graham expected quiet throughout the house and could not be disturbed; however, after visiting hours, or returning from house calls and rounds in the early-evening before dinner, he welcomed Martha into his lofty sanctum for Socratic conversation and introduced her to the enduring value of great books.

When spoken to by an adult, she was expected to be courteous in deportment and hide her impulses. “A bit Olympian,” stern and demanding, on occasion, Dr. Graham would give his recalcitrant daughter a slap but never raised his voice to chastise Martha, preferring to murmur that she “disappointed” him.

Two incidents stand out from Martha’s late-Victorian childhood—two of the physician’s dicta—apocryphal or not. In the earlier memory, she was standing upon a pile of books next to her father’s desk as he showed her a glass slide upon which he had placed a drop of water. Dr. Graham asked Martha what she saw, and she replied, “Pure water.” He pulled down his microscope, placed the slide under the lens, beckoned Martha to peer through the viewfinder, and asked her to look more closely.

“There are wriggles in it!” she cried. “Yes. It is impure,” Dr. Graham said. “Just remember this all your life, Martha. You must look for the truth.” She wrote, “I have never forgotten the vividness of that moment, which has presided like a star over my life.”

In the second episode, one of her father’s patients, a teenaged girl, was invited to stay for supper with the family. Little Martha, “the small person of four or five, circled around her, looking, wondering, pondering, imitating . . .” Seated at table during the meal, Graham wrote, “[the girl] barely looked up from her plate, preferring to sit slightly slouched, bent into that awkwardness, as if folding herself into her own body.” That night, after her father returned from escorting the girl home, Martha asked him “why she behaved this way . . . why she carrie[d] her head and mov[ed] her hands in a strange way.” Dr. Graham replied that his patient was not well and her body was telling them so. Each of us, he said, speaks our story through our bodies. “Movement,” he told Martha, “never lies.”

“Movement never lies—at four or five that was an admonition,” Graham wrote decades later. “ ‘Lie’ in a Presbyterian household was and still is a clanging word which sets whispering all the little fluttering guilts which seek to become consumed in the flame of one’s conscience.”

The epiphany was reported by Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille as “Bodies never lie”; to Don McDonagh as “I can always tell from your movement if you lie”; and to an assembly of Juilliard students as “All that which you are comes out through movement . . . the body is a barometer of the soul’s weather.” Ernestine Stodelle transcribed Graham’s recollection of the paternal incident thus: “ ‘Martha, you’re not telling me the truth!’ Wide-eyed, she stammered, ‘How do you know?’ ‘I can tell by the way you are moving,’ was [Dr. Graham’s] candid retort.”

Over the years, this clinical observation was melded into Martha Graham’s technique, the body as the vessel containing unadulterated truth, the movement of the dancer manifesting that truth, and the dancer disciplined against involuntary revelations of emotion. This necessary tension leading to artifice was cited by Émile Zola in his essay on Manet: To be an artist in any medium, Zola wrote, “You must abandon yourself bravely to your nature and try not to lie to yourself.”

•  •  •

At the turn of the century, the Graham household was crowded. Besides the peripatetic, professional father; his indulged and fragile wife; three girls ages six, four, and a newborn—and a floppy-eared mutt terrier; Jennie’s parents, John and Mary Beers, had moved in. Holding the family together as nanny, cook, and housekeeper in the three-story home on the right side of the tracks was the spirited Irish maid Elizabeth Prendergast (“Lizzie,” or “Sizzie,” the little ones called her). A typical middle-class family in 1900 Allegheny would employ a single “live-in” for all work; stalwart Lizzie was up to the task. A grateful former patient of Dr. Graham’s, at twenty-seven, she arrived on the doorstep of 1531 Fremont when Martha was still in her mother’s arms, and stayed with the family for three decades. “[A] wonderful lapsed Catholic who could never understand why she had to go to confession . . . [s]he was wise and she was utterly dedicated and devoted,” Martha Graham recalled. “She dominated the house.”

In the second-floor nursery, Martha spent hours cross-legged on the floor “choreographing” complex cities out of building blocks. The sisters played dress-up, draping old veils and scarves, adorned themselves with “junky jewelry,” put on improvised dramas, and sang songs, Lizzie doubling as audience and impresario. With Martha’s father’s encouragement—he was an accomplished piano player, favoring Gilbert and Sullivan and Strauss Viennese waltzes—she took lessons for a short time, although she never learned to read music fluently. When she tired of Lizzie’s stories of “witches, wee folk, and the poetic mystery of things,” and solitude beckoned, Martha withdrew into her bedroom, to read by the window in a “special wooden chair,” an eclectic literary journey that began with stories from the Greek myths, moved on to Jules Verne’s “fantastic voyages to the moon or under the sea,” and alighted upon her constant favorite, poetry of all kinds, “and the imagination that poems inspired.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s work was most appealing: “I had my own world,” Graham remembered, “and my own world was The Lady of Shalott.” It is bewitching to pry open the square blue covers embossed with decorative gold leaf, page through Howard Pyle’s color-saturated art nouveau lithographs for Shalott, and imagine, through Martha’s impressionable eyes, the “embowered” barefoot damsel by the window combing her thick auburn hair as it cascades around her shoulders, weaving “the shadows of a world” in her mind’s fantasy-web, longing for Sir Lancelot’s love, gazing into her magical circular mirror like a pre-Raphaelite Lady Lilith, and, “robed in snowy white . . . singing her own death dirge” afloat upon the river toward Camelot.

•  •  •

Weekdays, Martha and Mary attended the integrated Second Ward Elementary School on Sherman Avenue, later named the Mary [Junkin Buchanan] Cowley School. Beloved social activist and kindergarten advocate, “Our Mrs. Cowley” was founder and director of the Allegheny Playground Association.

“Each and every Sunday” morning, the Grahams prepared for the fifteen-minute walk to church, and Martha “smoothed out her dress, tying the sash just so, slipping into her best coat . . . putting on her most becoming bonnet, buttoning her gloves, lowering a little veil over her deep-set eyes.” The route never varied. Stepping out the front door, backs to the railyard blacksmith shop and foundry, they descended the steps, turned right, and headed down Fremont, then one block east on Pennsylvania Avenue, and south one block along Irwin Avenue, bringing them to the northwest corner of the town commons, landscaped into Ober Park.
© New Moon Photography NJ
NEIL BALDWIN is the critically acclaimed author of biographies of William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. He is emeritus professor of theatre & dance at Montclair State University. View titles by Neil Baldwin

About

A major biography—the first in three decades—of one of the most important artistic forces of the twentieth century, the legendary American dancer and choreographer who upended dance, propelling the art form into the modern age, and whose profound and pioneering influence is still being felt today.

Time magazine called her “the Dancer of the Century.” Her technique, used by dance companies throughout the world, became the first long-lasting alternative to the idiom of classical ballet. Her pioneering movements—powerful, dynamic, jagged, edgy, forthright—combined with her distinctive system of training, were the epitome of American modernism, performance as art. Her work continued to astonish and inspire for more than sixty years as she choreographed more than 180 works.

At the heart of Graham’s work: movement that could express inner feeling.

Neil Baldwin, author of admired biographies of Man Ray (“Truly definitive . . . absolutely fascinating” —Patricia Bosworth) and Thomas Edison (“Absorbing, gripping, a major contribution to our understanding of a remarkable man and a remarkable era” —Robert Caro), gives us the artist and performer, the dance monument who led a cult of dance worshippers as well as the woman herself in all of her complexity.

Here is Graham, from her nineteenth-century (born in 1894) Allegheny, Pennsylvania, childhood, to becoming the star of the Denishawn exotic ballets, and in 1926, at age thirty-two, founding her own company (now the longest-running dance company in America).  

Baldwin writes of how the company flourished during the artistic explosion of New York City’s midcentury cultural scene; of Erick Hawkins, in 1936, fresh from Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, a handsome Midwesterner fourteen years her junior, becoming Graham’s muse, lover, and eventual spouse. Graham, inspiring the next generation of dancers, choreographers, and teachers, among them: Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.

Baldwin tells the story of this large, fiercely lived life, a life beset by conflict, competition, and loneliness—filled with fire and inspiration, drive, passion, dedication, and sacrifice in work and in dance creation.

“Rarely has a biographer stretched our knowledge of Martha Graham’s life and times as much as Neil Baldwin. . . . For anyone hungry to read about Graham and her world . . . this book will be challenging and satisfying.” —Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine

“Baldwin’s fresh approach looks to the intellectual and philosophical ideas that fill the pages of Graham’s choreographic notebooks alongside newly compiled primary source materials. . . . Documents from many of Graham’s dancers and collaborators give new dimension to her creative process. . . . [T]his book [is] an important read for anyone interested in 20th century arts in the United States. . . . The book’s strength lies in Baldwin’s engaging writing, source material, and scope. . . . Critic John Martin once said, ‘Martha Graham does the unforgivable thing for a dancer to do—she makes you think.’ Baldwin does the same for his readers, stretching us beyond purely dance history into multi-faceted evidence that much of what made Graham Graham—was her lifetime of intellectual curiosity and her search for artistic truth.”  —Laura Pettibone Wright, Journal of Dance Education

“Mr. Baldwin’s research is rigorous, his prose eloquent and muscular. . . . Here the ‘Picasso of dance’ springs—and lunges, and twirls—to life again, in all her fury and glory.” —Hamilton Cain, The Wall Street Journal

“Just as she determined every element of her revolutionary modern-dance performances, Martha Graham hoped to control her life story by destroying letters and other materials, but seasoned biographer Baldwin, an emeritus professor of theater and dance, mined a trove of archival treasures to construct this enlightening, engrossing, and richly illustrated portrait. . . . Vividly anchoring Graham and her singular achievements to the larger dance world, Baldwin profiles her numerous collaborators, beginning with composer Louis Horst, her most significant accompanist in art and life. Writing with dynamic clarity and fluid empathy, Baldwin details the creation of Graham’s profound and trailblazing works, parsing the inspiration she found in the ancient Greeks, the pueblo dances of the Southwest, and literature, and elucidating her ‘gift for ferocity,’ ‘fanatical energy,’ and the stunning catharsis of her demanding choreography with its ’economy of gesture’ and ‘intensity and integrity of mood.’ . . .  By bringing down the curtain in this vital and defining biography as Graham faces age’s first cruel salvo, Baldwin keeps the spotlight on her soulful, arresting, and indelible masterpieces, and rightly so.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)

“Mesmerizing. . . . The trailblazing Graham seemingly sculpted modern dance out of thin air, creating indelible works like Heretic, Lamentation, and Primitive Mysteries, always looking to the future. Provocative and passionate as the dynamo herself, this richly detailed and insightful page-turner will delight dance aficionados.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Neil Baldwin’s majestic biography of Martha Graham comes at a time in these comic book days when our souls need to be inspired by the austere passion of this American pioneer, this fanatical ‘prophetess’, whose dances unleashed primitive sacred energies in the earth and created a new vocabulary for the human body. Baldwin’s meticulously researched, immensely readable biography puts Graham shoulder to shoulder with those other avatars of the Modern, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gertrude Stein, who created frontiers that still demand exploration.” —John Guare  
 
“Comprehensive and engaging . . . Baldwin includes detailed descriptions of specific recitals, Graham’s jersey-fabric dance wear, the lives of her dance colleagues (Ruth St. Denis; Ted Shawn; Lincoln Kirstein) and artists of the time (sculptor Isamu Noguchi; composer Aaron Copland). Side trips into Graham’s sometimes-complicated personal life broaden the book’s appeal.” —Kirkus
 
“Neil Baldwin’s definitive biography of pioneering dancer Martha Graham is a compelling and brilliant study of a complicated, dedicated woman who gave everything she had to modern dance.  Baldwin reminds us what a modernist Graham was: she brought dance directly from the domination of ballet into a modern American idiom.  Baldwin brings his incisive knowledge of the stars in the panoply of modernism—from Mabel Dodge Luhan  to Lincoln Kirstein—to a dramatic narrative of Graham’s development and success.  Just as Graham made the many parts of a modern dance piece, from music to costumes, and, of course, her own brilliant vison for the piece, and performance—work together, so Neil Baldwin brings together all the elements of Graham’s colorful life, writing with wit, verve, critical discernment, and a powerful lyricism.  I greatly enjoyed this book and learned a lot.” —Mary Dearborn

Excerpt

1

Pittsburgh

The serried ranks of the glacier-scarred Appalachian Mountain Divide rise up, a broad, thickly wooded and granite-faced north-south fault line of ridges penetrated by the Tuscarora, Kittatinny, Blue Mountain, and Lehigh tunnels, long stretches of darkness breaking open into early-spring light diffused upon “the soft chain of hills . . . their shoulders tightly-bound into a provocative embrace” around the “vast amphitheater” of the Allegheny Plateau, the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers—Pittsburgh.

Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Mrs. Trollope, and Charles Dickens, popular biographer James Parton, on assignment from The Atlantic Monthly, visited the city in 1868, by which time it was known as a place where men carried “the obligatory extra white shirt” to work so “they [could] change around noon as the city’s soot blackened their original attire.” Parton’s article concluded with a dark observation: “It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting, but if anyone would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara,” the author observed, “he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into—hell with the lid taken off.”

Local historian Charles W. Dahlinger wrote in his romantic saga, Old Allegheny, that rivalrous Pittsburgh “cast longing eyes across the river at her smaller [and prosperous] sister. Several times she stretched out her arms yearningly to take her to her bosom.” However, these advances, in the form of the Consolidation Act of 1867, were rebuffed by majority vote of the citizens of Allegheny. Three more times over the next forty years, the proud “North Siders” rejected the Iron City’s annexation resolutions, “to take [their residential suburb] in by the heels,” demonstrating the stubborn independence and fierce pride of place for which Allegheny is still known.

The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway’s sprawling, sunken depot in the northwestern Allegheny City Second Ward included a roundhouse, a constellation of repair shops, a brass foundry, and a powerhouse. The company sold the adjacent land uphill and to the east across Marquis Way and Fremont Street to business owners and real estate speculators who put up rows of homes “on tightly-adjacent plots [. . . not as attached ‘party-wall’] row houses.”

This enclave of two- and three-story, mansard-roofed long and narrow redbrick houses with modern conveniences, windows in front and back, close together with narrow alleys between them and with small patches of land as coveted yard space, sandwiched between earlier blue-collar Mexican War Streets further east (named for battles—Buena Vista and Palo Alto—and generals—Taylor, Sherman, and Jackson) and grander Victorian mansions of the Manchester region across the depot tracks to the west, evolved into a magnet for Allegheny’s professional, independent wage-earning class.

Today the area is designated as the California-Kirkbride/Old Allegheny Rows Historic District. Fremont Street, renamed Brighton Place, eight lots long, runs on a gentle slope between Freedmore (formerly Fillmore/Franklin) Street to the north and Mero Way to the south. Halfway down Fremont/Brighton, a stone’s throw from where the railroad depot used to be, a faded stretch of lawn covers the gap where number 1531, the birthplace of Martha Graham, once stood.

On Saturday, June 7, 2008, at ten in the morning, at the intersection of Brighton Road and California Avenue, the Allegheny City Society, in alliance with the Heinz History Center, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council dedicated a “Historical Marker Honoring the Memory of Martha Graham (May 11, 1894–April 1, 1991).”

In golden letters against a blue background, the plaque reads, “Born near here, dancer, choreographer and teacher Martha Graham created a modern and unique movement style. In 1927 [sic], she founded her School of Contemporary Dance, revolutionizing the art of modern dance with innovative works such as Frontier and Appalachian Spring.”

The place-name comes from native Indian origins; according to sixteenth-century mapmakers, there once roamed an isolated, itinerant tribe called Apalatchi, meaning “the People on the Other Side,” because they hunted in the Great Path terrain along the northern banks of the thousand-mile Ohio River, “where virgin forest met the rushing waters.”

•  •  •

Named after her Irish paternal grandmother born in Newburgh, New York, Martha was the eldest of four children of George Greenfield Graham, MD, thirty-eight years old, and Jane (“Jennie”) Beers, fourteen years her husband’s junior. Jane came from the rural borough of Mars in Butler County along Breakneck Creek, north of Allegheny. She was “a compact, little wren of a woman,” the middle daughter of three: sister Annie was the older, and sister Mary (called “Auntie Re”) was the youngest.

Martha’s sister, also named Mary (nicknamed “Mimi”), was born on May 15, 1896; followed by Georgia (“Geordie”), on March 1, 1900; and on April 26, 1906, finally the precious “boy-child,” William Henry arrived.

The who’s who 1897 biography in Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Pittsburg and the Vicinity (solemn frontispiece declaring that “biography is the home aspect of history”), claimed the “prominent and skilful physician . . . [as] a native of Allegheny,” but Dr. Graham originally hailed from Washington County, Pennsylvania, center of the notorious 1791 Whiskey Rebellion. Dr. Graham’s father, John Jr., of Pittsburgh, moved to a plantation outside Hannibal, Missouri, before the Civil War; afterward, he took the family back to Pennsylvania. Dr. Graham’s paternal grandparents—John Sr. and Elizabeth—were Scottish. John Sr., beginning “in the hat trade,” became president of the Bank of Pittsburgh and vice president of the board of Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

After attending the University of Pennsylvania, George Greenfield Graham followed family tradition and embarked upon a short-lived business career before matriculating at the Baltimore College of Physicians and Surgeons in the fall of 1880. He earned an MD in mental disorders and was hired as a resident in the department of medicine and surgery at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill district, the first chartered public Civil War veterans’ hospital in town. In the spring of 1883, he joined the staff of the Dixmont State Hospital for the Insane as assistant physician.

On a parklike hilltop overlooking the Ohio River in what is now suburban Kilbuck, eight miles northwest of Allegheny via the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago line, Dixmont Hospital opened its doors in 1862 responding to a plea from Dorothea Lynde Dix, the Maine-born nursing and lunacy reform movement pioneer: “I call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this [Pennsylvania] Commonwealth in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, lashed into obedience!” When “she closed her eyes in death—and awoke to joy forever” in the New Jersey state hospital in Morris Plains on July 19, 1887, Ms. Dix was eulogized by John Harper, president of the Dixmont Hospital Board, as having given up “the quietude of home, and . . . the fascinating pleasures of refined society . . . for the grand purpose of self-sacrifice on the altar of suffering humanity.”

Dr. Graham spent ten years on the staff of Dixmont as—in the parlance of the day—an alienist, rising through the administration to become a member of the Committee on Lunacy and acting assistant superintendent of the facility, expanded to house more than thirteen hundred patients. Resigning from Dixmont on the brink of a crippling recession in the spring of 1893, Dr. Graham married the dark-haired, petite “Miss Jennie” Beers, daughter of John—a carpenter—and Mary (Hamilton), and hung up a shingle announcing his private practice from a surgery-cum-library in the parlor of their house on Fremont Street.

•  •  •

Martha Graham’s father emerges from fragmentary and occasionally lyric passages in her discursive Blood Memory as an array of vignettes. Of one thing we may be certain: “My whole life started with my father,” Graham said in her seventies; “I think I was my father’s favorite,” she wrote toward the end of her life. George Greenfield Graham was the tall, elegant, golden-haired, blue-eyed guardian of his daughter’s hermetic girlhood. He insisted that, as his eldest, the young lady must be the diligent figurehead for her younger siblings, representing what was best about the close-knit Presbyterian family. She had to be impeccably attired and groomed at all times, especially on Sundays for churchgoing—white gloves, white skirt neatly pleated, hair pulled back and tied with a ribbon.

When in consultation with a patient, Dr. Graham expected quiet throughout the house and could not be disturbed; however, after visiting hours, or returning from house calls and rounds in the early-evening before dinner, he welcomed Martha into his lofty sanctum for Socratic conversation and introduced her to the enduring value of great books.

When spoken to by an adult, she was expected to be courteous in deportment and hide her impulses. “A bit Olympian,” stern and demanding, on occasion, Dr. Graham would give his recalcitrant daughter a slap but never raised his voice to chastise Martha, preferring to murmur that she “disappointed” him.

Two incidents stand out from Martha’s late-Victorian childhood—two of the physician’s dicta—apocryphal or not. In the earlier memory, she was standing upon a pile of books next to her father’s desk as he showed her a glass slide upon which he had placed a drop of water. Dr. Graham asked Martha what she saw, and she replied, “Pure water.” He pulled down his microscope, placed the slide under the lens, beckoned Martha to peer through the viewfinder, and asked her to look more closely.

“There are wriggles in it!” she cried. “Yes. It is impure,” Dr. Graham said. “Just remember this all your life, Martha. You must look for the truth.” She wrote, “I have never forgotten the vividness of that moment, which has presided like a star over my life.”

In the second episode, one of her father’s patients, a teenaged girl, was invited to stay for supper with the family. Little Martha, “the small person of four or five, circled around her, looking, wondering, pondering, imitating . . .” Seated at table during the meal, Graham wrote, “[the girl] barely looked up from her plate, preferring to sit slightly slouched, bent into that awkwardness, as if folding herself into her own body.” That night, after her father returned from escorting the girl home, Martha asked him “why she behaved this way . . . why she carrie[d] her head and mov[ed] her hands in a strange way.” Dr. Graham replied that his patient was not well and her body was telling them so. Each of us, he said, speaks our story through our bodies. “Movement,” he told Martha, “never lies.”

“Movement never lies—at four or five that was an admonition,” Graham wrote decades later. “ ‘Lie’ in a Presbyterian household was and still is a clanging word which sets whispering all the little fluttering guilts which seek to become consumed in the flame of one’s conscience.”

The epiphany was reported by Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille as “Bodies never lie”; to Don McDonagh as “I can always tell from your movement if you lie”; and to an assembly of Juilliard students as “All that which you are comes out through movement . . . the body is a barometer of the soul’s weather.” Ernestine Stodelle transcribed Graham’s recollection of the paternal incident thus: “ ‘Martha, you’re not telling me the truth!’ Wide-eyed, she stammered, ‘How do you know?’ ‘I can tell by the way you are moving,’ was [Dr. Graham’s] candid retort.”

Over the years, this clinical observation was melded into Martha Graham’s technique, the body as the vessel containing unadulterated truth, the movement of the dancer manifesting that truth, and the dancer disciplined against involuntary revelations of emotion. This necessary tension leading to artifice was cited by Émile Zola in his essay on Manet: To be an artist in any medium, Zola wrote, “You must abandon yourself bravely to your nature and try not to lie to yourself.”

•  •  •

At the turn of the century, the Graham household was crowded. Besides the peripatetic, professional father; his indulged and fragile wife; three girls ages six, four, and a newborn—and a floppy-eared mutt terrier; Jennie’s parents, John and Mary Beers, had moved in. Holding the family together as nanny, cook, and housekeeper in the three-story home on the right side of the tracks was the spirited Irish maid Elizabeth Prendergast (“Lizzie,” or “Sizzie,” the little ones called her). A typical middle-class family in 1900 Allegheny would employ a single “live-in” for all work; stalwart Lizzie was up to the task. A grateful former patient of Dr. Graham’s, at twenty-seven, she arrived on the doorstep of 1531 Fremont when Martha was still in her mother’s arms, and stayed with the family for three decades. “[A] wonderful lapsed Catholic who could never understand why she had to go to confession . . . [s]he was wise and she was utterly dedicated and devoted,” Martha Graham recalled. “She dominated the house.”

In the second-floor nursery, Martha spent hours cross-legged on the floor “choreographing” complex cities out of building blocks. The sisters played dress-up, draping old veils and scarves, adorned themselves with “junky jewelry,” put on improvised dramas, and sang songs, Lizzie doubling as audience and impresario. With Martha’s father’s encouragement—he was an accomplished piano player, favoring Gilbert and Sullivan and Strauss Viennese waltzes—she took lessons for a short time, although she never learned to read music fluently. When she tired of Lizzie’s stories of “witches, wee folk, and the poetic mystery of things,” and solitude beckoned, Martha withdrew into her bedroom, to read by the window in a “special wooden chair,” an eclectic literary journey that began with stories from the Greek myths, moved on to Jules Verne’s “fantastic voyages to the moon or under the sea,” and alighted upon her constant favorite, poetry of all kinds, “and the imagination that poems inspired.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s work was most appealing: “I had my own world,” Graham remembered, “and my own world was The Lady of Shalott.” It is bewitching to pry open the square blue covers embossed with decorative gold leaf, page through Howard Pyle’s color-saturated art nouveau lithographs for Shalott, and imagine, through Martha’s impressionable eyes, the “embowered” barefoot damsel by the window combing her thick auburn hair as it cascades around her shoulders, weaving “the shadows of a world” in her mind’s fantasy-web, longing for Sir Lancelot’s love, gazing into her magical circular mirror like a pre-Raphaelite Lady Lilith, and, “robed in snowy white . . . singing her own death dirge” afloat upon the river toward Camelot.

•  •  •

Weekdays, Martha and Mary attended the integrated Second Ward Elementary School on Sherman Avenue, later named the Mary [Junkin Buchanan] Cowley School. Beloved social activist and kindergarten advocate, “Our Mrs. Cowley” was founder and director of the Allegheny Playground Association.

“Each and every Sunday” morning, the Grahams prepared for the fifteen-minute walk to church, and Martha “smoothed out her dress, tying the sash just so, slipping into her best coat . . . putting on her most becoming bonnet, buttoning her gloves, lowering a little veil over her deep-set eyes.” The route never varied. Stepping out the front door, backs to the railyard blacksmith shop and foundry, they descended the steps, turned right, and headed down Fremont, then one block east on Pennsylvania Avenue, and south one block along Irwin Avenue, bringing them to the northwest corner of the town commons, landscaped into Ober Park.

Author

© New Moon Photography NJ
NEIL BALDWIN is the critically acclaimed author of biographies of William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. He is emeritus professor of theatre & dance at Montclair State University. View titles by Neil Baldwin

Books for Black History Month

Join Penguin Random House Education in celebrating the contributions of Black authors, creators, and educators. In honor of Black History Month in February, we are highlighting stories about the history of Black America, the experiences of Black women, celebrations of Black music, and essential books by Black writers. Find more books from Penguin Random House:

Read more