cover image ISADORA: A Sensational Life

ISADORA: A Sensational Life

Peter Kurth, . . Little, Brown, $29.95 (672pp) ISBN 978-0-316-50726-4

Kurth (Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson) presents an exhaustive march through an exhausting, tragic life, organizing endless material into a coherent chronology. Duncan's contributions to dance are better documented and analyzed elsewhere. With minimum commentary, Kurth follows Duncan's frenetic existence from her 1877 birth in San Francisco until her infamous death (when her scarf caught in the wheel of her car, strangling her) in France in 1927. Duncan, her sister and two brothers, professionally entwined throughout their lives, spent early childhood vacillating between luxury and penury (her financier/swindler father, an integral part of San Francisco's 1877 banking collapse, was prone to long disappearances), a tendency which prevailed throughout their adulthood. Duncan seemed marked by tragedy: various fires destroyed belongings and homes (her earliest memory was of being tossed from the window of a burning building); her father died in a shipwreck; two of her children perished when a chauffeur rolled their car into the Seine; the third died shortly after birth. Throughout adulthood, Duncan moved restlessly and incessantly about, principally from Paris to Berlin to Russia. She danced, drank and enjoyed volatile long-term relationships while simultaneously leaping into bed with numerous so-called geniuses. Occasional professional successes peppered Duncan's life, but perhaps her most defining experience was her 1922 marriage to the mad, alcoholic and abusive Russian poet Esenin. By the time of his suicide in 1925, the couple had essentially destroyed each other professionally and personally. Neither a dance history nor a portrait of an era—although Duncan knew everyone and participated in everything—this book instead offers a meticulous chronology of an extraordinary life. (Nov. 15)

Forecast:This is not, as the publisher claims, "the first major biography" of Isadora (Frederika Blair's predates it by 15 years). Its exhaustive rather than illuminative qualities will limit its readership to the most dedicated dance fans.