Angela Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, California to Joseph Charles Duncan (1819–1898), a banker, mining engineer and connoisseur of the arts, and Mary Isadora Gray (1849–1922). Duncan was the youngest of four children. Her two brothers were Augustin Duncan and Raymond Duncan; her sister Elizabeth Duncan was also a dancer. Soon after Isadora’s birth, her father lost the bank, was publicly disgraced, and the family became extremely poor. Her parents were divorced by 1889 (the papers were lost in the San Francisco earthquake), and her mother moved with her family to Oakland. She worked there as a pianist and music teacher. In her early years, Duncan did attend school but, finding it to be constricting to her individuality, she dropped out. As her family was very poor, both she and her sister gave dance classes to local children to earn extra money. In 1896 Duncan became part of Augustin Daly’s theater company in New York. She soon became disillusioned with the form. Her father, along with his third wife and their daughter, died in 1898 when the British passenger steamer SS Mohegan hit some rocks off the coast of Cornwall.
Duncan began her dancing career by teaching lessons in her home from the time she was six through her teenage years. Her different approach to dance is evident in these preliminary classes, in which she “followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head”. A desire to travel brought Duncan to Chicago where she auditioned for many theater companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly’s company. This job took her to New York City where her unique vision of dance clashed with the popular pantomimes of theater companies. Feeling unhappy and limited with her work in Daly’s company and with American audiences, Duncan decided to move to London in 1898. There she found work performing in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and drew inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in the British Museum. The money she earned from these engagements allowed her to rent a dance studio to develop her work and create larger performances for the stage. From London, Duncan traveled to Paris, where she drew inspiration from the Louvre and the Exposition Universelle of 1900.
One day in 1902, Loie Fuller visited Duncan’s studio and invited Duncan to tour with her. This took Duncan all over Europe creating new works using her innovative dance technique. This style consisted of a focus on natural movement instead of the rigid technique of ballet. She spent most of the rest of her life in this manner, touring in Europe as well as North and South America, where she performed to mixed critical reviews. Despite the critics’ mixed reactions, she became quite popular for her distinct style and inspired many visual artists, such as Antoine Bourdelle, Auguste Rodin, Arnold Ronnebeck, and Abraham Walkowitz, to create works based on her. Duncan disliked the commercial aspects of public performance like touring and contracts because she felt they distracted her from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. To achieve her mission, she opened schools to teach young women her dance philosophy. The first was established in 1904 in Grunewald, Germany. This institution was the birthplace of the “Isadorables” – Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Lisel, Gretel, Erika, Isabelle and Temple (Isadora’s niece) – Duncan’s protégées, who would go on to continue her legacy. Later, Duncan established a school in Paris that was shortly closed due to the outbreak of World War I.
In 1910, Duncan met the occultist Aleister Crowley at a party (an episode recounted by Crowley in his Confessions abridged ed, p. 676) where he refers to Duncan under the name ‘Lavinia King’; he would use the same invented name for her in his novel Moonchild. Crowley wrote of Duncan: “Isadora Duncan has this gift of gesture in a very high degree. Let the reader study her dancing, if possible in private than in public, and learn the superb ‘unconsciousness’- which is magical consciousness – with which she suits the action to the melody.” Crowley was in fact more attracted to Duncan’s bohemian companion Mary Dempsey/Mary D’Este or Desti (with whom Crowley had an affair). Desti had come to Paris in 1901 where she soon met Duncan; the two became inseparable friends. Desti also appeared in Moonchild, as ‘Lisa la Giuffria’. She joined Crowley’s occult order, helping him to write his magnum opus Magick: Book 4 under her magical name of ‘Soror Virakam’; she also co-edited four numbers of Crowley’s journal The Equinox and contributed several collaborative plays to the journal. Mary Desti wrote a memoir of her experiences with Duncan that includes some autobiographical material – The Untold Story: The Life of Isadora Duncan 1921-1927 (1929). A terrible irony of their relationship is that the scarf that accidentally killed Duncan was a gift from Desti.
In 1914, Duncan moved to the United States and transferred the school there. A townhouse on Gramercy Park was provided for its use, and its studio was nearby, on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue, which is now Park Avenue South. Otto Kahn, the head of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. gave Duncan use of the very modern Century Theatre at West 60th Street and Central Park West for her performances and productions, which included a staging of Oedipus Rex, which involved almost all of Duncan’s extended entourage and friends. Duncan had been due to leave the US in 1915 on board the RMS Lusitania on the voyage on which it sank, but historians believe her financial situation at the time drove her to choose a more modest crossing. In 1921, her leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union where she founded a school in Moscow. However, the Soviet government’s failure to follow through on promises to support her work caused her to move West and leave the school to Irma.
Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual, and alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922–23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, “This is red! So am I!” Duncan was an atheist. Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock – the first, Deirdre (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and the second, Patrick (born May 1, 1910), by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Both children died in an accident on the Seine River on April 19, 1913. The children were in the car with their nurse, returning home after lunch with Isadora and Paris Singer. The driver stalled the car while attempting to avoid a collision with another car. He got out to hand-crank the engine, but forgot to set the parking brake. The car rolled across the Boulevard Bourdon, down the embankment and into the river. The children and the nanny drowned.
Following the accident, Duncan spent several months recuperating in Corfu with her brother and sister. After this, she spent several weeks at the Viareggio seaside resort with actress Eleonora Duse. The fact that Duse had just left a relationship with the rebellious and epicene young feminist Lina Poletti fueled speculation as to the nature of Duncan and Duse’s relationship, but there has never been an indication the two were involved romantically. In her autobiography, Duncan relates that she begged a young Italian stranger – the sculptor Romano Romanelli – to sleep with her because of her desperation to have another baby. She did become pregnant after the deaths of her elder two children and gave birth on August 13, 1914 to another illegitimate child, a son, but he lived only a few hours and was never named. In 1922 she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow. He committed suicide in 1925, aged 30. Duncan had a relationship with poet and playwright Mercedes de Acosta which is documented in numerous revealing letters they wrote to each other. In one she wrote, “Mercedes, lead me with your little strong hands and I will follow you – to the top of a mountain. To the end of the world. Wherever you wish.”
On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, France, Duncan was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of American film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked Duncan to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but Duncan would only agree to wear the scarf. As they departed, Duncan reportedly said to Desti and some companions, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”); but according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan’s actual last words were, “Je vais à l’amour” (“I am off to love”). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.
Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the shawl almost immediately after the car left. Desti brought Duncan to the hospital, where she was declared dead. As The New York Times noted in its obituary: “Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.” Other sources described her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein’s mordant remark that “affectations can be dangerous”. At her death, Duncan was a Soviet citizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen to be probated in the U.S. Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her children in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The headstone of her grave contains the inscription École du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (“Ballet School of the Opera of Paris”).
- May, 27, 1877
- San Francisco, California
- September, 14, 1927
- Nice, France
Cause of Death
- broken neck
- Cimetière du Père Lachaise
- Paris, France