Let me weave a story of how I came to know a group of astonishing, creative people who, for the most part, died well before I was born.
Once upon a time in 1980, I read a review in Smithsonian magazine* of a biography of a woman known to history as Misia Sert. Authors and pianists Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold told the story of a woman who had been at the center of French art and life from the Belle Époque to the aftermath of World War II. A fascinating article, which did not prompt me to buy the book . . . but I remembered Misia in my subconscious.
At around this time, I first heard Maurice Ravel's La Valse as he wrote it for two pianos. Mother was still involved with the Community Concerts then, and we had front-row seats for a husband-and-wife team of pianists who traveled with their own Bösendorfer pianos. These special grand pianos, glowing like black pearls on the stage, had extra keys at the bass, no doubt for added heft.
Their program concluded - or maybe it was the encore - with La Valse, and needless to say I was swept away ("A dull cliché," I can just hear Addison DeWitt saying), ravished and charmed by the story it told. To me it sounded like a glittering but gentle evening descending into violence, into a battle for what Civilization really stands for. In some ways its opening passages tell the story of the ball in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. One hears Kitty and her mother arriving at the ball, greeting their hostess, and then a blast of gay grandeur announces to us that they are in the ballroom. I cannot hear La Valse now without thinking of Kitty, and of Anna Karenina herself in black velvet with pansies just as Tolstoy described her, unaware of her doom in the attractive form of Count Vronsky.
Oh dear, what a disgression! But there's a reason.
In my college years I spent quite a bit of time in the Park Drive neighborhood of Brookline, which is pretty close to the Boston University campus. My bank was there (ATMs were only just starting to become common), as well as some good student-priced restaurants, and a wonderful used bookstore, Boston Book Annex. I haunted the BBA for a couple years, and became friendly with a couple of the staff.** And one sunny afternoon there it was on a shelf at eye level, a copy of Misia. I remembered the article from years before and happily paid the $4.00. It's one of the best investments I've ever made.
And so I became more fully acquainted with Misia. With Misia Godebska Natanson Edwards Sert, to be thorough. If it was going on in the creative world in France, Misia was there, as a witness, as an influence, as a backer. When Thadée Natanson kicked off La Revue Blanche, Misia was there as a model for a cover illustration by Toulouse-Lautrec. At the world premiere of the Ballets Russes Petrushka, Misia was there, dashing home to get money from her safe to pay off the costumer who was holding up the curtain. When Diaghilev got the news that Nijinsky, his genius dancer choreographer and reluctant lover, had married Romola de Pulszky as soon as they arrived in South America, Misia was there, in the Venice hotel room with him. And years later, when Serge died in another Venice hotel room, Misia was there - and had to break up a fight between Serge Lifar and Boris Kochno that started above the deathbed. As might be said today, "Bitch got around."
Misia, daughter of a fashionable sculptor and granddaughter of a famous cellist, was herself a very talented pianist - to the delight of Toulouse-Lautrec and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. She was painted many times by Renoir, Bonnard, Vuilliard, all the great Impressionists. Thrice married, she had a reputation for not being very talented in bed. A musician but not a performer, her deep understanding of music and all the arts made her a criterion of what was, and was not, good.
For 20 years, until his death, Serge Diaghilev was Misia's greatest friend. And here the pages of Misia introduced me to what may still be the greatest team of creative artists yet to come together: the Ballets Russes under the masterful direction of Serge Diaghilev. These artists remade the art of Dance, and their influence remains visible today. Fokine, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Tamara Karsavina, Léonide Massine, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Lydia Sokolova, Les Six, Erik Satie, Stravinsky, Coco Chanel - so many others. Diaghilev himself could not create; his talent was in the way he combined the creators to achieve dazzling, memorable results. But like a comet, or a meteor, the memory of Vaslav Nijinsky both lights and overshadows all these others. For that brilliant, deeply troubled man remains the Greatest Dancer.
In the months and years that followed I read the biographies of many of these people, and even today I remain enchanted by their creations, and by their lives together (certainly not without dazzling controversy as well as creativity). In these books, often I felt that Misia was not a prominent as she should be. In Misia, Satie came up with a bon mot about her: "Misia is a lovely cat . . . so hide your fish!"
OH! And that whole digression with La Valse? Turns out Ravel dedicated it to Misia, and first played it for Diaghilev in her Paris apartment. (Serge didn't like it.)
Why on earth should I even be thinking of this now, this creative influence of my college years? Because I snatched it down from the shelf for a little recreational reading a few nights ago, and reread the account of Misia and Serge meeting for the first time (along with the man who became Misia's third husband, José-Maria Sert). Meeting at a party, they were having such a good time they went out to dinner and talked the night away. Leaving the restaurant, they agreed to have lunch the next day - and then started laughing, because lunch would be in only a few hours. This exchange reminded me of a dinner with a dear friend in New York in the bitterly cold winter of 2014, appropriately enough in a French restaurant, and with four hours of absorbing conversation dominating the evening. Sometimes the best friendships are kindled and stoked over a dinner table - which is just as true for all of us as it is for artists.
*A friend of this period, learning that I subscribed both to Smithsonian and Time asked "What, are you a member of the AARP?!" This was before I'd discovered Interview and somewhat before the launch of Spy Magazine, both essential to my mid-1980s reading.
**Indeed, I served as an usher at the wedding of one of them, my friend Paul. He and his wife Chris and I still exchange Christmas cards.