Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir by Amanda Vaill

Not long after the ambitious young Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, of Weehawken, New Jersey, spiffed up his name and argued his way into choreographing his first piece for Ballet Theatre (the “American” still to come), The New York Times crowed, “The only thing he has to worry about.... is how in the world he is going to make his second any better.”

Jerome Robbins did worry—all the time, typically falling into “great turmoil & anxiety,” whether for Gypsy, The King and I, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, or, on the ballet side, The Concert, Afternoon of a Faun, The Cage, and Dances at a Gathering.

The measure of Robbins’s continuing relevance more than two decades after his death, at age 79, is not just that his ballets have entered the repertory of the august Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballets or that his musicals continue to be theater staples, but that an auteur such as the Belgian Ivo van Hove would team up for a West Side Story—which opens on Broadway this February—with the Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the choreographer least likely to be mixed up in entertainment. Even the European avant-garde wants to get their hands on him.

Robbins was, by most accounts, a monster. If it weren’t bad enough that he needled his troupers where it most hurt, as his victims have been keen to report, there is the inglorious fact that he named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the theater world, at least, he would have lost nothing by keeping mum. What do we have to gain, then, from Jerome Robbins, by Himself—the first collection of his private, unpublished writings—when he is already so terrible with others?

Behind the Curtain

Until now, the stage productions seemed to reflect precisely what the artist could not be in life. Thanks to the 400-odd pages of journal entries, drawings, photographs, and letters that Amanda Vaill has culled from the miles of Robbins archives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and elsewhere, we can now see what the artist was.

“He loved,” declares ballerina Violette Verdy, the original hapless flirt in Robbins’s 1969 New York City Ballet hit Dances at a Gathering. In letters to friends and ex-lovers (for Robbins, the categories often overlapped), he signs off, “I miss you,” “I love you,” “All my love as always.” And when that is not enough: “I miss you very very much and I love you very very much” or “Please write me nice letters. I do love you so very much and I miss you terribly,” and, when buoyed up, a page of proto-emoji kisses for every mood. Recalling shared haunts, rituals, jokes, and nicknames, Robbins traces the special character of his affection for his correspondent. To composer Ned Rorem, he is garrulous and crushingly honest; to his parents, desperate for attention; to the ballerina and Balanchine muse Tanaquil Le Clercq, playful and disarmed. One of the pleasures of Vaill’s selection is the cast of characters that returns over many years.

In letters, Robbins signs off, “I love you,” and when that is
not enough: “I love you
very very much.”

Robbins has often been designated a perfectionist, but the letters suggest “particularist” is closer to the mark. The fascinating correspondence from his collaboration-rich Broadway years of the 1950s and early 1960s makes clear both why Robbins drove people crazy and why they still wanted him around. The missives are models of civility and uncompromise.

Robbins knew the difference between liking something and being able to use it. His formula was to compliment his collaborators’ efforts before enumerating in unstinting detail what they needed to change. You can imagine them wishing that, just once, he’d quit before the “but.” He niggled, though, for an honorable cause: “The all-over picture,” as he put it in 1955 to Leonard Bernstein and book writer Arthur Laurents about their “Romeo” project, when warning, “We’re dead unless the audience feels.... that there’s hope and a wish for escape from the tragedy, and a tension built on that desire.” Once Stephen Sondheim joined the team, the project emerged as West Side Story.

Losing His Cool

Robbins was permitted no such hope when, in 1953, he testified against his “fellow travelers.” The best clue to why he would betray his progressive values, his community, and his closest family lies in the metabolism of his dramas—the way they build up to a breakdown. In Robbins, you know trouble is coming when people get too into the act—too high on the moment. The choreographer recognized that vitality and volatility went hand in hand. In his first ballet, Fancy Free, the three randy sailors play catch with a single girl’s purse, then with her body, until she pulls back in anger—and just barely escapes a slap. If this one-act weren’t a comedy, the violence would have escalated, not subsided. In Fiddler on the Roof, the frenzied wedding bleeds into a pogrom. And in West Side Story, desire and joy over-topping themselves is the story. Teenagers, the personification of Dionysian excess, are losing their “cool.”

Robbins was set up to lose his over a harrowing three years. The F.B.I., its stooge—popular talk-show host and columnist Ed Sullivan—and even the lawyer whom Robbins hired to protect himself promised that if he would just clear up a few things, he’d be off the hook. Of course the clarifications only led to more demands—for names and signed statements, which he refused. Not long after the Sullivan column “Tip to Red Probers: Subpena [sic] Jerome Robbins” hit newsstands in 1951, Robbins sailed for Europe and Israel. He wrote to Le Clercq, “I may come home earlier than planned or I may never come home.” He wouldn’t tell her why he’d left; he doesn’t seem to have told much of anyone. So there was no one to remind him to “play it cool, boy.” He did eventually come home, though, and eventually the dread subpoena arrived.

“We’re dead unless the audience feels.... that there’s hope and a wish for escape
from the tragedy.”

People, including Robbins in later years, tried to muster reasons for his capitulation: the “wicked fairy,” as the playwright Edward Chodorov once referred to him, was afraid of being outed; the ambitious director wanted to work in the movies, where a “red” stain mattered like it didn’t in theater. But the theories don’t track. When, a decade earlier, the World War II draft board asked if Robbins had ever had “a homosexual experience,” he said, yes—“last night.” As for Hollywood, because it lacked artistic merit, he refused a movie package that his double-dealing lawyer had leveraged to guarantee him immunity from the red-baiting. In short, by the time the subpoena arrived, Robbins wasn’t thinking. He had been worked over for so long and so insidiously that his only feeling was a maw of fear. As an artist he would have understood this conversion.

Jerome Robbins, by Himself winds down gracefully. The letters to collaborators peter out by the 1970s, when Robbins had largely left Broadway. By the 80s, friends and lovers were dying, of old age and AIDS. As for Robbins—always prone to damning self-evaluation—he grew more sanguine but also sadder. At 70, he notes: “It would be nice to mean something to somebody.... to feel I was important to someone personally. I have given a large public (international) a huge amount of entertainment, joy, beauty, passion. That level is impersonal. I haven’t accomplished being accepted on a personal level.”

Not even “accepted,” when for him paradise was “the place one goes to see all one’s loved ones again”? It’s too awful—and, at least for us readers, it’s tragic. After Jerome Robbins, by Himself, you don’t just accept the man; you miss him.

Apollinaire Scherr is the New York dance correspondent for the Financial Times