Born in Rochester, New York, the grandson of a successful Rochester clothing manufacturer, he grew up in a wealthy Jewish Bostonian family; his father was president of Filene's Department Store when Lincoln entered Harvard.
In 1927, while an undergraduate (he graduated in 1930), he was annoyed that the literary magazine The Harvard Advocate would not accept his work. With a friend Varian Fry, who later married his sister Eileen, he convinced his father to finance their own literary quarterly, the Hound & Horn. Moving in 1930 to New York, the quarterly became an important publication in the artistic world and lasted until 1934 when Lincoln decided to fund George Balanchine instead.
His interest in Balanchine and ballet started when he saw Balanchine's Apollo performed by the Ballet Russe. He became determined to get Balanchine to America. Together with Edward M. M. Warburg (a classmate from Harvard), they started the School of American Ballet in Hartford, Connecticut, in October 1933. In 1934, the studio moved to the fourth floor of a building at Madison Avenue and 59th Street in New York City. Warburg's father invited the group of students from the evening class to perform at a private party. The ballet they did was "Serenade", the first major ballet choreographed by Balanchine in America. Just months later Kirstein and Warburg founded, together with Balanchine and Dimitriev, the American Ballet.
Lincoln Kirstein by Pavel Tchelitchew
Lincoln Edward Kirstein (May 4, 1907 – January 5, 1996) was an American writer, impresario, art connoisseur, and cultural figure in New York City. According to the New York Times, he was "an expert in many fields." In 1941 married Fidelma Cadmus, the sister of the artist Paul Cadmus. He and his wife enjoyed an amicable if not stressful relationship until her death in 1991. Some of his boyfriends lived with them in their East 19th house; "Fidelma was enormously fond of most of them."
This became the resident company of the Metropolitan Opera. That arrangement was unsatisfactory because the Opera would not allow Balanchine and Kirstein artistic freedom.
His career was interrupted by the United States' entry into World War II. After enlisting in 1943, before going overseas he started working on a project gathering and documenting soldier art that would eventually become the exhibit and book Artists Under Fire. In the spring of 1944 he was sent to London for the U. S. Arts and Monuments Commission; after a month he was transferred to the unit in France that came to be known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section. Soon after being promoted to Private First Class in January 1945 (in Patton's Third Army), his unit moved to Germany and he was personally involved with retrieving artworks around Munich and in the salt mines at Altaussee. He wrote the article “The Quest for the Golden Lamb” which was published in Town and Country in September 1945, the same month he was discharged from the Army.
In 1946, Balanchine and Kirstein founded the Ballet Society, renamed the New York City Ballet in 1948. He served as the company's General Director from 1946 to 1989.
Kirstein wrote in a 1959 monograph called "What Ballet Is All About":
"Our Western ballet is a clear if complex blending of human anatomy, solid geometry and acrobatics offered as a symbolic demonstration of manners—the morality of consideration for one human being moving in time with another."
Kirstein's eclectic interests, ambition and keen interest in high culture, funded by independent means, drew a large circle of friends who stimulated creativity in many of the arts. These included: Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, George Platt Lynes, Jared French, Bernard Perlin, Pavel Tchelitchev, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Harrison, Gertrude Stein, Jensen Yow, Jonathan Tichenor, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden, George Tooker, Margaret French, Walker Evans, Sergei Eisenstein and more.
Kirstein kept diaries beginning in summer camp in 1919 until the late 1930's, and Martin Duberman's 2007 biography The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein makes use of them and numerous letters. Kirstein enjoyed sex with men--Harvard undergraduates, sailors, street boys, casual encounters in the showers at the 63rd St YMCA. Longer affairs are described with dancer Pete Martinez, artist Dan Maloney, and conservator Jensen Yow among others, as well as relationships that were physically unrealized. Casual sex frequently grew into long-term friendship.
Pete Martinez by George Platt Lynes, 1937
Jensen Yow by George Platt Lynes
He also slept with women and in 1941 married Fidelma Cadmus, the sister of the artist Paul Cadmus. He and his wife enjoyed an amicable if not stressful relationship until her death in 1991. Some of his boyfriends lived with them in their East 19th house; "Fidelma was enormously fond of most of them." The New York art world considered his bisexuality an "open secret," although he did not publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation until 1982. (Lincoln with Fidelma Cadmus, in their home near Gramercy Park, 1952, by Cecil Beaton)
Paul and Fidelma Cadmus by George Platt Lynes
Kirstein was the primary patron of Fidelma's brother, the artist Paul Cadmus, buying many of his paintings and subsidizing his living expenses. Cadmus had difficulty selling his work through galleries because of the erotically charged depictions of working and middle class men, which provoked great controversy.
Paul Cadmus with woman, by PaJaMa
In his later years, Kirstein struggled with bipolar disorder- mania, depression, and paranoia. He destroyed the studio of friend Dan Maloney, and sometimes was in a straitjacket for weeks at a psychiatric hospital. His illness did not generally affect his professional creativity until the end of his life.
English critic Clement Crisp wrote:—
"He was one of those rare talents who touch the entire artistic life of their time. Ballet, film, literature, theatre, painting, sculpture, photography all occupied his attention."
Kirstein helped organize a 1959 American tour for of musicians and dancers from the Japanese Imperial Household Agency. At that time, Japanese Imperial court music gagaku had only rarely been performed outside the Imperial Music Pavilion in Tokyo at some of the great Japanese shrines.
Kirstein commissioned and helped to fund the physical home of the New York City Ballet: the New York State Theater building at Lincoln Center, designed in 1964 by architect Philip Johnson (1906–2005). Despite its conservative modernist exterior, the glittery red and gold interior recalls the imaginative and lavish backdrops of the Ballets Russes. He served as the general director of the ballet company from 1948 to 1989.
Kirstein's and Balanchine's collaboration lasted until the latter's death in 1983. On March 26, 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Kirstein with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to the arts.
Kirstein was a serious collector. Early in the history of the Dance Collection, he gave the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts a wealth of rare dance materials. Before his death in 1996, Kirstein donated all his papers, artworks, and other materials related to the history of dance and his life in the arts to the Dance Collection. These treasures in the Kirstein collection will inform future generations' pursuing the knowledge of dance.
Lincoln Kirstein by George Platt Lynes
The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein by Martin Duberman
Paperback: 736 pages
Publisher: Northwestern University Press; 1 edition (September 25, 2008)
Amazon: The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein
Lincoln Kirstein was a tireless champion of the arts in America. Working behind the scenes to provide artists with money, space, audiences, and, at times, emotional support, he helped found such landmark cultural institutions as the New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet, New York’s Lincoln Center and Stratford's American Shakespeare Festival.
Duberman's biography sheds light on this lamentably neglected cultural figure. Though best known as a benefactor of the arts, Kirstein was also an adept critic, poet and novelist who published some fifteen books in his lifetime. From his undergraduate years at Harvard, where he established the influential literary magazine Hound and Horn, as well as the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art (precursor to the Modern Museum of Art), to his complex and historically significant relationship with George Balanchine, Kirstein's contributions were indespensible to the development of the arts in America.
Authoritative and elegant, Duberman's biography utilizes previously unavailable documents, including Kirstein's diaries, to reveal the keen eye, incessant self-doubt, and enormous ambition that drove Kirstein's relentless advocacy. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein brings attention to an important, but until-now unappreciated figure whose individual contribution to the arts was one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
Mosaic: memoirs by Lincoln Kirstein
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: New York Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1994. (1994)
Amazon: Mosaic: memoirs
The evocative reminiscences of one of America's great men of modern American culture focuses on Kirstein's youth and early struggle for identity, from his childhood in Boston to his world travels, culminating in his 1933 attempts to bring Balanchine to the U.S.
Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and Their Circle by David Leddick
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Stonewall Inn Editions; 1st edition (June 1, 2001)
Amazon: Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and Their Circle
Photographer George Platt Lynes, painter Paul Cadmus, and critic Lincoln Kirstein played a major role in creating the institutions of the American art world from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. The three created a remarkable world of gay aesthetics and desire in art with the help of their overlapping circle of friends, lovers, and collaborators.
Through hours of conversation with surviving members with their circle and unprecedented access to papers, journals, and previously unreleased photos, David Leddick has resurrected the influences of this now-vanished art world along with the lives and loves of all three artists in this groundbreaking biography.
The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture by Douglass Shand-Tucci
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; First St. Martin's Griffin Edition edition (June 1, 2004)
Amazon: The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture
In a book deeply impressive in its reach while also deeply embedded in its storied setting, bestselling historian Douglass Shand-Tucci explores the nature and expression of sexual identity at America’s oldest university during the years of its greatest influence. The Crimson Letter follows the gay experience at Harvard in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing upon students, faculty, alumni, and hangers-on who struggled to find their place within the confines of Harvard Yard and in the society outside.
Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde were the two dominant archetypes for gay undergraduates of the later nineteenth century. One was the robust praise-singer of American democracy, embraced at the start of his career by Ralph Waldo Emerson; the other was the Oxbridge aesthete whose visit to Harvard in 1882 became part of the university’s legend and lore, and whose eventual martyrdom was a cautionary tale. Shand-Tucci explores the dramatic and creative oppositions and tensions between the Whitmanic and the Wildean, the warrior poet and the salon dazzler, and demonstrates how they framed the gay experience at Harvard and in the country as a whole.
The core of this book, however, is a portrait of a great university and its community struggling with the full implications of free inquiry. Harvard took very seriously its mission to shape the minds and bodies of its charges, who came from and were expected to perpetuate the nation’s elite, yet struggled with the open expression of their sexual identities, which it alternately accepted and anathematized. Harvard believed it could live up to the Oxbridge model, offering a sanctuary worthy of the classical Greek ideals of male association, yet somehow remain true to its legacy of respectable austerity and Puritan self-denial.
The Crimson Letter therefore tells stories of great unhappiness and manacled minds, as well as stories of triumphant activism and fulfilled promise. Shand-Tucci brilliantly exposes the secrecy and codes that attended the gay experience, showing how their effects could simultaneously thwart and spark creativity. He explores in particular the question of gay sensibility and its effect upon everything from symphonic music to football, set design to statecraft, poetic theory to skyscrapers.
The Crimson Letter combines the learned and the lurid, tragedy and farce, scandal and vindication, and figures of world renown as well as those whose influence extended little farther than Harvard Square. Here is an engrossing account of a university transforming and transformed by those passing through its gates, and of their enduring impact upon American culture.
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