September 14, 1927: The Gays Get Another Tragic Lady Icon


According to some, it was a dark and stormy night.

According to some, she dashed from the house, saying, “Je vais a l’amour”, or, poetically translated, “I am going into the arms of Love”, or, less charitably, “I am going to get freaky in a well-appointed villa by the seashore”.

According to some, she was in a Bugatti with her dashing Italian lover, a mechanic several years her junior.

But in fact, none of that seems accurate, even though it makes for a very good story.

The truth is, Isadora Duncan was heading home after an evening stroll in Nice. She was in a convertible, and the top was down, which probably means it wasn’t raining at all. And except for her chauffeur, Isadora was alone. (Though some reports indicate that her chauffeur was, in fact, the aforementioned lover.) She may have said, “Je vais a l’amour”, or she might have instead said, “Je vais a la gloire”, which would turn out to be grimly ironic, but doesn’t have the same ring.

Oh, and she wasn’t in a Bugatti, but an Amilcar, which also lacks a certain poetry.

However, the most important bit, the story about her cause of death, is indisputable and true: after the car began moving, Isadora’s trademark long, silk scarf became tangled in its rear wheel. By the time the car hit full speed, she was yanked from her seat and hurled to the cobblestones. She was dragged for some distance before the driver fully realized what had happened.

* * * * *

Personally, I don’t care much for Isadora’s dance, her style of improvisation. I’m all for historical recreation, that’s fine, but looking at a few amphorae and mimicking the poses of the dancing girls does not a recreation make. Then again, I’m not an improv fan in any genre, so who am I to judge?

But that image of Duncan flying from her car? The free-spirited artist having become the victim of her own glamour? That’s the sort of tragedy that’s got legs.

I don’t know what it is about us — The Gays — and our tragic ladyfigures, I only know that (a) there’s something to it, and (b) countless queer theorists (remember them?) have tried to figure it out, and no one’s hit it on the head. Edina Monsoon had a nice quote about it in one episode of Ab Fab; speaking to her gay ex-husband who was enthralled by some hot lady mess or other, she said (and I paraphrase), “You’re so predictable. A bitch with a drug habit, and you’re anybody’s, aren’t you?”

I’ll leave the debating to the scholars. All I know is that we love a good heroine. I also know, as Gertrude Stein said about Duncan after her death, “Affectations can be dangerous.”

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the New York Times notice of her death — well, the first bit of it, anyway. If you can find the rest, lemme know:

PARIS, FRANCE — 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.

Affecting, as was her habit, an unusual costume, Miss Duncan was wearing an immense iridescent silk scarf wrapped about her neck and streaming in long folds, part of which was swathed about her body with part trailing behind. After an evening walk along the Promenade de Anglais about 10 o’clock, she entered an open rented car, directing the driver to take her to the hotel where she was staying.

As she took her seat in the car neither she nor the driver noticed that one of the loose ends fell outside over the side of the car and was caught in the rear wheel of the machine.

Dragged Bodily From the Car.
The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk suddenly began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street.

Medical aid immediately was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly.

This end to a life full of many pathetic episodes was received as a great shock in France, where, despite her numerous eccentric traits, Miss Duncan was regarded as a great artist. Her great popularity in France was increased by the entire nation’s sympathy when in 1913 her two young children also perished in an automobile tragedy. The car in which they had been left seated started, driverless, down a hill and plunged over a bridge into the Seine River.

Copyright © New York Times, Sep 15, 1927

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