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SISTERS OF SALOME

The personal quest that led me to this book began years ago with a single image of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette’s left breast. I was eighteen when I discovered the French writer’s novels and, while interest quickly became obsession, I devoured as many of them as I could find in fast succession. I fell completely in love with this woman who seemed to speak the unspeakable about the pursuit of love, the pain of desire, and the tenderness that binds the two. Then I saw the photograph of my heroine that I would never forget. She was posing in profile on a stage set, her short, curly hair a thick halo about her head, her right arm was raised softly before her uplifted face, her palm facing up and away. Her steady gaze looked reverently into the distant horizon beyond her hand while, paradoxically, shielding herself from its onslaught. It was a lyrical and yearning gesture that, as a young Balanchine dancer, I recognized from the opening of his ballet Serenade made almost thirty years later. Colette looked fabulous and I was thrilled to see that brains and beauty could indeed coexist in one woman.

But it got even better -- she was dressed in a torn slip of white linen, her left breast exposed and aiming at the camera lens with shameless pride. The nakedness continued down the left side revealing a rounded, expertly posed thigh that ended its length in a slipper tied with suggestive black laces. She offered her bosom with a demure gesture of surrender tempered by the grace of an aristocrat.

Her breast was beautiful and the woman of words suddenly became flesh and blood -- and curiously naughty. “Colette’s Breast,” as I came to think of the image, symbolized for me something that I wanted for myself though I was not sure exactly what that was. Did I want the power of her pen? Or the power of her bosom? Her assertive intellect? Or her alluring magnetism? My search was furthered by a second vision that came a few years later. George Balanchine, my boss at the time, led me to it. . .

I knew that my urge to strip in public was an archetypal will to power and I could not be alone. Turning writer again I looked to the past to find my sisters, to find out why other women had chosen to remove their robes. I became fascinated with the ancient ritual of naked dancing that still endures despite endless attempts by the keepers of public morality to exorcise it.
Beginning in 1066 with Lady Godiva, history revealed numerous notable women who had taken off their clothes to considerable renown -- from Josephine Bonaparte, Lady Emma Hamilton and Lola Montez to Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker and Madonna. Here was a small but significant group of women who had used their bodies and their beauty to achieve just about anything and everything they might want: fame, fortune, sex, matrimony, political change. Then there were the purists who just did it for fun and provocation. None met with indifference.

My survey narrowed itself to an unmistakable congregation of women who, at the turn of twentieth century -- and all within two years of each other -- found stripping in some exotic manner to be a very attractive endeavour. Four of these women -- Maud Allan, the Canadian Isadora Duncan; Mata Hari, the Dutch spy; Ida Rubinstein, the Russian performance artist; and Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the French writer -- are the heroines of this book.

Why did these women dance naked? Was there coercion? Financial or sexual reward? Or was it by choice, some subliminal erotic instinct, some recessive Salome gene that led to a kind of power in societies where women were mostly mute. Ever since Eve arrived in Adam’s world, throwing off one's clothing in public has always had the magical effect of clearing a little room of one’s own, though it is not, perhaps, the method Virginia Woolf had in mind. They subverted the existing rules to search out a new identity. These women recognized without moral constraint or fear, that the body is basic, and men through the ages have shown a negotiable weakness for it, even when they've shown little for other forms of appeal.

Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

Taken back to Saint-Lazare, Mata Hari spent almost three months on death row. Conditions in the prison were miserable. “I need some air and exercise,” she pleaded to her jailers, “this will not prevent them killing me if they absolutely want to, but it is useless to make me suffer, closed in the way I am.” Appeals of all sorts were lodged by both Mata Hari and Clunet to the Dutch government and French President Poincaré, but all came to nothing.

Given her months of isolation and decreasing hope Mata Hari, at age forty, became self-reflective perhaps for the first time. With no one left to impress, to dazzle, or to love, she took stock of herself, sending her personal confessions to her captors. These letters were added to her criminal file.

She admitted to selfishness and greed, and though inconsiderate she denied ever intentionally been cruel. She longed all her life, she wrote, for the admiration and acceptance of those whose birth, money or talent were above her own humble origins. She had so wanted to join their ranks and be one of them, only to discover, now that those she so admired were no better than herself, even worse; they were willing to betray her. She was aware that her fate was the result of “half vengeance and half fatality of appearances,” but she accepted it with considerable dignity.

“As for myself, I have been sincere. My love and my self-interest are guarantees of that. Today, around me, everything is collapsing, everyone turns his back, even he [Vadime, her lover] for whom I would have gone through fire. Never would I have believed in so much human cowardice. Well, so be it. I am alone. I will defend myself and if I must fall it will be with a smile of profound contempt.”

At 4 a. m. on Monday morning 15 October Mata Hari was awakened in her cell by a group of men at the door. It was time. Sister Léonide, who had spent thirty-seven years in the jail watching prisoners come and go, began weeping. “Don’t be afraid, sister,” Mata Hari consoled her, “I’ll know how to die.” She dressed quietly asking Dr. Bizard if she could wear a corset. He consented, it would not stop the bullets. She put on her silk stockings, a pearl-grey dress, hat and veil and Pastor Jules Arboux baptized her with water from a prison mug. With a dark coat about her shoulders, she left her cell.

Maître Clunet attempted a last minute stay of execution by declaring that Mata Hari was pregnant. There was a law that stated that a pregnant woman could not be executed until she gave birth. Since she had been in prison for eight months there was considerable surprise and Clunet claimed, in his desperation, that he was the father, despite his seventy-four years. Mata Hari was equally surprised when asked if she was carrying a child, and denied it with a glance of gratitude to her lawyer. She was given ten minutes to write three short letters to her daughter Non, to Vadime and to Henri de Marguérie. They were not forwarded.

Refusing the grip of a guard, declaring she was neither thief nor criminal, she was ushered into a military car as a crowd looked on. Word had gotten out that the notorious spy would be executed on this day. The weather outside underscored the chilly scene: it was cold, 35 degrees, grey and drizzling. After a long ride across Paris to the Château de Vincennes, she was led to a clearing in the polygon where a stake marked the spot. She walked with Sister Léonide to the pole and hugged her goodbye. She refused to be tied to the stake and she refused a blindfold. She looked straight ahead at the twelve soldiers from the Fourth Regiment of Zouaves, positioned in two rows of six.

The official order had been to have four privates, four corporals and four sergeants shoot her to give the various ranks the pleasure and experience of shooting a German spy. The commanding officer, however, was afraid of the less experienced men’s reactions to shooting a woman and only sergeants were in the line up. He raised his sword and shots rang out.

One officer fainted but eleven other bullets hit their mark. Legend has it that she flung open her coat to reveal a nude body causing many bullets to be diverted from their mark. But this was not true: the men in uniform whom she had so loved, killed her. At 6:15 a. m. Mata Hari fell to her knees, then backwards, face to the sky.

No one claimed her body. In a final, ironic, exposition for the woman who had in life so loved to show her flesh her corpse was delivered to a municipal hospital for dissection. This “sinister Salome” became a human anatomical venus for young men with medicine in mind. Her blood, her heart, her bones and her orifices were examined and analyzed, but the mystery of the seductress remained unrevealed. Mata Hari has no grave, but her incinerated ashes dispersed into legend.

Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

 

Ida Rubinstein’s Cleopatra, with her great height, small breasts, slim boyish hips, and long legs heralded the entrance into the twentieth century of the phallic female who towered over the feminized, magnetized male. She presented a startling modern image, an early metaphor for the athletic, demanding woman ruling her fearful, emasculated man.

As Diaghilev’s Cleopatra, Salome had arrived barefoot in the land of the toe shoe. Ida’s performance embodied the complete integration of the music hall Salome of Maud Allan and Mata Hari, the improvisational sensibility of the new “modern dance” as presented by Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, with ballet, the most classical of dance forms. For a ballet company with a centuries’ old tradition, Cléopâtra presented a modern novelty -- there were no tutus, no pointe shoes, more turn-in than turn-out, and bare midriffs glowing with body paint.

Most radically, the ballet, based on a story, Une Nuit d’Egypte, by Théophile Gautier, told a tale of unbridled sexuality. Cleopatra’s harem from the Arabian Nights was a distant place indeed from the fairy-tale castle where Sleeping Beauty waited a hundred years for her Prince Charming. This was not the waif-like Giselle pleading to save the life of her lover, but a statuesque woman demanding the death of her lover. This was a ballet no longer about spiritualized romantic love; it was a fin de siècle version of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Salome was infiltrating the shores of Swan Lake, the land where promises of eternal love dominate the aesthetic, with her own version of romance: the one-night stand. This infusion of veils into the world of tiaras represented the sexualizing of the virgin ballerina. The dusty sylph of the Romantic ballet was replaced by the Queen of Hedonism.

 

Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

 

“From her [Charlotte Kinceler] I got my first notions of tolerance and concealment and the possibility of coming to terms with the enemy. Concentration, humility -- it was an instructive time.” Befriending Charlotte, who sold among her herbs and teas, erotic toys, Colette began to take charge of her own sexual life by learning from those declassé women who made sex their profession. Present at the arrival of one of Willy’s lovers in her home, she watched, perversely fascinated, as the passionate woman lay langorously across the bed, untying her bodice, while describing exactly how she liked to make love. Colette embraced her jealousy and called Willy’s mistresses “my ‘monsters.’” She also learned complicity, on one occasion entertaining one of her husband’s mistresses while he entertained another.

Heterosexual sex was, for young Colette, a curious melange of bittersweet disconnection. “It would seem that for him,” she wrote, “...sexual pleasure is made up of desire, perversity, lively curiosity and deliberate licentiousness...whereas it shatters me and plunges me into a mysterious despair that I seek and also fear.” This despair took the form of a lover and the lesbian tendencies of young Colette found their object of desire. In May 1901 she began an affair with a rich, beautiful and married American woman. Georgie Raoul-Duval mesmerized Colette who followed her about Paris from dress shops to her boudoir like a lovesick puppy, a prisoner of her passion. Willy, his voyeurism piqued, encouraged the liaison with perverse logic: “Certain women need women in order to preserve their taste for men.” He insinuated himself even further into the affair by finding a love nest on the Avenue Kléber where the two women could meet undisturbed -- but he kept a key.

 

Toni Bentley, Author of THE SURRENDER

 

Within two short years had Colette completely changed her life to its own opposite. She gave up autonomy, women, sexual freedom, the music hall, and even, briefly, writing novels, for the more conventional experience of monogamy, marriage, and motherhood. Her freedom established, she now gravitated to new circumstances, perhaps to test its strength. Colette proudly described her husband as “the master of all...His presence relieves me of the need to think, to plan, to act other than to arrange the bedroom or arrange my figure. The rest is his domain.” The outrageous rebel appeared tamed, if not enslaved, by what was probably the first good heterosexual sex she had ever known -- Willy certainly had not shown her that side of love.

“Are you a feminist?” she was queried in an interview only a year earlier. “Ah! No!” she replied with gusto. “The suffragettes disgust me. And if some women in France decide to imitate them, I hope they will understand that these customs do not have a place in France. Do you know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem...” Seemingly conservative words from a woman whose life traces a clear, though complex, trajectory towards her own emotional and physical liberation. But Colette was sly and knew the lure of “the whip and the harem” -- they could be another route to sexual freedom.


Toni Bentley in the New York Times Book Review

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