Sisters of Salome, by Toni Bentley

Toni Bentley
Buy Sisters of Salome, by Toni Bentley

What if a beautiful ballet dancer also happened to be a skillful, talented researcher and writer? And she became interested in the "Salome craze" that began, with bizarre incongruity, in Victorian Europe? And one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world decided was they wanted to publish her book? In a dream world, the result would be Toni Bentley's Sisters of Salome, from Yale University Press, and the book would be intelligent, literate, well-written and informative. And have lots of pictures. Well, nobody's perfect, and there are only a few pictures in Bentley's examination of this odd sidelight of our cultural history. As for the rest, she hit it spot on.

It is not often that a work of scholarship can grab the reader in the first ten pages and compel a marathon of page-turning. Bentley begins with some biographical details at once engagingly personal and central to her thesis. A discovered photograph of Colette from her dance hall days, one breast naked. A gig with George Balanchine's NYC Ballet in Paris during which she learned that the choreographer had a fixation on the strippers at the Crazy Horse.

Why did these women dance naked?

Her own defiant exploration of confrontational nudity, revealing to her the empowering force of nakedness. I was hooked. "Why did these women dance naked?" she asks. Indeed.

Having set her personal agenda for the book, Bentley moves on to examine the historical and literary figure of Salome. She has done her homework here, and the chapter is swift, complete, and accurate. The accepted wisdom is that Salome was "invented" by the Decadents ("The Bible doesn't even mention her name," the typical article will hiss conspiratorially, with a gentle, outraged slap on the reader's forearm), midwived by Oscar Wilde (in abominable French, the French point out), and christened by Richard Strauss (over the blustered protests of such paragons of virtue as J. P. Morgan and Kaiser Wilhelm). Bentley traces her story from the Bible and Josephus to the Dresden Opera as an unbroken but various chain of icons for each century's vision of women and femininity, identifying the constants and the changes.

Why Salome?
I find myself curious that it was Salome, rather than the Bacchantes, who emerged as the heroine of unfettered femininity. This is accountable to a couple of things. Salome was, after all, a favorite whipping girl of misogynist clerics deep into the Middle Ages, a Susannah who got what she deserved, so to speak. Thus, a lot of public presence; no publicity is bad publicity. Once she had been brought to the public eye by Wilde and his crowd, she thrived like the mythic Billy the Kid, a symbol whose reality would have been much less appealing to encounter.
The Decadents' adoption of Salome is in some ways even less admirable than that of their Philistine audiences, though much more easily explained. The Bacchantes, after all, offered all the meaningful themes that Salome's story offered: the power of lust, the mystery of death that is less than the mystery of love, divine madness. They figure in two stories: Euripides' The Bacchae and the story of the death of Orpheus (Ovid's Metamorphoses, which includes the story of Pentheus and Bacchus as well as a complete treatment of the Orpheus myth).
The latter has been inexplicably of little interest to dramatists; I wonder why? There is the Gluck opera and an obscure Stravinsky ballet, and little if anything else treating this tale of love, sexual madness, and death. The Euripides play runs so thematically parallel to Salome that there must be, somewhere, a scholarly article examining this congruence in detail. Pentheus may well be the only figure in Greek mythology who approaches the Essene priggishness of John the Baptist, and the theme of repressed sexuality is central to the tragedy.
But of course both Orpheus and Pentheus lack an essential element: scandal. One has only to look at the pornographic variants of Aubrey Beardsley's Salome illustrations to understand that the fundamental attraction of the story is the opportunity to make do-do on cherished icons. In this, at least, Ken Russell's appalling film of the play hits the mark. Salome. A bit like the crucifix in urine, but without even the excuse of a political agenda. How decadent.

The bulk of the chapter focuses on the period of about 1880 to 1910, when the image of Herodias' child took its contemporary form. Bentley discusses Gustav Moreau's paintings, Huysmans' hysterical reaction to them, and then, the stage set, so to speak, she provides one of the most persuasive explications of Oscar Wilde's Salome that I have ever read.

The roots of "Salomania" are more diverse than the decadent daydreams of Parisian aesthetes. As Bentley's own experiment with public nudity persuaded her, there is empowerment in untouchable sexual display, and if Salome was for the trembling sensibilities of Wilde and Huysmans a symbol of all they loathed and feared in women, she was also, for Victorian women of the time, the liberated bacchante who dramatized their desire for political power, for social equality, and for personal freedom.

And the women who came to incarnate this empowering, threatening femininity paid dearly for the contradictions inherent in the myth, as Bentley shows in the bulk of the volume, a chapter each on Maud Allan, Mata Hari, Ida Rubenstein, and Colette. Bentley has chosen her four avatars of Salome well; their lives provide a spectrum for the colorful period and its femme fatale heroine.

Four Sisters, We

Maud Allan is in many ways the most interesting of the four. Sister of a serial killer, her re-invention of herself as "Salome" was a poignant act of self-defense. Bentley makes the point that for all but Colette, Salome was a "chosen identity," and Allan is a perfect representative of the common woman of her time and place, attracted to the ambiguous empowerment embodied in dangerous attraction. Her fate was predictable.

Men drooled beyond the floodlights and went home to write attacks on her morals; women imitated her timidly and covered their children's eyes when she appeared. Her career was eventually destroyed by a libel suit in the UK during which, with the logic of a psychotic Gilbert and Sullivan escapee, the man who had libelled her won the case by convincing a jury that she "knew what a clitoris was" (and was, therefore, a degenerate) and was responsible for the Allied losses at the Battle of Verdun (don't ask).

At the end of Salome, having delivered up the demanded prize, Herod has his stepdaughter killed by guards. "Kill that woman!" is the final line of the opera, followed by a bloodcurdling moment of percussion as she struggles and dies. Men killed Mata Hari with less motivation, but similar motives.

Margaretha Zelle wanted to be mysterious and famous; and she got her wish, by being executed as Mata Hari.

As a young Dutch girl, Margaretha Zelle married badly. (It was rumored that the reason she never bared her breasts, for all her other nakedness, was that her husband had bitten off her nipples. The rumor was false, but indicative.) Once she escaped from that marriage to an abusive, sadistic drunk, she set out to recreate herself as a creature of mysterious origins and rampant sexuality. She was, in her mythology, the daughter of various international cross-pollinations, all exotic, most tragic. And she was a lesbian and nymphomaniac (that distinctly Victorian "illness" invented to explain the inexplicable sexuality of women). And it was this, her "depravity," that got her convicted, on no evidence, of spying.

Convicted, executed, and immortalized. Like her spiritual "sisters," she was an amateur in dance and theater, "a trite nightclub dancer," as a contemporary said, whose talent, as she herself said, consisted of a willingness to disrobe. Bentley underscores the irony, that what Margaretha Zelle wanted was to be mysterious and famous; and she got her wish, by being executed as Mata Hari, on trumped-up charges of espionage.

If Allan and Mata Hari illustrate the tragedy of the common woman seduced by power and then destroyed by those more powerful, Ida Rubenstein's story is the other mask, the comedy of the wealthy, spoiled, talentless artiste, the shallow, empty ego revealed by power's ability to unleash rather than liberate. Bentley cites in her bibliography an article entitled, "Ida Rubenstein and Diaghilev: A One-Sided Rivalry." The title sums up Rubenstein's life pitilessly. While Diaghilev was changing the shape of ballet and even modern music, Ida Rubenstein "competed" with him by luring his artists away, hiring his preferred venues, and offering her own "art."

...her weapons were money and vanity; her productions tasteless, self-aggrandizing junk.

Her weapons pitted against genius were money and boundless enthusiasm for her own vanities, and her productions tasteless, self-aggrandizing theatrical junk.

Child of Russian aristocrats and mistress of a wealthy British brewer (the Guinness heir), she pursued her "vision" in defiance of commoner obstacles like talent and training. She ended her public career an aging butt of derision. Bentley compares her appearance to an Edward Gorey character, a hunched crone attempting once more, at fifty, to pass for prima ballerina. Her money sponsored some artists of real substance, like Leon Bakst, but for the inflation of her ego, not less self-absorbed ends.

It is all, of course, merely prologue to Bentley's real subject, the amazing Colette. In this final chapter, she is on weak ground historically—of the four, Colette never performed as Salome; though she moved in the same artistic circles as the other three women, and actually performed on the same program with Mata Hari at least once. But no Salome. Bentley dismisses this unfortunate circumstance by extending the notion of "Salome" to encompass Cleopatra, Middle Eastern women generally, and at last any woman who bares a breast on stage. One can be overcome by thesis.

Bentley's thesis, that Colette found a growing and evolving self, an independent identity, through the medium of exhibitionist performance art (my phrasing, not hers), is a bit tenuous for me. Of the four women, how is it that only Colette seems to have sought out and enjoyed submissive relationships? Wearing a dog collar that says "I belong to Missy" (her cross-dressing lesbian lover of the time), which is how Colette dressed to debut the relationship to Paris, puts an ironic edge on one's independence. Bentley mediates elsewhere in the book on the positive/negative energy that sexual objectification entails, and certainly there is a chapter, unfortunately missing, that would have discussed the more modern circumstance, mirrored in Colette's ambiguous "freedom," that belly dancing is invoked as a liberating activity by its proponents, but many of those advocates seem to prefer and seek out relationships with oppressively sexist men.

What Bentley has to say about Colette is interesting and germane, Salome-related or not.

It is, after all, no accident that belly dancing originated in the Middle Eastern centers of misogyny and female oppression. There is something painfully schizoid here. Mata Hari was killed by men who coveted her favors, and the women who envied her freedom also despised her for her effrontery to "family values." To a lesser degree, Maud Allan met the same fate, torn to bits by her admirers.

Fortunately, what Bentley has to say about Colette is interesting and germane, Salome-related or not. And her obvious admiration for the French artist, writer, and thinker is not distracting. With Colette, the real issue has become self-actualization, the liberation of the feminine through systematic demolition of taboos and barriers. Where Allan, Zelle, and Rubinstein transformed themselves into Salome, Colette found in the freedom of fantasy her self-definition, "something to push against." In her amazing life, she went from submissive virgin bride to willing debauchée, then devout lesbian to mature, loving wife (three marriages, the last till her death at 81) and included in her scandals the seduction of a man thirty years her junior, her second husband's son. All the while writing volume after volume of matchless fiction and memoirs. She was, by any estimation, a formidable personage, a woman complete and self-defined.

The rather sad stories of Allan, Zelle, and Rubenstein are elegantly balanced by the career of this brilliant woman, who became a celebrity and a respected intellectual figure of France and a heroine of feminism. Upon her death, Bentley concludes, she was shunned by the Catholic Church; but she had a state funeral, and the French Association of Music Halls and Circuses sent flowers. It is a rare person who can shape a daring fantasy into a rich and good life. One out of four is better odds than we might expect.

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