Edwin Denby (poet)
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|Born||Edwin Orr Denby
February 4, 1903
|Died||July 12, 1983
Searsmont, Maine, United States
|Alma mater||Harvard University
University of Vienna
Edwin Orr Denby (February 4, 1903 – July 12, 1983) was an American writer of dance criticism, poetry, and a novel, but is perhaps now best known for his work with Orson Welles in translating and adapting the 1851 French comedy The Italian Straw Hat to the American stage in 1936 in the form of the farce Horse Eats Hat.
Early life, education and early career
The son of Charles Denby, Jr. and Martha Dalzell Orr, Edwin was born in Tientsin, China, where Charles had been appointed as chief foreign advisor to Yuan Shi Kai a year earlier. Edwin's grandfather, Charles Harvey Denby, who had served as the United States Ambassador to China for an unprecedented 13 years, died when Edwin was age one.
He was educated at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut; and attended Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but failed to graduate. He also attended classes at the University of Vienna, before obtaining a diploma in gymnastics (with specialty in modern dance) at the Hellerau-Laxenburg school in Vienna in 1928.
Looking for someone to take his passport photo, he encountered photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt in Switzerland in 1934, and the two remained inseparable for the rest of Denby's life. The following year, they returned to New York City, New York, and rented a loft for eighteen dollars a month in a five-story walk-up building on West 21st Street in Chelsea. Denby's friendship with painter Willem de Kooning, who lived one floor below in the adjacent building, began shortly thereafter when de Kooning's kitten turned up on the fire-escape outside of Denby's window one evening.
In 1935, soon after Denby's return to New York City, Orson Welles and John Houseman asked him to help translate and adapt The Italian Straw Hat, by Eugene Labiche and Marc-Michel, for the Broadway stage. The resulting play, titled Horse Eats Hat, was scored by Paul Bowles, and was performed as a Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Production in 1936.
During his lifetime, being ambivalent about the publication of his poetry, he was known primarily as a dance critic. At the behest of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, he began writing a dance column for the magazine Modern Music in 1936. In 1943, Thomson drafted Denby as the dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune.
His dance reviews and essays were collected in Looking at the Dance (1949, reprinted 1968), Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets (1965) and Dance Writings (1986).
Denby's works of poetry include In Public, In Private (1948), Mediterranean Cities (1956), Snoring in New York (1974), Collected Poems (1975) and The Complete Poems (1986).
Denby's only novel, Mrs. W's Last Sandwich (also released as Scream in a Cave) was published in 1972.
Death and legacy
On July 12, 1983, at the summer house he maintained with Burckhardt in Searsmont Maine, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills; he had been ill and increasingly concerned about the loss of his mental powers.
Denby was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2002.
- Robert Cornfield, introduction to Dance Writings. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf. 1986.
- Ron Padgett, introduction to Edwin Denby, The Complete Poems. New York City: Full Court Press. 1986.
- MacKay, William (1986). "Edwin Denby, 1903–1983" in Dance Writings. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf.
- American National Biography, Vol. 6. Ed. John A. Garraty and March C. Carnes. Oxford University Press. 1999.
- Database (undated). "Edwin Denby". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
-  Hotchkiss School.