Lincoln Kirstein

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Lincoln Kirstein
LincolnKirstein WalkerEvans.jpg
Lincoln Kirstein by Walker Evans
Born (1907-05-04)May 4, 1907
Rochester, New York, U.S.
Died January 5, 1996(1996-01-05) (aged 88)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Allegiance  United States
Years of service 1943–1945
Rank Private First Class
Battles/wars World War II
Other work Writer, co-founder of the New York City Ballet

Lincoln Edward Kirstein (May 4, 1907 – January 5, 1996) was an American writer, impresario, art connoisseur, philanthropist, and cultural figure in New York City, noted especially as co-founder of the New York City Ballet. He developed and sustained the company with his organizing ability and fundraising for more than four decades, serving as the company's General Director from 1946 to 1989. According to the New York Times, he was "an expert in many fields," organizing art exhibits and lecture tours in the same years.[1]

Early life[edit]

Kirstein was born in Rochester, New York, the son of Rose (née Stein) and Louis E. Kirstein.[2] The grandson of a successful Rochester clothing manufacturer, he grew up in a wealthy Jewish Bostonian family and attended the private Berkshire School, graduating in 1926. His father was president of Filene's Department Store when Lincoln entered Harvard.[citation needed]

In 1927, while an undergraduate (he graduated in 1930), Kirstein was annoyed that the literary magazine The Harvard Advocate would not accept his work. With a friend Varian Fry, who met his wife Eileen through Lincoln's sister Mina, he convinced his father to finance their own literary quarterly, the Hound & Horn. After he moved in 1930 to New York, taking the quarterly with him, it became an important publication in the artistic world. It lasted until 1934 when Lincoln decided to fund the Russian choreographer George Balanchine instead in his development of an American ballet school and company.

His interest in Balanchine and ballet started when he saw Balanchine's Apollo performed by the Ballets Russes. Kirstein became determined to bring Balanchine to America. Together with Edward Warburg (a classmate from Harvard), and Vladimir Dimitriew (Balanchine's manager)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 performed was Serenade, the first major ballet choreographed by Balanchine in the United States. Just months later Kirstein and Warburg founded, together with Balanchine and Dimitriew, the American Ballet.

This became the resident company of the Metropolitan Opera. That arrangement was unsatisfactory because the Opera would not allow Balanchine and Kirstein artistic freedom.

World War II[edit]

Kirstein's theatrical 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. He eventually developed this as the exhibit and book Artists Under Fire. In the spring of 1944 Kirstein traveled 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, devoted to rescuing and preserving European art.[3] Soon after Kirstein was promoted to Private First Class in January 1945 (in Patton's Third Army), his unit moved to Germany. He was personally involved with retrieving artworks around Munich and from the salt mines at Altaussee. His article "The Quest for the Golden Lamb" was about this quest; it was published in Town & 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).[1] In a letter that year, Kirstein stated, "The only justification I have is to enable Balanchine to do exactly what he wants to do in the way he wants to do it."[4] He served as the company's General Director from 1946 to 1989.[3]

Kirstein wrote in a 1959 monograph, titled 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."[1] In a conversation with the poet Vernon Scannell in 1976, he said that "he regarded dancers not as artists but as acrobats'; their skills were, he maintained, entirely physical and he felt his involvement with the dance was a salutary escape from the cerebral and sedentary life into a world that was closer to that of the athlete than the artist."[5]

Friendships and personal life[edit]

Kirstein's eclectic interests, ambition and keen interest in high culture, funded by independent means, drew a large circle of creative friends from many fields 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, Donald Windham, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden, George Tooker, Margaret French Cresson, Walker Evans, Sergei Eisenstein and others.

Kirstein kept diaries beginning in summer camp in 1919 until the late 1930s. Martin Duberman drew on these primary sources for his 2007 biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, as well as Kirstein's numerous letters. Kirstein enjoyed sex with men: Harvard undergraduates, sailors, street boys, casual encounters in the showers at the 63rd St YMCA. He had longer affairs with dancer Pete Martinez, artist Dan Maloney, and conservator Jensen Yow among others, as well as relationships that were physically unrealized. Casual sex frequently developed into long-term friendship.

He also had sex and relationships with women. In 1941 he married Fidelma Cadmus, a painter and the sister of the artist Paul Cadmus. He and his wife enjoyed an amicable if sometimes stressful relationship until her death in 1991, but she withdrew from painting and then from life, suffering breakdowns that were eventually more permanent than his.[4] Some of his boyfriends lived with them in their East 19th Street house; "Fidelma was enormously fond of most of them."[6] The New York art world considered Kirstein's bisexuality an "open secret," although he did not publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation until 1982.

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 controversy.

In his later years, Kirstein struggled with bipolar disorder- mania, depression, and paranoia. He destroyed the studio of friend Dan Maloney. He sometimes had to be constrained in a straitjacket for weeks at a psychiatric hospital.[6] 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 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.[1]

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 also a serious collector. Soon after the opening at Lincoln Center of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, he contributed a significant amount of historic dance materials to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. Before his death in 1996, Kirstein also donated his personal papers, artworks, and other materials related to the history of dance and his life in the arts to the Division.

Published works[edit]

1929 – A Marriage Message for Mary Frost & James Maybon from Lincoln Kirstein, Paris, (May 15, 1929), Boston privately published by Lincoln Kirstein

1932 – Flesh Is Heir: An Historical Romance, a novel, New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam[7]

1934 – Nijinsky in anonymous collaboration (ghostwriting) with Romola Nijinsky, with a foreword by Paul Claudel, London: Victor Gollancz/Toronto: Ryerson Press

1938 – "Photographs of America: Walker Evans", in: Walker Evans: American Photographs, New York: Museum of Modern Art

1939 – Ballet Alphabet: A Primer for Laymen, New York: Kamin Publishers

1943 – "American Battle Painting: 1776–1918", Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution/New York: Museum of Modern Art

1947 – The Drawings of Pavel Tchelitchew and his last book, published in 1994, was Tchelitchev, a full-scale study that used a variant spelling of the artist's name.

1947 – "Henri Cartier-Bresson: Documentary Humanist", in: The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (with another text by Beaumont Newhall), New York: Museum of Modern Art

1952 – The Classic Ballet

1959 – What Ballet Is All About: An American Glossary, with photographs by Martha Swope, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dance Perspectives

1965 – Rhymes and More Rhymes of a Pfc., a book of poems. The poet W.H. Auden praised this book as "the most convincing, moving and impressive" book he had read about World War II.

1967 – "Whitehouse Happening", a play about President Lincoln's assassination

1967 – "The Dance Encyclopedia" by Anatole Chujoy, P.W. Manchester and Lincoln Kirsten (April 15, 1967)

1969 – "W. Eugene Smith: Success or Failure, Art or History", in: W. Eugene Smith: His Photographs and Notes, New York: Aperture

1970 – Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing, (August 24, 1970)

1970 – Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet, New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers

1973 – "Elie Nadelman", New York: Eakins Press

1973 – "The New York City Ballet" with photographs by Martha Swope and George Platt Lynes

1975 – Nijinsky Dancing (November 17, 1975)

1978 – Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein's The New York City Ballet: expanded to include the years 1973–1978, in celebration of the company's thirtieth anniversary

1984 – Paul Cadmus, New York: Imago Imprint

1984 – Fifty Ballet Masterworks: From the 16th Century to the 20th Century, (August 1, 1984)

1987 – Quarry: A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs, Pasadena, California: Twelvetrees Press

1987 – The Poems of Lincoln Kirsten

1989 – Memorial to a Marriage, (October 1989). A history and meditation on the Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White.

1991 – "By with to and from: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader," edited by Nicholas Jenkins, New York, N.Y.: Farrar Straus and Giroux

1992 – "Puss in Boots" by Lincoln Kirstein and Alain Vaes (March 1992)

1994 – "Tchelitchev", Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twelvetrees Press

1994 – "Mosaic: Memoirs", New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 1, 1994)[1]


Broadway credits[edit]

  • The Saint of Bleecker Street [Original, Play, Drama, Play with music] Production Supervisor December 27, 1954 – April 2, 1955
  • Misalliance [Revival, Play, Comedy] New York City Drama Company managing director March 6, 1953 – June 27, 1953
  • The Ballet Caravan – Billy the Kid choreographed by Eugene Loring – May 24, 1939 – [unknown]
  • Filling Station [Original, ballet, One Act] choreographed by Lew Christensen, premiered January 6, 1938, Hartford Connecticut

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing (1935), New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • Ballet Alphabet: A Primer for Laymen (1939), New York: Kamin
  • The Latin-American Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (1943), New York: The Museum of Modern Art
  • The Classic Ballet: Basic Technique and Terminology (with Muriel Stuart, 1952), New York: Knopf
  • Movement & Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet (1970), New York: Praeger
  • The New York City Ballet (1973), New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-46652-7
  • Rhymes of a Pfc (rev. ed. 1980), Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0-87923-330-3
  • Ballet, Bias and Belief: Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings (1983), New York: Dance Horizons. ISBN 0-87127-133-8
  • Quarry: A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs (1986), Pasadena, Calif.: Twelvetrees. ISBN 0-942642-27-9
  • The Poems of Lincoln Kirstein (1987), New York: Atheneum. ISBN 0-689-11923-2
  • Tchelitchev (1994), Santa Fe, N.M.: Twelvetrees. ISBN 0-942642-40-6
  • Lincoln Kirstein's complete bibliography: Lincoln Kirstein: A Bibliography of Published Writings, 1922–1996 (2007), New York: Eakins Press Foundation
    (available online at

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Jack Anderson (January 6, 1996). "Lincoln Kirstein, City Ballet Co-Founder, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-02-09. Lincoln Kirstein, a co-founder of the New York City Ballet and a visionary who never wavered in his belief that ballet could flourish in America... 
  2. ^ "Lincoln Kirstein", New york Public Library
  3. ^ a b Monuments Men Foundation: Kuhn, Monuments Men> Kirstein, Pfc. Lincoln E.
  4. ^ a b Alastair Macaulay, "A Paragon of the Arts, as Both Man and Titan" (review of Martin Duberman, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein), Books of the Times, New York Times, 4 May 2007, accessed 5 January 2015
  5. ^ Scannell, Vernon. A Proper Gentleman , Robson Books, London: 1977 ISBN 0903895862
  6. ^ a b The Kirstein Century
  7. ^ Lincoln Kirstein Official Website


External links[edit]