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Ballet Master

In the new biography René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of Lost Life, the early 20th-century impresario—who died at Auschwitz and symbolizes the tragedy of French Jewry—remains a riddle

Adam Kirsch
July 12, 2011
The Ballets Russes performing Petrouchka at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 11, 1937.(State Library of New South Wales)
The Ballets Russes performing Petrouchka at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 11, 1937.(State Library of New South Wales)

There is a double meaning in the subtitle of René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life (Oxford, $29.95), the new biography by Judith Chazin-Bennahum. The life of René Blum was lost in the Holocaust: Like tens of thousands of French Jews, he was deported from Drancy, the internment camp in Paris, to Auschwitz, where he died in 1942. But it was the way he lived, not the way he died, that makes him such an elusive presence even in his own biography. Blum was that most evanescent of things, a ballet impresario. He worked behind the scenes in an art that itself produces nothing tangible, whose most famous names are no more than names after a few generations have passed.

In many ways, Blum might be compared to Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet. Both were artistically inclined sons of prosperous Jewish businessmen, both had impeccable taste and wide connections, and both devoted their lives to building ballet companies. But just as Kirstein, in Martin Duberman’s recent biography The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, seems to shrink in the titanic presence of George Balanchine, so Blum, in Chazin-Bennahum’s book, seems rather less interesting than the artists he patronized, from Marcel Proust to Marcel Pagnol to—as it happens—George Balanchine.

The thinness of René Blum and the Ballets Russes can also be partly explained by the thinness of the sources. Chazin-Bennahum is writing some 70 years after her subject’s death, which means that everyone who knew him is also dead. Blum was apparently working on a memoir before he was arrested—Chazin-Bennahum has found a publisher’s advertisement for the book, “Souvenir sur La Danse,” that appeared in a ballet program in 1939. But whatever he wrote has disappeared, along with his personal papers and letters.

Another biographer might have responded to these absences by trying to give a rich picture of Blum’s milieu, to deduce the man from his time and place. This would be especially interesting in Blum’s case, because in addition to his own accomplishments, he was notable as the younger brother of Leon Blum—the first Socialist and first Jew to become prime minister of France. But Chazin-Bennahum, a former professional dancer turned dance historian, is much more at ease with the details of the ballet world than with the broader world of politics and culture, of Frenchness and Jewishness. Her accounts of such matters are shallow and sometimes erroneous, and her translations from the French are awkward. The second half of her book, which focuses on Blum’s 15 years as a producer in Monte Carlo, is much better than the first, in which she tries to situate him in relation to the Dreyfus Affair and World War I.

René Blum was born in 1878, the youngest of five boys in an assimilated, ardently French family. Their Frenchness was all the stronger because, like many French Jews, they traced their ancestry to Alsace, a German-speaking province that was annexed by Germany in 1871. (Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer at the center of the Dreyfus Affair, had the same background.) The oldest of the Blum brothers, Lucien, was destined to take over the family firm, Blum Frères, a women’s garment wholesaler. But Leon, the second son, followed the classic path of using his father’s capital to launch himself on an intellectual and literary career. In the 1890s, Leon Blum was a leading critic for the avant-garde arts magazine Revue Blanche, and the connections he established were of great use to his younger brother, René. In that halcyon age of the French Jewish bourgeoisie, the Blums lived a life of idyllic refinement, mixing in salons and summer houses with painters like Vuillard and Bonnard and musicians like Casals and Ravel.

The Dreyfus Affair, which erupted in 1894, revealed that even the most elite French Jews were living over an abyss of anti-Semitism. The false accusation of treason against Dreyfus, and the prolonged efforts of the French Army to cover up the falsehood, set the stage for a ferocious culture war, with Jews functioning as the symbolic battleground. To the anti-Dreyfusards, treason was to be expected from a Jew, and the whole campaign to rehabilitate Dreyfus was an act of Jewish-liberal hostility to France. To the Dreyfusards, the case was a test of secular and liberal principles—whether France owed justice to a Jew as much as to any other citizen. In the end, the Dreyfusards won, but the whole Affair exposed the deep divisions in French society and helped to politicize a generation of intellectuals—including Leon Blum, who launched himself on a career as a Socialist politician.

René Blum, it seems, stepped neatly into his brother’s vacated role as an aesthete and connoisseur. Never venturing into the world of politics, he became an editor for a literary magazine called Gil Blas, where he worked from 1903 to 1913. Chazin-Bennahum tries to mine his contributions for some sense of Blum’s personality and taste, but it’s a losing battle; she makes heavy weather of what were plainly light, dispensable theater reviews and questionnaires. In one issue, for instance, Blum invited contributors to answer the question, “What are your hopes for a vacation this year and where do you think you’ll spend it?” Chazin-Bennahum writes, “We must remember that for the French, vacations are sacred and offer vital moments of reprieve and rejuvenation.” Well, maybe, but it was still a silly question.

Without a doubt, Blum’s most important contribution to the world of letters came not as a writer or even as an editor but as a friend of Marcel Proust. Proust belonged to the same artistic and Dreyfusard circles as the Blums, and René had known him since 1902. But few people expected the dandyish Proust to produce a serious novel, and in 1913 he could not find a publisher for Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. He turned to the well-connected Blum, and, as a friend recalled, “with an amazing and obstinate energy that Blum rarely used for his own interests, he sought out [the publisher] Bernard Grasset and pleaded Proust’s cause.” Grasset published the book, and Proust sent Blum a copy of the first edition, inscribed, “In this way you get back the book that you brought forth with such a noble gesture.”

This episode brings out one of the paradoxes of Blum’s character: the combination of his personal modesty, even shyness, and his aggressive support of the art and artists he admired. One testimonial from a friend described him as “tender, amused, comprehensive, sensitive. … He was always kind, with clemency and urbanity.” Yet he abandoned his refined milieu in the very first days of World War I, enlisting in the Army at the age of 36. He ended up winning the Croix de Guerre in a delightfully characteristic fashion, as his citation explains: “he did not cease in the course of the evacuation of Amiens … to show proof of his great courage … offering spontaneously during perilous missions to evacuate great historic objects [and] … to save works of art.” Few people get the chance to demonstrate so concretely that they are willing to die for art.

But it was not until 1924, when he was in his mid-40s, that René Blum began the work for which he is most remembered. Then as now, Monaco was a favorite resort for rich and aristocratic tourists, who went to lose money at the casino and be entertained in the process. Blum was hired to provide the entertainment, as artistic director of the Theatre de Monte-Carlo. It was the job he had been training for all his life: As a friend wrote, “He had read everything, seen everything, and heard everything. He would know exactly what play, opera or ballet could be produced by any French house, as he had a deep understanding of the inside workings of companies and producing.”

Now he had the ideal situation for a producer, with the deep pockets of the Casino behind him, and a highly refined audience eager for the newest and the best. Chazin-Bennahum describes some of the theatrical works he put on: avant-garde plays by Pirandello, classics like La Dame aux Camelias, English-language works by Shaw and Wilde to appeal to English tourists. There was even a play by Israel Zangwill, Le roi des schnorrers (“The King of Beggars”)—one would like to know what the Monegasques made of that.

Since before World War I, the great theatrical draw in Monte Carlo had been the Ballets Russes, under the direction of Serge Diaghilev. This legendary company made ballet into one of the most dynamic modernist arts, and it turned dancers and choreographers like Nijinsky, Massine, and Fokine into legends. But with the death of Diaghilev in 1929, the company and its traditions threatened to dissolve. It was at this moment that Blum made his greatest contribution—and that Chazin-Bennahum’s book comes into its own.

In the teeth of the Depression, Blum maneuvered to reconstitute the company as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, fending off rival impresarios to keep the dances, dancers, and sets intact. Chazin-Bennahum chronicles the absolutely Byzantine intrigues that set Blum against the shady producer known as Colonel de Basil—first as partners, then as bitter rivals. As chief choreographer, Blum hired the young George Balanchine, who was ousted in favor of Leonide Massine, who gave way to Michel Fokine; Chazin-Bennahum describes the major dances each man made for the troupe.

For Blum, handling all these mercurial artists was a draining, sometimes thankless task. By the time he had to sell the company to an American backer, in 1938, he sounded rather discouraged: “I have a love for this art and for the artists for whom I have sacrificed almost everything, without any hope for a return,” he said plaintively. But to those who cared about dance, Blum was a heroic figure, and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo gave him a personal standing separate from his famous brother Leon, the prime minister. In 1939, during the company’s American tour, he was received by FDR at Hyde Park.

In the spring of 1940, as France fell to the Germans, Blum was again in America, and he was urged by friends to stay there. But his family and national pride made him insist on returning, and he even stayed in Paris, in the German-occupied zone, rather than flee to the Vichy-controlled south: “I and my family are too well known to flee from the Germans, or to ask for protection by the Vichy authorities,” he said. As the brother of Leon Blum, he was an obvious target for the Nazis, and it was only a matter of time before he was picked up by the Gestapo.

Blum was arrested on Dec. 12, 1941, in a sweep that targeted 700 notable French Jews, and interned in a camp at Compiègne. Fellow-prisoners who survived testified that Blum’s sweet temper and courage made him a beloved figure in the camp. He was one of the favorite teachers in an improvised lecture series, where he spoke on literature and dance. In his late 50s, in poor health, starving, he became a symbol of the endurance of all that was best in French culture: “He was a continuous ray of light that sustained our hope and our confidence. He always thought of others before himself,“ another prisoner wrote.

When Blum was transferred to Drancy and saw Jews being sent to Auschwitz, he told a friend, “if one day I get out of here, I will fly to America, to Russia and everywhere in order to tell this story. … Humanity cannot possibly be as villainous as these Germans.” But on Sept. 23, 1942, it was his turn to board the transport. According to one unconfirmable story, he was called for by name and led off by guards as soon as the train arrived at Auschwitz, then sent to the crematorium, where he was burned alive. That one life could include such heights of art and generosity and such depths of suffering is itself enough reason for René Blum to be remembered.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.