Cat’s Paws at Work again

I finally caught up with the justly praised centenary exhibition devoted to Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the Victoria and Albert Museum and drooled over the fabulous costumes remarkably preserved with all their brilliance and sparkle intact. I loved the fascinating commentaries on the music of the ballets by Howard Goodall and restored footage of Karsavina showing what dancing was like before the Ballets Russes when dancers had some flesh on them. And I consumed a host of mini biographies of such key artistic figures of the early twentieth century as Stravinsky, Bakst, Nijinsky, Fokine, Lydia Lopkova and my namesake – the wild and beautiful ballerina, Ida Rubinstein. For 25 years I was a Rubinstein, too, but in those days only knew about Anton and Arthur not Ida.

But I was reminded of one story which was not told here: on June 21 1911 Nijinsky made his debut on the London stage largely thanks to the support patronage and organisation of the beautiful society hostess, Gladys de Grey by then Gladys Ripon. Each performance of the Ballets Russes was a personal triumph for Gladys none more so than the one given four days after the coronation, in front of the new King and Queen, at which she swept up and down the aisle of the Opera House personally greeting as many members of the audience as she could.

This public and dramatic success worked like a knife in and old wound for Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie (by then Mrs Cornwallis West). Jennie could never forget how her late husband, Lord Randolph had admired, wooed and perhaps even bedded Gladys. Jennie decided to pursue an even more ambitious goal of promoting a Shakespeare Memorial and a National Theatre largely out of rivalry with Gladys. Actually Jennie’s was a brilliantly imaginative idea to raise funds for a National Memorial Shakespearean Theatre. She recreated a Shakespearean world at Earl’s Court with buildings designed by Lutyens, Elizabethan taverns and jousting competitions. But her event flopped and yet again Jennie lost money. Soon after she lost her husband too, George Cornwallis West. Jennie died in 1921 after a fall down stairs Diaghilev eight years later in 1929.

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