Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Famous for her innovations in dance and notorious for her unconventional and controversial personal life, Isadora Duncan began an affair with Paris Singer, the married heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Scandal followed the pair not because of their liaison but because of Duncan’s notoriety for flirting with cultural and social mores and for her independence.

Summary of Event

Dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan first met Paris Singer in 1901 at the funeral of Singer’s brother-in-law, Prince Edmond de Polignac. Their affair, however, did not actually start until 1909. Singer was well educated, reared among the English aristocracy, and was a patron of the arts. He had called upon Duncan in her dressing room, expressing his admiration for her talent and her daring in exploring new dance forms, after one of her performances at the ThéÂtre Gaieté Lyrique in Paris. He offered to support her in her efforts to establish and maintain dancing schools to teach her form of dance to children. [kw]Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir, Dancer Isadora (1909-1916) Duncan, Isadora Singer, Paris Duncan, Isadora Singer, Paris [g]Europe;1909-1916: Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir[00120] [g]France;1909-1916: Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir[00120] [c]Sex;1909-1916: Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir[00120] [c]Performing arts;1909-1916: Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir[00120] [c]Public morals;1909-1916: Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir[00120] [c]Women’s issues;1909-1916: Dancer Isadora Duncan Begins Affair with Millionaire Heir[00120] Singer, Patrick

Isadora Duncan.

(Library of Congress)

Although Duncan was not immediately in love with Singer, she was intrigued by his offer. The patronage of a person as wealthy as Singer would open doors for her. She wistfully remarked that her millionaire had appeared. She began to spend time with him in 1909, and while at Beaulieu, in France, they became lovers. She called him her Lohengrin, her knight who had come to make possible her mission as a dancer.

Duncan was born in San Francisco, California, on May 26, 1877, to Joseph Charles Duncan and Mary “Dora” Gray Duncan. Her father had been a banker but lost both his bank and his fortune soon after Isadora was born. Her parents divorced in 1880 and Mary moved to Oakland with her four children. The family was very poor, and Mary taught piano. Soon her daughters were teaching dance to children. Already exhibiting her need for freedom and personal expression, the young Duncan dropped out of school. In 1895, the family moved to New York.

Duncan’s career began in New York when she became a dancer with Augustin Daly’s Daly, Augustin theater company. Restless and wishing to develop her own dance theories, she traveled to London with her family in 1899 and then to Paris in 1900. She was very well received as a dancer throughout Europe, but she also became well known for her ideas on politics and sexual mores. In 1904, she met theatrical designer Edward Gordon Craig. They became lovers and had a daughter, Deirdre, in 1906. Duncan’s affair with “her millionaire,” Singer, would begin some three years later in Paris.

The tall, blond Singer fascinated women. He was born in Paris in 1868 to Singer, Isaac Merritt Isaac Merritt Singer, founder of the Singer Manufacturing Company (noted for its sewing machines). Upon his father’s death in 1875, the young Singer inherited a very large fortune, which provided him with an income of about fifteen thousand dollars per week. He also inherited his father’s Devonshire mansion, Oldway, which he transformed into a replica of Versailles. In addition to Oldway, Singer maintained several other residences: a villa at Cap Ferrat in France, an apartment at Places des Vosges in Paris, and a town house in Cadogan Square in London. He also owned a yacht named Lady Evelyn. Singer, although married to Lillian Graham, with whom he had five children, nevertheless had many romantic adventures and enjoyed a reputation as a sought-after lover.

Duncan divided her life between Singer and her career. Taking her daughter Deirdre with her, she sailed to Italy with Singer on the Lady Evelyn. Then, Duncan left for an engagement in Russia. Upon returning to Paris, she joined Singer at his apartment at Place des Vosges. Shortly thereafter, they sailed again on the yacht. Then Duncan traveled to Venice by herself, repeating a pattern that would continue throughout their relationship.

It was in Venice that Duncan learned she was pregnant—Singer was the father. She had mixed feelings about having the baby. The pregnancy would change her physically and would likely affect her performances. She went on with her American tour. The last performance of the tour, at Carnegie Hall, met with a disapproving audience, shocked by her visible pregnancy. Arguing that the theme of her dance was fertility, Duncan flippantly dismissed the criticism.

In January, Duncan and Singer took a houseboat cruise on the Nile River, returned to Paris, and saw the birth of their son, Patrick Augustus, on May 1, 1910, in Beaulieu. Singer was very pleased with the birth of his son, but he was not mentioned as the father on the birth certificate. Upon returning to Paris, Singer suggested that Duncan host an elaborate party. He was then called away to London on business and suffered a stroke. Duncan joined him at Oldway.

After the birth of their son, Singer had asked Duncan to marry him several times, but she refused each time. At Oldway, however, she did attempt a trial run at married life. Singer wanted her to give up her career, believing she would still be happy. The life that he led with his aristocratic English friends, however, did not please Duncan. Moreover, she did not wish to abandon her career. Singer, hoping to make her happy, suggested that she hire a pianist and dance in the ballroom. André Caplet, assistant director of the Colonne Orchestra, arrived from Paris to play for her.

Duncan first found Caplet unbearably ugly, which pleased Singer. One day, however, on an afternoon ride, Duncan discovered her passion for Caplet. It was a brief affair, but Singer discovered it and Duncan returned to Paris under less than ideal circumstances. Duncan continued to dance and tour. She and Singer reconciled, parted again, and reconciled again. However, they quarreled frequently about money and Duncan’s flirtations.

On April 19, 1913, Singer asked Duncan to join him for lunch in Paris and to bring the children. They arrived in a rented car driven by an agency chauffeur. After lunch, Duncan rehearsed while the children and their nanny started back to Versailles. Their car stalled and a tragic accident resulted in the death of Deirdre, Patrick, and the nanny. It was Singer who informed Duncan of the tragedy. Singer, deeply grieved, checked into a clinic; Duncan, also grief stricken, went to the island of Corfu to heal. Singer joined her there in the summer. Duncan’s desire to have another child met only with displeasure from Singer, who abruptly left her one morning. Duncan later said that Singer could not bear her grief.

Nonetheless, the Duncan-Singer affair continued until 1916. Singer had joined Duncan in Palm Beach, Florida, that year. He had provided the funds to bring her young dancers, the Isadorables, to New York. He then proceeded to take a $100,000 option on Madison Square Garden and offered the arena to her to use for her school of dance. Singer made the offer at a dinner party on March 6 for Duncan and a large number of her family and friends. Duncan sarcastically rejected his offer, quipping that he was simply using her name to advertise prizefights. In an extreme state of anger, Singer left the table and refused to see or communicate with Duncan again.

In 1918, having divorced Lillian Graham, Singer married Joan Balsh, a nurse who had been in charge of a soldiers’ hospital on his Paignton estate. Duncan filled her life with parties and men. In 1922, she married Russian poet Esenin, Sergei Sergei Esenin, who was eighteen years younger than Duncan. Esenin, however, committed suicide in 1925.

Duncan did see Singer once again shortly before her death on September 14, 1927. (She died from an accidental strangulation when her long shawl, which was around her neck, tangled in the wheel axle of the car in which she was riding.) Singer was no longer her Lohengrin nor her millionaire (he had lost much of his fortune) nor her passionate lover. He was simply a friend who had come to help her financially.

Impact

During the early years of the twentieth century, Duncan’s affair with Singer was in every aspect scandalous. Singer was married and Duncan had an illegitimate child with him. Their affair provided her with money for whatever she wanted, be it personal luxury or funding for her work in dance. However, their situation was not unique. Many wealthy—and married—men of the period were patrons of the arts and were involved in sexual affairs. What made the affair even more scandalous and noteworthy was that it was Duncan who was part of the affair. Her radical ideas about dance, politics, sex, and marriage, and her success as a dancer, caught the public’s attention, and kept it throughout her career. Duncan, Isadora Singer, Paris

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daly, Ann. Done into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. New ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002. Examines Duncan’s life in the context of the morals of her time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duncan, Isadora. Isadora Speaks: Writings and Speeches of Isadora Duncan. Edited by Franklin Rosemont. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1994. Discusses Duncan’s development of dance theory and her social and moral ideas. Preface by Ann Barzel. Selected bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. My Life. 1927. Reprint. New York: Liveright, 1995. Discusses her personal commitment to the arts and to establishing modern dance as an art form. Duncan also addresses her often scandalous personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kurth, Peter. Isadora: A Sensational Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004. Many details of Duncan’s personal life. Includes commentary by her contemporaries on her contributions to dance. An exhaustive account of more than seven hundred pages.

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