“What a marriage of beauty and brains,
The fair Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes”
JOHN Maynard Keynes died sixty years ago, and if academia is mulling the anniversary so, too, is the ballet world.
Keynes was a towering intellect and a self-made millionaire, who set the foundations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He was also a haute bohemian, an arts patron and a Bloomsbury fixture, as well as chairman of the Arts Council, builder of the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and founder of the Opera House. He was famously homosexual and blissfully married to Lydia Lopokova.
Lopokova was a Russian ballerina who danced with the Tsar’s troupe, then with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (standing up to “Big Serge”, as she called him), then on her own in America in touring vaudeville. Although not a pure classical dancer like Pavlova or Spessivtseva, on stage she was all vivacity – like “champagne corks popping”, remarked Frederick Ashton. Lydia was a key figure in the formation of British ballet, and an A-list celebrity before the term was coined. She knew the Coutaulds, Stravinsky and Picasso, who drew her often. She was partnered by Nijinsky, and worked with the young George Balanchine, who later formed New York City Ballet, while her brother ran what later became the Kirov Ballet.
Lydia married, then bolted, then fell for Keynes, and in the process drew oceanic spite from the Bloomsberries. Clive Bell described her spiritual home as Woolworth’s, Strachey called her a “half-witted canary”, while Vanessa Bell wrote to Keynes: “Don’t marry her... she’d be a very expensive wife and would give up dancing, and is preferred as a mistress”.
However, it is Virginia Woolf’s vitriol that makes the jaw drop: “Lydia has the soul of a squirrel. She sits polishing the sides of her nose with her front paws. Poor little wretch, trapped in Bloomsbury, what can she do but learn Shakespeare by heart. It is tragic to see her sitting down to King Lear”.
If Bloomsbury was worried that Lydia would cramp Keynes’ intellect, they were wrong, for during his marriage he wrote A Treatise on Money and The General Theory. More likely than a reasoned objection, theirs was old-fashioned envy: Lydia was funny, lively and truly exotic, a genuine bohemian who was much sharper than she let on.
Lydia Lopokova met Keynes at a party given by the Sitwells for the Diaghilev troupe in 1918. Keynes was introduced to the impresario and Lopokova, who, it is said, let him pinch her legs to feel how strong she was. It wasn’t until 1921 that romance bloomed as Keynes watched her in performance after performance of Diaghilev’s doomed Sleeping Princess (it bombed, and Diaghilev fled his creditors to Europe). The couple married in 1925 at St Pancras Registry Office and – contrary to Bell’s prediction – she continued to dance, first with Massine, then with her own group, then with the Camargo Society and, briefly, the Vic-Wells Ballet.
A less well-known episode in their marriage is their visit to the Soviet Union in 1925 to see her family in St Petersburg. Lydia’s brother, Fedor, was artistic director of GATOB, the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet (formerly the Tsar’s Theatre, latterly the Kirov, lately the Mariinsky). Fedor fell in and out with the Soviet authorities, much like his musical collaborator Dimitri Shostakovich, and Keynes will have noted Fedor’s presence at the heart of Russia’s great ballet tradition, with a huge company, glittering theatre and a schooldrilling future dancers in the company style. Back in London, Lydia and Keynes were soon involved in Britain’s fledgling ballet culture, with Lydia “choreographic advisor” to the Camargo Society and Keynes its patron and financial organiser.
Keynes did little to disguise his “strong predilection in favour of ballet”, wrote CEMA secretary Mary Glasgow when Keynes became its chair in 1942. He later turned CEMA into the Arts Council, and negotiated the release of the Royal Opera House from Mecca, guiding its formation into the nation’s premier theatre for opera and ballet. The Opera House reopened in 1946 with The Royal Ballet’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty, the ballet Lydia danced back in 1921 when Keynes fell for her. He died only weeks later.
Lydia survived Keynes by almost four decades, living into old age, as ballet dancers often do. During their marriage she made him happy. “What are you thinking about?”, he once asked her. “Nothing”, she replied. “I wish I could”, he smiled.