The Untold Story of Jacob’s Pillow

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THE DANCE FESTIVAL known as Jacob’s Pillow began as the summer home of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers in 1933. With that as its lineage, Shawn’s enterprise would seem to be entitled to a gay back-story. Surprisingly, that story has yet to be fully told, and many of the Pillow’s 70,000 annual visitors to Becket, Massachusetts, are probably unaware of this aspect of Pillow history.

Responsibility for this lack of awareness can be assigned to Pillow founder Ted Shawn (1891–1972), whose very livelihood depended upon keeping the full story under wraps. Shawn was a fascinating and complex character whose driving ambition and tireless exploits laid much of the groundwork for American modern dance. A Midwesterner who studied dance to recover from crippling diphtheria while he was a theology student at the University of Denver, Shawn began his professional career in Los Angeles. He enjoyed moderate success there and even conceived and starred in an early dance film for the Thomas Edison Company while he was still in his early twenties. But true fame and fortune came in 1914 after he traveled to New York and formed a partnership with the legendary Ruth St. Denis. He had worshipped St. Denis since first seeing her perform several years earlier (she was thirteen years his senior) and, before the year was out, they became husband and wife.

Their union was formalized in the name of their dance company—Denishawn—and the couple’s marital status was of considerable importance to the success of their enterprise. Dancing was not considered to be much of a profession in the early 20th century, with most Americans considering the words “dancer” and “prostitute” to be almost synonymous. The public’s low opinion was not ameliorated by the radical beliefs of a true dance reformer like Isadora Duncan, whose liaisons and illegitimate offspring were too far out of the mainstream for her artistry to gain widespread acceptance. So a husband-and-wife team was a distinct advantage in the marketplace, and the couple made the most of it. Agnes de Mille, the dancer-choreographer who was part of a show business dynasty that included her uncle Cecil B. DeMille, once commented: “Parents could send their children to Denishawn because Ruth and Ted were something very rare, they were respectable. They were respectable because they were married.”

Combining a deep spirituality with a taste for the exotic and a sure theatrical sense, St. Denis and Shawn together created a dazzling series of dances and spectacles. In a fascinating prelude to the multicultural presentations that continue to this day at Jacob’s Pillow, Denishawn borrowed from many cultures, embodying its all-encompassing philosophy that defined dance as “every way that man has ever moved rhythmically to express himself.” A Dance Pageant of Egypt, Greece, and India was followed by other major productions such as the Native American saga Feather of the Dawn (with the soon-to-be-notorious film star Louise Brooks) and the Aztec-inspired Xochitl, which gave Martha Graham her first major role. In addition to stars such as Brooks and Graham, Denishawn created the next generation of dance innovators, including Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Jack Cole, and many others.

Shawn In spite of the public respectability that Shawn and St. Denis cultivated, there were extra-marital affairs from the very beginning, most of these allegedly pursued by St. Denis. Shawn biographer Walter Terry suggests that what Shawn most wanted and needed was a permanent relationship, and that he might have remained true to St. Denis had she been faithful to him. In any case, the marriage was irreparably harmed around 1928 when Shawn hired a business manager named Fred Beckman, who became romantically involved with both husband and wife. This three-way affair accelerated an end to the mighty Denishawn empire, which had exerted a considerable force in the performing arts world for fifteen years, touring coast-to-coast and training a generation of dancers and teachers. The scandal could have also ended the career of Ted Shawn, as St. Denis threatened to divorce him and name their mutual lover as correspondent. This never came to pass, but St. Denis and Shawn did formally separate in 1930.

It was during this eventful period that Shawn first encountered “Jacob’s Pillow,” an abandoned farm so named because of a large, pillow-shaped boulder that called to mind the biblical Jacob. Located on a dirt road in a sparsely-populated corner of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, it seemed an unlikely place to serve as a catalyst for much of anything. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone. The only buildings were a couple of 18th-century barns and the old farmhouse. But Shawn was itching to undertake a new enterprise of some sort, and the Pillow property presented just the right blank slate on which he could begin sketching out his dreams. Here he could create his own utopian community, and that possibility must have been on his mind when he declared Jacob’s Pillow to be the headquarters for his future artistic visions.

His ideas didn’t immediately take form, but seeds were being planted. The first physical improvement to the property was the conversion of the largest barn into a dance studio. While the groups of dancers that Shawn gathered at the Pillow in the summers of 1931 and 1932 were little different from the Denishawn company that he’d been directing for the previous fifteen years, there were more dances in the repertory designed exclusively for men. A key turning point came in the form of an academic appointment to the faculty of nearby Springfield College, where Shawn taught dance to an all-male student body of future physical education teachers. Some of the dances that he developed with his students formed the core of a history-making event that occurred on March 21, 1933, at the Repertory Theatre in Boston, with the first public performance by a group billed as “Ted Shawn with His Ensemble of Men Dancers.” In addition to the Springfield athletes, the group also included former Denishawn dancer Barton Mumaw, who was to become Shawn’s lover and an essential part of Jacob’s Pillow for nearly seventy years.

Mumaw’s relationship to the Pillow was in some ways analogous to Ruth St. Denis’s role in Denishawn. In both cases, it was a romantic relationship with Ted Shawn that gave birth to an artistic enterprise. Of course, St. Denis was an established artist and Mumaw was at first little more than a promising student, and the St. Denis-Shawn alliance was played out in public while the Mumaw-Shawn partnership was a secret one. And yet the comparison is telling. If Denishawn could be seen as the embodiment of male and female, an organization whose trademark symbol was an artist’s depiction of yin and yang, then the Pillow of the 1930’s was the antithesis—a celebration of the male.

Surprisingly and ironically, the very battle cry that Shawn shouted with His Men Dancers—that it was possible to be a male dancer without being a sissy—seemed to be contradicted by his relationship with the company’s lead dancer. Or was Shawn’s larger point an even farther-reaching one than audiences of his time could fathom? Even though it was not framed as such, perhaps Shawn’s real crusade was to prove that a performer’s own personal sexuality was not a public issue and therefore should not be inferred by his behavior onstage. Audiences of the 1930’s would certainly have not been ready for such a message.

It is clear from looking at some of the press of the day that Shawn’s notion that men could and should be dancers was radical enough, though not rejected out of hand. A Time magazine report in 1935 stated: “Sophisticated observers regarded the venture as a freakish experiment, pooh-poohed the idea that a troupe could survive without women to decorate it.” A 1938 feature in the St. Louis Star-Times commented: “The dancers were so assertively masculine that audiences had the uneasy feeling they were in a gymnasium watching a workout. But the experiment caught on, and now it’s a full-blown success.”

Dance writer Walter Terry pointed out that Shawn promoted privacy for all his dancers and didn’t pry into their personal lives. Each of the men built his own cabin on the Pillow grounds, situated at a considerable distance from the others. “Ted never visited a cabin unless asked,” wrote Terry. “He never spied on any of his boys. He never quizzed them on their private lives. He demanded that they be gentlemen in public, comport themselves with dignity, and never, ever show one touch of effeminacy.”

The publicity generated by the Men Dancers seemed designed to dispel any suspicions that the men were weak in any way. A full-page feature in the Boston Sunday Post in 1936 includes photos of the men in all manner of strenuous exercise, mostly in mid-air. The accompanying blurb reads, “These lads, besides doing all the work on the farm, train five hShawn on rockours daily. They’re more rugged and better fit physically than any other athlete in the world and this dancing business, though it may seem simple, is more hazardous than any he-man sport.” This is one of many articles that describe the men’s grueling itineraries of one night stands in hundreds of cities with performances everywhere from high school auditoriums to Carnegie Hall. The press even spread Shawn’s message to Havana and London, where one newspaper headline proclaimed, “All-Men Ballet Has Vigour That Silences the Scoffers.”

The development of Jacob’s Pillow as a performance center and educational institution was essentially a byproduct of Shawn’s Men Dancers. Even though it was originally intended to be a retreat, the Pillow opened its doors to the first 45 curious visitors on July 10, 1933. Audience members paid 75 cents each to hear Shawn lecture and see the scantily-clad young men dance in their rustic barn-studio, with tea and sandwiches served by the dancers as part of the bargain. A tradition was born, and the Men Dancers performed at the Pillow every summer thereafter for ever-expanding crowds.

Blessed with a showman’s sense of timing, Shawn knew that his Men Dancers had run their course after seven years of touring, and they gave their last performance at Jacob’s Pillow in 1940. Shawn leased the property to other directors for two summers, as the Pillow grew to be a wide-ranging festival that embraced all forms of dance. In late 1941, Shawn organized a board of directors to incorporate and purchase the property from him (for $25,000), hire him as director, and build the country’s first dance theater. And so began the final act of Shawn’s artistic life, this one lasting thirty years, until his death in 1972.

As the impresario of an international dance festival and school, Shawn was again on a mission that combined his personal and professional lives. His partnership with Barton Mumaw had lasted throughout the Men Dancers period and well into the 1940’s, when Mumaw served in the armed forces. Extensive daily correspondence between them, now housed in the Jacob’s Pillow Archives, documents the development of the festival as well as the continuing closeness of their relationship. In an eerie replay of the tangled alliances that ended the Shawn–St. Denis marriage, Mu-maw began a relationship with a young stage manager, John Christian, and introduced him to Shawn. While Mumaw was off on tour in 1948, Shawn and Christian became romantically involved, ending the Shawn-Mumaw duo and creating the third and last significant partnership in Shawn’s life.

Just as Denishawn was the offspring of St. Denis and Shawn, and the Men Dancers company was a reflection of the Mumaw-Shawn alliance, so then was Shawn’s period as director of Jacob’s Pillow a product of his partnership with John Christian. Although Christian’s role shifted and expanded over the years, he was Shawn’s right-hand man in almost every way, and they later formed a potent triumvirate with business manager Grace Badorek in the mid-1950’s that would last until Shawn’s death. Christian’s final job title was executive director, and he was publicly acknowledged to be Shawn’s successor as head of the entire enterprise.

Shawn managed to maintain professional and personal relationships with both St. Denis and Mumaw, each of whom continued to perform at the Pillow almost every year. They all came together in 1964 when the Pillow hosted an elaborate 50th wedding anniversary celebration for Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn—a couple who had ceased living together more than thirty years earlier. Mumaw was on the performance schedule that summer, and St. Denis and Shawn danced a new duet based on a love poem that St. Denis had written some years earlier. In his excellent memoir, Barton Mumaw, Dancer (2000), which candidly discusses his relationship with Shawn, Mumaw wrote of the anniversary celebration: “To my astonishment and delight, the press treated it all with only a few raised eyebrows and a rare double entendre, as writers, too, paid homage to the survivors.”

After Shawn’s death in 1972, John Christian did indeed ascend to the top position at the Pillow, although he was only able to hold it for one year due to health considerations; he died in 1982. Shawn’s ghostly presence continued to dominate through the next three Pillow directors, all of whom had worked with him in some capacity. Two of them, Walter Terry and Charles Reinhart, only managed to last one year each, just as Christian had. But in 1975, Shawn protégé Norman Walker took over the reins and stabilized the Pillow operation for five solid seasons. The festival’s most dramatic changes began in 1980, when a young arts administrator with no previous ties to Shawn or the Pillow was selected as director. Liz Thompson had ideas that seemed radical at the time, such as opening up the formerly private grounds to the general public, but she also had a deep reverence for Shawn and his efforts. It was Thompson, for instance, who revived the practice of giving a curtain speech before each performance, a custom that continues to this day.

It’s fair to ask what this untold history has to do with the Jacob’s Pillow of today—a vibrant and exciting destination for people of all ages and backgrounds who probably don’t know or care that the place owes much to its founder’s sexual orientation. But the Pillow’s 74 seasons of multi-layered activities and cultural diversity have ensured that there are many important stories embedded in the institution’s genes, and an awareness of previous connections can make a present-day visit all the more meaningful. African-Americans may be particularly proud of the property’s identification as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 19th century, while Japanese visitors are intrigued by Shawn’s early visits to the Far East and the dances he brought back from there. Those who revere the Royal Danish Ballet consider the Pillow to be sacred ground because it’s the venue that first introduced the Danes to the U.S., and Indian dancers derive inspiration from photos of Ram Gopal and Indrani on the Pillow stage in an earlier era.

Ella Baff, the Pillow’s executive director since 1998, has developed programming that is particularly wide-ranging both geographically and stylistically, and this has opened the doors to ever larger and more diverse audiences. Now that a widespread acceptance of gay public figures is more commonplace than it was in Shawn’s day, perhaps it is finally time to embrace the Pillow’s full past and encourage gay visitors to approach this place as one that has special meaning and significance.

 

Norton Owen, director of preservation for Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, with which he has been associated for thirty years, is the author of A Certain Place: The Jacob’s Pillow Story.

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