Keynes's reputation rests on his fearsome intellect. But marriage to a Russian ballerina helped tooby Judith Mackrell / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Keeping Maynard alive
In 1921, when John Maynard Keynes admitted to his friends that he had fallen in love with the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, it was assumed he was indulging in an eccentric, even a perverse peccadillo. Not only was the near exclusively homosexual Keynes declaring passion for a woman, but the woman herself was in every sense a foreigner to his world.
The painter Duncan Grant, who had formerly been the love of Keynes’s life, expressed the view of most of his circle when he commented,”until I see them together it beggars my fancy.” Yet not only would the affair lead to a happy, stable marriage, it would also play an unforeseeably productive role in Keynes’s professional life. And, given Lopokova’s importance in sustaining her husband’s failing health as he negotiated American war aid and attended the Bretton Woods conference, Lopokova arguably played a rather central part in securing Britain’s position in the postwar world.
Keynes met Lopokova when she was dancing in London with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She seemed a creature from a fascinatingly different world. The daughter of a Russian peasant, she trained at the Imperial ballet school in St Petersburg and spent most of her adult life dancing across Europe and America. By 1921 she was one of the world’s greatest ballerinas, so popular that fans chanted her name during performances. She was well connected too, counting Stravinsky among her lovers, and Picasso and JM Barrie among her friends. Her witty, poetic style of Anglo-Russian chatter was considered among the more diverting entertainments in London.
Such talents were not enough to convince Keynes’s circle, however, many of whom snubbed her in Bloomsbury, where Keynes took her to live. Virginia Woolf wrote despairingly that it was impossible to “argue solidly” in her presence. Lopokova in turn found some of Keynes’s colleagues, especially the economists, excruciating company: “Sir John Symons on free trade I imagine too dull even for moths.”
But it was an economist, Austin Robinson, who saw that the couple’s happiness depended on such differences. A bluestocking, especially in Keynes’s field, would never have suited: “If she were less than first rate,” said Robinson, “he would have despised her. If she had been first rate he would have broken her heart.” As it was, Keynes could worship her talent while being diverted by the comic, intuitive flights of her mind. She read all his books, and while suggesting that his discussions of “purchasing power parity or forward markets in exchange [were] difficult to grasp for a usual person” she found his masterpiece The General Theory “beautiful like Bach.”
Marriage also inspired Keynes’s professional life. The most obvious influence was sharpening his interest in ballet itself. Keynes had always been passionate about the arts, putting the case for public funding with eloquence when, in 1945, he drafted the constitution for the newly formed arts council. It was through engagement with Lopokova’s profession that he helped Britain’s limited ballet scene become central to the national arts provision. It began with his role as treasurer of the Camargo society, a loose organisation of British-based dancers, choreographers and composers that was kept afloat during the depression by Keynes’s contacts, powers of persuasion and sometimes money. He also supported the small Vic-Wells ballet company which turned into the Royal Ballet in 1956.
For the wider world, however, the significance of their marriage lay in its impact on Keynes’s writing and diplomacy. Domestic happiness suited him. Keynes was whimsical in his devotion, writing tributes to his “dearest darling Lydochka,” his “miele” and his “pupsik.” The vivid erotic code they developed (“foxings” and “gobblings” and “serenading with fingers”) show such tributes extending to the bedroom. If Keynes continued to flirt with young men, he formed no other significant homosexual attachments, while Lopokova was entirely faithful.
Living with Lydia both settled and liberated Keynes, giving him the confidence to attempt his later writings. Beatrice Webb credited “his love marriage with the fascinating little Russian dancer” as the force “that awakened his emotional sympathies with poverty and suffering.”
Lopokova’s most quantifiable contribution, however, was sustaining Keynes for the last Herculean tasks of his late career. In 1937 he was prostrated with his first attack of coronary illness, and Lopokova abandoned her career to nurse him. Keynes’s condition, easily treatable now, in those days took a complicated regime of diet, rest, sulphur treatments and ice packs even to keep him alive. Lopokova was a terrier in defence of his health—and she stuck close to his side through all the arduous trips he made to North America during the war, maintaining his regimen and sustaining his spirits. It was emotionally exhausting work, but most of Keynes’s contemporaries enjoyed having her around—even when her frustration vented itself in outrageous naughtiness, as on a trip to Ottawa when she descended from a plane to greet the high commissioner with an enthusiastic account—audible to his entire entourage—of an erotic dream she’d had about him.
Most of those around Keynes concurred that she had basically kept him alive for Britain. But she could not keep him alive for herself, and he died on Easter day, 1946. Lopokova was globally famous during her heyday as a ballerina yet, as her close friend the choreographer Frederick Ashton wrote, she also deserves her place in history “as the most devoted wife a great man could have had. I always thought that it was through your will, devotion and care, that Maynard was spared to do the great work that he did, for your vigil was incessant both on his pleasure and his work.”