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…