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  • Martha Graham’s Gilded Cage:Blood Memory—An Autobiography (1991)
  • Victoria Phillips (bio)

“I’m only a bird in a gilded cage, a beautiful sight to see.”

—Martha Graham, in a taped interview for Blood Memory1

Historians and dance critics alike have used phrases from Martha Graham’s Blood Memory: An Autobiography (1991) as though it were written in her own hand, despite concerns about the degree of her authorship expressed upon the book’s publication and repeated complaints from those who danced with her (Garafola 1993; McDonagh 1992).2 With little else to go on, scholars (including myself) have quoted Blood Memory as evidence to support their arguments. In Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity (1993), Howard Gardner uses the book to unpack the mind of Graham as an innovator. Susan Ware, in her study of twentieth-century women, quotes Blood Memory as part of her analysis of those “who shaped the American century” (1998). Victoria Thoms deploys theories of “ghosting” to investigate Blood Memory (2008). Yet between 1989 and 1991, when Blood Memory was being prepared for publication, Graham’s health rapidly deteriorated.3 Indeed, these years mark a period in which Graham would have been little able to manage the rigors of crafting an autobiography.

Archives, books, and oral histories suggest, in fact, that a group including Ron Protas, Graham’s companion and associate, pieced together the narrative with former first lady and editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Reporting on a document submitted to Doubleday, Protas wrote to Onassis emphasizing his point in capitalized letters, “JACKIE THIS IS A MIXTURE OF MARTHA AND ME TALKING …”4 Upon Graham’s death on April 1, 1991, the manuscript lay “incomplete” [End Page 63] (Lawrence 2011, 215).5 Transmissions to the publisher indicate edits to the galleys as late as June.6 Doubleday “rushed to publication,” launching the book posthumously (Feldman 1991, 38; Kuhn 2010, 180).7 As scholars peer into Blood Memory looking for Graham, how do we use the text, which we can prove contains some of her words yet cannot be trusted as evidence?

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Photo 1.

Martha Graham holding Jennifer Hinkson Jackson, 1958.

Reproduced with the permission of Mary Hinkson.

Arguments about self-editing and theories of authorship remain significant to the study of Blood Memory as autobiography (Barthes 1967; Foucault 1984; Jones 2009; Rapaport 2001). Evidence shows that Graham herself would have suppressed some disclosures. In tapes where Graham speaks about the autobiography, she ruminates, “I am not out to make a preach about my life. Some of it has been wonderful and I’ve been very, very fortunate. Some of it I regret. The things which are, perhaps, too private to ever reveal—one refuses to reveal.”8 The complexity of the autobiographical genre has naturally led to concerns about “authenticity” and Graham’s authorship (Campbell 1997; de Man 1979; Shapiro 1984; Stillinger 1991). Regarding the debates about Blood Memory in the 1990s, one feminist literary critic quipped that dance scholars “have little or nothing to say about autobiography” (Heilbrun 1991, 16). Indeed, a feminist reading that asks questions about the porous borders of authorship seems apropos because it can unpack the ways in which the body becomes “engaged with the discourses of truth-telling and lying” [End Page 64] (Smith and Watson 1998, 22). Graham knowingly engaged in such “discourses” when she wrote in her notebooks: “I am a thief—and I am not ashamed. I steal from the best wherever it happens to me—Plato—Picasso,” adding, “and Bertram Ross,” her longtime dance partner.9 Although Graham became mythologized in the mantra “movement never lies,” she knew the power of untruths when it came to producing compelling ballets and creating her public image. In Ross’s unpublished biography of Graham, he reported her as declaring, “Truth. What is so wonderful about telling the truth? Anyone can tell the truth. It’s boring.”10 Regarding her public image, he wrote, “Martha is the great image maker. She makes an image to fit, to suit the particular situation and time. Everything is totally calculated.”11 Other dancers also knew that she made her decisions “depending on...


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pp. 63-84
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