Twenty-five years after her passing away, it has just been announced that Margot Fonteyn is to be commemorated with a blue plaque at her former home at 2 Rutland Garden Mews, London, SW7.
The first of London’s blue plaques was erected in 1866 to commemorate Lord Byron. It hasn’t survived but there are now more than 900 plaques (of various designs and colours) in all but three of London’s 33 boroughs that honour a wide variety of people and events. The scheme is now administered by English Heritage, overseen by a panel of expert advisors. A plaque can only be considered 20 years after the death of a proposed candidate to ensure that they have had some lasting impact.
Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham (Peggy) in 1919 in Reigate, Surrey. Her father was English and her mother half-Irish and half-Brazilian, giving her an exotic look and perhaps a penchant for South America. She adapted her maternal grandfather’s name of Fontes and her own into Margot as a stage name. She and her elder brother enrolled in ballet classes when she was four years-old. She continued to study under Russian émigré George Goncharov when the family moved to China where she lived between the ages of 8 and 14.
In 1933 she joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, training under founder Ninette de Valois, Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska. By 1939, she was performing principal roles in the classics and at having only just entered her second decade, was appointed Prima Ballerina. She became a muse of Ashton but also worked with modern choreographers including Roland Petit and Martha Graham.
The Vic-Wells/Royal Ballet used to tour extensively, enhancing her profile not only at home but abroad. She also made frequent televised appearances, many of which have been preserved on film and video.
Her longevity as a performer led to her forming lasting partnerships with several dancers including Robert Helpmann and Michael Somes but it was in 1962 when she was already 43 and considering retiring that she cemented her most famous partnership when she danced with the recently defected Kirov danseur noble Rudolph Nureyev in Giselle. She continued to dance with him until she finally retired at the age of 61 in 1979. Speculation about their private relationship continues to this day.
Fonteyn was no stranger to controversy off stage, although much of the detail only became common knowledge after her death. She had a decade long affair with Constant Lambert but in 1955 married American and English educated Panamanian diplomat Roberto Arias. He dragged her into involvement with an ill-fated coup d’état against the Panamanian government in 1959 for which she was initially arrested and then deported. Arias was shot in 1964 and remained a quadriplegic until his death in 1981. A profligate philanderer, controversy ranges over whether he was shot by a political rival or a cuckolded husband. Although it is undeniable that Fonteyn’s professional passion was re-ignited by her partnership with Nureyev, she may also have continued dancing to fund Arias’ expensive tastes. She and Nureyev were arrested at a party while The Royal Ballet were on tour in the USA and, along with other attendees, charged with disturbing the peace and visiting a place where the drug marijuana was being used. The Royal Ballet posted $330 bail per dancer to secure their release, although charges against them were later dropped.
Fonteyn retired with Arias to a cattle ranch in Panama where, in 1989, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although Nureyev visited her often and funded some of her treatment, she died in relative poverty on February 21, 1991 aged 71.
She was awarded a DBE in 1956, was chancellor of the University of Durham from 1981 to 1990 and was one of five women selected to be commemorated on a stamp issued in August 1996. The Royal Ballet revived the honorary title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta for her and she retained the status until her death.