With unmatched musicality and grace, technical skill bordering on perfection, and passion stamped on every performance, there was no one like Margot Fonteyn. From her debut as a teenager in 1934 to her famous partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, the British ballet dancer was hailed as the greatest of her – perhaps any – generation. Fonteyn was, quite simply, born to dance.
What came less naturally, however, was her one-time performance as a political revolutionary. In April 1955, it was revealed she had become embroiled in a somewhat farcical coup to place her Panamanian husband in power – which was crushed in a matter of hours and left the world’s press asking rather strange questions, such as whether the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet carried a gun.
INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
Margaret Evelyn Hookham was born, in the Surrey town of Reigate, on 18 May 1919, and it didn’t take long before she donned her first leotard. She was four when her mother signed her up to ballet classes along with her older brother, and she continued to dance throughout her childhood, which included a six-year family move to China.
From the age of 14, she studied at the prestigious Sadler’s Wells ballet school in London (today, the Royal Ballet School), where she excelled, made her debut, was named prima ballerina and took on a new name, Margot Fonteyn.
Audiences and dancers alike ran out of superlatives to describe her near-perfect physique and poise – remarkable in a world where every blemish was, and still is, magnified – in Giselle, Swan Lake and her iconic 1939 turn as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.
Throughout the 1940s, she worked with a host of dancers, composers and choreographers, notably Sir Frederick Ashton, but it was the Royal Ballet’s 1949 tour of the United States that hurled Fonteyn into the international spotlight. Seemingly single-handed, she brought ballet to the masses.
So what would compel this ballet star, by now a dame, to get involved in politics? In 1955, Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Emilio Arias, Panama’s ambassador to Britain and son of a former President. ‘Tito’ plotted to oust Panama’s authoritarian government and seize power, and his wife consented, seeing the whole thing as an adventure. “She did it for a lark,” a friend of Fonteyn’s later claimed, as she thought she would end up “Queen of Panama”.
It was not to be. The coup turned out to be less of an action-adventure and more, as one British diplomat described it, of a “slapdash comedy”.
Fonteyn arrives at London Airport after the misjudged coup in Panama © Getty Images
The plan, set for April 1959, was for the couple to land their luxury yacht on Panama’s coast, before they would collect supporters and ammunition and seize a nearby highway, an important artery of the country. Fonteyn even travelled to New York to ask a friend, connected to the clothing industry, for 500 uniforms and armbands for their rebel army. The coup would be assisted by men from Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Yet it was a risible failure.
Fonteyn was arrested after fishermen alerted authorities, Tito went on the run, students who were going to help capture the capital rose up too early so were dealt with easily and Castro’s troops never showed up.
After spending 24 hours in a Panama City prison, Fonteyn was sent back to Britain, where she was mobbed by journalists. While being quizzed by the press, Fonteyn was in high spirits. When one reporter asked whether she carried a gun, she replied with a laugh, “I won’t answer that, because you can guess whether I carried a gun or not!”
Most thought she was an entirely innocent bystander, with no idea of her husband’s plans. The shadow Foreign Secretary (NHS founder Aneurin Bevan) welcomed her home by saying, “The British public did not appreciate having seen her in the role of the swan, then seeing her in the role of a decoy duck.”
Documents released in 2010, however, demonstrated that Fonteyn was willingly involved. Once home, she met with government minister John Profumo (who would get caught up in his own scandal two years later) and related the bizarre series of events. “I had to pinch myself several times during her visit,” he later wrote, “to be sure I wasn’t dreaming the comic opera story which she unfolded.”
PARTNERS IN THE SUBLIME
If anyone thought the coup signalled the end of Fonteyn’s career – as she was over 40, many believed she was close to retirement anyway – they were mistaken. Actually, the best was yet to come. In 1962, she performed for the first time with Rudolf Nureyev, a 24-year-old who had defected from the Soviet Union.
Fonteyn with Nureyev in ‘Pelleas and Melisandre’ at Covent Garden, 1969 © Getty Images
Their partnership was a revelation, with their debut at Covent Garden receiving 23 curtain calls, and that was only the beginning.
Many regard Fonteyn and Nureyev as the greatest dancing partnership in history. As they became close friends (or, as rumoured, lovers), they danced together for the next 17 years, when Fonteyn finally retired, aged 61.
She spent the rest of her life on a cattle farm in Panama to give constant care to her husband – who had been shot and paralysed in 1964 – but she stayed in touch with Nureyev every week. In 1991, Fonteyn died from cancer.
This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed.