Liudmila Konovalova: The New Maya

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Dressed in black leg warmers and an insulated lavender down vest to ward off the cold that had chilled the magnificent opera house, the disarmingly gracious Konovlova, the prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet — the Wiener Staatsballett, sank herself into a rehearsal break just off an enormous ballet training room as she contemplated a journalist’s question about her childhood idol.

Like most Russian-born dancers, Liudmila Konovalova grew up fantasizing that she would follow in the toe shoes of the country’s fabled ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who spent much of her career as a captive under fierce scrutiny and at the murderous whim of Stalin’s regime, but still shimmered as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon's 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon’s 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

But for Konovalova, that fantasy was little more than a fairy tale, a seemingly unrealistic goal given her circumstances. The child of a broken home, she lived in a shelter as a teen and was rejected by the Bolshoi Ballet company after going through its academy. She had little reason to expect that one day her homeland’s ballet icon would wondrously connect with her artistically and personally, breathing new life into her dreams, not unlike Michelangelo’s near-touching hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Much less could she have foreseen a scenario in which that would happen when she was literally down and out — and in the most embarrassing position possible.

But that was the spectacle Konovalova now remembered from Italy’s 2007 Premio Roma Dance competition at which Plisetskaya was head of the judging jury, and where Konovalova dreaded she had chosen to perform the challenging Black Swan pas de deux in front of her role model whose storied name was synonymous with “Swan Lake” in the world of ballet.

“I was thinking, the Black Swan is… one the most famous roles that Maya Plisetskaya did,” recalled Konovalova who had never met Plisetskaya until that competition, “and now I (am) gonna show her my Black Swan! I thought it’s a joke. That would be total fiasco.”

Almost prophetically, in the middle of her performance that day, Konovalova’s worst fears pirouetted out of control. Slipping and as her legs gave way underneath her, she felt certain that her dreams of winning the competition had just fluttered somewhere beyond her black tutu — all in front of Plisetskaya. 

“I finished my (Black Swan) variation exactly (as) the music was ending, seated on my ass,” said Konovalova, one of the select group of dancers who performed at the Ave Maya Gala at London’s Coliseum Theatre in 2016 honoring Plisetskaya, who died the previous year at the age of 89. “Yes, I fall completely on my popo, bottom, rear, ass — however you call it — it is the fact.

“I was sure I am out of the competition and plus such big shame… But right after I was sitting on my ass, Maya Plisetskaya stands up. (She) was clapping and laughing!

“So then we did (the) coda. I did my fouettés. This all went fine. We got a really good applause, but she was (giving) me standing ovation…”

The competition wasn’t over, though Konovalova figured she could no longer even place, much less win, and that in further rounds could only hope to complement her dance partner who was still up for a prize himself.

“That gave me time to give more to understand the situation,” she said, looking back on what appeared to be developing into a disappointing moment in her career. “I was officially working nowhere. I (was) finished with Russia. I had (a) contract to Berlin, but I (was) suppose to start in two months.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding performing in 'Swan Lake.' Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, Copyright 2016.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding perform in ‘Swan Lake’ in Moscow in 2015. (Photo by Alex Pankov. courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“So I was girl from nowhere.”

Then, as all hope seemed gone, fate stepped in.

“Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?” “Коновалова,где моя Коновалова!”

Startled out of her self-pity over having fallen in competition, Liudmilia couldn’t believe she was hearing Plisetskaya’s voice screaming her name in their native Russian tongue. “Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?”

“I was scared… but went front… And then comes unbelievable thing,” said Konovalova, who found Plisetskaya reaching to embrace her. “She hugs me and tells me how great it was and that I gonna get a first prize, and that she remembers how hard was this variation of Black Swan, and I am doing it so light, like nothing.

“And that I am real ballerina.

“I thought I am dreaming… Deeply! And need to wake up… But it was the truth! Sometimes I cannot even talk about it because it sounds so unrealistic!

“So then it was second round and on to the third I had to repeat Black Swan again. She came to me right after third round was finished. She told me that it is the best Black Swan she ever saw. She told me that I will get first prize and I will not share it with anyone — normally very often they share the prizes — but Maya Plisetskaya said, ‘No way. She will get it alone!’

“And I got it! And got it alone! And I know that she was fighting for me, and because it was against their rules to give it just to me, and Maya Plisetskaya had major fight, but she did what she told me! And this you almost never see now.”

A touch of the hand of providence indeed.

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Feedback on Gehrig & The Babe Cover Mockup?

Just received the final cover mockup for ‘Gehrig & The Babe’ for my input. What do you think?

 

Gehrig and the Babe DUST JACKET

When We All Wanted To Be Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, just days before turning 60, steps out of the swimming pool at the Davis family villa where he spent the summer o 1959. (From 'Looking for Hemingway' (Lyons Press)

Ernest Hemingway, just days before turning 60, steps out of the swimming pool at La Consula, the Davis family villa in Malaga, Spain, where the world’s most celebrated writer at the time spent the summer of 1959. (From Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and A Final Rite of Passage, Lyons Press)

A CHILD OF THE boomer generation, I grew up in the 1950s desperately wanting to be Ernest Hemingway. To run with the bulls in Pamplona. To hunt big game in Africa. To roam the streets of Paris with the Lost Generation. To live the adventurous life of Nick Adams. Years later, I would learn that I was hardly alone among young people of my age. We all wanted to be Ernest Hemingway.

Today, those of us who have survived can take great pride. We are Hemingway.

Sadly, though, we likely are the Ernest Hemingway that I’ve written about in my new book, Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights, and A Final Rite of Passage. It is the Hemingway at that age we all dread of being: Old, losing our train of thought, unable to do what once came so easily, too quick to show our frustration at our slowness but still holding on to the hope of one last glimmer of youth.

I recently read a quote – I can’t recall by whom (that thing about losing our train of thought perhaps) – that you can’t really face getting old without having the courage for it. And I thought that was such a Hemingwayesque thing to say: grace under pressure and that whole Hemingway credo about life.

Hemingway entertains two young women he added to his entourage traveling from bullfight to bullfight in Spain, 1959. (From 'Looking for Hemingway,' Lyons Press)

In Pamplona, Ernest Hemingway entertains two young women he added to his entourage that traveled with him from bullfight to bullfight in Spain, 1959. (From Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and A Final Rite of Passage, Lyons Press)

And there was another quote, this one from Dame Muriel Spark, the Scottish novelist, that “being over 70 is like being engaged in a war — all our friends are going or gone, and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.”

Ernest Hemingway undoubtedly would have loved all that talk about war, the dead and those dying on a battlefield.

So you get what I’m driving at. Getting old was no more kind to the author of The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea than it is to most of us. And most of us still here are now older than Hemingway when he was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound in the head at his home in 1961, just 19 days shy of his 62nd birthday.

51huzvrohyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Looking for Hemingway is about the Nobel Prize laureate two birthdays earlier, set in Spain where he celebrated his 60th birthday in a magnificent celebration attended by actress Lauren Bacall and many of his other famous friends. He was, after all, the most celebrated literary figure of his time and few saw him as being in the twilight of his life. Hell, he was Ernest frigging Hemingway.

Hemingway was there on a quixotic quest to recapture the sentimental Spain of his youth in the 1920s when he had written The Sun Also Rises, his breakthrough novel that made him fabulously famous. His plans were to write an epilogue for a reissue of his bullfighting nonfiction classic Death in the Afternoon. But it turned into a summer-long extravaganza following the two greatest matadors in the world — the young, dashing Antonio Ordoñez and his much older brother-in-law Luis Miguel Dominguín — who were facing off in a mano a mano, a bullfighting World Series and Super Bowl rolled into one.

The adventure would be Ernest Hemingway’s last hurrah. And it would almost kill him — and possibly contributed to his end.

At 59 years of age, Hemingway had the stamina if not the strength of his youth. He and his entourage criss-crossed mountainous Spain numerous times traveling from one corrida to another, partying and drinking themselves to exhaustion each night, as he tried to pick up every pretty girl he met.

Hemingway was traveling with his fourth wife Mary, but you can sense he might have been looking for wife No. 5. He treated Mary cruelly in front of his friends who allowed it. Traveling across Spain, he forced her to ride in a following second automobile while he gave a seat in his car to the attractive young women who had joined his cuadrilla. By the end of the trip, Mary returned to America alone, seriously thinking of leaving him.

But she sensed what no one else did. That while Hemingway sought to catch an inspiring last taste of the past, he had a tragic short life ahead. And that is the unexpected twist of Looking for Hemingway as it became a portrait of a prismatic vision of the dying artist, a complex and profoundly dramatic story of a man’s extraordinary effort to stay alive.

For me, there has always been in the story of Hemingway and Spain an allure so sharp and fresh that there was never any question of writing this book. There was, from the start, the joy of rediscovering the world in which he walked and traveled, both in the 1920s and again in 1959. Here was a canvas as generous, colorful, and grand as any in Hemingway’s life. As the story pushed forth, there was at every turn the excitement of history never told, of connections hidden for decades, of old mysteries answered.

My friend Teo Davis chats with Ernest Hemingway pool side at the Davis family villa in Spain, La Consula, where the author lived for months in 1959.

My friend Teo Davis chats with Ernest Hemingway pool side at La Consula, the Davis family villa in Spain, where the author lived for months in 1959.

The story of Hemingway the icon was well known. The story of Hemingway the man on this last romantic journey had been largely buried. Getting that story was slow work. After a good while, I felt I had become the crypt of Hemingwayolé en España. As my patient wife Renee used to say (but seldom aloud – for which I thank her) about this project, great effort went in but nothing came out until now.

For me, too, as a child of the 1950s who read The Old Man and The Sea thinking I was the boy Manolin in the story, I suppose I have been looking for Hemingway all my life, and perhaps it seems fitting that I found him at an age when I now see myself in the novel’s old man Santiago. For some this is not an easy age to face, publishers in particular. More than a few just flat out said they didn’t think any readers, especially Hemingway fans, wanted to read about him as an old man, pathetic at times, feeble and paranoid.

Being a life-long Hemingway lover, I found that hard to believe, unless it’s just simply old age some of us don’t want to face, whether Hemingway’s or our own. For those who fear this life stage, I can only say that I found it inspiring in the research to learn that Pablo Picasso in his sixties was having affairs with gorgeous youthful women more than forty years younger – young enough to be his granddaughters.

Today, the aging, dying Hemingway is one I have come to love and appreciate as much as the young romantic Hemingway, for in his mortality lie the same fears, regrets and self-recriminations that all of us face in our own way as we reach that stage in our lives.

Hemingway’s final adventure would produce his posthumously published book The Dangerous Summer, and that mano a mano bullfighting circus proved to be a story made to order for the dying man’s need not to die.

Not surprisingly, Hemingway would end up creating the two brave matadors – and, by extension, himself — as more than just heroic. He portrayed them as immortals, of course, for isn’t that the way famous people avoid the reality of old age and death?

Tony Castro, a former political reporter and columnist, is the author of five books, the most recent being Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and A Final Rite of Passage (Lyons Press).

‘DiMag & Mick’ Reveals Mickey Mantle’s True Love

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Young lovers Holly Brooke and Mickey Mantle out on the town in Manhattan in 1951, his rookie season chronicled in DiMag & Mick. (Mickey Mantle Museum)

 

“Above Grand Central Station, there used to be this incredibly fabulously opulent apartment that looked like a palace that the original architect built as part of the original design, and in 1951 I knew someone — I knew a lot of people even then—who arranged for me, for us, to stay there one night that summer. And so Mickey and I spent one of the greatest nights of our lives there. It was a romantic, magical evening. We made love all night. We were both young and in love, and he wanted to marry me and spend the rest of our lives together.”

                                                                           — Holly Brooke in DiMag & Mick

MICKEY MANTLE FANS, memorize the name Holly Brooke.

In his new book DiMag & Mick, author Tony Castro reveals that the Yankees’ switch-hitting icon proposed to New York actress Holly Brooke during his 1951 rookie season and that they carried on a torrid love affair for years even after he married his high school sweetheart just to please his dying father.

Holly’s existence had been known since the 1950s and for decades, sportswriters and authors tried unsuccessfully to interview Brooke –but were never even able to track her down.

But Castro, the author of the critically acclaimed biography Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son, not only found the elusive Holly Brooke but interviewed her exhaustively about her relationship with Mick and her recollection of Mantle’s time in New York — including the friendship he shared with Joe DiMaggio but which few others knew about.

“What led to this book, DiMag & Mick, was an e-mail I received a few years ago from a man thanking me for having written so favorably in my Mantle biography about his aunt, an actress named Holly Brooke, who has been described in most books about Mickey as a showgirl who had been his girlfriend in 1951,” Castro said in an interview about writing the book.

“However, no biographer had been able to interview her or even locate her. I think most of us had assumed she was dead. Holly’s nephew, though, said not only was she still alive and well but that she was also willing to talk to me.

“That began a series of almost daily visits and conversations that proved to be incredible. She convinced me with her stories and some strong documentation that her love affair with Mickey lasted beyond his marriage in 1951 and carried on well into the 1960s.”

Holly had lived with Mantle much of his rookie year, even when he was sent down to the minors to play in Kansas City, which had a Yankees’ minor league team at that time. She was also the reason Mickey asked to have his uniform number changed from 6 to 7 when he returned to the majors, a number that was her date of birth.

In the book, Castro writes:

On August 22, 1951, the Yankees’ new prodigal son returned to New York, arriving with Holly on a Super Chief train at Grand Central Station and passing through what was then known as the “Kissing Room,” where travelers once embraced their sweethearts, friends, and family, and offering cozy access to the Biltmore Hotel above. That was where Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald had honeymooned, she whispered to Mickey as they snuggled arm and arm with the crowd.

“I don’t know if Mickey knew who F. Scott Fitzgerald was,” said Holly, smiling as she dreamily remembered that day. “I shouldn’t say that. He was a very smart man. He just didn’t like to show it, but his mind was like a steel trap. Once he heard or saw something, he knew it by heart. I suspect that’s what helped make him such a great hitter and ballplayer. But I think he enjoyed being seen as that good ol’ country boy.

“We had a drink at the Kissing Room. We had come in a day early, and Mickey didn’t have to report back to the team until the next day. He didn’t want to go to the Concourse Plaza where they had a room for him. That was all the way out in the Bronx, and we were in Manhattan and at Grand Central Station, and we had the day to ourselves, and I had come to think that we would have the rest of our lives together as well.

“‘Holly, I want you to marry me,’ Mickey said to me that night. He had said it earlier, but I think, returning to New York, he knew he now had it together. The Yankees wanted him back in the majors, and this time he knew he was going to stick with the team for good, and that he would live up to all they were expecting of him. We had talked about marriage. He had talked about marriage. He had talked about wanting to marry me and about adopting my son. But this time was different. He was so insistent. And when he asked me to marry him this time, it wasn’t like the other times. He knew the only person who could stand in our way was his father. But Mutt had seen us together in Kansas City, just as he had seen us together here in New York before Mickey was sent down. And in Kansas City, I think he saw in Mickey’s face his determination to be with me. There in front of me, Mickey said to his father, ‘Dad, so what if she’s older than me? She’s seven years older than me. Mom was ten years older than you when you married her, and she had been married before as well. If it can work out for you and Mom, why couldn’t it work out for Holly and me?’ I thought Mutt was going to cry. He left our room, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did shed a tear later. You could tell that Mickey had hit a soft spot. So that night back in New York, Mickey says to me, ‘Dad won’t like it. You saw what he’s like. He wants me to marry Merlyn, but I can’t. I’m not in love with her. I’m in love with you.’ So I’ll bring him around.’ And, of course, I said, ‘Yes, Mickey, I’ll marry you. I love you.’ And he told me he loved me, too. ‘You’re the love of my life, Holly.’ And that’s how we left it. Mickey was going to talk to his father—‘Come hell or high water,’ I think is how he said it—and we were going to get married as soon as the season ended. Mickey said the only thing that would be more perfect was if the Yankees won the World Series as well.”

Holly also had a toddler son that Mantle wanted to adopt as his own, and Mickey proposed to her and likely would have married her if it hadn’t been for his father.

After the 1951 season, Mickey’s father learned he was dying, and he demanded that Mickey marry his hometown sweetheart as his dying wish. Of course, it was just part of the unusual hold that Mickey’s father held over him.

Of Henry Cisneros, Dreams and Mortality

Henry Cisneros, housing secretary under President Clinton is battling early stage prostate cancer, it was announced Tuesday.

MY FATHER NEVER said so, but I always got the impression that he wished Henry Cisneros had been his son.

Henry and I grew up at the same time in Texas in the 1960s, each of us attending Catholic schools in our respective hometowns and sometimes competing against each other in interscholastic league speech and drama contests.

The only time my father attended one of those competitions, he saw Henry deliver an interpretation of one of Abraham Lincoln’s addresses — the one appealing to the better angels within us — while I did two soliloquies from Hamlet using a Welsh accent I nailed from listening to a recording of Richard Burton.

My father was blown away — by Henry’s performance.

When he learned Henry was going to Texas A&M, my father asked me to reconsider my choice of colleges. In the 1950s and 1960s, A&M was the place all Mexican-American military veterans wanted their sons to attend — the school where they could join the corps, graduate as second lieutenants and serve their country as officers.

“Dad, Henry’s the son of a general,” I said, lying. I had no idea what Henry’s father did. “He’ll be an officer. Heck, he’ll probably be president one day. I’m the son of an enlisted man. I can’t lead men on a football team, much less on a battlefield. I’m a rebel and an outlaw. You said so yourself.”

My father had once said writers were all rebels and outlaws, and I wasn’t about to let him forget it.

All this came back to me today as I read about Henry having prostate cancer. I pray and hope he’ll beat it. But what the news about Henry did was shake my foundation of well-being and forced me, for the first time, to seriously confront the mortality not only of someone so close to my dreams as a youth but also of myself as well.

Over the years, Henry’s life and mine have passed each other in Texas, Washington, Los Angeles and anywhere there were political conventions of any significance. I’ve interviewed Henry numerous times and, in our own ways, we’ve praised each other on our successes as well as consoled one another on our falls from grace, personally and professionally.

People who grow up together invariably have nicknames for each other, monikers that we use behind their backs. I don’t know what Henry’s was for me — I’ve heard them all from other friends and I imagine it might be something similar. Mine for Henry was Manolete, the Spanish bullfighter who rose to glory in the years after the Spanish Civil War.

I called him Manolete because I have never seen a picture of Manolete smiling. He always seemed so serious, almost sorrowful and tragic. Henry struck me that way, even when he was smiling, as if something very sad was going on in his life. I’ve never thought of myself as a playboy, but, in contrast, you would have thought I was the life of the party.

“Henry, it’s only words,” I recall saying to him after a debate tournament. His team hadn’t won, but neither had mine. Henry, though, wore that game face, as if blaming himself or as if he were facing a firing squad or some fierce 2,000-pound animal in a bullring. “You’re a great debater. You’ll win the next tournament.”

I think we all sensed that Henry was destined for true greatness, if anyone we knew ever was. He became mayor of San Antonio and the rising Latino star of the Democratic Party. In 1984, Democratic Presidential Nominee Walter Mondale considered Henry as a running mate before choosing Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. In 1992, President Bill Clinton named Henry to his Cabinet. But we all have our secrets, and Henry’s doomed him. He was found to have lied to the FBI about a mistress, hush payments to her and a sordid affair that destroyed his dreams.

My father kept up with news reports of the investigation as if… well, as if Henry were his son. My father learned Henry had been betrayed by a journalist to whom he had confided about his affair, and you would have thought I was that writer who ratted him out.

“You work in a profession full of s— of b—— and Judases,” my father said to me at the time.

“And rebels and outlaws,” I reminded him.

A few years later, as my father lay on his deathbed, I wasn’t sure what else to say. We had made our peace, what we could anyway. I just wanted to say something more that would ease his final hours.

“Dad,” I said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t more like Henry Cisneros. I’m sorry I couldn’t fulfill your dreams. If it’s any consolation, I haven’t fulfilled my dreams either.”

My father shook his head, as if to protest. He had tears in his eyes, and I thought we would just sit there for a while longer.

“I don’t care about Henry,” he said, finally. “I care about you and what you did or tried to do. A father’s dreams for his son are never fulfilled. They’re just that — dreams. The important thing, and what I’m proud of you for, is that you had the courage to chase your own dreams. Your dreams — not someone else’s.”