Sisters of Salome

by Toni Bentley

Sisters of Salome

If you were to cast about for the worst possible role model for the emancipation of women, you would feel you had hit the jackpot when you thought of Salome. For what is this hot little virgin’s story? Well, taking one’s information mainly from Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play (on which Richard Strauss’s opera is based), Salome gets so inflamed with unnatural desire for the incarcerated John the Baptist that she dons a bra heavy with gems, performs an erotic striptease for her stepfather, demands a beheading, gets it, and then gets executed herself. You might say Salome is a fine example of a woman using her erotic power, if you were to think merely how nice it would be to model some bullet-proof C-cups. Sadly, however, Salome is also clearly a misogynist castration fantasy, whose fetishistic interest in a head on a plate has not rung a bell with any real female in the last two thousand years.Which is why Sisters of Salome is a problematic book. Toni Bentley takes the rather ecstatic view that Salome is a fine example of a woman exercising her erotic power. And that’s it. A Balanchine-trained dancer herself, Bentley once dabbled in Salome-like exhibitionism in a New York strip joint and the experience turned her head. “I locked eyes with a solitary fellow seated just below the stage. I’d never felt such attention in my life. His eyes lowered to my breasts and belly and then returned to my eyes with a look of shyness, shame and excitement, showing me with a clarity I had not experienced before the power of my own body. I then knew what triumph was like.”

Having this thrilling experience under her belt, Bentley decided to look back a hundred years to consider the emancipatory effect of the Salome dance on four turn-of-the-century femmes fatales. The fact that three of them never danced as Salome does not deter her; enough that, in the spirit of Salome, they got their bits out for the boys. Bentley insists that her four subjects — the sexy American dancer Maud Allan, the “German spy” Mata Hari, the Russian narcissist Ida Rubinstein and that saucy French writer Colette — subversively paved the way for others. I’m sure they did. However, it’s hard to believe this was much consolation to someone who (say) also ended up shot dead by a firing squad during the First World War, or destroyed in court like Maud Allan.

Allan’s story may be familiar from Philip Hoare’s recent book Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, but it bears repetition. Allan had been a successful Salome dancer in England for many years when in 1918 she took the independent MP Noel Pemberton-Billing to court. Pemberton-Billing, a crazed patriot, had a mission to name and expose 47,000 depraved Britons responsible for sapping vital national fluids in time of war. Allan, starring in a private production of Wilde’s Salome, woke up one day to find herself the subject of a story headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris” and challenged him to prove his allegations. It was a mistake. Under brutal cross examination, she admitted she knew what a clitoris was, and that was that. Such specialist knowledge proved her guilt. (Entertainingly, the judge himself had no idea what an orgasm was, and Allan’s counsel couldn’t help. “Is that some unnatural vice?” he asked.)

This ludicrous case destroyed the lovely Allan — a woman whom Herbert Read later called “the Marilyn Monroe of my youth.” Meanwhile sisterhood with Salome seems to have done very little ultimate good to the other women in this study either. Mata Hari — whose speciality was Hindu temple dancing — was an ambitious and daring Dutch woman who actually never showed her breasts (too ugly), but writhed so well like a serpent that she was able to distract attention from this omission. “If it were possible for a sinuous reptile to enter the body of a woman,” wrote one witness, “then the miracle was accomplished before my dilated eyes. Writhing, twisting, coiling, shivering with serpentine grace, Mata Hari glided over the oval stage.”

And then she ended up dead, of course, accused by the French of spying for the Germans, when it now transpires that she merely took money from the Germans, with no intention of doing anything for it, subsequently demanding money from the French and making them look stupid. Mata Hari was not equipped for such high dealings, and paid the ultimate penalty, going down in history as a woman who tricked soldiers into death with her body, when in fact, on the contrary, she was always happy and willing to give a soldier a very good time.

The case for Ida Rubinstein is less well made. A tiresome stick-thin rich woman who could afford to indulge a fantasy of herself as a great ballerina, she is described by Bentley as a “phallic woman”, but we’ll pass over that. Bentley’s thesis is that by the time we reach Colette, we have a modern woman in control of her destiny — Salome as “a mature seductress”, whose veils revealed a real woman. But quite honestly, by this point I had lost faith in the Salome theme, and was just offering thanks for a day-job that doesn’t involve jewelled underwear or rolling about like a cat in catnip.

Sisters of Salome is well researched; and in the case of Ida Rubinstein, it tells a story few will have known before. But it makes claims it can’t quite substantiate, and is far too in love with narcissism to see the true dangerous nastiness of the Salome story. Let’s face it: Wilde’s Salome ends up dead, intact and gagging for it. What’s so empowering about that?

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