Writers, actors and artists like James Baldwin, Eartha Kitt and Ada “Bricktop” Smith found inspiration, escape and illustrious careers in Paris. It was in a Paris nightclub that composer and piano virtuoso Mary Lou Williams stood up from her piano and retired from music for three years, in search of a more spiritual path (Wilson, 1981). Although it was disillusionment with a career in music and not the city that inspired her to move forward, Paris was the site of a major turning point in Williams’ life. One such influential point in Geoffrey Holder’s life can be found in letters from Paris, circa 1964-1965 in the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers correspondence series. Paris would become a lifelong home to Holder, who’s commanding presence and timelessness found equal match with what Richard Wright called “a city whose sheer physical beauty feeds and nourishes the sensibilities of all those who live in it”. (Quarles, 2013)
In a June 3, 1964 letter to Bruno Coquatrix discussing the logistics of performing at the historic Olympia Theatre in Paris, Holder expressed interest in making Paris his new home (Geoffrey Holder letter to Bruno Coquatrix, President Director General of the Olympia Theatre, 1964). Holder mentions not only bringing his dancers to Paris, but also keeping them together, a feat that would include trying to secure unemployment income for them in off-seasons.
The first performance run at the Olympia was billed as “Geoffrey Holder’s Ballets des Ameriques” from September 2-22, 1964. Holder and de Lavallade, who performed in the show, wrote that they dedicated it to Josephine Baker. At that point, they had already performed with Baker on Broadway and at the Olympia and said, “seeing Paris though her eyes was an unforgettable experience.” (Paris-era work correspondence, 1964).
On September 30th, Holder wrote to Joe Sherman, who arranged the folk themes of the ballet, about preparing for the show:
“As usual everything went wrong. The orchestra had no banjo player; the guitar player couldn’t read anything by Figaro and Le Monde -no music, honey. So 48 hours before we opened, the orchestrations had to be re done for the individual talents of the musicians. It was never quite the same…But of course nobody knew that but us chickens so it didn’t affect the reception too much.” (Geoffrey Holder letter to Joe Sherman, 1964)
Later, in January 1965, Holder wrote he would be in Paris alone for a few weeks while de Lavallade famously performed with the American Ballet Theatre in works by Agnes de Mille. (Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, circa 1900-2018). Not satisfied with just performing, designing costumes and dancing, Holder was happily “painting like mad” in what he called a beautiful city. (Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, circa 1900-2018).
The correspondence series holds more insight into the lesser known seasons of Holder and de Lavallade’s life. It includes listener letters from Holder’s WOR New York radio show and letters between Holder, Léo Holder and de Lavallade circa 1962, detailing her life on tour with the de Lavallade-Ailey dance company. Researchers will also find an extensive collection of letters from Catherine Randolph, Holder’s first patron; Louise Holder, and de Lavallade’s legendary cousin Janet Collins.
- Ada “Bricktop” Smith papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
- James Baldwin Collection, National Museum of African American History and Culture.
- Geoffrey Holder letter to Bruno Coquatrix, 1964, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
- Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, circa 1900-2018, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
- National Visionary Leadership Project. (2010, March 22) Eartha Kitt: Solo debut in Paris [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/orsRIRtR180
- Paris-era work correspondence, 1964, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
- Quarles, Phillip. (2013, Jan. 28). Richard Wright’s Love Letter to Paris. Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project. https://www.wnyc.org/story/192767-richard-wright/
- Wilson, John S. (1981, May 30). Mary Lou Williams, a jazz great dies. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/30/obituaries/mary-lou-williams-a-jazz-great-dies.html