Lopokova, Lydia (c. 1892–1981)

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Lopokova, Lydia (c. 1892–1981)

Well-known Russian-born ballerina who performed mainly in the U.S., Britain, and Western Europe and married the noted English economist John Maynard Keynes. Name variations: Lopukhova or Lopoukhova; Loppy; Lady Keynes. Pronunciation: Lopokova:LOW-poe-KOE-va; Keynes: KAYNES. Born Lydia Vasilievna Lopukhova in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 21 in either 1891 or 1892; died at Tilton, Sussex, on June 8, 1981; daughter of Vasili Lopukhov (a St. Petersburg theater attendant) and Constanza Karlovna Douglas Lopukhova; sister of Evgenia Lopukhova (1884–1941); attended Imperial Ballet School, 1901–09; married Randolfo Barocchi, in 1916 (marriage annulled, 1925); married John Maynard Keynes, on August 4, 1925 (died 1946); no children.

Joined Maryinsky Theater (1909); joined Diaghilev company in Paris, left for America (1910); changed her name (1914); married Barocchi and returned to Europe (1916); met Keynes (1918); disappeared mysteriously (1919); married Keynes and made first trip back to Russia (1925); made final appearance with Diaghilev's ballet company (1927); started career as London actress (1928); visited her family in Leningrad (1932); gave last public performance as a ballerina (1933); made final visit to Russia (1937); made wartime trips to Canada and the U.S. (1941–45); death of Keynes (1946).

Major roles:

(as a dancer) Harlequin, Le Carnaval (1916), Mariuccia, The Good-humored Ladies (1918), title role, The Firebird (1919), Lilac Fairy, The Sleeping Princess (1921), The Dancer, Petrushka (1925), Polovtsian girl, Prince Igor (1927), Swanhilda, Coppelia (1933); (as an actress) Olivia, Twelfth Night (1933), Nora Helmer, A Doll's House (1934), Hilda Wangel, The Master Builder (1935), Célimène, Le Misanthrope (1937).

During the first five decades of the 20th century, Lydia Lopokova participated in widely different but significant areas of European cultural life. As a prominent ballerina and a member of Sergei Diaghilev's dance troupe, she played an important role in bringing Russian ballet to Western Europe and the United States. As the lover, then the wife, of John Maynard Keynes, she linked the ballet world with the Bloomsbury group, an influential coterie of British intellectuals. From the close of the 1920s until the death of her husband in 1946, she served as personal protector, intellectual sounding board, and emotional companion to the most influential economist of the era.

The ballet world in which she flourished was in the midst of dramatic transition at the start of the 20th century. The static and unimaginative ballet scene in Western Europe, dominated by French and Italian dancers and choreographers, was shaken by the arrival of the Russians. Starting in 1909, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev brought a dazzling mixture of Russian music and choreography, energetic and charismatic ballet stars, and superlative costumes and set designs first to Paris, then to the other Western European capitals. His Ballets Russes was cut off from its homeland by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Nonetheless, Diaghilev continued his spectacular dance innovations with an international company until his death in 1929.

The world of Bloomsbury, in which Lopokova also found a place, was far different. It consisted of a group of young men and women who both individually and collectively made an important mark on British intellectual and public life. Centered around a number of talented young men who had drawn together during their university years at Cambridge prior to World War I, it came to include brilliant women as well. Members of the group sought to challenge the intellectual conventions of the time. Sanctioning both heterosexual and homosexual liaisons, they also challenged social conventions. The Bloomsbury group included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the politically minded intellectual Leonard Woolf, and the painter Vanessa Bell . It counted Virginia Woolf , Lytton Strachey, and Roger Fry as its most influential writers and cultural critics.

John Maynard Keynes, who brought Lopokova from the world of ballet to the Bloomsbury circle, was the group's most significant contributor to the world of public affairs. A brilliant mathematician and economist, he served as a high-ranking figure in the British Treasury during World War I and emerged as a leading critic of the Versailles Peace Settlement that ended the conflict. In the interwar period, he wrote his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. The work was a response to the Depression of the 1930s, and it stands as one of the most influential pieces of economic writing to appear in the 20th century. During World War II, Keynes returned to the Treasury to play a leading role in directing the British government's financial operations. With Lopokova at his side, he attended crucial financial negotiations with the government of the United States from early 1941 to the close of the war.

Lydia Lopokova's exact birth date is uncertain, but she was probably born in St. Petersburg on October 21, 1892, although some authorities give her birth year as 1891. She was the product of a colorful ethnic mix. Her father was of Buriat-Mongol stock, with his origins in the Central Asian peoples under the control of the tsarist empire. Her mother was the descendant of a Scottish family that had settled in Sweden, and then moved to the Baltic provinces held by the Russian tsar.

Her father's position made it possible for Lydia, her sister, and two of her three brothers to enter the Imperial Ballet School and to receive a free education there. She later recalled that he had taken her to a ballet matinee as a child, and she reacted with "a heart-pulsing wish that I might be one of the beautiful angels I had seen at the theater." She put her dreams into action when she entered the ballet school, probably at the age of eight.

In the musical world in which she now found herself, Lydia associated with some of the great names in the Russian artistic community: the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaia , the opera singer Fedor Chaliapin, the ballet master Marius Petipa. A visitor to the ballet school in 1907 was the renowned American dancer Isadora Duncan . Lopokova graduated in the spring of 1909.

The aspiring ballet star remained in her first post, as a member of the corps de ballet in the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, for only a year. In the spring of 1910, she left for Paris to

join the touring company of Sergei Diaghilev. According to a fellow ballerina, Lopokova fainted from joy as soon as she descended from the train and set foot in the artistic capital of Europe.

Diaghilev promoted her immediately from the corps de ballet to fill in for the star ballerina Tamara Karsavina , who was frequently absent from the Ballets Russes due to commitments in London. Not yet 18, Lopokova performed to critical acclaim in such ballets as The Firebird and Le Carnaval.

Always "a bit of a bolter," in the words of ballet critic Richard Buckle, she impulsively left Europe in 1910 and spent the next six years in the United States as a dancer and actress. She was a successful performer in vaudeville and operettas as well as in dance companies. From the middle of 1913 through the following winter, Lopokova temporarily dropped her career to prepare for a new artistic role: she spent these months improving her English and studying drama. In 1914, she toured the East Coast in Just Herself, a play that had been written for her. Despite a dance sequence that was inserted into the play for its Broadway debut, reviewers found the production mediocre at best, and it closed in less than a week. Nonetheless, the young Russian found other stage roles as well as places in touring dance companies. It was in America that she changed her name from Lopukhova (pronounced La-POOKH-ova) to the more pronounceable Lopokova.

She was the darling of the twenties balletomane public.

—Ninette de Valois

Continuing her pattern of moving from one artistic environment to another with dramatic suddenness, Lopokova rejoined Diaghilev in 1916 when the great ballet director was leading his company in an American tour. While in Minneapolis, she married Randolfo Barocchi, Diaghilev's business manager. Milo Keynes has suggested that Diaghilev pushed the two into marriage, hoping to tie the notoriously restless ballerina to his company.

During the final year of World War I, Lopokova returned to Europe and began a long friendship with the artist Pablo Picasso, who designed sets for Diaghilev's company. She danced for the first time in London in 1918, where Keynes witnessed one of her performances. Unimpressed, he described Lopokova to a friend as he left the theater: "She is a rotten dancer—she has such a stiff bottom."

Indeed, Lopokova was short and lacked the other physical attributes of a traditional star ballerina. According to dancer-director Frederick Ashton, "She was not really a great ballerina, … but she had incredible charm and was always a strong and most interesting dancer to watch." As one of her contemporaries wrote, "Few dancers have performed with such assurance or flown through the air as she did." Her brother described her as "an elegant little doll," who danced "as if she was tripping on air." He added that she combined leaps of almost masculine power with a technique that "was delicate and typically feminine." Still another observer described her as "a tiny, happy blonde, with rounded arms and the cheeky manner of a London sparrow."

Lopokova and Keynes probably met for the first time sometime in early 1918. The economist had a longstanding interest in music, and the Bloomsbury group had numerous social contacts with Lopokova's ballet company throughout the year. Their friendship apparently began in earnest at a party held at the Adelphi Hotel in London on Armistice Day 1918, as all of Britain celebrated the end of World War I.

Lopokova made an abrupt departure from the Diaghilev company in the early summer of 1919, disappearing for a time in connection with the collapse of her marriage. She wrote Diaghilev that she had suffered a serious nervous breakdown. Rumors suggested that she was also romantically involved with a Russian officer. Keynes' biographer Robert Skidelsky believes that her romantic entanglement led her to follow her lover to the port of Batum on the Black Sea in Russian Georgia before their relationship crumbled. Her disappearance lasted until the early months of 1921, when she reappeared to dance in a musical play in New York. That same year, she rejoined Diaghilev's company, dancing for him sporadically during most of the 1920s.

By 1922, Keynes was openly attracted to the Russian ballerina, attending every one of her performances of The Sleeping Beauty, renamed by Diaghilev The Sleeping Princess. As he did for many of his close friends, the economist began to direct her financial affairs. She moved to Bloomsbury and confined most of her dance and stage appearances to England. Diaghilev's productions, such as The Sleeping Princess, were often financially unsuccessful, and, in June 1923, she wrote Keynes of her fading enthusiasm for life as a dancer.

Keynes' niece and nephew, Polly Hill and Richard Keynes, have eloquently described the firm basis for the relationship between the economist and the Russian ballerina. Keynes needed the companionship of an honest and lively personality, and his wide intellectual interests included a desire for contact with the world of the arts. His long series of homosexual affairs no longer provided him with the joy they once had. As early as World War I, he had begun to establish relationships with women. Although Lopokova was no economist, she lavishly praised his newspaper articles with an enthusiasm his Bloomsbury friends never showed.

Lydia was also at a turning point in her life. She faced an uncertain future after the failure of her marriage and in light of the continuing financial difficulties of Diaghilev's ballet company. She too was ready to settle into a conventional marriage with a stable and supportive figure.

Thus, the unlikely relationship between Lopokova and Keynes flourished. The two moved in together before they were legally wed. During their moments apart, for example when Keynes was busy at Cambridge, they carried on an extended correspondence starting in these early years. She wrote numerous letters to her "Maynardochka" or "Lank" (for lanky), and he responded to his "Lydochka." After Lopokova had formally ended her marriage to Barocchi, she wed Keynes in London in August 1925. Keynes' friends in the Bloomsbury set found the Russian woman an exotic and unappealing personality. She had no interest in the political and intellectual issues that dominated their conversations. Virginia Woolf wrote in June 1924: "You can't argue solidly when Lydia's there." She also noted that seeing Keynes with Lopokova on his knee made "a sublime but heartrending spectacle." Lytton Strachey dismissed her brutally as "a half-witted canary" and made fun of her thick Russian accent. In the Cambridge faculty, there were disparaging remarks that Keynes had "married a chorus girl."

Soon after the wedding, Lopokova and her new husband left for Russia. It was Lydia's first voyage back to her homeland since 1910. She introduced Keynes to her family, and he attended the festivities occasioned by the anniversary of the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called). Lydia's elder sister Evgenia Lopukhova had remained in Soviet Russia and become a leading ballerina. Her brother Fedor was achieving fame in the Russian dance world as a ballet master.

Back in Britain, the pair settled down in a farmhouse near the small village of Tilton in Sussex. Lydia was to live there with her husband until his death, and then until her own demise in 1981. She encouraged his interest in literature, and the two spent hours reading poetry to one another. As he wrote and consulted with his colleagues in economics and the university community, she busied herself with long walks and domestic chores. She usually stayed in the countryside or in London during the stretches from Friday to Tuesday that Keynes spent at Cambridge, and they communicated with each other by mail each day. Meanwhile, Keynes entered a period of remarkable scholarly creativity, possibly due to the emotional security and the stimulation his wife provided.

From her earliest days as a ballerina, Lopokova had impressed people in the world of ballet and theater with her lively and uninhibited personality. She expressed herself with striking verbal frankness. Now friends in the Keynes circle also recorded her exuberant and whimsical characteristics. She sunbathed nude in front of the farmhouse at Tilton, unconcerned by the occasional passerby. On a trip with her husband to North America in 1944, she reacted to a severe heat wave one night by walking naked through the corridors of an Ottawa hotel and planting herself inside a large kitchen refrigerator. She purchased a sizable number of shoes and a larger number of hats. Her eccentric dress, which became even more colorful after her husband's death, made her instantly recognizable to acquaintances on the streets of London.

Lopukhova, Evgenia (1884–1941)

Russian prima ballerina. Name variations: Yevgenia Lopoukhova. Born in 1884; died in 1941; daughter of Vasili Lopukhov (a St. Petersburg theater attendant) and Constanza Karlovna Douglas Lopukhova; sister of Andrei Lopukhov (1898–1947, character dancer and teacher), Fedor Lopukhov (b. 1886, Soviet choreographer), and Lydia Lopokova (c. 1892–1981).

Lopokova continued to dance in Diaghilev's company immediately after her marriage, but she was now in her mid-30s and her enthusiasm for the dancer's life faded. She appeared in films, including Dark Red Roses in 1929, possibly the first English movie to use sound, and she continued to dance publicly with English companies in the early 1930s. As one friend noted years later, "She kept that wonderful elastic body fit doing high kicks over the bar in her room at Tilton." She reviewed ballet performances for a number of publications, and gave several radio broadcasts commenting on the ballet and reading Russian literature in English translation.

In the 1930s, Lopokova concentrated on an acting career. She remained hampered by her Russian accent, characteristically referring to her husband as "May-NAR," but nonetheless took on roles from Shakespeare to Ibsen. She continued to misuse English words in conversation, deliberately according to some acquaintances. Her witty repartee led most who knew her to conclude that she could speak without mistakes, and that her verbal oddities appeared because she wanted to give added spice to her speech. A typical remark was her comment on the beautiful country house with its exotic birds and their "beautiful ovaries."

During her acting career, critics lauded her charm and enthusiasm, and, perhaps in deference to her husband, tempered their reviews of her performances. Occasionally, however, the comments were harsh. The critic of London's Evening Standard wrote of one performance: "For those who like their Shakespeare with a very broken accent, this was a charming experience." The Times' critic in 1933 wrote of her performance in Twelfth Night that her Shakespearean English came "with so strong an Illyrian accent that much of its sense and all its music vanish." Lopokova reacted by giving up any further plans to perform Shakespeare; Ibsen became her playwright of choice.

Both husband and wife took up the cause of promoting the ballet in England in the 1930s and helped to found the Camargo Society. Named after Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo , a Parisian ballet star of the 18th century, the Society presented new English ballets with established dancers between 1930 and 1933. The work of the Society paved the way for the formation of the Royal Ballet. Lydia helped to attract guest artists; she herself danced in six ballets for the Society.

In 1932, along with an English friend, Lopokova visited Leningrad to see her family. She found them living in abject poverty in the midst of the Soviet Union's First Five Year Plan of rapid-fire industrial growth. Lydia also encountered the political repression of the time: she was told not to make negative comments about the Russian scene after her return to Britain lest her family suffer reprisals. Her efforts to get two of her brothers out of the Soviet Union had no success.

Keynes' most important contribution to the world of economics, his General Theory, appeared in 1936. By the start of 1937, he was showing clear signs of heart disease. Lydia, who had been concerned about her husband's health problems throughout the 1930s, was probably not surprised when Keynes suffered a serious heart attack that May. Even though he never fully regained his health, he continued an active role as an economist and, during World War II, as an advisor to the British chancellor of the exchequer. In 1942, he was elevated to the nobility for his services to his country. John Maynard Keynes now became Lord Keynes; Lydia gained the title of Lady Keynes.

After 1937, Lopokova took on the role of nurse and protector for her husband. At confidential government meetings at which servants could not be present, she played the role of waitress. Even old associates from the Bloomsbury set, who had once been critical of her, now praised the energy and concern with which she cared for Keynes. She became famous for rationing his time and abruptly expelling visitors when she thought they were tiring her husband.

Wartime duties led Lord Keynes to take six trips to the United States, on which Lopokova accompanied him. Numerous choice anecdotes have survived in their friends' memories. For example, when her husband was negotiating with American secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau in 1944, Keynes expressed his frustration to Lopokova about the American position on a monetary issue. Lydia supposedly accosted Morgenthau in his office, demanded a more equitable settlement of the problem, and got the results she and Keynes wanted. During their return to England on the ocean liner Nieuw Amsterdam, now transformed into a troopship, Lopokova dealt with the vessel's captain in equally energetic fashion. She demanded that she and Maynard receive the unique privilege of meals in their cabin; otherwise, she would hold the captain responsible for Maynard's health when she rushed to report to Winston Churchill. Her assault on the ship's routine brought immediate success.

Lord Keynes died on Easter Sunday, 1946, at the age of 62. His last public appearance had been with Lopokova at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for a performance of The Sleeping Beauty, the ballet in which his wife had danced a leading role while he was courting her in the early 1920s.

Lopokova felt that she would need a decade to recover from Maynard's death. In fact, she showed her devotion to her deceased husband by wearing his clothes for years. She continued an active involvement in the arts, serving as trustee of the Cambridge Arts Theater until 1960. A memorable moment in these years came in 1951, when Pablo Picasso visited England for the last time. Lopokova and Picasso danced together in front of her house in London.

Lopokova's careers as a dancer and actress have been overshadowed by her association with her husband. She, nonetheless, is particularly remembered for her vibrant personality. As one admirer, Dennis Arundell, put it, "Her chief quality was that she was always as straightforward as a child, and her eager enthusiasm for trying something new or challenging—no matter how different or difficult—was the enthusiasm of a child." Despite his public and professional image as a ferociously independent being, Keynes depended upon her for emotional support, especially during the stressful time when he was writing General Theory, his most important book. As one friend of the couple wrote Lopokova after Keynes' death: "I always thought it was through your will, devotion and care that Maynard was spared to do the great work that he did."

In her later years, Lopokova rotated among the three residences that she and Keynes had occupied: the farmhouse at Tilton and their apartments in London and at Cambridge. At Tilton, visitors noted, she was surrounded by a remarkable collection of paintings, including Cézannes and Picassos. Keynes' investments in the stock market had prospered in the 1930s, and he had put much of his profits into these great works of art. As the years continued, she gave up the apartments, ceased to attend the ballet in London, and spent her time at Tilton with long walks in the Sussex countryside. To her nephew Milo Keynes, she described her experience of aging in a vivid image: "Every day a little bit of me flies away, like a bird." By the mid-1970s, her mind wandered, but she could still regale visitors with vivid verbal portraits of the great dancers she had known. Lydia Lopokova spent her last years in a nursing home near Tilton, where she died on June 8, 1981. She was probably 88 years old.


Hill, Polly, and Keynes, Richard. Lydia and Maynard: The Letters of John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova. NY: Scribner, 1989.

Keynes, Milo, ed. Essays on John Maynard Keynes. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

——, ed. Lydia Lopokova. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

Skidelsky, Robert. John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour, 1920–1937. NY: Penguin, 1992.

Spencer, Charles. The World of Diaghilev. NY: Penguin, 1974.

suggested reading:

Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Buckle, Richard. Diaghilev. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.

Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1979.

Hession, Charles H. John Maynard Keynes: A Personal Biography of the Man Who Revolutionized Capitalism and the Way We Live. NY: Macmillan, 1984.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California