Nijinska, Romola (1891–1978)

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Nijinska, Romola (1891–1978)

Hungarian-born writer and wife of the great Russian-born ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Name variations: Romola Nijinsky, Nijinskaia, or Nijinskaya. Pronunciation: Ni-ZHIN-ska. Born Romola de Pulszky in Budapest, Hungary, in 1891; died in Paris on June 8, 1978; daughter of Károly de Pulszky (director of the National Gallery of Hungary), and Emilia Markus (an actress); attended Lycée Fénelon (Paris); married Vaslav Nijinsky (a Russian ballet dancer), on September 10, 1913; sister-in-law ofBronislava Nijinska (1891–1972); children:Kyra Nijinsky (1914–1998, a dancer); Tamara Nijinsky (b. 1920).

In early March 1912, Romola de Pulszky went to the Budapest Opera House to watch the famed Ballets Russes perform. Much to her disappointment the company's star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, was indisposed. The 21-year-old woman returned the next night. This time, she was not disappointed. As she later recalled:

Suddenly a slim, lithe, cat-like Harlequin took the stage. Although his face was hidden by a painted mask, the expression and beauty of his body made us all realize we were in the presence of genius. An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being, the very spirit of Harlequin incarnate; mischievous, lovable. The power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements, the incredible gift of rising and remaining in the air and descending in twice as slow a time… proved that this extraordinary phenomenon was the very soul of the dance. With complete abandon the audience rose to its feet as one man, shouted, wept, showered the stage with flowers, gloves, fans, programmes, pêle-mêle in their wild enthusiasm. This magnificent vision was Nijinsky.

Nijinsky was indeed at the height of his career in 1912 and was widely considered to be the finest and most innovative male dancer in Europe. Some have since suggested that he was the greatest dancer of the 20th century.

Romola was soon obsessed with Nijinsky, becoming what a later generation would have called a ballet "groupie." She went to all of the remaining performances of the Ballets Russes in Budapest, followed the company to Paris for its summer season, and was in the audience when it moved on to Vienna. She attended all of Nijinsky's performances, watched rehearsals, and quizzed other dancers about him. Her pursuit became somewhat easier when the director of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, allowed her to take private lessons with the group's ballet master with the view of eventually joining the corps de ballet. In the summer of 1913, she tagged along when the company, minus its director who feared seasickness, went on a tour of South America. To be closer to its star dancer, she bought a first-class ticket for the 21-day crossing of the Atlantic. On board, she had her first extensive meeting with Nijinsky; by the end of the voyage, he had proposed; and on September 10, 1913, they were married in Buenos Aires.

It was a highly unlikely union: Vaslav was Russian, Romola Hungarian; he spoke Russian, Polish, a little French but no Hungarian; she was fluent in Hungarian, English and French but knew no Russian; he was a highly strung and reclusive dancer, she was a well-connected "society girl" with no obvious talents; he was the lover of the company's homosexual director, Serge Diaghilev. Their marriage, against all odds, lasted 37 years.

Romola Nijinska came from a wealthy and cultured background. Her father Károly de Pulszky was descended from a distinguished Polish family which had emigrated to Hungary in the 18th century. At the time of her birth, he was the founder and director of the Hungarian National Gallery. Her mother Emilia Markus was reputed to be the finest Hungarian dramatic actress of her time. According to Romola, her parents' marriage was not happy and not long lasting. Some time in the 1890s, her father was falsely accused of knowingly buying fake pictures in Italy for his gallery. He fled in disgrace to Australia and in 1899, at age 46, shot himself. Romola and her older sister Tessa de Pulszky were educated first by English governesses in Budapest and then, after their mother had remarried, at the Lycée Fénelon in Paris. She also studied both acting and ballet. Thanks to her upbringing, she was well mannered, stylishly dressed, and had many influential friends in the Hungarian artistic community. She thus had little difficulty being accepted on the fringes of the Ballets Russes and in financing her obsession.

Diaghilev, upon learning of his star's marriage, felt "robbed" of his favorite and out of spite fired him as the Ballets Russes' leading dancer and choreographer. Nijinsky was dumbfounded and hurt. He tried forming a company of his own in early 1914 and arranged for an engagement in London. Unfortunately, his business skills proved unequal to his artistic talents and the venture had to be abandoned after only 16 performances. In June 1914, Kyra, the Nijinskys' first child, was born. A month later, while they were on a family visit to Budapest, the First World War broke out, curtailing all possibility of further dancing in Europe. As a Russian citizen, Nijinsky and his immediate family were put under house arrest by the Austro-Hungarian government. It was not until April 1916, and then only after the intercession of Diaghilev, that Nijinsky and Romola were allowed to leave Vienna and to rejoin the Ballets Russes in the United States. After a five-month tour of North America, Diaghilev used legal arguments to force Nijinsky to make another tour of South America. Distracted and embittered, he danced for the last time in public on September 26, 1917, in Buenos Aires.

When the Nijinskys returned to Europe, they chose to live in neutral Switzerland. Vaslav decreed that he would not dance for the duration of the war and that he would never again work for Diaghilev. Romola later argued that the unforgiving director of the Ballets Russes had intentionally undermined her husband's mental well being through various machinations. His isolation and inactivity in Switzerland may also have contributed to his frustrations. Whatever the cause, Nijinsky became increasingly withdrawn, subject to hallucinations, and sometimes violent. In the winter of 1918–19, he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. Romola resisted efforts by her parents to have him institutionalized and suggestions that she should divorce him. In the words of Richard Buckle, "now began Romola Nijinska's thirty years of hope, despair, struggle, poverty and heroism."

The family, increased in size by the birth of Tamara in June 1920, lived modestly for the next decade in St. Moritz, Vienna and Paris. In the search for a cure for her husband's illness, Romola tried Christian Science, faith healers, and a trip to Lourdes. In 1929, she was finally forced to institutionalize him so that she could earn some money through a lecture tour in the United States. She raised additional funds by writing Nijinsky's biography in 1933 and by editing his diary in 1936. A year later, through the use of new insulin shock therapy, Nijinsky's health improved sufficiently for Romola once again to care for him at home. They spent the Second World War in Hungary and Austria, cut off from all sources of financial support, and fearful that Vaslav would be arrested as a Russian citizen or exterminated because of Nazi policies concerning the mentally ill. After being liberated by the Soviet army in 1945, Romola and her ailing husband lived peacefully and uneventfully in Vienna, Mittersill, Austria, and finally in a cottage in the English countryside. Two years after Vaslav's death from kidney failure in 1950, Romola published a third book entitled The Last Days of Nijinsky. Little is known of her own last days. She died in Paris on June 8, 1978, at the age of 86.


Buckle, Richard. Nijinsky. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

Nijinsky, Romola. Nijinsky. London: Victor Gollancz, 1933.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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Nijinska, Romola (1891–1978)

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