René Blum, the forgotten friend

Published by Judith Bennahum on

portrait photo de rené Blum
René Blum en 1929 © Henri Martinie / Roger-Viollet

On October 7, 2019, an exceptional set of 16 Marcel Proust letters to his friend René Blum (1878−1942) were auctioned at CHRISTIE’S Paris. At the end of the day this treasure was still waiting to be sold and found no purchaser. But who was really René Blum, who played a major role in the publication of Du côté de chez Swann in 1913 ? Judith Bennahum, René Blum’s biograph, distinguished Professor Emerita, researcher, and choreographer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque paints a portrait of this capital yet forgotten friend.

René Blum’s radiant life was lost in the Holocaust in 1942. It is a puzzle why his many accomplishments especially as a ballet impresario were forgotten soon after his death. Many books and articles on the Ballets Russes refer to him as a charming, elegant person with good taste and a kind heart, and that’s about it.  History has indeed forgotten him. In addition, he carefully avoided any connection to his prodigiously important brother, Léon Blum, first Jewish and the first Socialist Prime Minister of France. 

Silk and bons vivants

Born in 1878, Blum came from Orthodox Jewish parents whose families arrived in Paris from Alsace before the 1848 Revolution ; his father prospered selling silk ribbons, while his mother loved literature and taught her sons about the importance of social justice.  His grandmother had supported the Commune in 1870 and owned a bookstore.  
He and his brothers were hardly religious, enjoying the pleasures of wealth and convivial relationships with « tout Paris. »   One is hard put to find out how René earned a living before he went to Monte Carlo in 1924, and in speaking with the few living relatives who knew him, it becomes immediately evident that he didn’t, that he was paid here and there by various journals, but that the three brothers who went into their father Auguste’s soieries business were the breadwinners for the artistically inclined bon vivants, Léon and René. 
In the 1890s, the defining event of the less than Belle Époque, was the Dreyfus Affair. A passionate outspoken writer and Dreyfusard, (for Dreyfus), Anatole France became a close friend of the Blum family and when René began writing plays, he took the nom de plume of a famous Anatole France character, Monsieur Bergeret. Léon Blum also wrote profusely about the Dreyfus Affair as he excelled as a brilliant polemicist as well as an insightful literary and theatre critic.  As a lawyer, Léon assisted Émile Zola’s attorney during the « J’accuse » scandal. 

Revue blanche and Gil Blas

Six years younger, René tagged along beside him, especially when Léon was writing for the important journal, Revue Blanche. In those offices René was introduced to Mallarmé, Gide, and most of the Symbolist poets.  Claude Debussy was its resident music critic. Soon after Revue Blanche closed its doors in 1903, René became a theatre editor (secrétaire général) for Gil Blas, another prominent Parisian publication, known for its brilliant and witty columns.  His brother Léon took over as a regular reviewer of books for Gil Blas and also for Comoedia. At this time, René Blum became President of the first cinema club in France Le Club du Septième Art, and his interest in making and showing films never wavered.  He wrote the prologue for the Salon de la Section d’Or, le 10–30 Octobre 1912, one of the first exhibitions of Cubist paintings that included works by Archipenko, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, André Dunoyer de Segonzac, and Duchamp”s remarkable Nude descending a staircase. There was no problem when looking for designers for his ballet company.

Poets & painters” friend

As a young man, quiet and introspective, René was called le Blumet and l’infortunio—affectionate appellations that refer to his rather melancholic personality.  He spent his summers by the sea in Brittany and Normandy in charming villages with painter friends such as Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard and poets and writers such as Romain Coolus, Catulle Mendès, Tristan Bernard and Philippe Berthelot. He was also a very close friend of Jacques Bizet, Georges Bizet’s son.  Then a defining incident took place. In 1913, Marcel Proust was unable to find a publisher for the first book in his A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and wrote a letter entreating René to introduce him to Bernard Grasset, a publisher friend of René’s.  The 650 page book, Du côté de Chez Swann, soon appeared. 

Réné, le Poilu

At the age of 35 when WW I broke out, Blum volunteered, and then found the ravages of war almost unbearable.  Several letters in the Richelieu département des manuscripts attest to his horror of the dead and wounded. Fluent in English and German, he won the Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire, as he saved the treasures and artifacts from various churches during the battles of WW I.  It seems a ghastly twist of fate when he is arrested by the French Vichy army as well as the German police, and subsequently murdered at Auschwitz. His picture in a German prison camp in 1918 found in a photo album of his great niece Francine Hyafil, has never been seen before. After the war, he continued to work for the arts, to gravitate to publishers who produced art books and to promote the so-called decorative arts, a new field, contributing to the astounding Paris exposition on Les Arts Décoratifs in 1925. 

Monte-Carlo’s Ballets Russes

René’s affinity for theatre eventually led him to accept a position in Monte Carlo at the Théâtre de Monte Carlo. Like many of the cities on the Côte d’Azur, Monte Carlo and its theatre spills serenely down a hill overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.  Despite the blight and dismal circumstances facing France after WWI and the subsequent Depression, Monte Carlo lived suspended, outside those deep scars and went about its business of entertaining the internationally wealthy with its gambling casino and its continuous theatrical enterprises.  
When Serge Diaghilev died in August 1929, the artistic administrator of the Monte Carlo theatres, René Leon, contracted René Blum to produce seasons of « les grandes manifestions d’art ». In fulfillment of the unexpired Diaghilev contract, for a time Blum booked such well-known itinerant ballet groups as Boris Kniasev’s Lithuanian Ballet, Uday Shankar, Vicente Escudero, and the Sakharoffs.  Then in October 1931, he organized his own Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo bringing in The Colonel de Basil, the former Vassily Girgorievitch Voskresensky, and inviting Balanchine, Massine, Kochno and Lifar, the lynchpins of Diaghilev’s company. The sister of Nijinsky and a distinguished choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska came soon after.

René Blum et les dans seurs des balettes russes de Monte-Carlo
Monte-Carlo Ballets. René Blum, Maria Ruanova, Michel Fokine, Hélène Kirsova, Vera Nemchinova and Anatole Oboukhov (From left to right). Principauté de Monaco, March 1936.

Since Blum ran back to Paris all the time, not only for his family, but also for artistic and business reasons, there is no doubt that Blum met Balanchine and saw the beautiful young ballerinas in George Balanchine’s version of Offenbach’s  Orphée aux Enfers at the Mogador Theatre. Balanchine received fabulous reviews for his ballets and the whole production was a tremendous success. The young and brilliant Balanchine took over as the first Maître de Ballet for the new company and he created four new ballets for Monte Carlo season from April 12th to May 8, 1932. 
Balanchine also made incidental dances for Blum’s play Les Amours du Poète that he wrote with Georges Delaquys with accompanying music by Schumann.  The drama was based on the unrequited love of the poet Heinrich Heine for his cousin Amélie.  
Along with Balanchine, the choice of adding Léonide Massine’s name to the roster, was a natural one.  Massine at this time was in possession of the costumes and decors of a number of Diaghilev ballets.

Touring with the ballets

But Blum’s relationship to the ballet master Colonel de Basil was fraught.From the very beginning of their relationship, de Basil boldly took advantage of Blum and ignored his position in their financial partnership. Most perniciously de Basil decided to ignore contractual arrangements with Blum and the Monte Carlo Société de Bains de Mer which owned the theatre and the Casino.  De Basil purposely left out their names from posters, and vital sources of publicity and programs when away from Monte Carlo, beginning in early 1933. This was the beginning of the end for de Basil and Blum. Blum prevailed by creating his own Ballets de Monte Carlo and touring widely with the dancers to South Africa, England, Australia and the United States. He was known to hire the most talented and innovative composers, designers and choreographers, including Michel Fokine. 
The breadth and glory of the opening season validated Blum’s highest hopes. Soon the shadows that were cast upon Europe’s destiny in the 1930s, until the United States joined the war in 1941, paralleled Blum’s gradual demise, though he sustained a very successful series of companies in Monte Carlo. Tragically Blum chose to return to France from a tour to the United States in 1940, perhaps because of his son, his brothers, and his own pride as a former French officer.

René Blum & The Ballets Russes, In Search of a Lost Life, Judith Chazin-Bennahum, Oxford University Press, 2011.


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