File photo: Soviet born ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev performs with Ghislaine Thesmar during a scene from the ballet 'Afternoon of a Faun.'
File photo: Soviet born ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev performs with Ghislaine Thesmar during a scene from the ballet 'Afternoon of a Faun.'

The White House’s bizarre love triangle

By TOM LEONARD Time of article published Jan 24, 2014

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London - When Jacqueline Kennedy first saw Rudolf Nureyev dance, she was captivated. It was 1963 and Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn were leading the Royal Ballet tour as it stopped in New York.

The First Lady, a ballet devotee, clapped so energetically that her hands were “black and blue pulp”, she said.

The man who would go on to become an international celebrity and one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century had defected from the Soviet Union to the West only two years before. The KGB had tried to stop him, and, sensitive to the political ramifications of such a meeting, Nureyev’s manager initially rebuffed Mrs Kennedy when she tried to go backstage afterwards.

Undeterred, a few days later she flew Nureyev, Fonteyn and a few of their fellow dancers in a private plane for tea at the White House. Taking the group into the cabinet room, she left them briefly to go and find her husband, allowing Nureyev to seize the opportunity of sitting in the president’s rocking chair.

Referring to John F. Kennedy’s health problems, the intensely vain Nureyev flirtatiously told the First Lady: “Unlike your beautiful husband, I have a powerful back — a strong Russian back for leaping through the air.”

According to a forthcoming book about Jackie Kennedy, from the moment she first saw him, Jackie was “mesmerised” by the deeply charismatic and physically breathtaking Nureyev, and they soon embarked on an affair.

Not only that, say writers Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince, but Nureyev also had a relationship with Jackie’s brother-in-law and reputed lover Bobby Kennedy. The bizarre love triangle became an even more outlandish love square because the ballet dancer was also allegedly conducting an affair with Jackie’s equally beautiful younger sister, Lee Radziwill.

It would have been exhausting if all this was true, but Nureyev — as aggressively promiscuous as he was shamelessly narcissistic — liked to boast that he was the “sexiest man alive” and simply “too good a lover not to share my body with others”.

The forthcoming book, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, A Life Beyond Her Wildest Dreams, comes from a pair of seasoned celebrity biographers who have been dismissed by some as sensationalist muck-rakers.

However, it is not the first time the dancer has been amorously linked to Radziwill, or to Bobby Kennedy.

Porter says his new claims are based on statements by the flamboyant writers Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, both of whom were one-time confidants of Jackie Kennedy.

A 2007 biography of the dancer by former ballerina Julie Kavanagh suggested that Nureyev flirted with Jackie, but the dancer himself claimed he went much further with her sister, Lee, and made her pregnant — but that she later lost it. According to Porter, the dancer also made this revelation to Jackie Kennedy, adding: “With you, I will make nine beautiful children — five boys, four girls.”

She retorted that she was “not a breeding factory”.

Lee, who is now 90, has denied she ever had an affair with Nureyev, though she admits she was besotted.

But while Kavanagh acknowledged the two sisters competed fiercely for Nureyev’s attentions, the writer stopped short of saying that Jackie ever had an affair with him.

Born on the Trans-Siberian Express as his mother was travelling to see his father, a Red Army commissar, Nureyev was acclaimed as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He was only 54 when he died of Aids in 1993. Although he claimed to have slept with only three women, he had many, many male lovers.

According to Porter, Jackie Kennedy’s casual affair with Nureyev lasted from 1962 to 1965 — beginning before her husband’s assassination in 1963 and continuing afterwards. They would meet occasionally in New York, where the Kennedys kept a suite at the luxurious Carlisle hotel, and in Truman Capote’s Washington flat.

Meanwhile, of course, Jackie’s husband was philandering with all and sundry back at the White House.

Lee Radziwill, the wife of a Polish prince, had two huge homes in Britain. She had warned the First Lady that Nureyev was “99 percent gay”, writes Porter. Both sisters, he claims, were determined to make the most of that remaining one percent.

Like Jackie after her, Lee became entranced after watching Nureyev dance in 1961. When he began dancing with the Royal Ballet a year later, she invited him to stay with her and her frequently absent businessman husband at their London house while he looked for his own place.

They shared a passion for beautiful objects and luxurious fabrics, and would go midnight window-shopping after his performances. They spent considerable time alone at the Radziwills’ country home in Turville, Bucks. Friends remarked how their intimate body language made it look like they were more than just friends.

Nureyev was “adept at sharing himself equally between the two competitive sisters, photographed shopping on Fifth Avenue with Jackie, dancing with Lee in Monte Carlo”, wrote Kavanagh in her book Nureyev: The Life.

“But there was a time when he was very much closer to Lee — a bond, she says, that her sister greatly envied.”

The new book, however, cites Capote as saying that Jackie was the sister Nureyev was more taken with.

The sisters weren’t the only women to know about Nureyev’s preference for men and still be smitten. Marlene Dietrich, who called the dancer “That Boy”, pursued him relentlessly in those heady years in Sixties London.

On one occasion, Dietrich insisted Nureyev drive her home after a party in Chelsea. He feared the worst. “If I’m not back in 20 minutes, you come and get me,” he told Joan Thring, Jackie Kennedy’s best friend. The Hollywood icon, he added, “might chain him to t”e bed’.

And what of the other Kennedy who was supposed to have admired Nureyev for more than his dancing? Knowing how flamboyantly homosexual the dancer could be, Mrs Kennedy was reluctant to introduce Nureyev to either Bobby or to her son, John Jr, says Porter.

In Bobby’s case, perhaps, she needn’t have worried because the two men became good friends. The late Gore Vidal claimed in his memoirs that Nureyev was the object of Bobby’s “homosexual impulses”, and that — according to the dancer — the pair once “shared” a US soldier.

Porter cites the separate case of a ballerina who, visiting Arthur’s, a famous New York nightclub, one night in 1965, claims she spotted “Bobby and Rudi kissing each other passionately” in a booth.

On another occasion, Royal Ballet dancer Alexander Grant and Nureyev were standing close together talking in the same club when Bobby Kennedy approached them. Grant said Kennedy asked them, somewhat rudely: “Hey, what’s going on between you two? Break this up!”

Grant was shocked how possessive Kennedy was of Nureyev. It was very strange, Grant recalled, because Kennedy was “only kind of jokey, and I thought: ‘Why should he care?’ “

Still, for all Bobby Kennedy’s famously rapacious sexual appetites, it doesn’t quite sound like conclusive proof that Nureyev should join Marilyn Monroe, actress Lee Remick and Jackie Kennedy on the long list of Bobby’s sexual conquests.

According to Porter, Jackie once told Capote that “Rudi systematically plans to seduce every member of my family — even my son when he grows up”.

She drew the line at John Jr falling into Nureyev’s sexual clutches. Porter says she was furious after her son spent a month staying with Nureyev on a small island in Italy.

Why? Because Nureyev encouraged John Jr to become a dancer, while his mother thought he could be president. It eventually provoked an uncharacteristically homophobic outburst from his mother. “I don’t want my son to grow up to be a fag,” she reportedly complained to the Washington socialite Bunny Mellon.

Quite how much Nureyev was ever seriously interested in women — even one as glamorous as Jackie Kennedy — is open to debate. After all, gay celebrities in those years always went around with “beards” — female friends designed to distract speculation about their sexuality.

However, he certainly remained close to Jackie for years. In the Seventies, it was her financial advice that enabled the dancer to make serious amounts of money after she advised him to buy gold just before its price shot through the roof.

And when Nureyev was allowed to visit the Soviet Union in 1985 to see his sick mother, fearing he might be grabbed by the KGB, it was Jackie whom he asked to “sound the alarm” if he didn’t come back in three days.

Dancer Robert Tracy, Nureyev’s live-in boyfriend for the last 14 years of his life, confided how Jackie would often drop in by helicopter or private jet at Nureyev’s ranch house in Virginia. They would go out riding, and she would fly in friends and even dinner from New York.

Tracy said Nureyev told him that he had slept with three women in his life, but he would not give names. Were two of them Jackie and Lee?

They remained good friends right up until the end. In May 1992, by then battling against advanced Aids and so weak he had to be helped into his tails, Nureyev fulfilled an invitation to conduct Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo And Juliet in New York.

In a note delivered to him backstage, Jackie Onassis — as she had become — sent “all my love and admiration on your great opening night”. The world “has a new Maestro — and he is my favourite”.

Nureyev died eight months later.

What exactly was the attraction of the humble Tartar commissar’s son to the world’s most glamorous women? He had a god-like physique, chiselled good looks and moved with a panther-like grace. But Nureyev also exuded what Porter says was a “mesmerising animal passion”.

“He had an incredible charisma about him,” he said. “I once watched him go into the Paris Ritz. Grace Kelly was there — but everyone just had to turn and look at Rudi.”

nJacqueline Kennedy Onassis, A Life Beyond Her Wildest Dreams by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince, is to be published by Blood Moon Productions in May, price £16.50.

Mesmerised: Jackie Kennedy with Rudolph Nureyev: Inset: The dancer with her sister Lee, top, and brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy - Daily Mail

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