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Lincoln: Center

The long and the short of Lincoln Kirstein.



Who is Lincoln Kirstein? The short answer: He's the man who introduced George Balanchine, the Russian choreographer, to the United States in 1933; the man who established, along with Balanchine, the School of American Ballet; and the man who, more than anyone, got Balanchine's newly named New York City Ballet on its feet in 1948. Now it's payback time: The New York City Ballet has dedicated its current season to Kirstein on the centenary of his birth.

But again, there's the question: Who is Lincoln Kirstein? For the long answer, see Martin Duberman's The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (Knopf), the first major biography of Kirstein to appear since the man's death in 1996, and by "major," Duberman means it: 624 pages, with an additional 65 pages of notes. How else, though, to accommodate Kirstein's complicated life and his commitment to the performing and visual arts in the 20th century? How indeed when the life was as full as Kirstein's and his accomplishments nothing short of remarkable. Why, then, is Kirstein not better known? Good question.

The son of German Jews, Kirstein grew up in Boston — his father: a top department-store executive; his mother: a woman to hold her own among the Brahmins of Boston's Back Bay. After a happy childhood, his parents sent Kirstein to Phillips Exeter for prep school, and he hated it. Then they sent Kirstein to Harvard, and he took his studies less than seriously. Instead, in his junior year, he founded a "little magazine" called Hound and Horn, and he called on Ezra Pound to contribute to it, which Pound did (along with an all-star line-up of other writers and critics). Then in 1929, Kirstein, still an undergraduate, founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which beat the opening of the Museum of Modern Art by six months. After college, he traveled across Europe and met everybody who was anybody. Then he moved to New York City and did the same.

What he never did was hold an official position that ever really paid. Instead, he worked with manic energy to support those he believed in: artists, in addition to Balanchine, as unknown at the time as photographer Walker Evans and as well known as Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. When Kirstein wired his father for funds, his father wired them. When he went looking for sex (with men, occasionally with women), he found it. But during World War II, he and his superior officer found something else: the Ghent altarpiece, a priceless 15th-century artwork stolen by the Nazis and hidden inside a salt mine in Austria. After the war, Kirstein found Fidelma (the sister of his close friend, painter Paul Cadmus) and married her.

Left-wing politics lasted Kirstein his whole adult life. Self-doubts lasted him too despite a commanding personality — a personality that could be generous one moment and lacerating the next. That contradiction is for Duberman to analyze. Kirstein's long, eventful life, warts and all, and his physical and mental decline in the final years: That's for Duberman to describe. But perhaps at too great a length? Not for readers with an interest in 20th-century art and artists or any reader not new to the name Lincoln Kirstein.

Homer Hickam's autobiography, Rocket Boys, may be more familiar to you as the movie that was made from it, October Sky. But for Hickam's latest book, the setting isn't the coal-mining countryside of West Virginia. It's the far South Seas, and the title is The Far Reaches (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press), Hickam's third novel (after The Keeper's Son and The Ambassador's Son) to feature Coast Guard Lt. Josh Thurlow and his adventures during World War II.

The bestselling Hickam is something of an adventurer too. In addition to being a Vietnam vet and memoirist, novelist, and popular historian (Torpedo Junction), he's worked for NASA, and he's taught scuba diving. Today, in addition to writing, he's also an amateur paleontologist. And on Thursday, June 14th, he's in Memphis.

Be a member of the audience when Book Talk interviews Hickam at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library (3030 Poplar). The taping is at 1:30 p.m., but seating is limited. Call 415-2700 for more information. Can't make it to Book Talk? At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Davis-Kidd Booksellers will be hosting a booksigning for Hickam. Can't make it to Davis-Kidd? Call the store at 683-9801 to reserve a signed copy of The Far Reaches.

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