I Once Met…Margot Fonteyn

I walked to the gate for my flight from Miami to London, holding the hand of my two-and-a-half year old daughter. It was late winter of 1984 and I’d been visiting my parents who’d retired and moved from New York to Miami Beach. My three-week-long welcome escape from the English chill and damp was over and it was time to fly back to my husband and home in West Sussex.

I looked round for two seats in the waiting area but all I could see were singles, so I sat down in one, pulling my daughter onto my lap. She was hugging her favourite soft toy, a cuddly raccoon which we’d named Rocky. I was aware that the stylish, dark-haired woman on my left was watching my daughter, a bemused smile on her lips. ‘She adores her raccoon,’ I volunteered. ‘He has to go everywhere with her.’ The woman then told me all about a bear that had been a favourite of children in her family, and had gone from one generation to the next. I can’t recall what else we talked about but I kept looking at her face and her elegant bearing, trying to figure out why she looked so familiar. Then I had a hunch. I surreptitiously scrutinised her legs, hoping to discover some tell-tale musculature… but her legs were lovely and slim. Finally, when I thought I had absolutely nothing to lose, I said, ‘You know – you look very much like Dame Margot Fonteyn.’ She chuckled softly. ‘That’s because I am.’

This was the ice breaker – and she confided that she was flying to London, having been invited by the Royal Ballet to attend a special event in her honour. ‘I used to live in New York City,’ I told her, ‘and saw you dance several times with Nureyev.’ She smiled again, adding ruefully, ‘That must have been a long time ago.’ Which it was – the early 1970s when she would have been in her fifties. In all honesty, although I remember her beauty and grace, it was Nureyev, some 20 years her junior, whose performance I can recall vividly – ‘wowing’ the audience with his phenomenal leaps and breathtaking athleticism.

Dame Margot was unaffectedly charming and carried on chatting as if we were old friends. Then the first class passengers were called and she bid me goodbye and went off almost apologetically, muttering something about the Royal Ballet having paid her fare. I did not see her again but later read about her rather sad life in Panama, her husband’s infidelities, the assassination attempt that had left him paralysed, and his expensive medical care which she paid for. I also read that when she was dying of cancer (to which she succumbed some seven years after our meeting), she had very little money left, having exhausted her funds in the protracted care of her husband. It was Rudolf Nureyev – her dancing partner of 17 years and lifelong friend – who not only visited her regularly but also paid many of her medical bills.

My daughter, now age 32, still has her beloved Rocky the raccoon. He sits in a crumpled state on a chair in her bedroom — alas, too ‘love-worn’ to be passed on to the next generation.

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