May 13, 2013
She learned about fashion from Coco Chanel, was a muse to choreographer George Balanchine, and rubbed elbows with Picasso and Matisse—all by the age of 14. That was quite a feat for a frail, painfully shy Jewish girl born with foot and leg deformities. The life of ballet legend Alicia Markova (1910–2004) is as improbable as it is remarkable, with a career spanning 1920s Monte Carlo, 1930s London, and the war years traversing the United States, which she would come to call home. An amazing child dance prodigy, the British Lilian Alicia Marks (renamed Markova by Sergei Diaghilev at his famed Ballets Russes) became not only the most acclaimed classical ballerina of her generation—and a much-loved worldwide celebrity—but also the first openly Jewish prima ballerina in history. To reach that lofty position she would have to overcome oppressive anti-Semitism, poverty, jealousy, sexism, and prejudices against her ethnic looks. This is the spellbinding story of a smart, self-reliant and adventurous woman, both proudly Jewish and far ahead of her times.