Memories of a Troubled Father

Tamara Nijinsky, 74, is Vaslav Nijinsky's youngest daughter and executive director of the Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky Foundation (named after her parents). The foundation's collection of his artwork will be exhibited at the Severin Wunderman Museum opening Sunday. (Kyra Nijinsky, 80, the dancer's other daughter, has been living in a convalescent hospital in Northern California for about four years, recovering from multiple strokes, according to Tony Clark, curator of the exhibit.)

Tamara never saw her father dance. She was born one year after his illness was diagnosed as schizophrenia in 1919 (although some dispute the exact nature of his mental illness). After that he danced little, and for the next 30 years was in and out of mental hospitals. Tamara Nijinsky lived with both parents in Paris for a while as a child, but, she says, financial hardship forced her mother to send her to live with her maternal grandmother in Budapest. She was 30 when her father died in 1950.

In a recent telephone interview from her Phoenix home, she recalled the few memories she has of him, and discussed related subjects.

Q: What do you remember from the years you lived with your father?

A: Basically, I remember that he was a very, very quiet person. I just remember him sitting in an armchair by the mantelpiece, although when we were together he seemed to be always smiling like a delighted little boy and he was happy to see me. There was an understanding smile, although we never talked with words.


Q: He literally never spoke to you?

A: No, no, he didn't talk when I was with him. In the later years, he might have said something to my mother, but I didn't understand because it was in Russian (Tamara, whose first language is Hungarian, spoke only a little Russian) or he was so quiet. During World War II (when she lived apart from her father) my fiance and I went to visit him, and he loved sweets. Unfortunately, I inherited that. And we took, I think, three or four pieces of pastry, and he opened up (the parcel) and he practically inhaled them, two or three, he ate them with so much delight.


Q: Do you have a sense of how much dancing meant to him?

A: You and I, we come and go, and we take a breath and we do this and that, and we live this way. But for him, to express himself through dance was like breathing. It was as essential to his life and survival as breathing is to ours. When he got off the stage, he was like a vegetable.


Q: What motivated him to take up visual art?

A: I think he felt he needed to express himself. You know, certain drawings were done at a time when he was not able to dance because of (his internment in Budapest as a Russian during World War I), so he had an extreme need to express himself somehow.


Q: What's your opinion of Peter Ostwald's 1991 book (Carol Publishing Group), "Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap into Madness"? (Ostwald, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, was the first to study hospital records and medical archives to analyze Nijinsky's mental state.)

A: It's the best book ever written about my father, first because it is based on medical records, and because Ostwald went (to hospitals) in person and looked into the medical records. And, he wrote the book with so much empathy. I helped him a little bit too.


Q: What did you discover from the book?

A: I am certain if my father was alive today (and had access to contemporary medical care), he could function with some medication and create choreography. Maybe he wouldn't have danced, but he would have choreographed.


Q: How did you cope with the sadness at your father's illness and mental decline?

A: I am convinced that, especially in the beginning of the sickness, he knew . . . that something was happening to him and he was struggling desperately not to become ill, so that's a sadness. But . . . I learned in life that there are things that happen that are beyond me and it doesn't do any good to cry about them. I can't change them.


Q: Some believe that Romola Nijinsky didn't seek the best care possible for your father and believe that she sought to gain financially from his fame. Where do you stand on this?

A: She was a brilliant woman in her own right and you have to give her credit because she watched over Vaslav for 30 years after he became sick. She could have stuck him in a state asylum and said "forget it." People say she lived from the name of Nijinsky, but she supported him in the best circumstances possible. Maybe the means weren't always right, but the goal was. She was so dedicated sincerely to supporting him and after he died she survived 28 years and she traveled, she gave lectures, she made exhibitions (about him). To a certain extent, she kept his name alive.

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