On September 14, 1927, dancer Isadora Duncan is strangled in Nice, France, when the enormous silk scarf she is wearing gets tangled in the rear hubcaps of her open car. (“Affectations,” said Gertrude Stein when she heard the news of Duncan’s death, “can be dangerous.”)
Isadora Duncan was born in 1877 in San Francisco and moved to Europe to become a dancer when she was in her early 20s. She had always loved to dance—in her teens, she worked as a dance teacher at her mother’s music school—but Duncan was not a classically trained ballerina. On the contrary, she was a free-spirited bohemian whose dances were improvisational and emotional; they were choreographed, she said, “to rediscover the beautiful, rhythmical motions of the human body.” In contrast to the short tutus and stiff shoes that ballet dancers wore, Duncan typically danced barefoot, wrapped in flowing togas and scarves. Female audiences, in particular, adored her: In an era when classical ballet was falling out of favor with many sophisticated people (and when the scantily-clad dancers themselves were, more often than not, “sponsored” by wealthy male patrons), Duncan’s performances celebrated independence and self-expression.
Duncan lived a self-consciously bohemian, eccentric life offstage as well: She was a feminist and a Darwinist, an advocate of free love and a Communist. (For this, her American citizenship was revoked in the early 1920s.) Meanwhile, her life was a tragic one, especially when it came to automobiles: In 1913, her two small children drowned when the car they were riding in plunged over a bridge and into the Seine in Paris, and Duncan herself was seriously injured in car accidents in 1913 and 1924.
On the day she died, Duncan was a passenger in a brand-new convertible sportscar that she was learning to drive. As she leaned back in her seat to enjoy the sea breeze, her enormous red scarf (“which she had worn since she took up communism,” one newspaper reported) somehow blew into the well of the rear wheel on the passenger side. It wound around the axle, tightening around Duncan’s neck and dragging her from the car and onto the cobblestone street. She died instantly.