A new book on figure skater John Curry is not your typical sports biography – more the story of an artist than an athlete, set in the context not of international competitions but of New York City in the early years of the AIDS crisis. Mary Louise Adams, author of an award-winning history of figure skating, gives her review.
England’s John Curry, the 1976 Olympic figure skating champion, was a skaters’ skater. While many male figure skaters look to impress with height or speed or strength, Curry eschewed spectacle to mesmerize audiences with musicality, control, and impeccable body lines. Known for his fine artistic sensibilities, Curry offered beautiful competitive performances that were the antithesis of the constrained wooden style that dominated men’s figure skating in the 1960s and 1970s. In an era when men held their arms firmly at waist height, with their wrists straight and their fingers stiff, Curry’s balletic arm movements and expressiveness set him apart. He skated with the precise control and demeanour of a dancer.
For Curry, competitive success was not an end in itself but a route to his main goal, which was to develop figure skating as legitimate performing art. As Olympic champion, he would have the legitimacy and name recognition to attract the resources, skaters, and press interest that would permit him to establish a permanent performing company of figure skaters, following the model of professional dance companies. For a time, Curry managed to pull it off, working with a series of well-known dance choreographers (like Twyla Tharp, Kenneth MacMillan, and Peter Martin), and hiring a company of skaters who shared his vision. Curry developed a repertoire of ‘dances,’ skated to live music on both rinks and large theatre stages. Critics loved them. After the opening performance of the John Curry Skating Company at the Met in New York City, one critic wrote: “If dancing is the way angels walk… then skating is the way angels dance.”
But the triumph was not to last. Financial backing was hard to come by, the potential audience was not large, and Curry himself, we learn from Bill Jones’ biography of the skater, was a complicated man who was difficult to work with. Ten years after his Olympic victory, Curry’s ice theatre company had folded and he was supporting himself with acting and dancing jobs in stage musicals, first in New York, and later back in England, where he died of AIDS-related causes in 1994.
Jones’ book, Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry, is the only full account of the skater’s life. This is not a typical sport biography. Most of the story unfolds after Curry’s Olympic victory. The book is less about sport than about the desire to achieve an artistic vision. It is also a book about one gay man’s experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, and about a life of frequent unhappiness and complicated difficult relationships.
Based on dozens of interviews with people who knew Curry, Alone is full of personal and intimate details, the kind that make biographies fascinating reading. The author also had the tremendous good fortune to gain access to more than 200 letters written by Curry. From these letters we get a sense of Curry’s own voice:
I am very lonely. I’m neither fish nor flesh and the sun is too bright – the shadows too dark. The other skaters look on at me as a strange being. I love skating but the judges see my skating as symptoms of homosexuality. They really do. It is not easy to be judged by a pack of fools who know nothing of art.
Of course, Jones chronicles the details of Curry’s skating career, but more than this, the book is an effort to understand Curry as a deeply lonely, spectacularly creative, gay man in the early years of the AIDS crisis. The story is compelling, and I learned much about Curry that I (a figure skating historian) had not known before. But there is an othering tone throughout the book that suggests an insurmountable distance between biographer and subject. Jones is clear that he found Curry “gloomy,” as well one might, but his interpretations also suggest that he couldn’t quite make the leap to empathy for a gay man living in a historically unique environment, in an era before cheerful gay TV stars and the assimilative politics of same-sex marriage. For example, Jones tells us about a coach who wants Curry to change his skating and “man up.” The coach’s behaviour is easily read as homophobic. And, while Jones does say that the coach clearly didn’t understand Curry, he goes on to interpret Curry’s decision to switch coaches as “chilling ruthlessness.” Good coping skills or self-preservation might be other ways of putting it.
We know from Jones’ acknowledgements that he is married to a woman – “for more than two years she lived in a peculiar ménage à trois with a dead homosexual ice skater.” Jones is likely trying to be cute here. But the comment leaves a bad taste. As I read this book I often thought how different it would have been had it been written by someone with a good understanding of gay history and the post-Stonewall gay sexual cultures that form its backdrop. To Jones’ credit, he doesn’t shy away from talking about Curry’s gayness, his experiences in the experimental sexual cultures of New York City in the 1980s, or his diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. But Jones’ perspective on these issues feels anthropological. He seems to see Curry as exotic, odd – as queer, in the old-fashioned use of that word. Jones frequently uses the term “homosexual” rather than gay, and he refers to Curry as an “AIDS victim” rather than a person living with AIDS. These are small points perhaps, but they suggest a distance between author and subject. And while Curry himself might not have used the preferred language of today, someone who had taken an effort to understand the history that shaped Curry’s life as a gay man might well have learned to do so.
We can tell from the title of this book, Alone, that Curry’s personality and his psychology are the centre of Jones’ story. From accounts of Curry’s difficult and stormy relationships, it does seem that he was a man constantly engaged in psychic struggle. I am often critical of the way the language of “mental health” is applied so liberally today, but one can’t help but wonder whether Curry’s emotional battles with himself and others might have stemmed from some kind of mental health issue. Jones avoids the question until the end of the book and then only addresses it in passing, suggesting that Curry might have benefitted from professional treatment. Jones also mentions that at least one of Curry’s early coaches had sent the skater to a doctor to get him cured of homosexuality. Jones doesn’t pick up this thread to extrapolate about why someone who had been subject to such interventions in the past might have been reluctant to seek medical help.
Finally: While many books in the current era of reduced publishing staff are full of typos and things that should have been cut, this book seems to have more than its share of them. A very brief description of a Jewish man makes sure to note “his drooping nose.” An Italian-American coach is likened to a “Mafia don.” In one competition Curry moves up (!) from fifteenth to twentieth position, a “success” that apparently shocked his coach. On page 89 we read that “For once, whatever happened next, [Curry] would not be alone” and then, six pages later, we read again: “For once Curry was not alone.”
Perhaps this latter contradiction might have been avoided in a narrative less over-determined by the book’s title. But one understands from the choice that this is the image Jones would like to leave us with.
Bloomsbury, 2014. 353 pp. ISBN: 9781408853566
Mary Louise Adams is professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies and the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University. She is author of Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity and the Limits of Sport.