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Winnaretta Singer Brings Ballet to Monaco

Though Grace Kelly is well-known for her patronage of the arts in Monaco, she was not the first American to invest in the culture of her adopted principality. Decades before Grace wed Prince Rainier, heiress Winnaretta Singer married into the royal family and used her influence to fund and uplift numerous artistic endeavors, including the world-famous Ballet Russes. Though she and Grace became cousins-by-marriage thanks to their royal connections, their shared commitment to the arts, especially dance, points to a deeper connection between the two women. Singer was the 20th child of Isaac Singer, a self-made millionaire and the inventor of the iconic Singer sewing machine. When Singer’s Parisian-born second wife, and Winnaretta’s mother, Isabella became homesick, the Singer family moved from New York to Paris.

Winnaretta Singer in 1918

Although Singer was a lesbian, she knew she would need to marry a man for social and financial stability. After a brief and disastrous marriage to Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, she found a kindred spirit in Prince Edmond de Polignac, who was himself gay. Edmond’s nephew, Prince Pierre of Monaco, would be Grace Kelly’s father-in-law when she married into the royal family decades later. Edmond and Winnaretta bonded over a love of art—he was a composer, she a painter and musician—and though their marriage was never consummated, they enjoyed a long friendship and partnership. This arrangement allowed them to seek romantic fulfillment outside of their relationship, something that Winnaretta in particular made no efforts to hide.

Edmond and Winnaretta were known for the salon they established in their stylish Parisian home which became an avant-garde haven for the most brilliant artists of that time. Here they held court, entertaining—and often bankrolling—young composers, writers and painters. Their frequent guests included Debussy, Ravel, Isadora Duncan, (Winnaretta’s sister-in-law), Jean Cocteau, Colette, Claude Monet, Marcel Proust and Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes.

At the turn of the 20th century, ballet was not considered a separate art form but merely a side act for opera. Under Diaghilev’s leadership, the Ballets Russes began its own revolution, changing the face of modern dance by combining music, dance and the visual arts into avant-garde performances throughout Europe and the Americas. The troupe commissioned pieces from some of the most well-known composers and choreographers of the day, and many of its works stand as important landmarks in 20th-century dance.

After her husband's death, Winnaretta continued her generous patronage of the Ballets Russes, allowing them to create and perform original ballet classics and prosper even during times of financial crisis which, for Diaghilev and the itinerate troupe, was often. Winnaretta’s greatest gift to the Ballets Russes was securing a home for the troupe in Monaco which became their creative workshop for two decades. Singer convinced her nephew, Prince Pierre of Polignac, that granting the troupe space in Monaco would greatly elevate the principality’s role as a cultural center.

The Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo in 1940 (Maurice Seymour)

Winnaretta’s gift to Monaco also placed the principality at the center of modern dance, an important legacy not lost on future prince and princesses. In 1975, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier launched a world-class Academy of Dance. Ten years later, their daughter Princess Caroline of Hanover inaugurated Monaco’s own renowned national company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. And today, the tiny principality sponsors the prestigious Monaco Dance Forum and Festival where young aspiring dancers learn and network with the greatest names in dance.

Students of the Princess Grace Academy of Dance (Alice Blangero)

Grace Kelly and her father-in-law, Pierre de Polignac, one of Winnaretta's nephews (Michael Calcagno)

This post was provided by Annette Ross Anderson. Annette is a partner and Marketing Manager at the iconic Monaco restaurant and sports bar, Stars'N'Bars. Over the last 30 years, she has hosted the Monaco multi-mix of royals, billionaires, celebrities, expats, university students, and yachtsmen that make up Monaco's diverse social universe. Annette also oversees the MonacoUSA Association, a social and business network in the principality. A trained journalist and business writer, she is currently working on a screenplay inspired by the legacy of Princess Grace



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