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Dancing for the Stars: Mark Turbyfill
Part of the Chicago Gay History Project
by Marie J. Kuda
2008-04-09

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As part of the ongoing Chicago Gay History Project, Windy City Times will present a series on Chicago gay history events and people over the coming months. This essay is about a Chicago cultural pioneer. Authors of Evaporation, Mark Turbyfill ( left ) and Samuel Putnam. Photo by Jun Fujita in 1923. Image courtesy M. Kuda Archives, Oak Park, Ill.

Mark Turbyfill ( 1896–1991 ) —poet, dancer, artist—was truly a Renaissance man. Adjudged by many as 'unsung and unappreciated,' he is past due for rediscovery. Born in Indian Territory in what is today's Oklahoma, he moved to Chicago with his family as a teenager. His father was an architect who traced his family back to a liegeman of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Turbyfill was handsome, with the grace of a dancer, and always welcome in 'polite society' as an 'extra' man, the stereotypical lifelong bachelor.

While a student at Lake View High School, Turbyfill approached Margaret Anderson of The Little Review with one of his poems. She would eventually publish some of his poetry in her magazine, and she and her partner, Jane Heap, would become his lifelong friends. Later, for the first and only time, Harriet Monroe would devote an entire issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse to one poem, Turbyfill's magnum opus ( five years in the making ) , 'A Marriage with Space' ( May 1926 ) . His poems appeared in nearly a dozen issues.

It was at Poetry that he met Chicago novelist Henry Blake Fuller, who described himself as 'an old satyr' and would be Turbyfill's mentor and friend until Fuller's death in 1929. Pascal Covici published A Marriage with Space, and Other Poems, in Chicago in 1927. A new edition was published here in 1974.

Turbyfill's first book of poetry, The Living Frieze ( 1921 ) , was published in Evanston in a limited edition by Monroe Wheeler ( later of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and lover, in a long-standing ménage à trois, of writer Glenway Wescott and photographer George Platt Lynes ) . Wheeler and Wescott had met as students in Chicago in 1919 and would remain Turbyfill's lifelong friends.

Turbyfill was co-author of Evaporation: A Symposium ( 1923 ) with his good friend, journalist and author Samuel Putnam. In 1924, while Putnam was working as a reporter for the Chicago Herald and Examiner, he managed to get Turbyfill ( posing as a cub reporter ) into the Loeb and Leopold trial; they were seated directly behind defense attorney Clarence Darrow and the two boys. Putnam heeded the advice of Henry Blake Fuller and moved to Paris, where he edited The New Review and This Quarter ( Turbyfill contributed to both ) and wrote Paris Was Our Mistress: Memoirs of a Lost & Found Generation ( 1947 ) .

Turbyfill had a second passion: the ballet. He studied under partners Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky, and he danced in the Chicago Grand Opera Company corps de ballet on opening night when Mary Garden sang in Pierre Lou├┐s' Aphrodite at the Auditorium Theatre. He studied in New York with Michel Fokine and later, 1924–26, became premier danseur with Chicago Allied Arts ( under former Diaghilev star Adolph Bolm ) , the first full-fledged ballet company in the United States. According to dance critic and historian Ann Barzel ( who also studied with Bolm ) , Turbyfill was often paired with Chicago legend Ruth Page in avant-garde productions such as Chicago composer John Alden Carpenter's The Birthday of the Infanta, based on a story by Oscar Wilde.

In 1929, Turbyfill was introduced to the 'dashingly beautiful' Katherine Dunham, 'an ambitious Negro girl, who had never had a lesson in her life in the art, but who wanted to become a ballet dancer.' He took her on as a student, opening a small studio of his own for Dunham and other Black students in one of the tiny East 57th Street buildings left over from the 1893 World's Fair ( his friend Margaret Anderson and other Chicago literati met in another ) . He put together an advisory board for a proposed Ballet Négre, commissioned a score and began work on the choreography. Some of the people ( such as Robert S. Abbott, later of the Chicago Defender ) whom he approached evinced little interest in supporting a Black ballet company. Dunham eventually debuted in a production choreographed by Ruth Page, with an all-Black supporting cast, at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. She went on to become a legend on stage, in film and as a choreographer, teacher and doyenne of West Indian and Afro-American dance.

Through the influence of his friend Mark Tobey, Turbyfill worked at becoming an artist. His poetry found its way into his abstract expressionist oil paintings. Critics dubbed one series of watercolors using a calligraphic white-writing technique on black backgrounds as 'Turbyfiligrees.' He had a modest success from his first solo exhibition in 1948 throughout the 1960s.

In his mature years Turbyfill would return to dance, using the spoken word to replace music as an accompaniment for dance. His book The Words Beneath Us: Balletic Poems ( 1951 ) has a few photographs of the experimental performance interwoven with his poems, ending with commentary by critics Claudia Cassidy and Ann Barzel.

Turbyfill had been living in western Rogers Park and attending Metropolitan Community Church services since the 1970s. He confirmed that he was gay and that he had lovers among his male dance students. The only woman he had had relations with was Georgette Leblanc Maeterlinck ( Margaret Anderson's partner after Jane Heap ) because, he said, that was as close as he could get to his idol, Maurice Maeterlinck. His Chicago neighborhood became too much of a challenge, and a young gay friend from MCC, Ken Frank, helped him pack and move.

In the late 1960s, Turbyfill placed 242 letters from 126 correspondents ( 1906–66 ) with the Gotham Book Mart in New York. Southern Illinois University purchased that correspondence, and it now rests in the Special Collections Research Center at Carbondale. Most of his other papers, including books inscribed by authors and a few copies of his unpublished autobiographical memoir, Whistling in the Windy City, went to the Newberry Library in 1988. The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago is repository for approximately 100 of his paintings and watercolors, most recently exhibited in 2006.

Copyright 2008 Marie J. Kuda


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