In last summer’s post about the PaJaMa Collective – artists Paul Cadmus, Jared French and his wife Margaret – the focus was on their Fire Island photos of the late 1930’s. One of the friends who cavorted with the trio during that time was José “Pete” Martinez, a dancer from New York City who was involved with their friend, arts patron and ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein.
In David Leddick’s book Intimate Companions, Martinez is described as “a droll and witty young man… Those who knew the two men in the 1930’s said he was capable of endlessly amusing his lover, and that of all the men in his life, Martinez was the man that Kirstein most likely loved the most. Kirstein loved gossip and other men’s tales of their sexual exploits, and this love of storytelling drew him to Martinez. In addition, Martinez was handsome, and many artists painted, drew and photographed him. “
Fire Island PaJaMa photos featuring José Martinez with Paul Cadmus, Jared and Margaret French, ca 1938-39
Besides The PaJaMa Collective, those artists included Paul Cadmus’ sister Fidelma and photographers William Caskey and George Platt Lynes.
The most memorable Lynes photo of Martinez is a studio shot with the dancer perched in a window frame wearing nothing but a wide brimmed sun hat.
George Platt Lynes photographs of José Martinez.
Pete Martinez (who sometimes used the stage name Pete Stefan) was born José Antonio Martinez-Berlanga in Mexico on March 13, 1913. His family moved to Houston, Texas when he was quite young. Mama Martinez had been a folk dancer back in Mexico and one of Jose’s sisters dreamed of following in her footsteps. Little José was drafted as her dance partner. The scenario is familiar to many boys who begin to study dance as children: the sister loses interest and drops out, but he continues on. It’s a page torn out of A Chorus Line. Later an uncle took him to see Ballet Russe, which further strengthened his resolve to dance. “I was going to set the world on fire,” he would later recount.
After graduating high school, much to the chagrin of his parents, José moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet, where he eventually gained a full scholarship. Upon graduation, he was invited to join the company.
Martinez caught the eye of Lincoln Kirstein, and the relationship progressed to the point that they moved in together.
Martinez became a member of The Ballet Caravan, a touring company founded by Kirstein to provide off-season summer employment to American ballet dancers. Here Martinez began to get more involved in the creative process: conceiving the ideas and librettos for ballets, if not choreographing them. He is most associated with the ballet Pastorela, although his exact contribution to its creation varies depending on the source.
As noted in the New York Times article below, Martinez also had several engagements at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room with different dance partners.
Martinez eventually found himself in a triangular romantic situation similar to his friends in The PaJaMa Collective: Paul Cadmus and Jared French had a sexual relationship that continued after French married Margaret Hoening. The three all lived and worked together in a Greenwich Village townhouse at 5 St. Luke’s Place. When Lincoln Kirstein married Paul’s sister Fidelma, she moved into the apartment he shared with Martinez, who continued to live with them for the first year of the marriage.
Martinez was also photographed in the summer of 1938 sunbathing with Jared French and Paul Cadmus on the roof of their home/studios at 5 St. Luke’s Place.
The Ballet Caravan were on a South American tour through 1941 as the U.S. entered World War II. The troupe returned to a very different New York City than the one they had left. When Martinez was denied entry to the Army, he went to work at a hostel for Jewish refugees in Haverford, Pennsylvania where writer Christopher Isherwood was already working. The two were acquaintances through Kirstein but developed a close friendship that would sometimes turn physical, as detailed in Isherwood’s diaries.
Paul Cadmus photographed sketching José Martinez at 5 St. Luke’s Place.
In 1943, a book was published in the UK with the rather unwieldy title For My Brother: A True Story By José Martinez As Told To Lincoln Kirstein.
From the original dust jacket: “It is the life story of a young American of Mexican origin whose family has settled in a small town in Texas. It is at the same time a study in the contrast between two worlds, two ways of life: industrial, polyglot America, and the more primitive civilization of Mexico just over the border, where many of the hero’s relations still live. The story is told with great poetic feeling and a rare delicacy of perception in human relationships…”
The chronology on Kirstein’s website makes no mention of Martinez and lists For My Brother as fiction “based on a Mexican sojourn.”
The book jacket was designed by fellow dancer-turned-ballet designer William Chappell. For My Brother… is quite rare, as most of the 2,000 printed copies were said to have been destroyed in a warehouse bombed by the Nazis. A Canadian edition was later published by MacMillan.
Martinez was finally able to join the military in 1943 and remained in service until the end of the war.
Back in New York, he resumed his dance career with Ballet Society where he danced in the original 1946 productions of George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments and William Dollar’s Highland Fling.
And then…. to invoke A Chorus Line once again: “What do you do when you can no longer dance?”
A knee injury hastened the end of his performance career. A June 4, 1950 article in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot chronicled his coming to terms with the transition. He drifted for a year before settling into the next chapter of his life as a dance teacher in Norfolk, Virginia.
After Virginia, Martinez founded other dance studios in Ohio and California, where he retired from teaching in the mid-1960’s.
Lincoln Kirstein died at aged 88 in January, 1996. José Martinez passed away 16 months later in Pasadena, California at age 84.