Ballerina's clumsy role in coup attempt detailed
She was Britain's prima ballerina, an international idol of dance whose performances, with Rudolf Nureyev in particular, entranced and dazzled her audiences.
The New York Times
LONDON — She was Britain's prima ballerina, an international idol of dance whose performances, with Rudolf Nureyev in particular, entranced and dazzled her audiences.
But she was also a plotter alongside her husband, seeking the support of Fidel Castro to overthrow Panama's government in 1959 in a conspiracy that one British official called "highly reprehensible and irresponsible."
In its broad detail, the episode has been known about for some time, but confidential British documents declassified Friday offered new insight into the extent of Dame Margot Fonteyn's efforts to support her husband, the Panamanian lawyer, diplomat and journalist Roberto Arias, in a seaborne — and ultimately bungled — attempt to overthrow his country's government with the help of 125 Cuban revolutionaries.
"She gave me to understand that quite a large-scale operation had been planned but that it had gone wrong at the last moment," according to exchanges with British Foreign Office minister John Profumo.
Mark Dunton, a historian at Britain's National Archives, which published the documents, said the scale of Fonteyn's personal involvement had not been publicly known until the release of the documents.
"We believe that there was not very much about this in the public domain, certainly none of the information such as the diplomatic reaction to her behavior," Dunton said.
At the time of the incident, Fonteyn, then 39, had achieved remarkable international acclaim as a ballerina. Four years earlier, she had married Arias, a contentious figure in Panamanian politics, who then became his country's ambassador to Britain for several years.
In January 1959, she and her husband visited Castro, who "had promised to help her husband in his aims to overthrow the existing regime in Panama," Profumo wrote in a memo about the meeting that was among the diplomatic cables, reports and other documents released by the National Archives.
In April 1959, she and her husband set sail in their yacht, the Nola, on what they described as a fishing trip. The documents make clear their voyage was intended to gather men and arms for the attempted invasion and coup in Panama.
Something went wrong, and Fonteyn returned without her husband to Panama City, where she was jailed for 24 hours. Sir Ian Henderson, the British ambassador, visited her and wrote in a subsequent and somewhat tetchy diplomatic telegram that she had tried to speak "in conspiratorial whispers, which I discouraged in front of the police."
"She knew that her husband was gunrunning, she knew that he was accompanied by rebels, and at one point she used her yacht to decoy government boats and aircraft away from the direction which her husband was taking," the ambassador wrote. "Her conduct has been highly reprehensible and irresponsible to a degree."
After her release, she flew to New York — where her presence was kept secret from U.S. authorities — before returning to London, where black-and-white television images of that era showed her surrounded by reporters and primly stonewalling questions.
She was more forthcoming when she met Profumo a few days later, and he seemed to take a lighter view of the incident. "I had to pinch myself several times during her visit to be sure I wasn't dreaming the comic-opera story she unfolded," he wrote.
"She affirmed that, even up to a short while ago, Castro was behind this coup," Profumo's memo said. "Naturally, he now had to disclaim all knowledge."
According to Profumo's account, Fonteyn and her husband had "gone out in their boat from Panama on a prearranged plan to collect rebels and arms from various fishing boats."
The plan, Profumo wrote, "was to land somewhere and collect in the hills," but it was betrayed; "by fishermen, she said, so it was hurriedly decided that the game was up and her husband must go into hiding, she going back to Panama City to try to put people off the scent."
Profumo himself later courted controversy. As a Cabinet minister in 1963, he had a liaison with a prostitute who was disclosed to be linked to a Soviet spy.
Profumo also sought to explain how the names of Hollywood stars had come to be associated with the coup attempt.
"The slapdash comedy of all this is highlighted by what Dame Margot told me about those hectic decisions taken at sea at 6 a.m. on that Sunday," he said.
By mistake, Fonteyn threw overboard white armbands "intended to distinguish the rebels when they landed" instead of "some incriminating letters and her husband's address book, which were hastily packed with some machine guns and ammunition."
"When, after one of the rebels had been caught and grilled, it appears that he squealed and all this equipment was found," including the addresses "of several Hollywood personalities" with whom Arias apparently had business dealings.
"That is how the names of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, etc., came into all this," Profumo wrote.
After the coup attempt, Arias took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Panama before he was given safe conduct out of the country.
When the government changed, Arias and Fonteyn were permitted to return to Panama, where he was paralyzed in an assassination attempt in 1964. Later they returned to live in Panama, where they both died, he in 1989 and she in 1991.
Fonteyn was born Margaret Hookham in the southern English town of Reigate, but changed her stage name to Fonteyn soon after her debut in 1934. In her subsequent career, she established what her obituary in The New York Times called "one of the greatest ballet partnerships in history" with Nureyev in the 1960s and 1970s.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.