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The Master's Muse

Tanaquil LeClercq

Varley O'Connor's fourth novel (Scribner, May 2012) is based on the life of George Balanchine's fifth wife, a star ballerina whose career was cut short when she contracted polio at age twenty-six.


In 1956, hours after performing with the New York City Ballet, Tanaquil Le Clercq fell gravely ill, awaking from a feverous sleep to find that she could no longer move her legs. Set against the backdrop of creative New York of the 1960s and 70s, The Master's Muse tells the remarkable true story of two artistic legends whose profound love and complicated relationship forever changed American cultural history.


"What a rare pleasure to be introduced to Tanaquil Le Clercq through The Master's Muse. I was enchanted from the first page by Varley O'Connor's graceful portrait of this remarkable woman. How privileged we readers are to have the life in all of its strength and intelligence and elegance. Le Clercq is rendered without fuss or ornament, in a manner wholly at one with the beauty she and Balanchine both strove for in their art."

--Paul Harding, author of Tinkers (winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, fiction)


"A brilliant novel in memoir form, The Master's Muse is pure magic. As I read and was thoroughly absorbed by the writing, the remarkable characters, and the story, I simply could not believe this was a work of fiction, not an authentic memoir, expertly written. The Master's Muse is a superb performance by Varley O'Connor. From one writer to another, my hat's off."

--Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife, Abundance, and Adam & Eve


"An utterly gorgeous rendering of the life of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, whose career was destroyed overnight by polio in 1956. O'Connor vividly recreates the personalities and intrigues of the dance world of the fifties and sixties, but her greatest triumph is in her fascinating portrait of the steely Le Clercq and the enigmatic Balanchine, who first made her his perfect ballerina, then married her, and ultimately betrayed her."

--Adrienne Sharp, author of The True Memoirs of Little K, The Sleeping Beauty, and White Swan, Black Swan


"O'Connor crafts a masterful portrait of the woman who served as muse not only to Balanchine but to some of the pivotal personalities in the development of modern art: Jerome Robbins, Irving Penn, Merce Cunningham, Frederick Ashton. The Master's Muse reads like a troubled love letter to art, dance, and creation—and the complexity and betrayal of a life spent in their service."
-- Slate


"A fictional portrait of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq's struggle with polio--and George Balanchine. This is not a novel about victimization or the malevolence of genius, but rather about the painful accommodations all of us make for the things and people we love. Thoughtful, tender and quite gripping, even for readers unfamiliar with the historical events the author sensitively reimagines."
-- Kirkus Reviews


"Loving Frank was a novel about architect Frank Lloyd Wright's most scandalous love affair. The Paris Wife centered on the first Mrs. Ernest Hemingway. Into this group of well-researched novelizations of famous love lives comes Varley O'Connor's The Master's Muse, about New York City Ballet artistic director George Balanchine."
-- O. The Oprah Magazine


"Choreographer George Balanchine's fifth wife, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, never wrote about her relationship with her husband, but if she had we can only hope it would be as graceful and penetrating as what O'Connor portrays in [The Master's Muse]. This passionate novel not only gives a glimpse into the ballet world of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, its eccentric characters bring the story to life."
--Publishers Weekly


Novelist Varley O'Connor elegantly evokes the complex relationship between the God of Ballet, mercurial rover George Balanchine, and The Master's Muse (Scribner), his fifth wife, Tanny, a once captivating dancer sidelined with polio.
--Vanity Fair


"The writing is as beautiful as Tanny herself."
--The Daily Reporter


By turns richly emotional, sharply observant, and witty, this is simply the best book I've read all year.
-Jane K., Greenwich CT Library Blog


"Beyond fabulous!"


"O'Connor's tome is a thoroughly researched and lively tribute to both the couple and the essence of a private, dauntless woman struck down by polio at the height of her career."


"I like novels highlighting women largely forgotten by history, and this was a fascinating portrait. I'd read of George Balanchine before, but nothing of Tanny, his fifth wife. She was a strong woman equally passionate about dance and George, which made her paralysis and her husband's gradual withdrawal all the more heartbreaking. O'Connor, the daughter of a polio survivor, writes from a place of experience. Coupled with her careful research of the ballet world, the story feels real without ever getting heavy-handed. Tanny's narrative voice is solid, just as tough and engaging as the character herself, and carries the story along. An enjoyable read overall."
--Historical Novel Review


"Le Clercq is the only one of Balanchine's wives who never wrote a memoir, but O'Connor does a fine job of convincing us that this is a genuine one."


". . . one of the best books I've read this year, ballet not withstanding. . . . Smartly told in the first person, you feel every ounce of your body ache for her as she lies in the iron lung that enables her to breathe, only days after dancing on stage for the very last time. O'Connor has definitely done her research. Her novel feels more like a lost journal than something crafted at someone's desk. Le Clercq's essence is there, even down to Le Clercq's own words, thanks to the few interviews she gave for various newspapers and dance magazines. Despite such a tragedy at such a young age, and in spite of Balanchine's betrayal of her years later, Le Clercq was able to lead a fulfilling life, later on even teaching ballet. Don't be discouraged by the apparent darkness of this book. It is supremely inspiring."
--Warwick Bookstore review, La Jolla, CA


"...the book is a fascinating, well-written imagining of their life together and the ultimate dissolution of their marriage....Really good, possibly great book."


"A story encompassing Le Clercq and Balanchine's life together is a tall order, but O'Connor easily combines historical sweep with meticulous storytelling and her effortless ability to mix and match tones and styles--sad, erotic, mythic, and tragic--as she sets LeClercq and Balanchine against actual figures of the era: Maria Tallchief, Jerome Robbins, and composer Igor Stravinsky. The author does much to illuminate them, making us care about all of her characters."
--Curled up With a Good Book (


"I see Le Clercq's decision to deny so many researchers access to her as a product of her ambivalence. It was perhaps also a way to fulfill a need for control by a proud and strong-willed woman who had been deprived of so much control over fundamental matters of access and mobility. The fact that Le Clercq divulged so little gives the novelist that much more license to speculate.


The Master's Muse is most interesting when O'Connor does try to get inside Le Clercq's head. It's not only that there's a certain degree of plausibility to what she posits, it's that the very act of trying to shed light on something that is unknowable commands admiration. O'Connor's writing is at its best here, too, and it's very readable throughout.


Yes, Le Clercq was the master's muse, but she was so much more as well. I would have liked to see a wider lens trained on her life than O'Connor applies, a less-exclusive concentration on Balanchine. Yet I was glad, as I read the novel, that this extraordinary artist and woman had stimulated yet another imaginative act of creation."
--Joel Loebenthal, Capitol New York


"Little did I realize in the early 1950's that I would ever be treated to an insider's look at the personalities involved in creating and performing the stunning ballets I so enjoyed watching with my parents at the NYC Ballet. Tanaquil LeClerq was George Balanchine's most recent muse and fifth wife, and she danced brilliantly. When she was struck with polio in 1952, it really hit home. You see, I had had polio in 1949, and was affected pretty much as LeClerq was.


What I never knew was how this extraordinary dancer responded to her new situation. Varley O'Connor has researched this question and has portrayed a woman of great strength and integrity who continued to live in the world of ballet. She also describes the close, loving relationship between LeClerq and Balanchine.


Not only is this a thrilling story of a ballet power couple, it also involves relationships with other ballet icons of the era: Lincoln Kirsten, Jerome Robbins, Diana Adams, Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent, Jacques d'Amboise, and Balanchine's final muse, Suzanne Farrell.
Writing in the first person as Tanaquil LeClerq was a bold step, and O'Connor has succeeded magnificently. In fact, I'm ready to go back and read it again."
--Joan Swain, New Jersey Post-polio Network


"This is a novel, but it is probably the most complete representation of the life of Tanaquil Le Clercq available. It is a touching story, well-told, and I hope it inspires more interest in her life and work."
--J. Rush


"I knew both the master and the muse personally, and lived through many of the experiences described in Varley's book. I can vouch for the authenticity of the story; a tribute to George Balanchine, the most famous choreographer of our time and the dancers he inspired and adored. However, only a fine writer could bring such a story to life in a way that would be fascinating and believable to every reader. The descriptions are written with great passion and empathy. The book is truly a treasure. You'll want to buy copies for all of your dearest friends!"
--Helen Fleder