Toni Bentley joined the New York City Ballet when she was 17 and began dancing for and observing the genius of George Balanchine. That experience has inspired a number of her books, including her most recent “Serenade,” which tracks the making of Balanchine’s masterpiece. A Guggenheim Fellow, Bentley has also written for many publications on dance and culture. She lives in Los Angeles.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
BENTLEY: I am just starting Edith Wharton’s short story collection from the 1930s, “Human Nature.” I’ve been reading only Wharton for the last 2½ years.
BOOKS: What started the Wharton binge?
BENTLEY: I was mourning my capacity to read in the way that I did when I was teenager, when I would devour books like food. When I was a ballet dancer I would walk to Lincoln Center with a book in front of me and read. I wondered if I could get that back. The pandemic provided a perfect opportunity to try. I set time aside every day to read. Then it was question of what I would read. I never had read Edith Wharton. I can’t remember which I read first, but I immediately fell back in love with books.
BOOKS: What were some of the highlights for you?
BENTLEY: There wasn’t one I didn’t love. I printed out a list of all of her books from Wikipedia. I’ve read all the ones people haven’t heard of, such as “The Fruit of the Tree,” “Glimpses of the Moon,” and the awkwardly titled “Hudson River Bracketed.” Then I got all the books about her, including the R.W.B. Lewis biography that won the Pulitzer, Hermione Lee’s biography and Wharton’s letters. I just ordered the last of her two short story collections. I’m nearing the end of her. It’s really silly but I’m having trouble moving on. I started to read two books by other authors and I couldn’t do it.
BOOKS: What were you reading as a teenager?
BENTLEY: I didn’t have a proper education because I was dancing. The only education I had was the reading I did with a girlfriend, like a mini book club. We worked our way through Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, and Freud. We read all of Henry Miller and Anais Nin. I first learned about sex by reading them. One book would lead to another. We read the ones Miller mentioned, such as Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West.” I don’t know how I read so much. We had 12-hour days, six days a week, and yet there I was plowing through Freud and all these French authors.
BOOKS: What did you read before this Edith Wharton project?
BENTLEY: I read mostly nonfiction or classic literature, like Henry James. I read a lot of books about men and women relationships. I’ve always been interested in women who gained power by doing the ultra, extreme female thing, like being the lover of the king. I have a whole section on my bookshelves about the great courtesans of the 19th century. I have Liane de Pougy’s “My Blue Notebooks” about her life as a courtesan, Betsy Prioleau’s “Seductress,” and Virginia Rounding’s “Les Grandes Horizontales.” I also have Nickie Roberts’s “Whores in History,” which I have only dipped into. One must know who the whores of history are, right?
BOOKS: Do you have books on ballet?
BENTLEY: I have a vast library of all the classic dance books, including a lot of books on Balanchine. I have a biography by Richard Buckle and a small one by Robert Gottlieb. A new one by the dance critic Jennifer Homans is coming out this fall. I have a special place for the first biography, which was written by Bernard Taper in the ‘60s. Until that book I didn’t know the scope of Balanchine’s incredible life.
BOOKS: Who will you read after Wharton?
BENTLEY: A friend suggested Elizabeth Bowen. I could go back to Henry James. Wharton said that Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” and David Graham Philip’s “Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise” gave her hope for American literature. I managed to get “Susan Lenox.” I have to say I’m so connected to Wharton’s prose that about four sentences into that novel I thought, “Oh dear, it’s not Edith.”