The dancer known as Vera Zorina was born Eva Brigitta Hartwig. However, as she states in her autobiography, “Vera Zorina was born, aged seventeen, at Covent Garden, during a heated discussion with Colonel de Basil, general director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.”1 Before her debut, de Basil ordered Zorina to choose a Russian name. When questioned, he replied, “Because, my dear, if every member who is not Russian keeps their own name, the ballet is not Russian ballet anymore, you understand? . . . Here is a list of Russian names. You choose.”2 She chose the only names on the list that she could pronounce and was thus known throughout her career.
Zorina danced with the Ballet Russe from 1934 to 1936. During that time, she had a passionate affair with choreographer Léonide Massine, who was twenty-three years older and married. Zorina eventually left the Ballet Russe to star in Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes. She received positive reviews and was invited to dance in Samuel Goldwyn’s film, The Goldwyn Follies, featuring music by George and Ira Gershwin and choreography by George Balanchine. Zorina performed in the film’s “water-nymph” ballet, where she emerged from a pool, clad in a gold lamé tunic, and danced on a glass surface. The ballet was considered an innovation and was highly praised by critics. Although the film sustained heavy financial losses, it was instrumental in popularizing ballet by introducing it to the movies.
Soon after her appearance in Follies, Zorina starred in the 1938 musical I Married an Angel, also choreographed by Balanchine. The choreographer didn’t think the costumes were appropriate for an abstract ballet, so he bought several colorful toothbrushes, strung them together, and Zorina wore them around her neck. After a Christmas Eve performance in New York, Zorina and Balanchine were married, although they eventually divorced in 1946.
After years of dancing in films and musicals, in 1942 Zorina auditioned for the more serious role of Maria in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Paramount gave her the part and she cut her hair to two inches in length, as the role required. However, after a day of shooting, the studio was unhappy with the results, so gave the role to Ingrid Bergman. In 1945, Zorina played Ariel in The Tempest. Because of her success in this role, the New York Philharmonic asked her to narrate several musical works. After her career as a narrator, Zorina began to direct operas, including Puccini’s La Bohème and Stravinsky’s Perséphone for the Santa Fe Opera, and Pagliacci for the New York City Opera. With regard to a career spanning almost fifty years, Zorina stated, “I’ve never been interested in standing still in one medium.”3