Saturday, July 14, 2018
Targeted Tap Dancer
Paul Draper was yet another target of McCarthy-era attacks who found a brief refuge in Ridgefield. An international dancing star who was called “the aristocrat of tap,” Draper danced on the major stages of Europe and the United States with top stars of the 1930s and 40s.
He wound up in exile in Europe but unlike his close friend, harmonica virtuoso and fellow Ridgefielder and McCarthy victim, Larry Adler, Draper returned to the United States to teach, dance and choreograph new works.
“Draper brought cool intellectualism and playful wit to the dance form,” said The New York Times. “He performed everything from jazz to the bossa nova to Brahms and Scarlatti, establishing a style very different from that of Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers.”
Paul Draper was born in 1909 in Florence, Italy, into an artistic, socially prominent New York City family. His mother Muriel Draper was a writer and lecturer whose later home in London hosted such guests as Pablo Picasso, Henry James and Arthur Rubinstein. Novelist Norman Douglas promised a young Paul a penny every time he was naughty.
From a young age he loved to dance and mostly self-taught himself tap — he reportedly took only six lessons in his life.
After teaching briefly at an Arthur Murray studio in Manhattan as a teenager, Draper moved to London, hoping to find work in tap dancing. “He scraped together a living performing flashy routines in Europe and the United States, then enrolled in the School of American Ballet and realized the possibilities of combining tap and classical ballet,” said entertainment historian David Lobosco. Draper got into the school with the help of his mother’s friend, George Balanchine.
He made his solo debut in London in 1932, introducing his new “ballet-tap” technique. His career blossomed in the 1930s as he performed in Europe and the U.S. with his combination of tap dancing and ballet. He headlined at famous night spots like the Rainbow Room and Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room, danced at Carnegie Hall, and appeared in the 1948 ﬁlm “Time of Your Life.” His greatest fame was perhaps as part of a two-man act formed in 1940 with harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, who also lived in Ridgeﬁeld around the same time Draper did.
Draper began coming to Ridgeﬁeld in late 1940s. A note in the May 5, 1949, Press said, “Mr. and Mrs. Paul Draper and family of New York City have leased ‘The Coach House’ on Branchville Road for a year from Miss Marthe Krueger... Mr. Draper is a well-known dancer in New York. The family spent a summer here recently in the guest cottage at the former Paul Palmer estate on Wilton Road East.” (Marthe Krueger was an international concert dance star and choreographer who had a teaching studio on Branchville Road in the “Old Coach House” of the former Hawk estate.)
Draper’s career hit the same rocks that sank many artistic talents of the era: anti-communist blacklisting. Two other local notables of the day — a leftist presidential candidate and a right-wing newspaper columnist — were involved.
Draper’s leftist leanings were no secret, and he publicly supported the 1948 presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, a former vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wallace lived just across the line in South Salem and attended St. Stephen’s Church here.
Draper was active in liberal or progressive causes. He served as a spokesman for a committee of actors, producers and writers who opposed an inquiry by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into Communist inﬁltration of the ﬁlm industry, The New York Times said. “Mr. Draper had performed in beneﬁts to raise money for groups and causes labeled as subversive by the committee.”
A Los Angeles Times report noted that “Mr. Draper said he was a supporter of several organizations which had been called subversive by the U.S. Attorney General’s ofﬁce, but steadfastly denied any communist affiliations.”
Then there was the “Draper-McCullough case,” which drew national attention in the early 1950s. It was later described by The Press: “A woman in Greenwich [Mrs. John T. McCullough] called dancer Paul Draper a Communist and Mr. Draper, who lived in Ridgeﬁeld, sued the woman for libel and — in line with Connecticut’s attachment law of that day — attached the property of Mrs. McCullough. This latter move aroused the ire of the Right Wing to an almost eerie extent, those espousing Mrs. McCullough’s cause appearing not to be prepared to recognize what Mrs. McCullough’s charges had done to Mr. Draper’s career.”
The power of the anti-communist blacklisting of the era was described in the L.A. Times obituary: “In 1950, Mr. Draper’s dance routine was snipped out of a CBS segment from Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town’ because the network received protests. His bookings were also canceled on other TV programs and at several upscale hotels around the country.”
Among those brandishing Mrs. McCullough’s banner was nationally syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler, who also lived in Ridgeﬁeld. The Press didn’t like Pegler and a 1950 editorial supporting Draper began: “We dislike mentioning the name of Westbrook Pegler in the Press because we have a certain pride in keeping our paper free of evil things. But now and then there is a tide which must be taken at the flood.”
The trial ended in a hung jury and, dejected, Draper left Ridgefield in 1951 to live in Switzerland. Soon after, his friend and frequent partner Larry Adler, also subjected to anti-communist attacks, moved from Ridgefield to England where he died in 2001.
Unlike Adler, however, Draper returned to the States and became a professor at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute in the 1970s. In the words of The New York Times, he “continued to be recognized as an important, if seldom seen, figure in concert dance.” His career never recovered from the blacklisting, though he did continue to occasionally perform. He also wrote the 1978 book, “On Tap Dancing.”
He died in 1996 at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., at the age of 86.
Paul Draper never denied belonging to the leftist organizations that the right accused him of supporting. “I did do the things and belong to the organizations they said,” The New York Times quoted him as saying in 1980. “I was happy to and am still proud of it.”
But he always denied ever having been a communist.
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