Dance, Jenny, Dance: The Truth About Diana Nyad’s Maternal Grandparents

According to Diana Nyad, her grandfather succumbed to the wiles of a show-dancer 50 years his junior. Jeannette Glass danced, but that’s where the truth ends and Nyad’s tall tale begins.

Diana Nyad knows next to nothing about her family, but that doesn’t stop her from inventing stories about them. Until recently, I’d always wondered about this bit from Find A Way:

Lucy Winslow Curtis [Diana’s mom] was born in New York City in 1925, daughter of a wealthy, erudite man of society: businessman, artist, and college professor George Warrington Curtis, age seventy-one. Her mother was a young show dancer and gold digger, Jeanette, age twenty-one. (p. 36)

Fifty years’ difference — ewwwww! Except that it’s not true. The numbers follow traditional Nyadian mathematical principles, figures growing or shrinking depending on how much Diana wants to elevate herself or belittle others. In fact, when Lucy was born, her father was 55, and her mother 30. So 25 years’ difference, not a half-century.

Detail from the 1925 New York census showing G. Warrington Curtis, 55 (DOB 16 Jan 1869); Jeannette Curtis, 30 (DOB 5 Aug 1894; and Lucy W. Curtis, 53 days (DOB 17 Apr 1925).

Something else Diana doesn’t say: George and Jeannette were the same ages when they married as when Lucy arrived:

  • Wedding — 27 September 1924.
  • Lucy’s birth — 17 April 1925, 6 months and 21 days later.

And there we have at least one good reason why George and Jeannette tied the knot.

Then there’s the show dancer/gold digger claim. A few weeks ago, while attempting to verify Jeannette’s dance credentials, I found “Dancers Elucidate the Elusive Lotus,” a 1920 New York Herald piece about the Marion Morgan Dancers, an interpretive dance troupe celebrated throughout the U.S. for its vaudeville performances.

Of the hundreds of articles written about the company, only a handful — including “Dancers Elucidate . . .” — name members of the group. One dancer stood out to the Herald writer:

Of the seven girls who made up Miss Morgan’s class in interpretive dancing at the Hotel Majestic yesterday afternoon none can hold a candle to Jennie Glass.

Elsewhere in the piece, we get her full first name: Jeannette.

A Morgan dancer at the Curtis estate, via the Philadelphia Inquirer. Note that the Inquirer turns “Warrington” into “Washington.” They correct it here.

So, Miss Jeannette Glass was dancing with Marion Morgan by 1920. In 1922, the Morgan dancers performed at the George Warrington Curtis estate in Southampton, Long Island. According to the Herald:

Mr. George Warrington Curtis sent out invitations to-day for a fete champetre . . . His guests have been requested to arrive well in time for the interpretive dances of the Morgan dancers. (26 July 1922)

Afterward, they called it “a decidedly novel entertainment for some 300 members of the colony and their visiting friends” (6 August 1922).

I can’t say with certainty that Jeannette and George met that night, but we know they married two years later. Unfortunately, George died six months after Lucy turned two. Ever the loving granddaughter, Diana hints that Jeannette murdered her husband:

She had this older gentleman as a husband and all of Manhattan at her fingertips. Scuttlebutt has it that George was ill with pneumonia in the winter and his windows were suspiciously left wide open. (Find A Way, p. 37)

As usual, she presents no evidence for this. So, it’s just another rumor—like that swim from Cuba to Florida.

Sailors gathered around the scuttlebutt.

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Marion Morgan

A bit more about the fascinating Marion Morgan. Without her passion for dance and dedication to increasing its popularity, Jeannette and George never would have met.

Dorothy Arzner and Marion Morgan in 1933. Image from the Library of Congress.

She was born in New Jersey in 1881 and formed Marion Morgan Dancers around 1915. Her company spent over a decade on the vaudeville circuit, after which she settled in southern California. That’s where she met and choreographed for Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to make a career of directing movies in Hollywood. Arzner made her first films in the 1920s, during the silent era. She directed her last film, First Comes Courage, in 1943. Morgan and Arzner lived together in the Hollywood Hills for 30 years, after which they moved to La Quinta, near Palm Springs. Morgan died there in 1971.

I’ve posted some articles about Morgan here. See also the web page “A life shared by two women” and the book Directed by Dorothy Arzner.



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