The Great Ballerina Was Not the Greatest Revolutionary

A 1959 failed coup of the Panamanian government had a shocking participant – the world-famous dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn

Dame Margot Fonteyn's role in a plot to overthrow the pro-U.S. government of Panama in 1959 was all but forgotten until now. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Dame Margot Fonteyn is still remembered as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, revered worldwide for her duets with Rudolf Nureyev and still seen as a national treasure in her native Britain. Her role in a plot to overthrow the pro-U.S. government of Panama in 1959 was all but forgotten—until recently, when Britain’s National Archives released formerly classified British diplomatic cables on the matter.

The broad outlines of the attempted coup, in which the ballerina and her Panamanian husband, Roberto Arias, used a fishing vacation as cover to land arms and men on Panama’s shores, made news briefly soon after it failed in April 1959. But the newly released files offer a wealth of detail on her participation, including her claim to British authorities that the plot was backed by Fidel Castro, who had recently taken over Cuba.

As a guerrilla, Dame Margot proved to be a terrific dancer. The cables suggest that her adventure had more in common with Woody Allen’s 1971 farce Bananas than with Castro’s historic landing of his small force on the shores of Cuba.

“The Panamanian military authorities got wind of the coup attempt, so it all falls into disarray pretty quickly,” said Mark Dunton, a National Archives historian. The plotters “were out at sea collecting arms and rebels in fishing boats, and the Panamanians were chasing them. Dame Margot used her yacht as a decoy to lure off some of these forces. And she agreed with Roberto the best thing was to come back to the shore. She would return to Panama City, try to put people off the scent.”

The files show that Fonteyn panicked at this point.

“She throws overboard what she thinks are bundles of incriminating letters but which are actually white armbands meant to distinguish the rebels when they got to the shore,” Dunton said. “Those went overboard, rather than the letters, which were hastily buried along with machine guns and ammunition. When the Panamanians find those, it’s an open-and-shut case.”

Once on land, separated from her husband, Fonteyn also made a key tactical blunder, voluntarily leaving the safety of the Canal Zone, which was under U.S. jurisdiction, to meet with Panamanian officials inside Panama, where they had the power to detain her. Fortunately, from the British point of view, someone in the Panamanian prison system recognized the stature of their new inmate. Fonteyn was given an English-speaking guard, and fresh flowers were placed in her spacious cell, characterized by officials as the prison’s “presidential suite.”

Despite the evidence against her, Fonteyn was freed within a day and allowed to leave the country. The cables indicate that the British were working on her behalf but give no details. It appears that the Panamanians saw no upside to keeping one of the world’s most beloved ballerinas behind bars. After finding refuge at the Brazilian embassy in Panama City for two months, Arias received safe conduct out of Panama.

Dunton said the files reveal for the first time the extent of Fonteyn’s involvement, including her claim to have met with Castro in January 1959 and won his support, and also show just how livid British diplomats were about her apparently casual attempt to overthrow a sovereign government at a time when the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, was making an official visit to Panama.

“I do not regard her conduct as fitting in any British subject, let alone one who has been highly honoured by Her Majesty the Queen,” Sir Ian Henderson, the British ambassador to Panama, wrote in a long cable dated April 22, 1959. Fonteyn had been named Dame of the Order of the British Empire three years earlier.

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