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)

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“The ‘holiday’ of Dame Margot in Panama has been disastrous,” Henderson continued. “She has almost complicated our relations with this little country, being regarded with hostility by some and with romantic sympathy by others. Her conduct has been highly reprehensible and irresponsible.”

After the plot failed, Fonteyn blithely assured British diplomats that her husband had had no intention of nationalizing the Panama Canal if his forces had taken the country—as if the United States, which then administered the canal, would not have protected what it considered a prime asset.

In fact, the heavy U.S. presence in the region makes it unlikely that Castro actually backed the venture, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C. and a friend of Fonteyn and Arias in the early 1960s.

“Of course it was quixotic,” he said of the coup attempt. “There was simply no chance. Panama was an unlikely target because no American government could appear soft on the security of the canal. The canal was a centerpiece of U.S. military posturing. So the U.S. was certainly not going to stand by and let a pro-communist force come right into the heart of the empire.”

Birns believes Fonteyn was involved solely to support her husband.

“I’m sure she had no idea what she was doing,” he said. “Her husband totally dominated her. They were very, very close. He was a very intelligent man, a crafty man without much to do, from a prominent family and with an upper-class education, and his wife was totally behind him.”

Fonteyn biographer Meredith Daneman said the dancer was naive about Arias’ political schemes. “She indulged him in whatever he wanted to do,” said Daneman. “She would laugh and think it was exciting. I think she was a good girl who met a bad man.”

Once Fonteyn was safely back in England, the foreign office gave senior minister John Profumo, a friend of hers, the sensitive task of convincing her that her husband should not return to England anytime soon. When they met for drinks at his home, Fonteyn stunned Profumo with her account of the plot, including her claim of a secret meeting in which Castro promised explicit support.

“I had to pinch myself several times during her visit to be sure I wasn’t dreaming the comic opera story she unfolded,” he wrote in a secret memo to senior diplomats at the foreign office.

Fonteyn seemed receptive to his proposal of a cooling-off period before her husband’s return. She even suggested, in a thank-you note, that she and Arias could have drinks with the Profumos at some later date when they were “definitely not plotting.”

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