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
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.

Dame Margot Fonteyn wedding
The outlines of the attempted coup, in which Fonteyn and her Panamanian husband, Roberto Arias, shown here on the left, used a fishing vacation as cover to land arms and men on Panama's shores, briefly made news after it failed in April 1959. Bettmann / Corbis

“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.”

It was not to be. Profumo’s career would be destroyed four years later by his involvement with the prostitute Christine Keeler. After a change in government in Panama, Roberto Arias was allowed to return to the country—where he was shot and nearly paralyzed in an assassination attempt in 1964. And Fonteyn teamed up with Nureyev, carrying her career to dizzying new heights before she retired to Panama, where she helped to care for her husband until his death in 1989, at age 71. She died there in 1991, also at age 71.

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