Kate Firestone’s life is much too fascinating for one conversation. A philanthropist as well as an elegant and beautiful lady, Kate regaled us with tales of her childhood in India, her years as a ballerina in the Royal Ballet, and other grand adventures.
My name is Catherine Firestone. I was born in 1935 in India in the foothills of the Himalayas on the east end of India, but we soon moved down to Calcutta.
Calcutta is very often looked on as a problem area of India because it has more people living in less space, and so much poverty, but at the same time, they are trying to come out of that and make something of themselves. It is quite impressive.
My father was an Anglican minister in the Church and he was in charge of the cathedral in Calcutta. At that time, India was under the British rule — what was known as the Raj — so they needed people in the church to minister to the local population, but also of course to the British that were living in India.
It has changed quite a bit. I went back for the first time two years ago. I hadn’t been back since I left in 1945. What had happened in the meantime was the partitioning of India, so all the Europeans left and the Indians took over self-rule. Then followed quickly the partition of the Hindus and the Muslims, which was a horrendous moment in Indian history. The bloodshed was gruesome.
What happened in Calcutta was that in a matter of about two months, close to three million people moved into the city. They were already overpopulated. They came in from the countryside and from other cities around India where they were living with people who were Muslims, and they moved back to Calcutta because that was Hindu.
Yes, Gandhi was the buzz of the town during this period. My father met him. My father had quite a lot to do with the viceroy in Calcutta, so he went to a meeting at which Gandhi was present. Other than the war, the partition business and self-rule were the big topics in India. I think it was quite evident that Gandhi was a man of absolutely extraordinary power and conviction. No doubt about that.
So what I saw when I went back to India two years ago was that there were layers upon layers of people living in the street. The houses that had been owned and built by the Brits used to be nice Victorian villas with gardens around them, and there was always a gate man with a turban, very elegant. His only job was to sit at the gate and let people in or not let people in, and this for a single dwelling, not like a gate man here for a hundred houses in a gated community. But every one needed jobs, so you could get a man to sit at your gate for a very small amount of money. All the English people had several servants looking after them, bearers and cooks and helpers for the children.
What happened when the three million people moved into Calcutta, was the Brits were gone, and there were these houses, and they became filled up with people. Then the gardens became filled up with people building little shacks out of canvas and tin and cardboard boxes. The bigger shacks would be built in the back, and others right down to the pavement, to the sidewalks, to the actual road, until you’ve got people living and sleeping in the street, some with nothing more than a piece of material which they put over themselves at night, maybe they’re lying on a newspaper or something. It’s incredibly hand-to-mouth living in that area.
Of course it looks very, very dirty, but I have to say the Indians are very clean people and every day they go either to a public spigot and they will wash their feet, wash their hands, a wash while they’re still wearing their clothes, because obviously they don’t strip in the middle of the street. Or they’ll go down to the Ganges, the holy river of the Hindus. It is the filthiest, most garbage-strewn body of water you could ever hope to see. There are carcasses of animals, and further up river, not in Calcutta itself – you’ll find dead bodies because people get thrown in after they die. This is considered a good thing, because this is the mother Ganges; it’s very holy, and as long as you get into the Ganges when you die, you will be absorbed into the great hereafter.
So they will go to the Ganges in the morning, say their prayers, they’ll wash in this filthy water, they’ll clean their teeth in this filthy water, and they will come out of this water – we’ve watched them – looking and feeling like Venus coming out of the waves. Clean and fresh and sparkling as though they had been in a really clean bath! Somehow they must have all the antibodies that fight the germs that must be rampant in those waters. They don’t seem to get particularly sick. Some are very thin. You don’t find many fat people there, a few who tend to ride in the rickshaws and have other people do things for them, but the majority of the population is quite trim from hard work.
Yes, I’ve seen the Taj Mahal. It is magical, absolutely magical. It’s built of translucent marble, quite crystalline on the outside. Because of that, as the moon goes down, when you go to it early in the morning, it just seems to float — it seems as though it isn’t even touching the ground. It’s gorgeous! It was built in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, whom he absolutely adored. She died in childbirth, and he was totally distraught. Eventually, as I understand it, he built a palace for himself across the river and locked himself in so he could see it for the rest of his days.
I have three sisters and a brother. Three comprised the first half of the half dozen, then there was a gap of seven years, along came two more, and then we adopted another. So my older sister, then myself, then my brother, we all had the India experience. We were children in India, caught out there by the Second World War. Usually, when the children were old enough to go to school, they’d be shipped back to England, but in our case we couldn’t, because the war was all around. But in fact it was very exciting because during the war we were in Calcutta and Calcutta became a big staging post for the Allied troops. There were two enormous encampments filled with jeeps and gun carriages and I don’t know what all the stuff was, but it was quite exciting.
We left India in 1945, at the very end of the Second World War, and we went by ship, of course. We traveled for six weeks in a freighter boat that was carrying cargo — peanuts and jute! The ship was owned by the Scottish fleet, but it was called The Chinese Prince, and we had all Chinese sailors on board. There were forty-eight passengers on a ship with twelve cabins built for first class businessmen going out from England to India. They made all these little cabins into foursomes, so my mother, my brother, my sister and I each had a bunk, and our baby sister was in a basket, and we lived in that little space. The boat had no amenities for passengers, no decks. We would go sit on top of the hatches under which were stored all the peanuts and stuff. There were submarines and German u-boats still cruising around. We had to go in blackout and have our life jackets with us at all times. My mother was told she better sleep in hers, because she wouldn’t have time to put it on and get hold of the baby if there was an alarm. And sometimes the ship would send out deck charges, underwater bombs. It was an exciting journey.
So we went back in 1945 to England to find an England that was quite tired. It had had war since 1939 – heavy bombing, very short rations for everybody, but still, for us it was exciting to be back to what we had always called home, though India was all we had ever known.
I wasn’t quite ten, and I went to a regular school, but that school is where I met the dancing teacher who encouraged me and eventually led me to an audition at the Royal Ballet School. I went for the audition when I was twelve, but my father said, “No. You go back to school. Finish your education.” He insisted I get my high school graduation. At that time, you could do it whenever you could do it. You didn’t have to wait for an age point. So I was fourteen and a half when I graduated from high school, and then went on to the ballet school when I was not quite fifteen.
What did it feel like to perform? Oh, it was very good. Very exciting. And the Royal Ballet was truly marvelous. It had become an institution. After the war, people flocked to the ballet because it was something beautiful, something with color, music and movement. Throughout the war, there were theater performances of different kinds but people attended with a great sense of stress. You never knew when the theater was going to be bombed or whatever. So finally when that was all over it was very exciting, and from the end of the war up until I got there, the company was gathering strength and becoming better and better.
Was I nervous ever? Oh, yes. Butterflies! Immense butterflies! However, it’s quite a funny story, because the first time I was on the stage, we were extras for the opera, the famous grand opera at the Royal Opera House. (Extras, for those of you who don’t know, are people who don’t really do anything except they’re there.) Then the very first time I actually went on was as a page in an opera. It was my first year in the Royal Ballet School. I’d come up from the country and I didn’t know anything, but we were chosen to be pages. We had to hold a candle, and that was easy, and we had to walk, that was easy, everything was easy, right up until I had to put the prescribed wig on my head. It was a pageboy type wig, of course. At that time, however, I had two very lustrous, thick pigtails, and all the hair that went with them. I could not get it all piled under this wig!
It was the dress rehearsal. We hadn’t seen these wigs before, but we had to put on what they gave us. Well, I couldn’t. In the end, I had my own hair showing about this much in the front, and I had pieces of my hair coming out in the back. I was so mortified. So embarrassed. The performance was going to be the following week. I had a weekend in between. I rushed down to my home in the country and I said, “I’m going to get my hair cut off.” Early that Saturday morning, I was in the barbershop. All my hair right up to here, chopped off. So I could get my wig on.
The first thing I did for the ballet was also quite funny. I saw my name on the notice board and it was for The Sleeping Beauty. I rushed to the telephone to tell my parents that I was going to be on in the ballet at Covent Garden. My mother said, “Wonderful. What is it you’re going to be?” “I’m going to be a rat,” I replied. That fell rather flat. But it was quite exciting because we had to pull along the wicked fairy’s coach.
From there on we did other things and got more used to it, but always the butterflies, always nervous.
Did I ever perform for the Queen? Indeed. Several times. The heads of state from different countries would come and the Queen would put on a big gala, and we’d dance. We had a performance on the night that the Queen was crowned, a coronation piece for her, so that was quite exciting.
And of course there were the two American tours that were very exciting. I went to America and performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Also, we were doing a television performance of a short ballet, and after that, we came onto the Ed Sullivan Show! We just lined up and he interviewed the ballerina that was with us. We also did a full-length ballet on television for CBS. We did Cinderella. That was fun.
We toured. On one tour, the second one, we toured for four months and went to forty-eight cities throughout the United States. We’d go for two nights and move on. I would escape whenever I had time. I always loved to see the art galleries. I’d go bustling off to whatever the art gallery of the city was. And sometimes as a group we’d go off and take a side tour if we had a day off.
One thing I absolutely refused to do, I thought, was marry an American. And where do you suppose I met Brooks, my American husband? At the stage door of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He was with two friends and they wanted to meet some dancers, and there we were. It was a little confusing. On the one hand, I somehow knew on sight that he would be the man I would marry. But I was not interested in being married at that point. I had a career, so I brushed him off. He also seemed to have that idea. I came back to America two years later on another tour, and there he was again. And so it worked out.
Sometimes there were tours in America where you’d have Saturday performances and Sunday performances, and you’d have a matinee on each day, so you’d have four performances, and they were all Swan Lake in some places, so you’d have two acts of being a swan in each show, because the second act was swans and the fourth act was swans. So by the time you came around to your eighth act of being a swan on Sunday evening, you’d had enough. But it was fun.
One’s feet do hurt. There’s no getting around that. Do you know about that? Are you a dancer too? Well, let me share my misery with you. My major problem used to be strains and sprains. I have very loose joints so I could very quickly sprain or strain if I didn’t go up on my foot in the right direction exactly. I could pull it and strain it. I didn’t break things. My toes are actually not too bad. They seemed to work out okay; they got hardened. But my ankles are what would give me trouble. It’s a very unnatural situation to be in.
And there were some funny times. One time I was getting ready down in the dressing room. The ballet on stage was all about white sylph-y creatures with very white faces and white dresses all dancing around in the moonlight. I used to do a solo in that, but I would share it, so one night I would do it and another night somebody else would. On this particular night, I wasn’t doing my solo. I was down in the dressing room getting ready for a Spanish ballet, so I was putting on my wet brown, very tan. And the music starts out and all of a sudden a voice comes over the loud speaker: “We are one sylph short. We need a sylph. Send up a sylph.” And I’m the only one in the dressing room who knows this ballet.
Two friends rushed at me, started taking off the brown, patting on the white powder, and fixing my hair. I got my tights and shoes and dress on, and onto the stage I went. However, the face was still a little ruddy to be a pure sylph. The others on the stage had no idea that somebody was missing, at least most of them didn’t. I appear on the stage. Nobody has told me, and nobody seems to know who I am replacing, so I don’t know where in the stage groupings I’m supposed to be. I have to figure it out. So I’m floating around and I find someone and I kind of go up to her as though I’m going to go into the pose, and she looks at me in horror. “Not here!” Nobody wanted me. So funny!
Various things happen like that. I was there when Margot Fonteyn fell flat on her butt. That was a big gasp. She said a couple of words that she probably didn’t want reported.
We had to practice every day. Except Sundays, or if we were dancing on Sundays, we’d have a different day off. Every day we would have a class for an hour and a half in the morning and follow that up with either a rehearsal or we’d work on a piece, or whatever. If we were dancing at night, we’d rehears and practice probably from about nine o’clock to about two, and then we’d have a break, go to the theater, do another warm-up before the show. If we didn’t have a show, we’d work all day.
We were like a family, no question. And it was a very different experience from what you sometimes hear in other companies because there was no jealousy, no back biting, no people trying to stab each other. It was very cooperative and supportive.
The friendships continue. I am about to go and stay with my best friend with whom I shared hotel rooms and everything. She has a house in Antigua in the British West Indies. She lives in London and she’s a very celebrated person now. Lady Anya Sainsbury.
And I’ve kept in touch with several others. Tomorrow I’m going to go see a man who is also very celebrated and was a dancer with me. He lives in America now, down in Agora; he is having a celebration and a ballet studio is being dedicated to him. His name is Stanley Holden.
All that was great fun and very different from where we have ended up now. I was living in London, I met this American man, got married in England, came to live in America.
Once I stopped dancing and got married, my life changed in so many ways. I did some directing of ballet, some teaching, but I was no longer performing. I made that decision. It was a hard decision in a way, and yet in a way I was quite clear about it in my own mind.
After we were married, we were transferred to Italy with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. I adored Italy. Back when I was dancing, we had gone on one tour where we danced at the Paris Opera House, the La Scala in Milan, and the Rome Opera House. It was the most amazing experience. That’s when I fell in love with Italy. And now, we were able to live in Rome. Then we were transferred from Italy to London, which wasn’t too shabby either. We were there for five years and during that time I did quite a lot of fund-raising and things like that for the ballet.
Heroes? I looked up to and adored Margot Fonteyn because she was just such a wonderful person.
Another person I admired was Kathleen Ferrier. You may not have heard of her, but she was an opera singer who started as a telephone operator. She was persuaded by someone in her office to go in for a competition. She had this great contralto voice, a mid-range voice. Anyway, she ended up being one of the foremost singers of her time, an absolutely incredible voice. Then she got cancer. She was singing Orpheus at Covent Garden in 1953. Just beautiful! You could see her in the rehearsals, she would sort of limp, but she would sing like an absolute angel. The very last performance that she sang, we knew she was dying. You could tell. The whole audience could tell. And she didn’t quite finish the performance. But she was just extraordinary woman. Such guts.
Heroes of right now? I might have to come back to that because my mind is focused on the past.
And haven’t even got to the wine era yet. It’s been very fortunate. I could never have dreamed that we would end up in the Santa Ynez Valley with a winery. That’s also fascinating because we were in London, and my husband was working for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and he realized it wasn’t right for him. He’s a person of too many of his own ideas. He gets very enthusiastic and excited about things, and he sees down the road – he’s a person of vision. And they didn’t want that in the tire and rubber company, so he was always up against a brick wall with them. He gave them all kinds of ideas that they turned down only to find that those were what they actually should have done. He decided to do something on his own and came over to America again, obviously to California since that was home, and started looking around. His father had bought land here in Santa Ynez, and grapes were the big thing at that particular moment in 1972. So his father had decided he would like to plant grapes, and Brooks said “I think you’d be better off making wine, and not just growing grapes.” And so we built the first winery in this valley. People at that time thought we were absolutely barking mad!
I’m now on the Board of Directors of an organization called Direct Relief. It’s a fabulous organization. We collect medical supplies either from drug companies or hospitals that are upgrading — things like wheelchairs, dental chairs, beds, all the kinds of things that have to do with medical needs. And we receive a lot of medicines from pharmaceutical companies. We package it all, have it ready, and if there’s an earthquake somewhere, like in Mexico yesterday – they tell us precisely what they need. For example, during the big earthquake in India a couple of years ago, they wanted painkillers so people who were pinned under great concrete blocks could last until someone could lift these concrete blocks off them. We send supplies to clinics around the world, to keep them working. There are native doctors who go get their training in Europe and go back to practice and help people, but there’s no money for medical supplies. So we give them the means to practice in their own country.
I love this work because it’s so immediate. You see boxes of supplies all ready to go with names on them like Rwanda. Our overhead is less than 2% of what we collect, so 98cents of every dollar goes directly to the people. When I went to India, we went to a clinic, and you could see what we’ve been doing. We have a contact so the stuff we send doesn’t get scooped up for the black market. It’s a great organization.
My advice? Dream a lot. Know that nothing is impossible. There’s an awful lot of luck, but a lot of what happens is what you can envision. And I think one of the things I would say is be adaptable. Stay flexible, and be ready for what comes down the path. Don’t be afraid of making changes and changing direction. Look at it carefully, of course, but there are so many different turnings in life, and I’m here to tell you that only makes it more wonderful.