Rudolf Nureyev a Soviet spy? Such a notion seems incredible to friends and admirers of the legendary ballet dancer, known for his rebellious nature, who was denounced by the Kremlin as a traitor after his 1961 defection.
But the FBI took it seriously enough in 1964 to open an espionage investigation into Nureyev, according to recently declassified documents.
Nureyev biographer Diane Solway describes the investigation as a "Keystone Cops affair" that says more about the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover than about the man who captivated audiences in America and Europe with his gravity-defying leaps and turns. She points out that Nureyev lived in terror of the Soviet KGB at the very time he was being investigated by the FBI.
The FBI investigation was triggered by the discovery, in a hotel room, of a cryptic note addressed to Nureyev. The investigation petered out after a few months. In 1972, Nureyev again attracted FBI attention in an apparently unrelated espionage investigation, the details of which remain secret.
Earlier this month, the FBI released 160 pages of heavily edited files on Nureyev, posting them on its web site in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Solway in 1993, when Nureyev died of AIDS. The release was too late for inclusion in her 1998 biography of Nureyev.
"It took me less than a year to get the [Russian] file on Nureyev. When I got it, in 1994, it was completely uncensored and acknowledged mistakes at the highest level," says Solway. But the FBI took six years to produce its files, and much material was blacked out, she says.
Among the more startling signs of FBI sloppiness is an assertion by the bureau's San Francisco office that he defected on June 6, 1963, in Paris while touring with Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. In fact, Nureyev's celebrated "leap to freedom" took place at Le Bourget airport on June 16, 1961, when he appealed to French police for political asylum after wrestling with two KGB thugs. The incident was reported with banner headlines worldwide.
The FBI files show the bureau became interested in Nureyev in March 1964 with the discovery of a note behind a wall plaque in the Hyatt House hotel in Salinas, California, which read: "Nureyev - I made contact with the agent at M.L.S. and he agreed that we should wait before we attempt to 3689001427. I hope you find the note as you requested. I put it here on 7-19. I really don't approve of your hiding place, it is rather conspicuous."
Assuming "M.L.S." stood for Monterey Language School, a U.S. Army facility and possible Soviet espionage target, the FBI investigated anyone who could have had access to the hotel room. While Nureyev had performed in Los Angeles, there was no evidence he had ever visited Salinas. Attention then switched to possible homosexual contacts.
FBI agents who interviewed one former occupant of the room reported "a strong odor of cheap toilet water" in his apartment. "When given the opportunity to indicate that he was or was not a homosexual, [name deleted] evaded the issue. It was also noted that there was only one bed in the apartment shared by two males."
The FBI files note that Nureyev seemed "extremely tense" in August 1964 when interviewed about the espionage allegations. Biographer Solway believes Nureyev was "terrified" of being sent back to the Soviet Union.
"The irony is that he was paranoid about being shadowed by the KGB and was terrified when people got too close to him. It now turns out that it was probably the FBI that followed him.
"It is ludicrous to think that he could have been a spy," Solway adds. "He was completely self-obsessed - and only interested in dancing."