Stella Bloch was born in Poland between 1897 and 1899 to a Polish-born emigrant mother who had been living in New York. Her exact date of birth is unknown. Although born in Poland, due to her mother's distrust of American doctors, Bloch was raised in New York City. Inspired by an Isadora Duncan performance in 1914, Bloch began her earliest training with Duncan's first group of students, the Isadorables. She also became interested in Spanish dance. As an adolescent, Bloch took art classes from the Art Students League of New York. She began drawing and documenting the dance and dancers to which she was exposed.
Before she was twenty-years old, Bloch married Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, curator of Indian and Muhammadan Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The couple toured the Far East, where Bloch studied the dances of Bali, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, and Java. Her time in the East included a year spent in the palace of the Prince of Solo in Java to learn Javanese dance under an Eastern dance master. While abroad, Bloch recorded in her sketchbooks the costumes and dances of the cultures she experienced. Upon her return to Boston and New York, Bloch gave performances of Javanese dance and lectures on life in the Far East. She wrote articles for magazines, and was featured in newspapers and magazines as well. She published a book, Dancing and the Drama East and West (Orientalia, 1922), which contrasted Eastern theater with Western theater. The book also included some of Bloch's sketches from Bali, Cambodia, China, and Java. Bloch opened a studio and taught classes in natural movement as well as Javanese dance. Before 1923 she danced with Ballet Intime, an American company formed and led by Adolph Bolm, Michio Ito, and Roshanara. Bloch and Coomaraswamy divorced in the 1920s.
Bloch became involved in the Broadway circuit and performed in revues. She headlined at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York, and also worked with the Garrick Gaieties at the Guild Theatre in New York City. While working on and off Broadway, Bloch met lyricist Edward Eliscu. The two were married in 1931.
Around this time, Bloch became involved in the Harlem jazz scene. She first spent time at the Cotton Club and Alhambra Theatre. She learned the authentic version of the Charleston from Cotton Club dancer Elida (Edna) Webb, and performed it to rave reviews by audiences and newspaper reporters alike. Bloch ventured into the clubs where white patrons did not go, where the jazz was hot and evolving. She preferred these clubs to white entertainment clubs such as the Cotton Club. Bloch also began sketching the performers at the night clubs. She became the first white woman to chronicle the Harlem Renaissance, and is most known for her artwork documenting this time period of artistic growth. She was respected by her jazz counterparts and formed acquaintances with them. Among the many performers she documented were Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, Dusty Fletcher, and Thelonius Monk.
Bloch had many exhibitions of her artwork, primarily in New York but also in California, where she and Eliscu lived for a few years. Bloch's work was also exhibited at shows of African-American artists where she was the only white artist accepted to display. The exhibitions, at such galleries as Macy's and the Montross Gallery in New York City, brought recognition to Bloch, not only for her work documenting Harlem, but Duncan, Eastern, and New York City Ballet dancers as well.
Bloch and Eliscu moved to Connecticut in the mid-1960s. They had two children, David and Peter. During the 1960s Bloch wrote a four-act play about Isadora Duncan entitled Sundown. Publication information for Sundown is unknown. Bloch also continued her art exhibitions during this time. Eliscu died in 1998.
Bloch continued to exhibit her artwork into the late stages of her life. She died at the reported age of 101 of pneumonia on January 10, 1999, in the Bethel Health Care Center in Bethel, Connecticut.
From the guide to the Stella Bloch papers, 1914-1991., (Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University)
Stella Bloch was born in 1897 in Tarnow, Poland, but raised in New York City. At an early age she began to draw, but it was a performance of Isadora Duncan in 1914, that changed her life. Bloch became the first American student of the Isadorables, the six women who were the company of dancers for Duncan.
At the age of 17, she accompanied Ananda Coomaraswamy on a trip to India and the Far East. While there, she learned the native dances of Bali, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, and Java. She spent a year in the palace of the Prince of Solo learning the Javanese dance. Upon her return to the United States, she performed these dances to enthusiastic crowds and headlined at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY.
Bloch married Coomaraswamy in 1922. It was Coomaraswamy’s third marriage. The couple spent most of their married life in different cities; he in Boston as the curator of Indian and Muhammadan Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and she in New York City. The couple divorced in 1930.
While working on and off Broadway, Bloch met the lyricist Edward Eliscu. The couple married in 1931. They moved to Hollywood soon after, where they both worked in the movies. Because of the House Committee on Un-American Activities of the 1950s, Eliscu was blacklisted and the family moved back to New York City. Eliscu worked in television until he was again blacklisted. The couple moved to Newtown, Connecticut in 1966, where they remained until their deaths.
Throughout her life, Bloch continued her art work. It was during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that Bloch sketched and painted pieces that would later be hailed as her best; subjects include Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, Thelonious Monk as well as Harlem street scenes. One of her pieces was used as the logo art of the Broadway musical Black and Blue in 1989.
Her artwork has been featured in Dance Magazine and shown at the Library for the Performing Arts and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, both part of The New York Public Library. Other exhibitions have been at the Montross Gallery, New Macy Galleries, and Touchstone Galleries in New York City and Braxton Gallery, Warner Galleries, and Putzel Gallery, of Hollywood, California. Beginning in 1983 she was represented by the Beaux Arts Gallery in Woodbury, Connecticut, where retrospectives were shown in 1996 and 2000.
The Eliscu’s had two sons, David and Peter, and six grandchildren. Edward died in June 1998. Stella Bloch died in January 1999 just one day short of her 101st birthday.
From the guide to the Stella Bloch papers, 1907-1999, (The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.)
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