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It wasn’t sexual harassment, but it wasn’t OK
By Jacqueline Coleman-Fried
I sort of had a #MeToo moment with Peter Martins, the former head of the New York City Ballet, who resigned recently amid uncorroborated allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse. And I wasn’t even one of his dancers.
In the early ‘80s, I was an aspiring journalist trying to move up from a secretarial job at Time Magazine. The publication’s People writer sent me to the New York City Ballet to interview Martins after the premier of one of his first pieces of choreography, in which he was also dancing. What a break this could be for me—if I could capitalize on it!
Martins, who was in his prime as a dancer, had a thatch of golden hair, a chiseled face and a physique worthy of Michelangelo. I thought he was better-looking than the “David.” After the performance, as the New York City Ballet publicity woman sped me backstage to Martins’s dressing room, I was so nervous and excited I could barely breathe.
The door opened, and there he was. I can’t remember what he was wearing—a T-shirt and ballet tights? A dressing gown?—but it was perfectly appropriate. I sat down in a chair opposite him, pulled out my prepared questions and scribbled down every word he said. This meant I spent a great deal of time with my head bent over my note pad.
After I’d asked Martins several questions, he turned the tables and asked me one: “What do you think?”
I wasn’t prepared for that. When I finally raised my head, I saw Martins was wearing nothing but a pair of form-fitting jockey shorts. A small smile curled his lips as I took in the sight.
Determined to remain professional—to not stare or swoon or flirt like the young woman I was, but didn’t want to be at that moment—I quickly narrowed my gaze to Martins’ face and blocked out the rest of him. I did it so effectively, it was almost as if the disrobing wasn’t happening. I told almost no one about it for years.
Nothing came of the episode sexually, or of my quotes: the People writer didn’t find any of them useable. The real story, it turned out, was what had happened in the dressing room, but I was too green to recognize it.
Looking back from a world transformed by #MeToo, where bad boys are no longer tolerated, I’m seeing this moment for what feels like the first time. Martins’ practically exposing himself to me pales in comparison to the most heinous charges, such as rape and sexual assault (by entrepreneur Russell Simmons), child molestation of an astonishing number of young girls (by Dr. Lawrence Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S.A. gymnastics team) and sexual assault and coercion (as practiced for decades by movie producer Harvey Weinstein).
Martins’ dressing-room behavior was even less serious than the charges of forcible kissing and groping that, I believe, unfairly killed the political career of U.S. Senator Al Franken, who issued what seemed like a heartfelt apology. Couldn’t we have found another way to punish him?
But what Martins did with me wasn’t OK, either. I think he wanted to watch me lose my cool and maybe even titillate me. He was a powerful man having fun at my expense, making me feel uncomfortable and toyed with. He certainly wasn’t taking me seriously as a journalist, which is what, on that night in his dressing room in the early ‘80s, I most wanted.
By the way, years later, after I’d gone to journalism school and Martins was running New York City Ballet, I interviewed him again for a Westchester newspaper. This time, I used a tape recorder, and Martins kept his clothes on—both of us professional and proper.
The article turned out beautifully.