For fifty years, Florence Pettan was an integral member of the staff at American Ballet Theatre. A calm behind-the-scenes presence, her responsibilities morphed as the company transformed with the decades. In the 1950s, she was primarily Lucia Chase’s executive secretary, but as the staff in those days was rather barebones, she handled countless aspects of the company’s daily business. In later years, she was Coordinator for the Artistic Staff, under the directorships of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jane Hermann and Kevin McKenzie— not quite as sprawling a job, but still a key position with many facets, all of which she handled with unflappable and steadfast dedication.
A born-and-bred New Yorker, Flo harked from an era and background of propriety, elegance, gumption. She was stylish and soigné. A petite bird-like creature, usually perched atop precariously high platform shoes, she had an enviable wardrobe and a large collection of marvelously quirky costume jewelry. Bakelite brooches adorned her smart clothes, fashionably chunky necklaces encircled her neck, and multiple bracelets jangled from her wrists.
Soft-spoken but direct, with a dry sense of humor, she spoke in clipped tones, and frequently made puzzling but interesting pronouncements. A dancer hurt his neck on tour, and she asked him what his astrological sign was. “Taurus,” he replied. She said, “Well, of course—that makes sense!”
Flo loved to walk. At the end of each night during ABT’s annual 8-week Met Opera season, Flo would take off her platform shoes, put on sneakers and trek some 30+ blocks to her apartment in midtown Manhattan, carrying a large, stylish carpet bag. This bag seemed to be filled to the brim at all times. One night, the Met stagehands put a brick in it to see if she would notice that it was heavier than usual. Flo walked all the way home before finding the brick. Of course, she thought it was hilarious. Besides her sense of humor, she had enormous strength and stamina for such a petite person.
She also liked to run. At the Met, she would take a little break between the work day and the evening performance to don jogging clothes and head off to Central Park for some fresh air and exercise. She would return to the Met Green Room and quickly transform herself back into the beautiful, fashionable woman that she was, ready to go front of house and watch the performance from the company box.
Many ABT dancers counted Flo as a friend. Not a dancer herself, but a first-hand observer to the arc of countless professional careers, she had unique insight and perspective, and helped to guide dancers beyond turn out and stretched feet. A sympathetic confidante, she offered frank and direct counsel to dancers devastated at not getting cast in a coveted role. She knew there was more to life than sylphs and swans. (Not that she didn’t love the sylphs and the swans—she watched every performance, unless she had something pressing to do in the office.) She occasionally advised on relationship issues, and allowed dancers’ romantic partners backstage for an alluring glimpse of behind-the-scenes life.
I first met Flo in 1985, when I joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet. I was not a US citizen and she spent many months working to secure my visa (another of her many duties in those days). It was not an easy matter, but she persevered and I was very grateful. When I retired from dancing and became an ABT staff member myself, Flo and I worked closely together and developed a deep and affectionate friendship.
Flo worked impossibly long hours. She never seemed to go home, but lived at the office, with a can of Tab or a lipstick-stained cup of coffee on her desk. Her office reflected the many balls that she juggled. Her desk was strewn with files, papers, planners and address books (including her sacred black book which contained highly sought-after telephone numbers of everyone in the ballet world and beyond—names and numbers that she couldn’t bring herself to cross out even after people had died). On the wall beside her were photographs and posters of her friends and favorite personalities.
I now sit at that very desk. And on the wall beside me, in a place of honor, hangs a framed copy of this photo taken by Rosalie, which captures so perfectly the essence and spirit of this remarkable woman.
Tina Escoda (with thanks to Kristine Elliott,
Robert Hill, Susan Jaffe, Julie Kent &
Victor Barbee, Amanda McKerrow &
John Gardner, and John Meehan)