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van Praagh, Dame Margaret (Peggy) (1910–1990)

by Christopher Sexton

 A Personal Remembrance.

It is simple. I loved Peggy, and in her own way, I believe that feeling was reciprocated. From day one, when I knocked on the door at her Parkville apartment. I expected to meet an elegant ex-ballerina (the likes of Dame Margot Fonteyn). Instead, I faced this handsome woman on crutches, with a beautiful smile. Age had not dimmed her. “Down here,” she chuckled. I went red-faced. “Anyway come in, darling,” she said. So, I did. I received the usual interrogation (Peggy was highly intelligent, and this was an audition of a kind), largely about questions on ballet. My answers were completely wrong. I thought I had done my dash. She then piped up, “Oh, well, darling, a lovely sunset. There is a cask in the fridge. Bring it out onto the balcony, so we can discuss the book you are going to write on me”. As a 21 year old, we had a few glasses, and I went away dazed with merriment and a sense of confusion. 

Peggy was one of the most loyal persons I have ever met. Mind you, she could be brutal (as those like Marilyn Rowe have recorded). Peggy once turned to me suddenly at interval at one of the ballet premieres we attended, “Such a shame!” I responded, “What is?” She said, “You have such a handsome face, but little muscle. You could have been a dancer”. That was Peggy for you. 

I celebrate Peggy, above all, for her courage, her wonderful kindness, and her unique instinct to bringing out the best in people. It is something of a rarity in the arts. Peggy was the real deal. I saw, particularly in her declining years, her suffer greatly. I have chronicled her legacy in my book, so I will not repeat it. But to say, this was a woman of great exceptional ability of great, sometimes harsh, love. 

I recall, in the declining months before Peggy went into a nursing home, the late great Irina Baronova came for dinner one night to Peggy’s apartment. Peggy was not that well, but being the trooper that she was, she managed through the night and she delighted us both. I drove Irina back to The Windsor, where she was staying. Irina turned stiffly to me, as we left Peggy’s apartment, and said, “Now that is one Dame!”. There could be no higher compliment. 

I visited Peggy in the nursing home, once she had been diagnosed with dementia. It was heart-wrenching. She recognised me, and begged me to take her home. I could not, and sobbed, outside the steps of the Winston Churchill hospice in Malvern. A life of such elegance, fun and discipline, reduced to this. 

I honour you Peggy, your legacy to The Australian Ballet, which you founded, and all the joy you gave to the world.

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Citation details

Christopher Sexton, 'van Praagh, Dame Margaret (Peggy) (1910–1990)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/van-praagh-dame-margaret-peggy-15898/text27171, accessed 30 June 2022.

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