At last, someone benefits from the bright lights

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The Independent Online
IT IS two months since I first reported on Arthur Bell. He is the 71-year-old black gentleman who was scooped from the street one late- winter night, frostbitten and unable to walk, and delivered by ambulance to a Brooklyn hospital. There he was befriended by a social worker, Maria Mackin, who took seriously ramblings from the old man about a life as a ballet dancer that doctors had attributed to dementia.

What Ms Mackin discovered, she first shared with the New York Times newspaper; its report then spurred others, like myself, to spread the story wider. Mr Bell, it turned out, had indeed danced with Margot Fonteyn and worked with Sir Frederick Ashton, just as he had been claiming. Indeed, Ms Mackin identified him as a pioneer - the first black dancer with the New York City Ballet.

What has happened in the meantime? A good deal. For once, this is a case of a private person enveloped by the bright lights and intrusions of the media and benefiting from the experience. He now enjoys a celebrity far greater than any he earned when he was dancing. He has held a news conference and been on breakfast television. Requests for the movie and book rights to his story are still flooding in.

And he has a new home. Hearing of his plight and of his love for the performing arts, the Actor's Fund Nursing and Retirement Home in Englewood, New Jersey, quickly made contact and offered him permanent residency.

"I feel they are my people," he recently said of his new-found companions. "Performers are just the interesting people, anywhere you go".

Most importantly, he has been rediscovered by siblings who had thought him lost for good. After spotting news stories about him, five sisters from Florida - where Mr Bell grew up - and a brother, Dale, who lives in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, who had not seen him for 40 years, recently converged on the city for a reunion dinner. The evening was sponsored by ABC TV, which will broadcast the occasion on its 20/20 magazine show later this month.

Guiding Mr Bell through all the sudden changes is Marc Glick, a New York lawyer who is representing him pro bono. Papers have been drawn up to make brother Dale Arthur's guardian. Money that has been streaming in from well-wishers is being directed into a fund for his well-being. In time, says Mr Glick, a scholarship will be set up in Mr Bell's name for young people seeking a career in dance.

As for the movie and book rights, no decision will be made until after the airing of 20/20, says Mr Glick. Those who have expressed interest so far include the Walt Disney Company, the actor Morgan Freeman and a British documentary company, October Films.

The Independent newspaper had another reason to revisit Mr Bell's story. Lying beside me now is a letter addressed to him by a reader from Devon, who was evidently moved by our first report in April. Stapled neatly to the bottom is a $50 bill, which I will be sending to Mr Glick, and through him, to the fund.

I am hopeful that the letter itself will get to Mr Bell. I think he will be moved. It begins with two lines from Arthur Rimbaud. "I have stretched ropes from belfry to belfry; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I am dancing." It is from Les Illuminations XII.

AND NOW, briefly, to another artist, but one who has never known life beyond the camera lens. I speak of Prince Charles. It seems that His Royal Highness is to contribute one of his lithographs to an auction next week at the New York Academy of Art. But what, exactly, will be the subject of his work? Or, more to the point, will it depict a person in a state of undress?

It is a question that is sparking much breathless chatter in Manhattan, because the name given to the auction is "Take Home a Nude". Asked for any clues, Joe Heissan, the director of development at the academy, replied only: "I have no idea."

A new, and somewhat unusual exhibit, was meanwhile delivered this week to New York's Museum of Natural History all the way from New Zealand. Or rather, from the ocean floor just off New Zealand. It is a giant squid, one of our planet's most elusive creatures. As I write, the squid is being thawed from its deep-frozen state on arrival, after which it will be pickled for display in the museum's new Bio-Diversity wing.

Giant squids, with 10 tentacles and eyes as large as dinner plates, can reach 60 feet in length. This is only a baby, coming in at about 25 feet. "It's gorgeous," says curator Dr Neil Landman. No doubt.

David Usborne

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