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Fonteyn: Revolutionary ballerina?

Margot Fonteyn arrives in the UK just two days after bring released from a Panamanian jail
Margot Fonteyn is alleged to have been involved in a coup attempt in Panama

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

Dame Margot Fonteyn, one of Britain's most famous ballerinas, was "up to her neck" in a coup plot in Central America - along with Fidel Castro, according to government files released today at the National Archives.

A letter to Foreign Office minister John Profumo written by British ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn.
Margot Fonteyn thanked minister John Profumo for his 'extreme kindness'

It seemed "better than fiction" as the news reporters put it. Britain's leading ballerina, Dame Margot Fonteyn, had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Panama, in 1959. She'd been arrested and held in jail overnight. Mobbed by press in New York, on her way back to London, she delicately avoided all questions on the subject. Poised, graceful, courteous, she gave the impression of a somewhat regal figure, accidentally caught up in some local political trouble.

In fact, as newly released government files show, Dame Margot Fonteyn was closely involved in the coup attempt. Her husband, Roberto Arias, was a leading opposition figure in Panama and according to the British Embassy there "it has long been known that he has been conspiring against the Panamanian government". When Dame Margot Fonteyn spoke to the British Ambassador, after she'd been questioned, he learned that:

"She knew that her husband was gun-running, she knew that he was accompanied by rebels and at one point she used her yacht to decoy government boats and aircraft away from the direction which her husband was taking."


Dame Margot returns to the UK after being released from jail in Panama City

He was highly critical. "I do not regard her conduct as fitting in any British subject, let alone one who has been highly honoured by Her Majesty the Queen."

Back in London, the Foreign Office Minister John Profumo invited Dame Margot Fonteyn to his home for a drink - with his wife Valerie. He found her story hard to believe: "I had to pinch myself several times during her visit to be sure I wasn't dreaming the comic opera story which she unfolded". She told him that Fidel Castro, the newly installed Cuban leader, had been behind the coup. It was to have been a large scale operation, but had gone wrong at the last minute.

Officials considered whether they should pass this key information to the Americans - but as Profumo had amended his note to say he'd agreed the conversation was confidential- they decided against it. They decided the best course overall was to "do nothing" and "hope the excitement dies down".

Meanwhile, Fonteyn's husband had found refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Panama. Some weeks later he made his way to Rio. Dame Margot Fonteyn was thrilled. She wrote to John Profumo saying she was planning to meet him there and added :"I do hope that you and Valerie will have time to come in and see us when we are both back --and definitely not plotting!"

That was the kind of tone she'd adopted throughout. One British diplomat wrote of the "charmingly light hearted way" she viewed the situation. And though that approach shocked officials and ministers alike, there were apparently no lasting consequences for Dame Margot or her husband. That same summer, in Rio, they were once again on the guest list for a ball organised by the British embassy.

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