Ridgefield notables: Paul Draper, targeted tap dancer

Paul Draper, a target of McCarthy-era attacks, found a brief refuge in Ridgefield. An international dancing star called “the aristocrat of tap,” Draper danced on the major stages of Europe and the U.S. with stars of the 1930s and 40s.

“Draper brought cool intellectualism and playful wit to the dance form,” said The New York Times. “He performed everything from jazz to the bossa nova to Brahms and Scarlatti.”

Draper was born in 1909 into an artistic, socially prominent New York City family who were friends with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henry James and Arthur Rubinstein.

From a young age he loved to dance and mostly self-taught himself tap.

After teaching briefly in Manhattan as a teenager, Draper moved to London. There, with the help of his mother’s friend, George Balanchine, he made his solo debut in 1932, introducing his new “ballet-tap” technique. His career blossomed in the 1930s as he performed in Europe and the U.S. with his combination of tap dancing and ballet. He headlined at the Rainbow Room, danced at Carnegie Hall, and appeared in the 1948 film, “Time of Your Life.” His greatest fame was perhaps as part of a two-man act formed in 1940 with harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, who also lived in Ridgefield during that time.

Draper began coming to Ridgefield in late 1940s, leasing ‘The Coach House’ on Branchville Road from dancer Marthe Krueger. His leftist leanings were no secret. He publicly supported the 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, a former vice president under FDR. (Wallace, who lived in South Salem, attended St. Stephen’s Church.) He was also a spokesman for a committee of actors, producers and writers who opposed an inquiry by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into communist infiltration of the film industry. However, he always denied ever having been a communist.

The power of the anti-communist blacklisting of the era was described in his Los Angeles Times obituary: “In 1950, Mr. Draper’s dance routine was snipped out of a CBS segment from Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town’ because the network received protests. His bookings were also canceled on other TV programs.” Among those who targeted him was nationally syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler, who also lived in Ridgefield.

Draper moved in 1951 to Switzerland, but returned to the States and became a professor at Carnegie-Mellon Institute in the 1970s but only occasionally performed on stage. He wrote the 1978 book, “On Tap Dancing.” He died in 1996 at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., age 86.