On this day in history : 21st April 1959 – Dame Margot Fonteyn, the world-famous English ballerina, is jailed for 24 hours in Panama while police look for her husband who is accused of plotting a coup….

Fonteyn and Helpmann, The Sleeping Beauty, Sadler’s Wells 1950 U.S. tour – Sol. Hurok / Sadler’s Wells Ballet – Public domain

Fonteyn had married Dr. Robert Arias, the son of a former Panamanian President in February 1955…. His family opposed the strict regime of the then President, Ernesto de la Guardia….

Whilst on holiday in Panama Arias and Fonteyn had set out on a supposed fishing trip onboard their luxury yacht ‘Nola’….only Arias was to strangely ‘disappear’…. When Fonteyn returned to port at Balboa Harbour, Panama City she claimed to have no knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts…. and then found herself being arrested…. She was detained in prison by the Panamanian National Guard – but it turned out she wasn’t as innocent as it seems….

Prima Ballerina, Dame Margot Fonteyn – Kristine via Flickr

On learning of her arrest British Ambassador to Panama, Sir Ian Henderson, rushed to the prison to try and see her – but was initially denied access…. Eventually at 9pm that evening he was granted permission…. It appeared she had been very well looked after – having been allocated a ‘suite’ usually reserved for political prisoners, even being provided with fresh flowers….and she was only too keen to tell him what she and Arias had been up to….

Her husband had been planning a coup against the President of Panama involving 125 rebel fighters…. During a trip to Cuba in January 1959 she and Arias had met with Fidel Castro who had promised to help by providing men and arms….

The ‘fishing trip’ onboard ‘Nola’ had really been in order to collect weapons which had been concealed within a buoy – only the couple had been witnessed by some fishermen who reported them…. It was therefore decided that Arias should disappear….and that night he ‘jumped ship’, making his escape on a shrimp vessel named ‘Elaine’…. Fonteyn then used ‘Nola’ as a decoy to divert the attention away from her husband whilst he made his getaway…. She then turned up at the port realising she had to risk the consequences….

Sir Ian Henderson managed to secure her release and she was flown to New York….from there she returned to London…. Arias took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy and in June 1959 the couple were reunited in Rio de Janeiro….

Dame Margot Fonteyn in the 1960s – Hurok Concerts (U.S.) – Public domain

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