Margot Fonteyn & Roberto Arias

updated 02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 01:00AM

I took my wedding vows seriously," Dame Margot Fonteyn gently explained near the end of her accomplished life. "For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." When the prima ballerina of Britain's Royal Ballet married the darkly handsome Panamanian diplomat Roberto Arias in 1955, however, she had no idea how her affections would be tested.

Fonteyn was an 18-year-old dancer and Arias a 19-year-old law student when they met at a party in Cambridge, England, in 1937. The next morning, "I got up and I walked across the room and had this really strange sensation," Fonteyn later recalled. "Then it came into my mind about people walking on air when they're in love." For the following two summers, they would rendezvous in that university town, taking long walks beside the river where the reticent boy known as Tito "did manage to tell me that his father had been the president of Panama." But then, in 1939, World War II broke out, Tito was called home, and she did not see him again for 14 years.

Fonteyn, the daughter of the chief engineer of the British Cigarette Company and a half-Brazilian mother, went on to a life of glamor and adulation. There were sailing parties with Laurence Olivier, dinners with David Niven and dressing rooms filled with flowers. Then, in New York City in 1953, during a highly acclaimed tour with the Royal Ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera House, an assistant handed Fonteyn the card of a gentleman caller. "Roberto E. Arias," it read, "Ambassador for Panama to the United Nations." A now portly Tito, separated from his wife of six years and the father of three young children, was ushered into her dressing room. "He sat down on the settee, not saying anything much," Fonteyn remembered. "He just sort of stared at me." The next day he arrived for breakfast at her hotel, where, "Suddenly he said, 'You know, you're going to marry me and be very happy' " Fonteyn's response: "You're crazy."

But Arias showered her with roses, diamonds and a mink coat, and pursued her on stops along her U.S. tour. Ultimately, Fonteyn wrote in a 1976 autobiography, her ardent suitor "rescued the human heart trapped inside the ballerina." On Feb. 6, 1955, she married him in the Panamanian consulate in Paris amid an explosion of flashbulbs. Shortly after the wedding, Fonteyn's close friend, dancer Joy Williams Brown, visited the couple at their Manhattan hotel. "Tito was so darling," she remembers. "He bowed and said how nice it was to meet me. Then Margot turned to me and just beamed." Arias's sister, though, was skeptical of their future. "They were from such different worlds," says Rosario Arias de Galindo, a newspaper publisher in Panama. But after a two-week stay with the newlyweds, she changed her mind. "This is going to work," she told her parents, "because she is so in love with him. She is going to make it work."

On their return from a honeymoon in the Bahamas, Arias immediately took up his new post as Panama's ambassador to Great Britain. Fonteyn, who maintained a grueling performance schedule, took on the additional role of ambassador's wife. "For the first time in my life," she would later say, "I knew who I was."

The two, however, did have different styles. Where Fonteyn was—above all—a disciplined professional, Arias, a respected international lawyer, was extravagant and flamboyant. (In 1959 he staged a failed coup in Panama that was, by all accounts, nearly comical.) Still, the two shared dinners on Aristotle Onassis's yacht with the likes of Maria Callas and Sir Winston and Lady Churchill. And wherever in the world Fonteyn danced, there were always red roses waiting from her husband. Then, on June 8, 1964, while she was rehearsing in England, came news of the event that would change their world forever: Arias, at the end of a political campaign in Panama, had been shot five times by a rival and was paralyzed from the neck down.

A shaken Fonteyn flew to his bedside and later helped nurse him through a near-fatal 108-degree fever. "She quite literally kept him alive," says Joy Williams Brown. "She put the will back into him that he was going to pull through." Eight months after the shooting, as his wife took 43 curtain calls after dancing Romeo and Juliet in London, Arias watched from a stretcher in the wings.

Throughout her many performances in the following years—and a renowned stage partnership with Rudolf Nureyev—Fonteyn's primary concern remained her husband, who had lost none of his sparkling intelligence in the attack. Others saw the tragedy as a cross to bear, but not Fonteyn. "I feel it's rather a fair division," she said. "He thinks. I move." When a friend wondered how she could manage it all, Fonteyn had a simple answer. "You see," she said, "I love him."

In 1980, at age 60, Fonteyn finally retired, and the couple settled into the simple, four-room house with a corrugated metal roof that they had built on a ranch outside Panama City. There, with her five beloved dogs and 400 head of cattle, Fonteyn was content to dote on Arias. In those years, she later told a reporter, "I once asked my husband, 'Who shall I take care of when you're gone?' " There was little time to answer the question. In 1991, Fonteyn, at the age of 71, succumbed to bone cancer, less than two years after Arias had died of colon cancer. In the end, it all seemed fitting. During a triumphal performance of Swan Lake in New York City nearly two decades earlier, a reporter had asked Fonteyn where she made her home. "My home," she replied, "is where my husband is."

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