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June 2012

Ragtime pixies

by Alexandra Mullen

A review of The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley

From the moment Fred and Ginger first took the screen, to dance the Carioca, they fizzed and sparkled, joshed and romanced each other. Fabulous, sometimes transcendently so, they are nonetheless not quite sui generis—they fit in the category of the romantic dancing leads. We fans of their permanently preserved charms wouldn’t be able to enjoy them half so much if it hadn’t been for the earlier, less categorizable partnership of Fred and Adele Astaire, “ragtime pixies: impish, imaginative, young, wholly captivating.” As Mikhail Baryshnikov said of Fred, “He made his partners look so extraordinarily related to him.” Since Fred’s formative partner was literally related to him, it’s high time someone wrote a history of the pair. Kathleen Riley, who as a scholar is interested in both Greek drama and modern theater history, is a stylishly swift-footed narrator of this tale.

The sister and brother were born in Omaha two and a half years apart, Fred following in his older sister’s footsteps at her dance classes. In 1905, when the children were eight and five, their parents made a big decision: to move them to Manhattan to attend a theater school, the marvelously named Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts. Their Nebraskan Lutheran mother accompanied them; their Catholic Austrian father, once an habitué of the Ringstrasse, remained behind, visiting them only annually with celebratory meals at Luchow’s. Their first vaudeville number had them (both!) dancing on point on wedding cakes in evening dress, followed by a quick change for their “eccentric” duet: Adele costumed as a glass of champagne, Fred as a lobster.

Alone with her children in Manhattan, their mother’s idea of suitable bedtime reading was, rather oddly, the Bible and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. But perhaps this combination prepared them for the odd course of life they followed, with the elusive glamour of the stage, the camaraderie and boredom behind the curtain, and the trivial indignities of constant travel. Vaudeville was hard work—three shows a day and four on Sundays—and not always easy on the ego: once Fred and Adele were the only act sharing a bill with trained seals—and the seals got the star dressing room. (Our clever author, like Homer, can nod: Astaire makes an offhand American joke about where this happened—“oh, it could have been Coffee Cup, Indiana”—which the Australian-born, Oxford-teaching Riley takes straight.)

Their mother was both thrifty and self-improving, and she made sure they were able to afford long summer vacations in nice hotels in the Delaware Water Gap so her children would, as Riley puts it, learn to “mix socially with the hotel’s affluent clientele and aspire to the same sort of refinement.” Ann Astaire’s foresight paid off when Fred and Adele were the toast of New York and London, praised to the skies by critics such as Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, and George Jean Nathan (with whom Adele had a brief romance) and befriended by theatrical luminaries such as Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie, and P. G. Wodehouse.?

And what were their charms exactly?

No film of the two dancing together survives. Riley has to rely on theater reviews and first-person accounts in an attempt to pin down “what was unusual and captivating about the Astaires”: “their eccentric variations on ballroom steps, their ability seamlessly to combine consummate grace and rhythmic movement with ‘something novel in the way of grotesquerie.’” (Building on that childhood champagne-and-lobster duet, perhaps?) As siblings, they were spared from the sentimentality of Broadway romance; they both liked and excelled in “nutty” numbers—but they weren’t a one-trick specialty act with a gimmick, but rather “dancing comedians”: agile, technically versatile and virtuosic, both goofy and graceful.  Shining over all were their personalities, their “sheer likeability, and an almost tangible sense of delight in what they were doing.” 

Their pleasure in each other’s complementary talents was real. They were temperamentally very different—they teasingly called each other Moaning Minnie (Fred the responsible worrier) and Goodtime Charlie (Adele, the sparkler). Fred was diffident about his stage presence and rehearsed hard and inventively to overcome the flaws he saw; Adele hated practicing and relied—most satisfactorily—on her style and charm. She was the girl who put “all the flap in flapperdom.” One of her signature songs was “I Really Can’t Make My Feet Behave.” Riley notes Adele’s air of “wanton innocence” and “naughtiness”: “She once attended a costume party, hosted by Elsa Maxwell, dressed as an angel, complete with wings, a blonde wig, a halo, and a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Recordings reveal her light reedy voice, a bit dated in vowels, perhaps, but there’s a quickness and an intelligence in her delivery of the wisecracking lines she shares with Fred. I particularly like their to-and-fro in “I’d Rather Charleston.” Some of my favorite Fred-and-Ginger numbers are dances between equals—old chums challenging each other in rehearsal in Roberta or the exhilarating revelation of a perfect match in “Pick Yourself Up” from Swingtime—and thanks to Riley’s book I now see the shade of Adele dancing beside them.

Fred and Adele’s professional partnership lasted until Adele, at thirty-five, married Lord Charles Cavendish. He was a true Goodtime Charlie, which in real life is no joke at all; he died of alcoholism during the war. Fred and Adele remained each other’s biggest fans until her death in 1981. It was apparently only after her marriage that Adele saw her brother from the other side of the footlights for the first time: “I’d never seen him from out front before. It was also the first time I realized that Fred had sex appeal. Fred! Where did he get it? He’s so un-conceited looking.”  But that’s another story.


Alexandra Mullen is an advisory editor at The Hudson Review.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 June 2012, on page 81

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