Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Astaires: Fred and Adele

 The Astaires by Kathleen Riley is an engaging double biography of one of the greatest dance teams of all time. While most people are acquainted with Fred Astaire from his long and successful film career, they do not know that before making his first movie he danced on stage for a quarter of a century with his older sister, Adele. Adele was the livelier of the two, the spontaneous one whose jokes and witticisms brought down the house, even as she entranced with her fluid dancing. While Adele was never considered a great beauty, she was in her day the toast of New York and London and had no shortage of beaux. She left the stage to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire, and went to live in a castle in Ireland.

Fred, on the other hand, was the choreographer who carefully planned and endlessly practiced every routine. He was the straight man to Adele's clowning. He wanted to become an accomplished actor as well as a dancer, and so he worked hard to obtain his goal. As a young man he was considered one of the greatest dancers in the world and, in spite of not having typical good looks, he became an icon of elegance and charm for fashionable gentleman. He managed to guide his career through the upheaval of the break-up of his partnership with Adele and eventually marry the woman of his dreams.

According to a review in The Weekly Standard:
Fred’s first and longest-lasting dance partner was his sister Adele, who was two-and-a-half years older than Fred and can be credited with leading him into the dancing life. As the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley writes in this joint biography, the siblings were, despite highly unlikely circumstances, born to dance. Their parents were Austrian immigrants who settled in Omaha, the father taking work at a brewery and the mother emerging as a model “stage mother” determined to get her children into vaudeville. Adele had been the first to be sent to dance school, and Fred, as Riley notes, “literally followed in her footsteps.”

Driven by their instructor’s -enthusiasm over the siblings’ “gift,” Mrs. Astaire moved the children to New York in 1905, when Fred was 5 and Adele was 8. One of their first appearances on the small-time vaudeville circuit was in a confection called “The Wedding Cake Act,” in which Adele wore a bridal gown and, yes, Fred was costumed in white tie, top hat, and tails.

Since most of us who are Fred and Ginger fans know little about these early chapters of Fred’s life, it is fascinating to learn details about how important a partner Adele was: Riley tells us that she was an exuberant gamine who delighted audiences with her sense of rollicking madcap mischief. She was the one with star quality, while Fred was the workhorse. Even in his youth, he was emerging as a perfectionist intent on getting the steps “just right.” Riley explains that Fred supplied “the creative energy [and] choreographic brilliance” that was the perfect foil to Adele’s radiance.

In his memoir, Steps in Time (1959), Fred describes how “for performers of our age, Adele and I must have been pretty good. But the appeal of our act was that we were a pair of amusing youngsters with a novelty. Maybe they thought we were cute kids.” They experienced middling success, but a high point for Fred came when he was 14 and met the 15-year-old George Gershwin, then earning $15 a week plugging other people’s songs. From the beginning, the boys dreamed of collaborating, and their friendship would soon fuel the rise of a genuinely American musical theater, first on Broadway and later in Hollywood.
 As written in The Guardian:
Over the next eight years the Astaires consolidated their position as theatre superstars, reproducing on Broadway the magic of their London debut. But then suddenly, in 1932, it was over. In a move that neatly symbolised the way the pair had used their chic modernity to conquer the British establishment, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the Duke of Devonshire and retired to Lismore Castle in Ireland. Left to try Hollywood alone, Fred put down his elegantly-shod foot (he had picked up a Savile Row habit in London) about this whole business of being partnered with Ginger Rogers. His reluctance was to do with the fact that no one could ever match "Delly". The fact that the movie moguls insisted that their new signing would be partnered with Ginger whether he liked it or not speaks volumes about the industry's perception that without his sister, or someone a bit like her, Fred was nothing more than a goofy-looking, slightly sexless, already veteran vaudevillian.

In this sprightly book whose every sentence shines with the author's love of her dual subjects, Kathleen Riley writes Adele back into the story of her brother. A relationship that usually gets squashed into the first three or four chapters of a standard Fred Astaire biography is now given a whole book. This also allows Riley to explore in detail the rich bank of dance practice from which Fred's later work emerged. The Astaires together laid down a library of beats, taps and turns from which Fred would go on to make some of the most sublime physical art of the 20th century.

The Astaires – or the Austerlitzes to give them their real name – have in the past been described as mid-Western and middle-class. Riley's careful foraging, however, reveals a family background far less corn-fed. Their mother was a first-generation German while their father had been born in Vienna to a Jewish family that had pragmatically turned Catholic. Fritz Austerlitz had fetched up in Omaha as a beer salesman, a job that fitted neatly with his growing alcoholism. It was to find a way out of this cramping existence that ambitious Mrs Austerlitz put her daughter on the stage. And since her little boy seemed to have a certain physical wit, he too was enrolled at the local dance school. Within a few years Adele and her sidekick Fred were supporting the family, sending home money to their father in a tactful recognition that he was no longer able to look after himself, let alone them.

That Adele and Fred were able to do this by the time they were barely out of their teens was all down to their extraordinary art. But what that art was exactly is hard to know. While from the mid 1930s we can see Fred's performances on film, there is no moving image of Fred and Adele together, or Adele on her own. And it is this absence of evidence, and the narrative problems it presents, that lie at the heart of Riley's thoughtful investigation. Her book is in part a meditation on the impossibility of capturing a performance, or series of performances, that happened 80 years ago. You can quote from the critics, you can scour letters and diaries for the reactions of people who were in the audience, but you will always be left with a gap, an absence at the heart of your story. Just what it was that made Adele quite so extraordinary will never, finally, quite be clear. All we have is what came after, those amazing recorded performances of her brother making magic with other female dancers.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Adele is formally presented to her future in-laws, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. She paused in the doorway and then somersaulted into the room. Sadly, her new life was fraught with tragedy. She endured the loss of all three of her children and loyally took care of an alcoholic husband until he died. The Astaires offers a glimpse into the world of the American musical theater and left me wishing that someone had filmed Adele dancing, just once.

(*NOTE: I borrowed this book from a friend for my own reading pleasure.)


1 comment:

julygirl said...

I still enjoy the beauty of his dancing in reruns of his classic films whether it be with Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, or any other film partners. His style is still replicated to this day on TV reality dance shows, and in ice skating.