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Review: The Astaires - Fred and Adele

The extraordinary story of Daddy Long Legs and his forgotten sister.

The Astaires: Fred and Adele

Kathleen Riley

Oxford University Press USA, 266pp, £18.99

"They are a sort of champagne cup of motion, those Astaires. They live, laugh and leap in a world that is all bubbles.” So wrote the New York Sun in 1927, reviewing Funny Face, a hit stage musical starring Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Fred continues to be acclaimed as one of the greatest dancers who ever lived, especially for his magnificent 1930s screen partnership with Ginger Rogers, but throughout the 1920s Fred and his elder sister, Adele, were the toast of the transatlantic musical stage. Indeed, during the Astaires’ almost three decades of theatrical collaboration, it was Adele who was routinely viewed as the bigger star and the greater talent.

It is hard to believe that Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of the celebrated partnership that so defined 20th-century musical comedy. As Riley argues, the pairing of Astaire and Rogers was only made possible by Fred’s prior, and formative, collaboration with Adele. “The Astaires,” declares Riley, were “the ambassadors of the American musical” – the dancing spirit of the jazz age, a kind of all-singing, all-dancing version of Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald. Riley calls Adele “one of the first true pop icons of the 20th century”, a woman celebrated by journalists and audiences for her infectious sense of fun, her comedy and her grace. Adele danced “like a lilac flame”, according to one reviewer, while the influential American critic George Jean Nathan evocatively called Adele “a figure come out of Degas to a galloping ragtime tune”.

Adele and Frederic Austerlitz were born at the end of the 19th century, in the decidedly unglamorous environs of Omaha, Nebraska. When Adele began dancing lessons, as little girls often did in those days, she was accompanied one day by her younger brother, who put on ballet shoes and showed a decided penchant for dancing en pointe. As Riley notes, this story probably lost nothing in the telling but there is little reason to doubt its basic outline.

The children’s flair for performance was clear. Before long, they were seeking professional engagements, working the gruelling small-time vaudeville circuit with their mother alongside them managing their careers and overseeing their education. As they slowly made their way towards Broadway, they encountered other great musical talents, including a young composer named George Gershwin, with whom Fred struck up a lifelong friendship. One day, the young Gershwin remarked to Astaire, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could write a musical show and you could be in it?” History would prove how right Gershwin was: their partnership would be great indeed.

Gradually, by dint of hard graft, immense talent, some luck and the right producers, the Astaires began to be noticed, finally becoming a bona fide hit in 1923. They dominated the musical stage for the next decade, until Adele retired to marry the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire. The Astaires’ swansong was The Band Wagon, a show that helped reinvent musical comedy and was also the source of the first American “original cast recording”.

Riley’s history usefully contextualises the way in which his partnership with Adele col­oured Fred’s initial reluctance to partner with Rogers. He began his film career at RKO after Adele’s retirement; when he and Ginger were a hit, Astaire cabled his agent: “I don’t mind doing another picture with her but as for this team idea it’s out! I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.”

As close as Riley insists the siblings always were, some might think that this telegram suggests more tension than she admits. After all, even the famously well-mannered Fred must have had a healthy dose of egotism to achieve all he did. The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce once described Adele’s singing voice acutely, if ruthlessly, as revealing “something heartless, vague and self-adoring, the very cuckoo-note of a heedless era”.

Riley quotes Croce but ignores her implications, never willing to be so critical of her idols. The Astaires undoubtedly deserve our admiration but The Astaires flirts with hagiography. When the British tabloids greeted their West End debut in 1923 with hyperbole (“Nothing like them since the Flood”; their vitality “bursts its bonds in the Garden of Eden”), Riley thinks these religious metaphors prove that the Astaires offered postwar Britain “a kind of redemption”. Perhaps – but more likely the papers were simply offering the kind of hype that in the 1920s they called “ballyhoo”.

Noting that Fred referred in the 1920s to the blues as “nigger music”, Riley hastens to assure us that this does not mean he was a racist: “It should be stressed that Astaire’s use of the term ‘nigger’ in this context was not intended to cause offence. It is indicative of a less sensitive and less enlightened era regarding race issues.” That’s one way of putting it. Another is that it was indicative of racism, of a time when white people didn’t give a damn if they caused offence to black people, rendering the question of intention entirely moot. (Nor am I as certain as Riley of our era’s sensitivity and enlightenment, although I am quite sure that we should not be so condescending to the past, even when it’s being nasty.) The ugly fact is that casual racism was endemic in the interwar years and it’s hardly surprising that Astaire wasn’t immune to it.

This reluctance to be too plain-speaking is related to the book’s occasional fits of overwriting. When she is narrating events, Riley writes fluently, even elegantly, but at other times she has a tendency to overreach: the book’s first page somewhat hilariously describes the theatre as “the serious, primordial business of making imaginary puissance”.

Riley trained as a Classicist and frequently indulges in strained allusions that are out of key with the sleek, art deco modernity of the Astaires’ art: “It is said that the Shinto goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto danced on an upturned tub,” she writes, making her the “patron deity of professional actors and dancers” (no doubt, but not in America); the two Astaires were “following then in an ancient and sacred tradition”. I yield to no one in my appreciation of a good song-and-dance routine but this is going a trifle far.

Riley writes repeatedly of the Astaires’ “terpsichorean talents” and “thespic credibility”, while asserting that Fred’s character Guy Holden in The Gay Divorce “is a reinvention of Roman urbanitas, an indefinable metropolitan sophistication that becomes visible only in relation to those who lack it and that the neoteric poet Catullus elevated to the status of a guiding aesthetic and a moral principle”. Surely the word “urbanity” adequately conveys this concept without recourse to Catullus, neoteric or otherwise?

One critic writes of the “uncanny eloquence of [Fred’s] feet”; with rather less felicity Riley suggests that he “could make aphorisms with his ankles”. But such lapses aside, The Astaires is not just a benevolent excursion into a bubbly world but an important, overdue recognition of the contribution that this remarkable partnership made to the popular theatre – if not to its primordial puissance.

Sarah Churchwell’s next book, “Careless People: the Great Gatsby and the Undoing of F Scott Fitzgerald”, will be published next year by Virago

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?