In 1933 Fred Astaire, a successful young dancer and comedian on the Broadway and London stage, made what turned out to be a decision that altered not merely his life but American popular culture: He left the stage and went to Hollywood, making two films — “Dancing Lady” and “Flying Down to Rio” — that almost immediately established him as a far bigger star. Those movies were just the beginning. Astaire went on to form a stupendously popular dancing partnership with Ginger Rogers, then briefer but not much less luminous ones with Cyd Charisse and Barrie Chase. Probably for as long as people watch movies, Astaire will be synonymous with grace, sophistication and what Kathleen Riley calls “ardent gallantry, restrained yearnings, self-deprecation, and self-confidence.”
What much of the moviegoing world does not realize is that Astaire had a remarkable life before Hollywood, one in which his dancing partner was his sister Adele. She left the stage in March 1932 to marry an Englishman, Lord Charles Cavendish, and pretty much disappeared from view. Today her name is probably best known to crossword-puzzle solvers, for whom the clue “Dancing Astaire” must be answered with “Adele” when five letters are available.
Unlike her brother, who left a vast archive of films, television appearances and — by no means least — superb recordings of the dozens of classic American songs that were written for him by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and others, Adele left almost no trail beyond the memories of those who saw her onstage, most of whom by now are dead. You can, and should, go to YouTube and listen to her and Fred singing “Fascinating Rhythm” — with powerful piano accompaniment by George Gershwin (!) — but that’s about it.
So it is good to have Riley’s “The Astaires: Fred & Adele,” a labor of love by an Australian scholar of the theater who is far too young to have seen or heard Fred and Adele when they were a team but for whom they are “a pair of performers who have held a powerful fascination over my imagination from childhood.” She writes:
“The story of the Astaires conjures up a vanished world. Born at the close of the nineteenth century, they, in effect, grew up together with the next century. Manifestly children of their time, they glamorously embodied the interwar style they had partly invented. At the same time, their appeal as performers, particularly in London, was based largely on their apparent defiance of the darker aspects of the interwar psyche, their modernism free of modernist angst. . . . The story of Fred and Adele Astaire is an extraordinary one and deserves to be told for its own sake and not merely as the prologue to Fred’s more famous solo career.”
Adele arrived first, in September 1896, followed 21 / 2 years later by Fred. They were born into circumstances with none of the devil-may-care joy that became one of their many urbane trademarks. Their birthplace was Omaha. Their father was Fritz Austerlitz, a luckless immigrant from Austria who loved his children deeply but moved from one unrewarding job to another; their mother, Johanna Gelius, was a second-generation Austrian American who became her children’s “manager, costumer, tutor, and constant companion” after a local dance instructor recognized the children’s gifts and urged that they be developed. Amazingly, in January 1905, when Adele was 8 and Fred 5, they were taken to New York and settled there with Anna (as their mother was known) as chaperone and home-schooler. It’s not clear how Fritz was able to underwrite this expensive and risky step, but somehow he did.
In New York the children had a succession of teachers and sponsors, and they thrived. Adele was the more natural dancer and actress of the two, Fred the more studious and determined. From “the start of their training,” Riley writes, “their relationship as performers, and the contrasting individual attributes they brought to the partnership, were firmly established: Adele was the one who could dazzle effortlessly through sheer force of personality and with the confidence of innate talent; Fred was the more industrious, striving to keep up with and not disgrace his sister, but with gifts of his own awaiting discovery.”
In the same year that they moved to New York, Fred and Adele changed their name to Astaire and made their first vaudeville appearance at an amusement park in New Jersey. It “was not the most auspicious theatrical beginning,” and “it was years before the Astaires attained headliner status.” Vaudeville was a hard school, but a good one. The great vaudevillian George Burns joked that its virtue was that “it gave inexperienced performers somewhere they could be bad.” It taught Fred and Adele “the importance, as performers, of economy, timing and pace, and personal magnetism.” This last was especially important: A vaudeville performer had to have “personality,” something that distinguished him or her from all the others who crossed the crowded stage. What “truly distinguished the Astaires as dancers and as a unified stage presence was sheer likeability, and an almost tangible sense of delight in what they were doing.”
We all know Fred from his films, but Adele needs to be introduced. She “was possessed of neither outstanding physical beauty . . . nor an especially good singing voice,” yet she was “a sublimely natural dancer and a born clown, but in the immoderate paeans written about her star quality — onstage and in life — what the modern reader senses, vicariously yet vividly, is not Adele’s Terpsichorean talent or comic genius but rather her magnetism.” George Jean Nathan, a famous theater critic of the day, treasured her “absurdity, unpredictability, bold irreverence, unconventional beauty, ability to be moving without being mawkish, and intuitive understanding that the ‘reckless laugh, the stirring dance, and the gay song’ are a serious and necessary business.”
By 1917 the Astaires had risen to the top in vaudeville and were “Broadway bound.” Whether the show they appeared in was a hit or a flop — and they had their share of both — reviewers invariably singled them out for praise. This all led, in May 1923, to their first engagement in London, in “Stop Flirting,” the “beginning of London’s long love affair with Fred and Adele.” It was London “that truly made stars of the Astaires.” The jazzy dancing and humor they brought with them startled and delighted the city, still recuperating from the calamitous losses Britain suffered in World War I. They “were the sweet voice of life and hope and thus symbolically distant from both the horror of the Great War and the ennui of its aftermath.” London loved them, and they loved London back, performing there over and over again for nearly a decade.
All the evidence suggests that they were good people as well as transcendent performers. They were fiercely loyal to each other and were ever grateful to their mother for her support and to their father for his loving concern. Neither seems to have let show-business fame go to the head, and both had real lives offstage as well as fabricated ones onstage. Life for Adele became difficult after her marriage — she got pregnant twice but lost the children both times, and her husband turned out to be a serious alcoholic — but she played the deck she’d been dealt.
Fred was happy in Hollywood, but the death in 1954 of his beloved wife left him devastated, and though he continued to act, he never got over it. Still, he did leave us all those wonderful films, and now brings us as much joy as he and his sister brought to audiences more than a century ago.
Fred & Adele
By Kathleen Riley
Oxford Univ. 241 pp. $27.95