The Astaires, Fred and Adele. Kathleen Riley. Oxford University Press.

The book’s title reminds us that before ‘Fred’ there was ‘Fred and Adele Astaire’.  Indeed it was Adele who introduced her brother to dancing.  However this is neither an expose nor a sentimental biopic, rather its use of references and sources, presented in non sensational language gives the biography the air of an academic text.

We are indeed presented with a chronological picture of the Astaires’ rise from child vaudeville stars to become the darlings of English high society, Adele joining their ranks when she married a son of the Duke of Devonshire.  We learn of their early itinerant life as vaudeville players chaperoned by an ambitious mother whilst father remained at home in Omaha working.  However there are no gruesome tales of boarding houses or indeed suggestions of psychological harm to Mrs Astaire’s children, largely because all the evidence shows that the tightly knit trio seemed united in their desire for a theatrical life.

These early sections do however offer detailed information concerning the training of such extra ordinary performers.  For much as I would like to believe it, Fred and indeed Adele’s talent was not simply God given.  During the course of their childhood sufficient funds were found at intervals to allow them the very best tutors in everything from acting to ballet, a grounding that would serve Fred well throughout his career.  Though their family was not wealthy the siblings did possess parents who spying a degree of talent in their children did everything to cultivate such gifts.

What Riley effectively creates is a biography that reflects the differing personalities of the two subjects.  Adele was the more outgoing.  Critics and contemporaries rave of her vibrant personality and wit that transcended mere beauty.  Therefore her letters are more emotionally forthcoming especially when referring to her husband’s battle with alcoholism.  There are more anecdotes concerning her.  Cruising back from New York she is invited to play back gammon by a bored Winston Churchill.  First introduced to her fiancé’s uptight aristocratic family she cartwheels into the room.

Whilst all the Astaire’s guarded their privacy, Fred was throughout his life the more circumspect.  There are fewer stories that reveal his internal landscape.  Riley does however make judicious use of his letters to allow glimpses of Fred the man rather than just the performer.  One particularly touching dispatch reveals his joy on his mother’s relenting in her stubborn objection to his fiancé  “ a complete understanding seems to have been reached between us and honestly it’s a relief.” But in general Riley has to tease these insights from correspondence that is in the main all business.  Such letters combined with excerpts from his own autobiography make it clear that Astaire tirelessly sought perfection.  He was the driving force behind their routines and career progression even when the couple had reached the highest level.

What the book does brilliantly is make us understand the pairs’ cultural significance.  Some critics and historians credit them as being at the epicentre of the Jazz Age largely due to Adele’s charm and Fred’ s talent.  Riley makes excellent use of quotes from critics and fellow performers here to reveal the level of praise lavished on them.  Such fame was extraordinary, the couple even being used in adverts for everything from shampoo to tooth paste.

The book’s other strength lies in its detailed portrayal of the theatrical landscape both here and in America during the long weekend between the two world wars.  We are introduced to the fascinating scale of vaudevillian billing which consisted of a hierarchy of eight music hall acts.  The first and lowest billing was known as ‘The doormat’ and was generally played to an at best half empty inattentive audience.  It was here that the Astairs’ began their careers however it was as George Burns once quipped ‘a good place to be bad’ and indeed to learn.

Later chapters are littered with songs of the era often by George and Ira Gershwin for whom the Astaire’s acted as something of a muse.  The names of shows resonate as do the tantalising glimpses of future stars.  Fred and Adele appearing on stage in 1909 with a dance act whose daughter would grow up to be Rita Haworth, Fred’s first casual meeting with a young Ginger Rogers when their paths crossed in the same show.  I thought the sections spent exploring and developing the importance of theatrical impresarios such as Dillinger and Ziegfeld interesting.  Hitherto they had been names referenced in early screen musicals but Riley creates character studies of the two men who were significant in starting the careers of so many.

It is perhaps inevitable that even in their biography the more outgoing Adele overshadows her brother.  However the book focuses only on their partnership and not the Fred who would go on to become one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.  Accustomed to the squalid revelations in contemporary biographies we find it hard to believe that a brother and sister partnership should be so successful on and off stage.  Admittedly we do learn of Fred’s mixed feelings towards Adele effectively dissolving the partnership when she married, and that both Mrs Astaire and sister were jealousy of Fred’s wife Phyllis.  But such threats proved few and were never fatal.

Consequently, the final picture of the elderly pair mugging for the camera taken in 1960 shows a brother and sister, happy in each other’s company.


Review by Fiona Sinclair © 2012