Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Astaires: Fred and Adele – by Kathleen Riley

FredandAdeleCoverReview by Edward Petherbridge.

(I should declare my interest, but I guess readers will know that Kathleen is a friend and collaborator …EP.)

I am starting to write this at late tea time high in the gallery of Tate Britain’s rotunda, recently reclaimed and refurbished as the member’s area; at sixty odd pounds a year membership it is cheap as luxury goes, though I have got my eye on a particular niche that is bound to come vacant shortly – it is by the balustrade and partly sequestered by a vast corner masonry bulk that helps to hold the entrance to Tate Britain together.

Luxury is relative of course. The benches of bored 16 year olds, segregated boys and girls, sitting amongst the art down stairs, looking at none of it and not even having anything to say to each other about what they had seen or might do next, seemed to be suffering a kind of privation. Perhaps they just needed a Coke and a bun. Not surprising, after all, the partial Tate Modernifying of Tate Britain’s art had sped me on my way upstairs for refreshment.

But I am determined to hold on to this sense of luxury and privilege awhile, depending as it does on two things. The first is the hope of slipping into that exclusive looking niche before closing time: the second thing(s) are Fred and Adele Astaire, Fred particularly. I read some phrases last night in Kathleen Riley’s book evoking the song and dance number ‘Night and Day’. Without moving from my chair by the fire I was soon privileged to watch the routine on you tube, as it was adapted for the film of The Gay Divorce in which he was partnered with Ginger Rogers. It’s the classic boy chases, or rather seduces, girl routine – Fred sings the song perfectly, Ginger listens to perfection, but it is the perfection and sophistication of Fred’s choreography and the dancing that makes one really thank God for the movies. ‘Fred’s genius as a dancer’, writes Kathleen, ‘was his exceptional musicality, which enabled him to translate vision into hearing, to let his audience see the music, as though he were melody and rhythm incarnate’epast1

This afternoon, I had the delight of being with Fred and Adele at a party given for them at St. James’ Palace by the young Duke of Windsor in 1926. Again it was the source material that did the trick, reading Fred and Adele’s letters to their mother describing the experience. My Underground journey here to The Tate went in a flash with the luxury of Kathleen to guide me through the rare treasures of the archives, her light stepping narration underpinned with a classicist’s rigour, her zest and love for the subject, re-introducing me to these two contrasting kindred sprites. Pimlico in no time.

I am remembering now how a perfectly pleasant candlelight supper beside a pool in Antibes was suddenly galvanised – no, alchemy would be the right process – gilded, when the name Astaire came up, pronounced by a lady claiming to be something of an expert. Quietly Kathleen let it be known that she had convened, in an Oxford University college, the first international conference on the art and legacy of Fred Astaire. Now, every one round that table had seen Astaire, possibly recently on afternoon Television, so he was our vivid reference point and we were happy to be entertained as the two ladies, in friendly rivalry, delighted in discussing this prince of song and dance. Kathleen had the advantage, having not only fallen in love as a girl with Astaire’s artistry on afternoon TV in Sydney, but more importantly, the advantage of four years painstaking grown up primary research for the book she was then writing.

But what of Fred’s sister, Adele? There is no film of her. Fred Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire Mckenzie, has written, ‘Although I was extremely close to my father and my aunt, in this informative book Kathleen Riley has captured the essence of their lovely spirits far better than I could.’

They needed their lovely spirits when, as mere children, they toured in vaudeville, two, three sometimes four performances a day, as Fred put it ‘every rat trap and chicken coop in the Middle West’. Once they shared the bill with just one other act, ‘a team of trained seals who occupied the ‘star’ dressing room.’ Kathleen’s book in its varied and detailed account of their childhood’s triumphs and tribulations astonished me by dropping in the stark fact that – a kind of leitmotiv to their musical Terpsichore progress –  ‘The Astaires would spend twelve years honing three basic vaudeville routines.’ Adele disliked rehearsal, Fred could never get enough. The work did not dull their freshness. Amongst the many reviews Kathleen quotes I like the Chicago one that begins, ‘You can haven’t any idea of Miss Adele Astaire’s comic importance to this universe of ours unless you have seen…,’

So many of us feel that Fred Astaire is part of our cultural landscape; for me, reading the book was to realize that not only were his films part of my childhood – the days when I would emerge from our local street corner cinema and not quite have my feet back on the cobbles before I got home, but also I have trod the boards over which he danced with his sister, in Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff et al, not to mention the Palace Cambridge Circus and the Palladium. I must have even been assigned in the provinces, once I played leading parts, the very dressing rooms he made up and dressed in.

But somehow it is more fascinating when, for instance, Kathleen takes us walking in the grounds of Lismore Castle where Adele lived after leaving the stage and marrying Lord Charles Cavendish. Of one of Fred’s visits their, Kathleen writes, ‘Adele relished having her brother almost entirely to epast2herself. They spent their afternoons tramping over the castle grounds, including the ancient yew walk where Edmund Spenser is believed to have written The Faerie Queen in Raleigh’s time. The book manages to cover Fred’s later career, keeping tabs on Adele’s often tragic life.

It is well past tea time, I am home, and the Tate’s pictures and sculpture’s hang and stand in the dark ( I did get to spend 10 minutes in that niche, nearby a bust of George Bernard Shaw- one of Adele’s fans as it happens).

Who knows, some of those sixteen year olds may grow up to catch Fred on Afternoon TV or its cyberspace equivalent. The films are bound to last, surely long after the video installations that creak and sputter in art galleries. Those youngsters who grow up with a sense of history might even turn to such a book as Kathleen Riley’s, the better to understand the inter war period with its modernism, Tin Pan Alley and the emergence of so many still illustrious names, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Coward, and at the heart of it all on Broadway and in particular London’s West End, Fred and Adele. The names of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and James Joyce are to be found in the index.

Kathleen writes:

“The Astaires, however, seemed unaffected by the modernist crisis and the aesthetic revolt it spawned …… they managed to project a wholesomeness and, as Gielgud noted, a sweetness at odds with the self destructive impulses satirized in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies …… they expressed musically that quality F Scot Fitzgerald spoke of when he defined America as ‘a willingness of the heart”.

Oxford University Press. 2012. ISBN: 978-0-19-973841-0. 242pp. 

Edward Petherbridge is an actor, writer, poet, artist and honorary Book Fox … not necessarily in that order.

3 comments on “The Astaires: Fred and Adele – by Kathleen Riley

  1. Kate
    November 28, 2013

    Lovely, lovely. I know what you mean about the new Tate Britain Member’s area: at the opening evening a week or two ago, a tiddly lady of the upper arty classes came waltzing up to me to ask my opinion on how ‘we’ would keep the ‘hoi polloi’ out of the Members’ Room, since it was SO beautiful, and SO easy to find. So I think everyone should go up there, join Tate, and use the space. And leave books in prominent positions for photography, It definitely raises the tone.

  2. Jackie
    November 28, 2013

    What a unique review! Weaving together anecdotes of the author and subjects, the actual book and the experience of reading and writing about it made for an enjoyable post.
    I am reminded of the quote from the splendid Ann Richards, governor of Texas, who said once that “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.”

  3. sshaver
    December 10, 2013

    Wonderful, although I disagree with “wholesomeness”–Fred Astaire was never wholesome; he was spiritual, in the least crabbed sense of that word.

    I’m recalling too a dance scene between Harriet and Lord Peter. Next to Austen, Dorothy Sayers had more to teach us about relations between men and women than any other author. The films are perfect–the resigned misery and longing on Peter’s face when he thinks it’s all hopeless– and the lack of a post-marital movie is a loss for all time.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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