BY WARREN BOROSON
As we age, arthritis attacks even the best of us. Including Fred Astaire.
In her superlative book, “The Astaires Fred & Adele” (Oxford University Press, 2012), Kathleen Riley reports that as he aged he suffered from painful arthritis, largely “the result of the grueling nature and unusual longevity of his dancing career….”
Her book is full of colorful details, bons mots, and brief profiles of the famous. In a word, it’s delicious.
There’s a lot I didn’t know about Astaire and his sister, Adele. What a gifted couple they were! They danced together until she retired - to marry an English nobleman (who turned out to be a drunk).
Some things I learned:
* Fred and Ginger Rogers may not have been totally chaste. At the end of one “delightful” evening, Ginger reported, Fred gave her a kiss that “would never have passed the Hays office code!” When they met again a few years later, Fred was distant, explaining, “I’m married now.” One author, Martha Nomichson, gathers from this remark that they had a “subtext of a sexual history.”
* Their father, Fritz Austerlitz, was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism to escape anti-Semitism.
* When they performed together, starting when they were children, she was the more talented. (She was almost two years older.) While taking lessons in New York City, for a while they lived in Weehawken.
* While they seemed to be the height of sophistication, they were born in Omaha, Nebraska.
* Sir James Barrie (who created Peter Pan) asked Adele to play Peter Pan in a performance. She loved the idea, but her contract wouldn’t permit it.
* Adele has been described (by John Mueller) as a “high-spirited, mercurial, petty, profane, acerbic, charming, possessive, witty, exasperating, unpredictable, loving, and, I suspect, deeply vulnerable woman.”
* That clever writer Robert Benchley wrote: “I don’t think I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest dancer in the world.”
* George Balanchine, the choreographer, compared Fred to Bach—and said Fred danced as if he had no bones.
* Fred watched a young dancer and called him “the neatest, fastest Charleston dancer ever.” George Raft was a dancer before he became an actor.
* Adele may have had a failed affair with George Gershwin. “Absolutely I know he was impotent,” she once said.
* Irving Berlin wanted Adele to play Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun,” and she considered it—but said no.
* Fred was a perfectionist. Once, when Adele came for an evening performance inebriated, in the wings Fred slapped her hard on each cheek, making her cry. She sobered up; it was the only time he hit her.
* He wasn’t an intellectual. He spent much of his time at horse races, golf courses, and pool rooms.
* Adele wanted to be the most important woman in Fred’s life—even to the point of disdaining Fred’s wife: “…if only he hadn’t married that woman, I think he’d be completely happy,” she once said.
* She occasionally said that she wished he had been a homosexual, perhaps because then he could have resisted designing women.
* Fred told Adele he wanted to get married because “he didn’t want to wake up with the morning papers” and because he knew that many people thought he was a homosexual. “He was often, she said, the object of some male’s infatuation and even received propositioning letters.”
* He married heiress Phyllis Potter at the last moment, rushing out to buy a ring. Headline in a paper the next day: “Astaire weds $30,000,000 Heiress with $5 Ring.”
* He and Adele once shared a bill with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, the great black dancer. His first words to Fred: “Boy, you can dance!” Said Fred: “That meant a lot to me.”
* George Jean Nathan, the drama critic, pursued Adele, but he had a roving eye. He once told her that he had to meet with French ambassador. Adele found out later that the “French ambassador” was the actress Lillian Gish.
* Cole Porter wrote “Night and Day” especially for Astaire’s voice.
* His voice was nothing to write home about. But composers appreciated that he didn’t take liberties. And an English critic said Astaire electrified his audience “by singing a song with a mere semblance of a voice.”
* When Adele died, at age 85, Fred was grief-stricken; a friend of Adele’s said her death was hastened by Fred, at 81, marrying a young jockey.
* The most succinct praise for the two Astaires came from John Mueller in his foreward: “Nothing like them since the Flood.”
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Warren Boroson gives music classes at Bergen Community College, Lifelong Learning Institute at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Lifespring in Saugerties, N.Y.