THE BOOK SHELF: Biographies of Lorenz Hart and The Astaires

By Steven Suskin
22 Jul 2012

Cover art for "The Astaires: Fred & Adele"
Readers who can't get enough of Broadway of the '20s will find plenty to intrigue them in The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley [Oxford]. Fred, of course, is celebrated beyond measure. He even wrote an autobiography — all by himself, we are told — back in 1959. "Steps in Time" is mighty readable; but this is a somewhat cautious Fred, restrained perhaps by a need to keep the three women in his life happy. (Namely, his mother Ann; his sister, Adele; and his wife, Phyllis. Each of whom seemed immensely and intensely jealous of one or the other.) And perhaps by a desire to keep things suitable for his beloved daughter, Ava, who was then still a teenager.

For all the countless words that have been written about Fred over the last hundred years — he made his stage debut in 1905 at the age of six, in a vaudeville house on the Jersey Shore — readers have been hard put to learn much about sister Adele, who was two years older. Adele was the talented one, we have long been told; she was the star of the act, with Fred playing a subsidiary role. Even when they became major stars in New York and London, it was Adele who took the spotlight.

But Adele retired in 1932, decamped to England and married a Lord. (Who immediately proceeded to drink himself into a stupor, followed by an early death. After which she married a second alcoholic — an American one — who did the same.) Fred, as you might have heard, went to Hollywood and tried the talkies; he soon linked with Ginger Rogers, who remains his most-remembered dance partner. Adele never seems to have been filmed, which means that her legendary magic is remembered only by people who were attending theatre prior to March 1932.

Now, thanks to Ms. Riley, we have a full-scale portrait of Adele and her brother Fred. And it is a lively tale, as the Austerlitz kids from Omaha storm New York with their stage mother and fight their way from the lowest rungs of vaudeville to stardom. Not unlike Gypsy, but with class and talent. And in which the young hopefuls they befriend along the way bear the names Gershwin and Coward.



The Astaires scaled the heights in New York but cemented their fame in the London transfers of three Broadway musicals — For Goodness Sake (known overseas as Stop Flirting), Lady, Be Good and Funny Face — so it is very much an international affair. Riley guides us through this exceedingly well, recreating the theatre world in the days between the War and the Crash. In contrast to the book reviewed above, we get a true sense of Fred and Adele. And not just with descriptions of their talent. Their characters, their voices are present on these pages. Riley had access to what seem to be voluminous archives; she also seems to have had the cooperation of Ava Astaire, who had close relationships with her father (who died in 1987) and her Aunt Delly (who died in 1981).

Adele Astaire

So we really do get to see the wildly charming Adele and the relatively sedate workaholic Fred. (His nicknames for her was "Goodtime Charlie," she called him "Moaning Minnie.") What we don't get to hear about is anything unseemly, other than those two severely damaged husbands. Ann moved the children to New York for dance lessons when Adele was eight, leaving her husband to fend for himself in Omaha (and send money). She continued to have an outsized influence over them throughout their lives, dying in 1975 at the age of 96.

Such was the extent of Ann's control that Fred — at 34 a major international stage star on the cusp of a Hollywood career — had to engage in a long battle to get his mother, and sister, to allow him to marry. There is presumably an interesting web of interfamilial crosscurrents here that aren't exactly explored. (Riley does quote an unpublished, taped interview in which Adele says her brother confided that he wanted to get married "because he knew that many people believed him to be a homosexual.") We are told that Astaire had a few unimportant relationships over the decade when he was the toast of Broadway and London, including what seems to have been a brief one with the pre-Hollywood Ginger. But one gets the impression that this topic — in this otherwise far-ranging biography — was off-limits.

The Astaires, as the English-speaking world's favorite dance team of the 1920s, are said to have glided effortlessly and gracefully across the stage. Which, quite neatly, serves to describe Ms. Riley's book.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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