Before Ginger there was Adele. Not many people know that. As a life time admirer of the Great Fred I have read anything I could find about him and his career and have always wanted to know more about his sister as she is a constant in his life even when she left the stage.
And here comes a simply super book by Kathleen Riley and published by the wonderful Oxford University Press which I pounced upon last week and read straight through. It was during the lovely sunny days we recently had and I sat outside with a cup of tea and had a lazy reading day.
Fred and Adele were the children of Johanna and Frederic Austerlitz. Their father was born in Linz, Austria and later lived in Vienna. Frederic emigrated to the States and ended up in Omaha which I would imagine it was quite a culture shock for him to say the least. Frederic enjoyed the cafe society of Vienna and was drawn to its artists, writers and musicians and he dreamed of working as a pianist in the orchestra of an operetta. Quite why he left is uncertain but the author suggests he 'had a deep and dogged restlessness and sense of disappointment'. He met and married Johanna Geolius, whose family was from Prussia and was the first of this family to be born in the US.
The marriage was not successful and we find Johanna Austerlitz transformed into Anna Astaire. She enrolled her children in the local dance school as Adele who loved to dance for her father and show off was seen as a natural. It was believed Fred was enrolled because his mother believed it would increase his strength and develop his frail physique.
As their progress from child performers to juveniles to top liners, it was always Adele who was the star with Fred seen as her adjunct. She was a natural performer with a vibrant personality who stood no nonsense from producers and impresarios alike. However, when they were children and had moved to the East Coast, Adele and Fred joined the rather grandiosely named Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of the Cultural Arts. At the end of a brief audition at which Adele had been the main focus of attemtion, Alviene turned to Fred and told him 'we're going to make a big star out of you'.
As I simply love musicals and particularly, those of Fred and Ginger, I loved this book. The theatre and music of the time is portrayed beautifully and oh the names, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, all those wonderful musicians and composers who Fred and Adele worked with.
When they came to London in the 1930's they were a massive hit and a huge sensation and were feted by the cream of London society including meeting and befriending the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) and his brother, George the Duke of Kent. Adele did not mince her words and was not likely to be cowed by the circles in which she was moving and her opinion of the Prince of Wales makes interesting reading: "The King is selfish and slipshod in his very responsible position...as an American I resent the old traditions being done away with and in their place this cheap and undignified display of modern ruling. The King is a selfish bastard and forgets that his life is for his country not to carry on an indiscreet life with the American adventuress...the world is in a frenzy and he wants to marry that whore...if he does abdicate he ought to be put in a padded cell"
Whew - strong words indeed.
Not only is this a biography of Fred and Adele it is also a social history as we see them dance and survive the Depression, the Wall Street Crash (Fred lost a lot of money) and the Second World War. The 1930s always seem to me to be an era of dance and glitter and glamour though we all know that underneath lurked poverty and despair. Theaters and cinemas were packed by those trying to forget the darkness outside and to see Adele and Fred dance must have been magical. There are no films, no YouTube to be checked out to see just how good they were: "Fred and Adele Astair made the show pause early in the evening with a beautiful loose limbed dance. It seemed as if the two young persons had been poured into the dance"
Variety said "that boy alone is like a streak of artistic lightning on his feet"
Perhaps it was these comments as well as wanting to settle down which made Adele realise that perhaps it was time to retire. She was tiring of the theatrical life and yearned to have a home and a family. She was courted by Lord Charles Cavendish and though his family were not happy with him marrying an American who performed on the stage, the marriage took place. It was to prove unhappy and tragic. Adele gave birth to three children and, sadly, lost all of them. Her husband, always a heavy social drinker, sank into alcoholism and was abandoned by his family. Adele stuck by him to the end.
There was no sense that Fred would do well without her. Wodehouse himself said, "there is a rumour he turned up in Hollywood. It was the best the poor chap could hope for after losing his brilliant sister". Yes, to Hollywood he had gone, but there was no rush for bidding for Fred's services. A screen test was eventually arranged for RKO and out of this came the infamous and probably apocryphal verdict "Can't act, can't sing, Slightly bald, also dances".
Fred was still struggling to emerge from under sister's shadow and when he heard that the studio planned to team him up with Ginger Rogers this was his response:
"What's all this talk about me being teamed up with Ginger Rogers? I will NOT have it, I did not go into pictures to be teamed with her or anyone else and if that is the program in mind for me I will not stand for it"
Oh boy how wrong can you be.
Fortunately, it was made clear that the decision did not rest with Fred and the rest is Hollywood history.
Great book, loved every minute of it and it is clear that though Fred may have chafed under the sometimes stifling love from his family and his sister and wished to break away, their love and devotion lasted all their lives. Look at this wonderful picture of them dancing together well into their old age. Such affection and such fun.
My thanks to the OUP for yet another gorgeous book. This is one that will be staying on my shelves.
PS - This book is not yet published but nothing to stop you clicking on my link above and pre-ordering. go on you know you want to....