Long before Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Barrie Chase — much less Joan Crawford (yes, she was quite a hoofer in her day), Rita Hayworth (ditto) and Audrey Hepburn (ditto again) — lit up the screen as seven of Fred Astaire’s many dancing cohorts, there was one woman in his life who was his very best partner.
Unfortunately their work together was never fully captured on film.
By the time Astaire began his movie career in Hollywood in 1933 — playing himself in MGM’s Dancing Lady, a romantic musical costarring Crawford and Clark Gable — Fred’s renowned partner had retired from show business to begin a 12-year marriage to a British aristocrat.
We are here today to celebrate the famous Astaires — Fred and older sister (by two years and eight months) Adele, and to wonder just how good they actually were together.
We were inspired by the publication of The Astaires: Fred and Adele, by Australia-born historian Kathleen Riley. The thoroughly referenced tome, published by Oxford University Press, doesn’t stint in its praise of the dancing duo.
Had Fred Astaire not entered films, knowledge of his revolutionary contribution to musical theater and popular culture would perhaps, in the twenty-first century, be largely the preserve of stage and social historians, writes Riley.
Adele Astaire, one of the first true pop icons of the twentieth century and, for the duration of their professional partnership, a bigger star than her brother, retired from show business in March 1932…Never having been prey to the precisionist zeal that drove her brother to rehearse endlessly, she neither regretted her retirement nor envied Fred’s subsequent success in Hollywood.
Fred and Adele came from a struggling and not entirely happy middle class family in Omaha, Nebraska. She was born Adele Marie Austerlitz while his monicker was Frederick Austerlitz Jr. At the urging or their parents, who harbored thwarted show biz aspirations themselves, the pair began their professional lives as a child dance team via a vaudeville appearance at a New Jersey amusement park in 1905.
By 1917, they were dancing in bigtime musicals, the first being Sigmond Romberg’s Over the Top, which opened at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Conn. Adele was a natural dancer and born clown. Fred was the workhorse and the worrier. What made (them) such an effective team was that, creatively and temperamentally, they were perfect foils for one another, notes Riley.
Neither a physical beauty nor a particularly good singer, Adele was instead a sublimely natural dancer and born clown (who) possessed great magnetism — an energy and irresistibility memorialized by various revered men of letters as little short of a fifth force of nature.
After appearances in a half dozen stage musicals in the U.S., the duo embarked for London, the site of their greatest successes. Fred and Adele quickly became sensations on the British stage.
The premiere of “Stop Flirting” at the Shaftesbury Theater on May 30, 1923, signaled the beginning of London’s long love affair with Fred and Adele and of a new transatlantic wonder. In a notable departure from its usual phlegmatic style, “The Times” proclaimed: “Columbus may have danced with joy at discovering America, but how he would have cavorted had he also discovered Fred and Adele Astaire!”
Riley writes that although the Astaires — who had become by now genuine symbols of the “Jazz Age” Twenties — shuttled back and forth between Broadway and the West End, it was London that truly made (them) stars. In this regard it is interesting to remind that when Fred began his Hollywood movie career, he was already an established international stage star.
Fred and Adele remained close throughout their lives. He died in 1987, nearly six years after his sister’s death.
Riley observes that she has, since her death in 1981, passed into comparative obscurity. It is Fred’s name that remains in the mainstream cultural consciousness, and it is Ginger Rogers who has been immortalized as his most famous dancing partner.
She wasn’t. Adele was.