Archive for the ‘Kathleen Riley’ Category

Sometimes you pick up a book at night, read the first few paragraphs and realise that you were an absolute idiot to pick this up right before bed because it is the kind of book that begs to be read straight through.  That is exactly what happened when I picked up The Astaires by Kathleen Riley.  I was completely hooked after the first page and before the introduction was through was debating what was more important: sleep or finding out more about Fred and Adele Astaire.

Fred Astaire I knew about.  I was a devotee of movie musicals growing up and Fred’s films with Ginger Rogers got heavy rotation in my house (to the despair of my non-musical loving family).  The number of times I watched Top Hat and Swing Time is frankly ridiculous but Shall We Dance was always my favourite because of the Gershwins’ wonderful music (it has three of my favourite songs: “They All Laughed”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”).  It has been years since I’ve read much about Fred and there was always too little information in his biographies about his older sister and first dancing partner Adele, who always sounded like a hoot.  Here is a book where she finally gets all of the attention she deserves, as Riley examines the years of their partnership and the magnitude of their success.

Adele sounds enchanting and rather overwhelming: “[b]rought up on Thackerary’s Vanity Fair, she had Becky Sharp’s wit, satirical gift and untameability without her ruthlessness.”  If Fred provided the partnership with iron discipline and gifted dancing, it was Adele who gave the heart and charm to their performances.  The fawning reviews are wonderful to read, both to see how adored she was and how wonderfully effusive critics could be.  In the absence of any recordings of their performances, these reviews provide a surprisingly clear picture of what it must have been like to see one of their shows. Fred comes across as the responsible sibling and certainly the more skilled dancer while Adele is most definitely the fun one and the one who captivated audiences:

Adele was a natural clown, a wonderful madcap, outrageous, and dazzling.  She could suggest infinite mischief with a turn of the mouth or a lift of the eyebrow.  At least one London critic was convinced that she had been stolen at birth by fairies, who brought her up and taught her all their secrets.

I really loved how brilliantly Riley details the world in which Fred and Adele found success, first in vaudeville and then in musical theatre, where they became trans-Atlantic superstars.  It was such an extraordinarily productive and creative period musically and Riley gives an excellent historical overview of how Fred and Adele’s productions fitted into that history.

Their experiences during the peak of their success in the 1920s, when they were hobnobbing with Royal Princes, writers (Noel Coward was a friend, P.G. Wodehouse and J.M. Barrie were admirers), and, of course, musicians and composers, are fascinating to read about.  On the one hand, their social lives in London and New York sound amazingly glamourous.  On the other, the amount of work they did was extraordinary (especially when you considering the socialising that went on between shows).  Stop Flirting, which opened in London in the spring of 1923 and ran for 16 months, sounds particularly exhausting:

At each performance, they executed eighteen dances, a total of 144 dances (one gross) a week.  By the end of the run, they had completed in excess of 10,000 dances.  Adele had to buy a new pair of silk stockings every day (at a pound a pair) and wore out a pair of shoes a week, while Fred had to have new shoes every fortnight.  Adele dubbed the show ‘Non-stop Flirting.’

Adele left the stage in 1932, marrying Lord Charles Cavendish – for years, the only time I came across mentions of her was in books about the Mitfords, where she is noted alongside Debo and Kick Kennedy as “Yet Another Famous Person Who Married Into the Cavendish Family”.  The entertainment world mourned.  Fred, though momentarily thrown off-balance by the loss of his partner, was given more artistic freedom to choreograph dances that made better use of his extraordinary skill and, of course, the end of their partnership also left him open to pursue that famous career in Hollywood.  Adele’s marriage was less successful: her three children all died in infancy and over the years Charles’ drinking developed into alcoholism.  He died in 1944 when he was only 38.  It was a difficult period in the life of a woman whose greatest on-stage gift was the ability to convey “an infectious sunniness and a conviction that all was right with the world.”

The years following the end of their partnership are only briefly covered.  Adele’s second marriage and return to the US is sketched briefly, as is Fred’s incredible success on screen, the loss of his first wife to cancer, and his second marriage to much, much younger woman.  But though their partnership may have ended, the relationship between siblings certainly did not and it’s so lovely to read about how close they remained throughout their lives.  Adele was upset by both Fred’s marriages but she still adored her baby brother.  Riley tells us of their shared passion for television soap operas and how, in their later years, “the two would spend hours on the telephone discussing the characters and story lines of their favourite shows.”  It is a nice antidote to all those tales of family feuds in the entertainment business.

The Astaires lived fascinating, extraordinary lives but, more importantly, Kathleen Riley does an amazing job writing about them.  I read this shortly after Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer (seriously, I am going to review this soon.  I really mean it this time), which is a great example of a bad biographer letting down her material, so I appreciated Riley’s skill all the more because of that.  Her writing is graceful, absorbing and very fun.  She manages to pack a lot of industry detail into what is a not particularly long book (it is under 300 pages), fully conveying the competitive vaudeville world where Fred and Adele cut their teeth as child performers and the exciting talent that drove musical theatre in the 1920s, where artists like the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, and Jerome Kern were writing songs that quickly became classics.

I adored The Astaires and feel like I haven’t half done it justice it.  Do check out Elaine’s wonderful review, since she certainly did a better job.  I would be very surprised if it does not make its way onto my top books of 2012 list at the end of the year.

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