Fred Astaire, by Joseph Epstein (Yale, 224 pp., $22.00)
Nothing in the family background suggested a glittering future. Frederick Austerlitz was an Austrian immigrant who took a series of dead-end jobs in Omaha, Nebraska. His wife Johanna was an uneducated American with only one distinction: unbridled ambition for her daughter, Adele, and son, Frederick Junior. First she enrolled them in local dancing schools. Then, when she was satisfied with their progress, she abandoned her husband to take the kids to New York and maneuver them into vaudeville as a dancing duo. Adele went a long way—the girl became a headliner, much admired in the U.S. and adored in England. Indeed, when she dropped out of show business in 1931, she became the wife of the Duke of Devonshire.
But the stage mama’s drive did even more for her son. Once she changed the surname to Astaire, Fred seemed to blossom from the feet up. “Something in the name suggests brilliance, dazzle,” notes Joseph Epstein in his lyrical tribute to cinema’s greatest dancer. “Astaire implies ‘a star’; so, too, a stairway (‘with a new step every day.’)” Fred ascended that stairway to international celebrity in the late 1930s along with a new partner named Ginger Rogers who, as the world knows, did everything he did backward and in high heels.
Many stories are told about Astaire’s entry into Hollywood, and Epstein manages to cram them all into this little volume. The anecdotes range from a summary judgment of Fred’s screen test—“Balding. Can’t sing. Dances a little”—to David O. Selznick’s eupeptic 1933 memo: “Astaire is one of the great artists of the day: a magnificent performer, a man conceded to be, perhaps, next to Leslie Howard, the most charming in the American theater.”
Astaire went on to vindicate Selznick, then the head of RKO, in picture after picture. The confluence of talents was never to be repeated. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, and Dorothy Fields supplied the music and lyrics. The innovative Mark Sandrich almost always directed. Van Nest Polglase designed the art-nouveau sets of plush hotel lobbies and staterooms. The likes of Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton played the hilarious second bananas. And Astaire himself, of course, abetted by his associate Hermes Pan, created the dazzling choreography. They employed dance in new ways to define characters, tell love stories, crack jokes, and propel the absurd plots.
Epstein understands the importance of Astaire not only as a terpsichorean but as a musician. Though the performer’s vocal range was narrow, he could “sell” a song because it was never “his voice alone but the rhythms he felt in his body that meshed so beautifully with the work of these songwriters.” No wonder Porter felt moved to include him in “You’re the Top,” a wit-filled catalog of superlatives:
You’re the nimble tread
Of the feet of Fred
You’re an O’Neill drama,
You’re Whistler’s mama,
Epstein is at his best when he appraises the work of the Master, and at his lamest when he criticizes other writers on the same subject. He takes to task the famously rumpled journalist Heywood Broun, for example, for writing about Fred and Adele, “It almost seemed as if the two young persons had been poured into the dance.” Poured into the dance, Epstein snickers, “is a metaphor that, like Broun himself, could use a little pressing.” Yet ten pages later the author is a study in self-consciousness as he asks, “Of what did Astaire’s magic consist?” and answers archly, “We are, my dear Watson, obviously in the presence of a mystery.”
When Epstein stops preening, however, he defines his subject with remarkable eloquence and perception: “What Fred Astaire did was elevate the entertainment of popular dance into an art; and he did it by dint of superior taste and sublime style, and while at it he also established that it was possible to bring a touch of the aristocrat to a thoroughly democratic society.” During these frequent cascades, the author becomes the Astaire of biography. As his book indicates, there can be no higher praise.