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High society

2 June 2012

7:00 PM

2 June 2012

7:00 PM

The Astaires: Fred and Adele Kathleen Riley

OUP, pp.241, £18.99

One evening in 1923, Edward, Prince of Wales, pretty as paint in his white tie and a cutaway-coat, went to the theatre to see a new Gershwin musical. It was called Stop Flirting. Always one to ignore instructions, the Prince returned to enjoy this froth no less than nine times more. Obsessed by anything and eventually, disastrously, anyone American, the heir to the throne was fanatical about the new-fangled craze then being displayed at the Shaftesbury Theatre by a dazzling young brother-and-sister act hot-foot from Broadway: ballroom dancing.

Practising the charleston and the black bottom rather than studying charters and red boxes occupied the heir to the throne’s days, to the intense irritation of his father. Edward ‘continues to dance every night. People will think he’s mad … or a bounder’, George V fumed to the Queen, adding laconically, ‘Such a pity.’ In the meantime, with friends like the Mountbattens or Thelma Vanderbilt, his son would foxtrot and quickstep in one or other of the newly fashionable nightclubs — the Embassy, Kit-Kat, Riviera or Ciro’s — till the waiters piled up the chairs.

Now the future king was to succumb to the tidal wave of ‘Astairia’. After several visits to Stop Flirting he befriended these comets of musical comedy, the dazzling Adele and Fred Astaire, toast of America and Europe. The attraction was mutual — Adele was rather taken by Edward’s favourite brother, George, Duke of Kent — and after their performance the Astaires would often join the royal table at a nightspot; as dawn flushed over the West End, the Prince would ask them back to St James’s Palace to punish the parquet with the latest steps.

Besides dancing, Fred and the Prince had much in common. Their shared passions included somewhat outré clothes; both men were small but well-proportioned, and Fred was soon aping the royal style, having his suits made by Edward’s tailors, Anderson and Sheppard, using his shirt and shoe-makers, and even taking hero-worship so far as trying to walk and talk like the Prince.

But there was more to their mutual attraction than tailoring and tap. They each had overpowering mothers — Mama Astaire, Ann Austerlitz, sounds every bit as steely as May Saxe-Coburg-Gotha — who treated their sons as little boys, believing they could control their careers. Both men were strongly drawn to the company of older women and both mothers abhorred this predilection for married ladies. Queen Mary never met any of Edward’s inamoratas, from Freda Dudley Ward onwards, and Mrs Austerlitz was distinctly distant to the divorced Phyllis Potter whom eventually Fred did marry, though both his mother and his sister openly suspected that Fred was homosexual.

Adele, with her enchanting looks, sublime figure and lightening wit, was by far the most popular — worshipped would be more accurate — of the two. She had the supercharged, naughty sexuality Fred lacked; she ‘assisted Cecil Beaton to dispose of his virginity’, Howard Dietz, co-author of the Astaires’ later hit The Band Wagon wrote, noting that she also enjoyed the good spanking he himself would administer when she was late for rehearsal. Added to all this was her notoriously filthy language: Fred and his friends called her Lady Foulmouth. (Having met her, by now Mrs Kingman Douglas, in Jamaica many years later, I can attest to the veracity of these assertions)

In this well-researched book, Katherine Riley thoughtfully evaluates how essential she was to the Astaires’ ten-year dancing partnership, and how distressed Fred felt by Adele’s decision to abandon their act and blatantly ask the ninth Duke of Devonshire’s attractive, albeit alcoholic, son Lord Charles Cavendish, who was working at J.P. Morgan in New York, to marry her. He accepted, calling the next morning to tell Adele: ‘If you don’t marry me, I’ll sue you for breach of promise.’

Notwithstanding intense disapproval of the match from the Cavendish family, and the inconvenience of the wedding being postponed for a fortnight while her daughter’s fiancé was hospitalised as a result of excessive drinking, Ann Austerlitz obtained a licence for a ceremony in the private chapel at Chatsworth in which, astonishingly, no marriage had heretofore taken place. Moucher Duchess of Devonshire recorded Adele’s impact on the family:

All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library: the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking she suddenly began turning cartwheels.
Everyone loved it.

The old Duke, thus beguiled by Adele, was appalled to find she was a Roman Catholic, so on the morning of 9 May 1932, as she prepared for her wedding, in ‘beige satin by Mainbocher, with touches of orange at the waist and a set of blue fox furs’, Adele was received into the Church of England. That afternoon Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish sailed for Ireland, to the magical castle at Lismore, once Sir Walter Raleigh’s. Adele loved Lismore and when, in 1944, Charlie died there with mother-in-law Ann at his bedside, Adele noted wryly the irony of so historic a house being in the custody of a ‘hoofer from Nebraska’.

The hoofer’s brother, meanwhile, had abandoned the stage for the movies. That even more famous partnership nearly wasn’t. ‘What’s all this talk about me being teamed with Ginger Rogers?’ he railed at his agent. ‘I will NOT have it. I did NOT go into pictures to be TEAMED with her or anyone else.’ The author makes the point that Fred without Adele felt uneasy at being hitched to a brighter star.

Meanwhile, his own was on the rise: marriage had produced a daughter, Ava, and his byword chic had eclipsed even his sartorial mentor, the by-now Duke of Windsor. Riley documents his touching sadness at the death of such friends as George Gershwin. She also comes up with some wonderfully arcane showbiz trivia. Who could ever imagine that 18-year-old Adele’s first ‘crush’ was a Spanish dancer named Eduardo Cansino, whose daughter would one day be Fred’s glorious co-star, Rita Hayworth?

But of the two siblings, Adele is the most enchanting. ‘Jack just adored her,’ President Kennedy’s sister-in-law Lee Radziwill recalls. ‘And they didn’t even sleep together.’

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