Who knew that Fred Astaire was of Jewish descent?
We do know he danced on ceilings and walls and furniture, but who knew he danced on his toes (en pointe)?
All that, and far more, is revealed in the recent biography of Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, his first partner, "The Astaires" (Oxford University Press) by Kathleen Riley. 'S wonderful, 's marvelous.
As we all know, he relented in "Roberta" as in real life.
But in 1934, Fred had typed a letter in all capitals with underlining to his agent. "I WILL NOT HAVE IT...I DID NOT GO INTO PICTURES TO BE TEAMED WITH HER OR ANYONE ELSE...THIS TEAM IDEA IT'S OUT!"
Biographer Riley explains that this outburst came soon after his partner Adele had retired to marry in 1932. The next year, Fred filmed both "Dancing Lady" with Joan Crawford (!) and "Flying Down to Rio" with Rogers.
"Having only just proved his worth as a solo artist, Fred resented being so swiftly and irrevocably teamed with another performer." INDEED.
But movie producer Pandro Berman sent a similarly emphatic cable to Fred's agent. "TELL ASTAIRE HOLD HIS WATER...HE IS NOT YET READY TO BE STAR IN HIS OWN RIGHT...IF WE CAN ALL CLEAN UP LOT OF MONEY BY KEEPING THEM TOGETHER WOULD BE FOOLISH NOT TO."
Fred had been cleaning up a bit money ever since age 6, when he and his 8-year-old sister Adele made their vaudeville debut. Fred was puttin' on his top hat, white tie and tails even then. However, he donned a lobster costume for their second act.
But let me swing back in time.
Their family was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism -- in the same Austrian church later attended by Hitler as a boy. Frederic "Fritz" Austerlitz, Fred's father, in 1868, was baptized Catholic.
"For some Jews, conversion was a pragmatic remedy against very real prejudice and social impediments..." notes "The Astaires".
Fritz emigrated to Omaha, Neb. in his mid-20s, got 15-year-old Johanna Geilus pregnant, and married her, the book notes. She miscarried, but two years later gave birth to Adele, and in 1899, had Fred, or Frederic Austerlitz II.
"My brother was born half dead," Adele said years later. "Fred was born too big a baby and he deflated like a balloon."
To "increase his strength and develop his frail physique," their mother enrolled him in dance lessons, Riley writes. Fred could dance en point (on toe) -- he shared this rare talent for a male with the great Russian dancer Nijinksy.
The brother and sister duo spent 12 years honing three basic vaudeville routines.
In Coffee Cup, Ind., they shared the bill with only one other act, trained seals -- who were given the "star" dressing room. In New Jersey, they were "pelted with pennies." And they had a "most ignominious flop", produced by none other than the great Ziegfeld, in the ironically titled "Smiles".
Songwriting, not dancing, "was Fred's first love, a source of intense pride as well as regret."
But even his walk was like dancing, said the Oscar ®-winning choreographer Hermes Pan. He described Fred's everyday walk as "a loose rhythmic saunter that looks as if it's, in a way, dancing. I remember Gershwin wrote music especially for that."
Gershwin -- who had been one of the Astaires' rehearsal pianists -- also admired Fred's self-taught jazz piano style. "I had a sort of knocked out slap left hand technique and the beat pleased him," Astaire wrote about Gershwin.
Adele did not have such praise for Gershwin, with whom she may have "had a failed or unfulfilled love affair" in the mid-1920s, Riley writes.
Adele termed George Gershwin "a neuter...I think that's what caused his brain tumor -- something wasn't getting stimulated."
Adele had stimulated enormous success. She was "one of the first true pop icons of the twentieth century and...a bigger star than her brother," according to "The Astaires".
Adele retired from show biz in 1932 to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, "plunging Forty-Second Street...into mourning," Riley notes.
Fred too, after more than a quarter-century with his beloved partner. His embarking on a solo career was made even more stressful by his mother's fierce resistance to 33-year-old Fred's wish to marry.
In a letter to Adele, Fred wrote that their mother would "have a fit I suppose if I get married to anybody within the next ten years. I don't know what she expects me to do -- keep a couple of tarts or play with myself."
Their mother relented eventually, and Fred wed the gay divorcée Phyllis Potter.
They were married for 21 years until Phyllis died at age 46. "His world fell apart...he never recovered," Riley comments.
Astaire remained a widower for 26 years until 1980. He married jockey Robyn Smith, who was more than four decades younger than the groom.
The marriage "seems to have traumatized Adele", and a close friend believed it "contributed enormously to her death" at age 85.
Eight weeks later, when Fred was given the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981, he said, "My sister Adele was mostly responsible for my being in show business. She was the whole show, she really was... Delly was the shining light and I was just there pushing away."
Similarly modest in his autobiography "Steps in Time", he concludes it, "I just dance."
A more apt description comes from George and Ira Gershwin in "Stairway to Paradise" -- his dancing can "carry you through The gates of Heaven."