Sara's Reviews > The Astaires: Fred & Adele

The Astaires by Kathleen Riley
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Jun 25, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: american-history, art-history, biography, theater-and-film-history
Read from March 14 to 15, 2013

In The Astaires: Fred & Adele, Kathleen Riley has collected an astonishing amount of detail and data about this famous duo and about their professional and personal milieux, namely early 20th-century musical theater and the British aristocracy. The prevalence of this latter social arena in the lives of the Astaire siblings at first surprised me. Before reading this book, I knew Fred had danced with his sister named Adele, but I knew nothing else about her. I did not, for instance, know that she retired from the stage to marry the Duke of Devonshire. Nor did I realize the pair's first wild successes came to them in London's West End rather than on Broadway. They became the darlings of London before America took much notice, their talent furnishing an "in" with English "society" that usually only birth or money can get one. And they carried this success back with them to America.

Riley frequently observes the discontinuity between the Astaires' Omaha, Nebraska upbringing and the circles in which they later moved, however I was left at the end of this book with a sense of the complete appropriateness of it; both the upper crust's adoption of them and their unselfconscious adoption of it.

I'm going to add a caveat here that I admire and respect Fred Astaire's work ethic and talent and I have loved his movies since I was a child. I also inherently appreciate a pretty girl who will make a clown of herself, as Adele famously did. With the following critique, I mean less to vilify the Astaires (though perhaps a little of that is due) than to criticize Riley's color blind interpretation of their careers. And so...

Certainly, the Astaires grew up working class without much luxury. Equally obviously, they excelled through natural talent and, in the case of Fred, punishing hard work. However they also received professional dance and theater instruction from early ages; and did so in a time period whose social inequities specifically favored white artists. To be fair, the instruction they received seems largely a function of their parent's, and specifically their mother's, willingness to throw the whole family's lot in with the ability of these children to entertain. They went to dance classes, were taken to New York, etc., not because their family had extra money to do it, but because their family used what little money they had in order to further the chances of Fred and Adele to raise the fortunes of the whole family by entertaining.

However, once Ma and Pa Austerlitz made this incredible decision to rely on the fruits of their children's labors for survival (and only incidentally on their own), something else began working in the Astaires' favor; namely white privilege. Riley, albeit obliviously, even gestures at this fact a couple of times when she quotes Fred talking about the songs they danced to as "nigger music" or when she describes the "Bojangles of Harlem" routine in Swing Time (1936).

This number, which Fred performed in blackface, is made more (not less) disquieting by the fact that he clearly believed himself to be offering homage to Bill Robinson and the host of other black performers he had emulated on the road to developing his own style. Of course a dancer of Fred Astaire's talent and drive brought his own moves and interpretations to the dance. Yet I still have a hard time comprehending how a biography about his and Adele's early stage days could completely ignore the fact that, ultimately, they made their living as white dancers interpreting an art form created and pioneered by black dancers. More so, they became wildly wealthy and famous doing so, where most of the black dancers they would have encountered, admired and drawn artistic ideas from during their vaudeville days, earned very little money and were not even allowed into the establishments in which the Astaires would go on to perform.

I do not argue that Fred and Adele Astaire should not be well known for their gifts, that they should not have been compensated (although the celebrity pay scale is I think an issue worth considering sociologically), or that there is something inherently wrong with artists emulating and drawing inspiration from each other. However, I am asserting that in the case of popular American art forms of the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been a well-observed pattern of white artists gaining great fame and wealth using songs, sounds, rhythms and styles developed by African-Americans who never enjoyed a fraction of the same success. This fact does not negate the talent of dancers like Fred and Adele, but any self-respecting biography that purports to talk about their careers should pay attention to the fact that they, too, participated in this shameful trend. Moreover, the time period of their initial success was so deeply racist that Fred, rich and famous, could paint his face black and perform, believing he was paying tribute to a set of artists he must have known several alarming things about: he would not have had his own career without them, they never received the compensation or accolades he did, they could not go to the same ritzy clubs and venues he went to...unless it was to perform.

That Fred and Adele come across as compassionate, kind and joyful individuals in this book does not belie the racist attitudes of themselves and their time that contributed to their unique success. It is not disrespectful to their talent to contextually situate them in a difficult and racially biased historical moment. It is, rather, disrespectful to the talents of all the individuals who could not and did not enjoy the same success as the Astaires, even while their work contributed to it.

Kathleen Riley is a theater historian from Australia, so her focus on Anglo theater is perhaps not surprising. Her apparently color blindness is. I applaud the clearly encyclopedic research she performed to retrace the Astaires' early career. Her archival chops are obviously intact. In a limited anecdotal sense, I really enjoyed parts of this book. But the theoretical, interpretive components of her research are impoverished.

And I still love watching Fred Astaire dance.

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