Fred Astaire: An Autobiography & Joseph Epstein: Fred Astaire

Harper Collins, 2008 (338pp); Yale University Press, 2008 (191pp)

22 June 2009 3 stars4 stars

Fred AstaireIt's just over seventy-five years since Fred Astaire teamed up with Ginger Rogers to create one of the finest dancing partnerships of all time (if not the greatest). To celebrate, Harper Collins has reissued Astaire's autobiography in paperback, while a new volume devoted to Astaire in Yale University Press' Icons of America series has also just been published. Together, they provide a fascinating opportunity to examine how a famous figure writes about his own experiences and has been written about by a distanced observer.

Born in 1899, Fred Astaire's early fame came in the 1920s with his sister Adele. The pair were the toast of Broadway and the West End, rubbing shoulders with royalty – both in terms of the British monarchy and show business legends such as Maurice Chevalier – and enjoyed artistic relationships with the likes of Jerome Kern and the young George Gershwin. When Adele married into the British aristocracy, Fred was left to go it alone, and after headlining Cole Porter's The Gay Divorce, he took to Hollywood, appearing in nine films at RKO with Ginger Rogers. At their zenith, Astaire and Rogers were the biggest movie stars of their day, and after their partnership was severed at the close of the decade, Astaire never quite gelled with anyone else in the same way.

Nevertheless, he went on to make a string of excellent films at a range of studios, including Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby, Easter Parade with Judy Garland, Royal Wedding with Jane Powell, The Belle of New York and Three Little Words with Vera-Ellen, The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings with Cyd Charisse, Daddy Long Legs with Leslie Caron and Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. The Band Wagon especially showed that Astaire was still on form in the 1950s, perhaps helped by the fact that the score was largely made up of much earlier standards by Dietz and Schwartz and a classic 'backstage musical' story. The dancer also appeared on the radio, in a number of television specials, and in straight acting roles. He died in 1987.

Having somewhat idolised Astaire in my youth, I was excited finally to read his account of his career, Steps in Time. But I confess that in the event, I was rather disappointed. Others have complained that Astaire never updated his story beyond 1959, or that he avoids dishing the dirt on his life and co-stars. Neither of those things bothers me in the least: what's more of a let-down for me is the complete lack of reflection, insight or detail on most of the films – indeed Astaire devotes barely a page to many of them.

As has often been my experience with autobiographies (Julie Andrews' is not dissimilar), Astaire offers a detailed, blow-by-blow account of his childhood and early years and then starts to race along with far less detail as his professional life kicks in. I was delighted to read so much about his relationship with his sister and their stage shows together. The level of description is high, and although the rougher element of their early life – travelling around America with their mother, long-term separations from their father and playing to half-empty theatres – is somewhat sanitised, at least the reader is left with a sense of the kinds of shows Astaire was in and the kinds of dances he performed. We find out about his influences, his imagination, his friends, and it's illuminating about life in vaudeville in early-twentieth-century America.

Fred AstaireOnce we flip to the movies, however, it's a different matter. Most people would consider Astaire's seminal work to be in the films of the mid-1930s, such as Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance, but his discussion of these works is dull and cursory. I wanted to know more about how the cast, director, composer and designer was chosen for each film; how Astaire determined details of the choreography; what he really thought about each of them. But instead, all we get is such a distant, empty description of each film that one almost wonders at times if Astaire was there – and his references to directors, co-stars and so on are so blandly positive that there's little to be gained from the discussions. Nor is his writing style particularly lively or elegant, unlike his dancing. I did enjoy the description of his activities in Europe during the war; here, emotion finally creeps in. And his discussion of his wife, whom he loved dearly, is touching. But on the whole, it's a disappointment to find that the memoir of one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century is almost as full of anecdotes about horse racing and breeding as it is about making the musical films for which he's remembered.

Frustrated, then, I moved on to Joseph Epstein's study with trepidation, not least after having read a number of damning customer reviews on Amazon.com. Thankfully, my experience was the opposite of most others'. The consensus seems to be that this book serves very badly as a biography of the dancer and relies heavily on earlier accounts of his life. But I'm sorry, it's clear from Epstein's text that he's not even remotely trying to create a biography: what he's trying to do is to sum up, in a nutshell, why Fred Astaire continues to fascinate and concern us as an icon. 'Whence derived Fred Astaire his sublimity, his magic?' asks Epstein in his introduction, going on to add: 'That is the great, happy question at the centre of this little book.'

In other words, the author is aware that this is a little book, and his ambition is merely to lay out in twelve chapters the essence of Fred Astaire's magic. He's not trying to reveal new factual evidence since, as he readily admits, what little there is to be had has already been repeated many times. Nor is he trying to create a compendium or encyclopaedia, since he feels – quite rightly – that John Mueller's Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (1985) and Larry Billman's Fred Astaire: A Bio-Bibliography (1997) have already exhausted those needs. Instead, this is a special kind of analysis: of stardom and celebrity; of what art means to us; and of what makes great people special.

The chapters each deal with a different aspect of Astaire's life, art or reception. It's refreshing how happy he is to deal with the major issues in a head-on yet concise way: how it became odd that Fred and Adele played opposite each other as romantic leads (with him playing Roxanne and her playing Cyrano at one point); how Astaire was an unusual screen idol in being 'peculiar looking' yet utterly romantic; Astaire's strengths and limitations compared to Gene Kelly, the other major movie musical dancer of the period; the semiotics of Astaire's wardrobe; his disinclination to reveal details of his private life to the public; and how the reluctant pairing of Astaire and Rogers made for the greatest period of his films, before he went on to partner various other major screen dancers with far less success.

I love how Epstein has answers to many of these issues or problems, even when I don't necessarily feel convinced by some of them. I love how he manages to remain reverentially affectionate towards Astaire whilst at the same time appearing to be rational and distant. And I couldn't resist the wittiness of the many totally irrelevant asides in the text, such as '[Cyd Charisse] had sublime legs and a rather immobile face, detached and distant, with perfect features that somehow suggested depth (a suggestion completely wiped out by her choosing to marry the singer Tony Martin, a man whose vanity far exceeds his talent)' or 'Although when required he could sing and dance to 'Night and Day' (the beat, beat, beat of those damn tom-toms) and went in for a bit of 'Dancing in the Dark', he did best dancing as energetic joyous, honest delight. Ginger, as the name suggests, provided the perfect seasoning.' It sounds so silly, and yet there's something strikingly profound about it all; and it's delivered so entertainingly that it's the sort of book, as the cliché goes, that you really don't want to put down.

What intrigued me from the musical point of view was Epstein's discussion of music and singing in the eleventh chapter. I've never before read such a nuanced, accurate description of Astaire's vocal ability and interpretative subtlety, yet it's all done in layman's language. Epstein talks about Astaire's ability to project a song; about his crisp diction; and, most vitally of all, about the song process in an Astaire movie, namely the seamless flow from dialogue to semi-speech to full singing. We're also reminded that Astaire's very different approach to singing – completely unlike the tenor voice of popular songs from operettas that preceded him – meant that American song could grow into something more vernacular.

In short, this is a highly readable book, and although you should look elsewhere for details and facts, Epstein manages to capture the essence of Astaire quite brilliantly. I think Astaire's own account of his life is more for the die-hard fan, however.

By Dominic McHugh

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