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Book review: The Astaires: Fred & Adele

Kathleen Riley’s new biography of the Astaire siblings shines light on Fred’s arguably more talented sister

By Kathryn Hughes  /  The Guardian, London

The Astaires: Fred & Adele, by Kathleen Riley.

Although their first film, Flying Down to Rio, had been a smash, Fred Astaire was adamant that he didn’t want to be teamed with Ginger Rogers for their follow-up. It wasn’t that Astaire didn’t like Rogers—he had dated her briefly when they had both been hoofers on Broadway—but as he said in an uncharacteristically strident letter to his agent in early 1934: “I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.”

That earlier partnership had been with Adele Astaire, his older sister by three years. Starting as a child act on the vaudeville circuit, supporting flame-throwers and performing seals, the Astaires had developed into slick, serviceable “dancing comedians”. Their big break came in 1923 when they appeared in Stop Flirting on Shaftesbury Avenue. Although the piece hadn’t been tailor-made, it played to their strengths. Songs by Gershwin showcased the brother and sister’s musicality without demanding huge vocal range, while the routines choreographed by Fred were perfect for their combination of loose elegance and pep. The London critics pronounced themselves not so much charmed by the Astaires’ performance as winded by it. There had, spluttered one, been “nothing like them since the Flood.”

It was Adele, though, who really shone. Her pixie quickness, boneless body and large, amusing face was the antithesis of blousy showgirl glamour. Credited with putting “all the flap into flapperdom,” Adele raced about the London stage like an exquisite hoyden, managing always to keep in strict rhythm. Acknowledged as the better dancer of the two, she instinctively produced effects that Fred had to practice in the wings. She had, too, an older-child confidence that allowed her to work the audience with a quick and dirty wit while her little brother stood bashfully by. Straight men—PG Wodehouse, George Bernard Shaw—wanted to marry her, while gay men—Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton—wanted to be her. Bisexuals, such as Prince George who saw the show scores of times, wanted both things at once, but had to be content with writing her long, infatuated letters.

Publication Notes

The Astaires: Fred & Adele

By Kathleen Riley

266 pages

Oxford University Press

Hardcover: US


Over the next eight years the Astaires consolidated their position as theater superstars, reproducing on Broadway the magic of their London debut. But then suddenly, in 1932, it was over. In a move that neatly symbolized the way the pair had used their chic modernity to conquer the British establishment, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the Duke of Devonshire and retired to Lismore Castle in Ireland. Left to try Hollywood alone, Fred put down his elegantly-shod foot (he had picked up a Savile Row habit in London) about this whole business of being partnered with Ginger Rogers. His reluctance was to do with the fact that no one could ever match Delly. The fact that the movie moguls insisted that their new signing would be partnered with Ginger whether he liked it or not speaks volumes about the industry’s perception that without his sister, or someone a bit like her, Fred was nothing more than a goofy-looking, slightly sexless, already veteran vaudevillian.

In this sprightly book whose every sentence shines with the author’s love of her dual subjects, Kathleen Riley writes Adele back into the story of her brother. A relationship that usually gets squashed into the first three or four chapters of a standard Fred Astaire biography is now given a whole book. This also allows Riley to explore in detail the rich bank of dance practice from which Fred’s later work emerged. The Astaires together laid down a library of beats, taps and turns from which Fred would go on to make some of the most sublime physical art of the 20th century.

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