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 – Noël 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.
Over the next eight years the Astaires consolidated their position as theatre superstars, reproducing on Broadway the magic of their London debut. But then suddenly, in 1932, it was over. In a move that neatly symbolised 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.
The Astaires – or the Austerlitzes to give them their real name – have in the past been described as mid-Western and middle-class. Riley's careful foraging, however, reveals a family background far less corn-fed. Their mother was a first-generation German while their father had been born in Vienna to a Jewish family that had pragmatically turned Catholic. Fritz Austerlitz had fetched up in Omaha as a beer salesman, a job that fitted neatly with his growing alcoholism. It was to find a way out of this cramping existence that ambitious Mrs Austerlitz put her daughter on the stage. And since her little boy seemed to have a certain physical wit, he too was enrolled at the local dance school. Within a few years Adele and her sidekick Fred were supporting the family, sending home money to their father in a tactful recognition that he was no longer able to look after himself, let alone them.
That Adele and Fred were able to do this by the time they were barely out of their teens was all down to their extraordinary art. But what that art was exactly is hard to know. While from the mid 1930s we can see Fred's performances on film, there is no moving image of Fred and Adele together, or Adele on her own. And it is this absence of evidence, and the narrative problems it presents, that lie at the heart of Riley's thoughtful investigation. Her book is in part a meditation on the impossibility of capturing a performance, or series of performances, that happened 80 years ago. You can quote from the critics, you can scour letters and diaries for the reactions of people who were in the audience, but you will always be left with a gap, an absence at the heart of your story. Just what it was that made Adele quite so extraordinary will never, finally, quite be clear. All we have is what came after, those amazing recorded performances of her brother making magic with other female dancers.
Oxford University Press