The Private Life of Fred Astaire — Part 1 (1935) 🇺🇸

Fred and Adele Astaire |

February 13, 2022

The real facts — from noodle soup to his great romance — about the shyest star of all.

by Frederick Lewis

Neckties get Fred Astaire down. He has as many of them as Bill Powell has hats — which, the last time I looked into Bill’s closet, was fifty, and probably is a hundred by now.

But there is a difference between Fred’s ties and Bill’s hats, a difference other than color and shape. Fred wears his ties. Bill doesn’t wear his hats. He just collects them as another nut might collect Napoleana or Americana or Hollywoodana. They’re museum pieces, Bill’s hats, all except the old gray one he has always worn and always will wear — and that’s sort of a museum piece, too.

Fred’s ties, on the other hand, are in continual circulation. He can only wear one at a time — such is the silly rule! — but he sometimes tries on as many as fifteen before he finds that one. And then, just for good measure, he ties the runner-up around his middle as a belt.

He probably got the idea from his pal, the Prince of Wales. Davy has a suit for every day in the year — and many a time he refuses to go to the royal sewing circle because he really hasn’t anything to wear!

But, back to Fred.

When in New York, Fred did his neckties daily dozen in a big, sunny, mannish bedroom, the walls of which were littered with pictures of famous race horses. The bedroom couldn’t very well help being sunny because it was in a penthouse on the roof of 875 Park Avenue. It wasn’t as big a penthouse as the late Ivar Kreuger’s, and it didn’t have a tree growing up in the middle of it. But Fred’s penthouse was plenty big enough to house him and his ties, and in the pre-altar days, his mother and his sister.

It can hardly be said that they lived extravagantly, considering that Fred and his sister were getting $4,000 a week from Ziegfeld in 1931. But to appreciate the causes for the simple tastes of the Astaires, it is necessary to go back to the beginning, to Omaha. Now I am not going to tell you much of Fred’s early life, for you must already have read that since his climb to movie fame. But a sort of broad outline of Freddie from Omaha to Hollywood can do no harm.

In character and career, Fred Astaire may seem to resemble the bubbling effervescence of champagne rather than the slow, heavy foaming of the humbler beer. But Fred’s father was a brewer; and prohibition — Nebraska being a state where they take such things seriously — ruined his business; and so fat little Freddy and his talented sister had to “take steps” to retrieve the family fortunes.

We should drink to Mr. Volstead then, we admirers of the man who has made the nation dance-conscious, because it was the much abused Eighteenth Amendment and the still more abused Volstead Law that gave us Fred Astaire.

Of course, as all the world should know by now, his name wasn’t Astaire but Austerlitz. Why the change from Germany to France, nobody knows. But when the dancing pair finally appeared at a Winter Garden Sunday Night Concert in New York, Monday morning critics did solemnly comment on “the Parisian chic of the young Astaires.”

Of course, Delly and Freddy didn’t make the Winter Garden in one jump. As a matter of fact, they didn’t make anywhere for some time, except the local dancing school, where brown-eyed Freddy was known as “that talented Austerlitz girl’s little brother.”

Subsequently, Mother Astaire brought her two “Nebraska golliwoggles “ to New York. She still had enough money to pay for dancing lessons: and she believed in going to one school for one kind of step and to another for another. That’s how so many dancing masters are now able to stick out their heaving chests and say, with some show of truth:

“I taught Fred Astaire.”

One dancing teacher did do something for the kids. That was Ned Wayburn. Ned wrote their first one-act skit, “A Rainy Saturday.” It was while they were doing this act at a charity entertainment, when Fred was a little less than eight and Adele was a little more than nine, that Martin Beck, head of the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, is said to have offered them thirty weeks in the sticks on the two-a-day. “Two-a-day!” exclaimed Sister Adele, in recalling those early troupings. “Pollyanna was a pessimist compared with the humorist who first called vaudeville the two-a-day. Two-a-day for us would have meant that the theater had burned down in the middle of the afternoon.”

Behind the gayety with which both Astaires now speak of those first struggles lie years of draughty little vaudeville houses in Western one-horse towns, all-night journeys in stuffy day coaches, meals, if any, in greasy, one-arm lunchrooms — and two forlorn youngsters in their early teens, who hoped for some better spot than the “opener” on vaudeville bills. They had great courage, those two.

At last, the break came — or so they thought. Their act was booked, for a solid week at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theater in New York, where Douglas Fairbanks was the headliner. Of course, they opened the bill. They expected that. But they didn’t expect to get their notice after the first performance on Monday afternoon. But when Freddy, who was business manager as well as dance originator and ballet master, went around to the theater office to ask why the act was cancelled he got his answer in four words: “Because it was terrible!”

Six weeks later, they were on Broadway again, really on Broadway, filling a featured spot in Ed Wynn’s “Over the Top.”

“That,” commented Freddy as he told the story, “is show business.”

Whatever it was, Fred Astaire had his chance, at last, to show the show-shop world “the feet that can talk and sing.”

After “Over the Top” came “The Passing Show,” “Apple Blossoms,” “The Love Letter,” “The Bunch and Judy,” and “Round the Town” — then “For Goodness Sake,” Europe and the Grand Slam!

It was in London that Fred began to pull away, artistically I mean, from his popular madcap sister. Perhaps it was a case of the prophet and his own country. Anyhow, when Fred Astaire sailed away from New York, he was considered by all but a few of the most discriminating as just another snappy hoofer; when he arrived in London, he was immediately hailed as a master.

“Mr. Astaire is an actor from the knees down... his ankles articulate ecstasy or despair... every footflicker tells a story... his laughing eyes... his smile, illuminated by intelligence... an impish soul in an Every-man’s body... feet that tell a love story... comedian... a man of the world... commanding all the secrets of caressing... the gallery rose to frenzy... in the stalls, the women by their glances betokened beatitude...”

But to get back to 875 Park Avenue. Mother Astaire was a wise woman. She had Omaha ideas. Adele used to say that her mother only allowed her a hundred dollars a week out of her $2,000, even though she, Adele, was thirty-one when she quit. I imagine Mother pursued more of a hands-off policy with the man of the house — it’s still a man’s world, especially with mothers — but she was certainly no playgirl when it came to household expenses.

There was Mandy, last name unknown, who served as general, colonel and major factotem. Mandy’s chief job was to answer the telephone, and say nothing. Delly’s maid was Louize Lux, presumably of the well known Suddsy Luxes of Hollywood and points East. Louise’s motto was “Keep the pretties clean.” Tom Gisborn ran the Rolls Royce. That was a little something that got by Ma! In fact, it got by everybody the way Tom drove it.

Tom led a hard life. His boss was always getting away from him. Once he glanced back in the traffic on Fifth Avenue in front of the Public Library and found the back seat absolutely Astaireless. Tom was puzzled. He knew that the boss’s reading was confined within closely charted limits: detective pulps and racing form sheets. Fred was not one to while away an afternoon browsing about the library. But Tom had been caught with his back door open before He eased his big boat up to the curb, and waited.

And waited! Finally, the “young master” emerged from Woolworth’s on the Fortieth Street corner munching something which he had extracted with difficulty from a paper bag. He had spent an hour and three quarters in the Five-and-Ten, and all he’d bought was a bag of popcorn.

Fred is that way about stores; but usually it’s hardware stores. He likes to wander around them and try out the new gadgets — he’s probably looking for a necktie-chooser — but he seldom buys anything himself. Before his marriage, his mother bought even his ties.

I never knew him to go wild on pop-corn before, but he has a sweet tooth. He used to send Walter out for vanilla ice cream on matinee days at five o’clock, when, if he were as English as some people think he is, he’d be having tea. Fred’s favorite viand, as you may have read, is noodle soup. But, of course, he didn’t send Walter out for that at five in the afternoon; not because he wouldn’t gladly eat it then — he’d eat it for breakfast — but because he knew Walter couldn’t find the kind he liked in any of the Forty-second Street soup kitchens. Freddy’s noodles must be flat and broad like his neckties, the kind of noodles he used to get at Alfredo’s in Rome.

Walter, as you may have gathered, is Fred’s dresser, valet, handy-man, errand-boy and butt. He is of the same color persuasion as Mandy and Louise, but he has a much harder time. His master has a quick temper and a quicker sense of humor, and Walter never knows when he is going to run afoul of one or the other. Of the two, he’ll take the temper any day. It is less of a strain on the Ethiopian mentality.

Walter causes Fred plenty of trouble, too. Five times he has been to Europe, and five times he has had to be sent back home — for no other reason than that he was lonesome for the Cotton Club of dear old Lenox Avenue.

“The world to Walter,” his master once said, “is Harlem surrounded by a lot of unimportant territory.”

But Fred doesn’t dare fire Walter, for the dresser is the only human being who knows where the Bridgeport bath robe is kept. On the first night of every show and the first day of the shooting of every picture, Walter solemnly produces this funny old red-and-green dressing gown, which Fred bought many years ago in Bridgeport, Connecticut. During that night or day, Fred dutifully wears it. Neither acknowledges the incident by word or look. It is not considered good form. Then, Walter, solemnly packs the robe away, and nobody sees it again until it is time for it to be dragged once more out of the woodwork.

This sort of thing has been going on for about fifteen years, during which Fred has had many more successes than failures, so, although he insists he isn’t superstitious, he’d kind of hate to open without the bathrobe — and Walter.

The brightest spot in the latter’s life are days when he is mentioned in the papers. For instance, this — with an accompanying description of Fred’s dressing room during the run of “The Band Wagon” — from the late Graffic:

“Over at the New Amsterdam, one flight up, you find Fred Astaire tenanting the star’s quarters.

“You are apt to find a Whitney or a Vanderbilt in Astaire’s place. The youthful dancing star claims most of the younger social set as bosom pals, or, perhaps I should twist that around and point out that they claim him.

“Fred’s droll colored dresser provides a lighter note for the guests here, providing he knows them. If he likes them, he will even go out of the theater to get them a glass of Fred’s favorite after-performance beverage, milk.”

This “quote,” although substantially accurate, omits one or two characteristic details about Fred’s dressing room at the New Amsterdam. On the dressing table, in a prominent position, stood the china horse and jockey with which a grateful management presented him the night he opened in “Funny Face.” Above the mirror, also in a prominent position, was the sign, “No singing”or dancing around this dressing room.” And stuck in the side of the mirror, were invariably to be found a collection of magazines and newspaper clippings — showing that the boy is human, and does care what people say about him! — a postcard or two, and always a cable from Europe telling of the condition or performances of his prize colt, Nick the Greek.

Fred had become by 1931 a real figure in the racing world. Besides Nick the Greek, he owned Mavis, Objection, High Hat and Topsy Turvy. In England Nick was consistently successful, and crowned his noble career by bringing home the buff-and-blue Astaire colors in front of the rich Glasgow Plate. Fred sold all the horses when his American engagements began to make his stays in England shorter and rarer; but if he ever starts to race his own stable at Santa Anna, he’ll show Hollywood some race horses that are race horses. Fred knows. It has cost him a lot to find out. But he does know.

He knows about dogs, too. Adele had five in “The Band Wagon” period: a golden retriever and a Dachshund in London, and two West Highlanders and a Scotty in New York. She called the Dachshund Freddy, because he looked like her brother. Fred himself had about a dozen of assorted breeds. At one time the Astaire family had over twenty.

”Puppies were always expected,” Fred explained, “which made life very interesting.”

Dog days continued in the Astaire family, even after Fred’s marriage to Phyllis Potter. Phyllis’ cocker spaniel, Scamp, won at this year’s show in San Francisco.

You might know!

If Phyllis Astaire had a dog, it would be a prize-winner. She’s the blue ribbon type.

“The Band Wagon” was the last show Fred and Adele did together, and there was “Lady Be Good” and “Funny Face” in between, not to mention, out of respect for the dead, Mr. Ziegfeld’s wry “Smiles.”

“Lady Be Good” — remember the song of that name! — was another “For Goodness Sake,” only immeasurably better. The Astaires took this show to England, too, after its run on Broadway, and duplicated, perhaps even exceeded, their previous success. It was a heavy English joke during this period that whereas the Astaires’ first show had had almost as long a run as the British Museum, their second threatened to become a career.

Fred tells some swell stories about their European experiences, but characteristically they mostly featured Adele in the leading role. There was, for example, the classic one about Bernard Shaw.

“What do you think of actors? “ asked Adele in a desperate effort to make small talk with the most brilliant mind in Europe.

“Nothing,” replied Shaw. “If it wasn’t for us authors, there wouldn’t be any.”

Silence. Then Adele said with a meekness she seldom experienced:

“I’m a dancer, you know, Mr. Shaw.”

The Astaires became great friends with Shaw after that, and with John Galsworthy and Sir James Barrie, of “Peter Pan” and “What Every Woman Knows” fame, and Hugh Walpole, the novelist who recently helped adapt David Copperfield for the screen, and acted the part of the curate in that hugely successful production. But none of them — least of all, Fred Astaire — ever thought then of writing or acting for the movies.

As a matter of fact, the Fred Astaire of that day — it was about 1926 when he went abroad with “Lady Be Good” — was not a very likely candidate for cinematic honors. Sixteen years trooping, supported by means of doubtful frequency, had reduced the fat little boy of the Omaha period to a gangling lad of twenty-five, whose one hundred and thirty-four pounds were spread sparsely over five feet, nine inches of bones and joints. He had more of that sand-colored hair above his long, lantern-jawed face than he has now, but not enough to start a riot at a barber’s convention. He had the same large ears and the same curiously shaped head — like an inverted Bartlett pear — but somehow the ears and the head hadn’t gotten together then on such a good working basis. In short, he was no Rudolph Valentino.

Some years later, a wise observer said that Fred was physically a combination of Jimmy Walker and Ichabod Crane. Well, in 1922, he was definitely on the Ichabod side.

Nevertheless, he was already becoming something of a man of the world. He could play most games fairly well, especially golf. He had, as we have seen, acquired a racing stable, and sat up in bed every night after the show, reading the form sheets. He was ready to gamble on anything — and is now: if you don’t find him on the set, he’s shooting craps with the electricians in the alley outside. And he had already graduated from fifteen dollar ready-mades to the products of the best Bond Street tailors, plus monograms on his shirts, pajamas, dressing gowns and underwear.

Sister handled the society end in those days. Nobility, then royalty took her up — and Little Brother, as in the old Omaha dancing school period, went along to see her perform. Altogether, the two kids from the com belt did very well for themselves.

“Columbus may have danced with joy at discovering America,” unbent the London Times, “but how he would have cavorted had he also discovered Fred and Adele Astaire!”

It was during these long periods of residence abroad that Freddy Astaire acquired that English way of dressing and that slightly English way of talking which leads so many people, even native born Britishers, to take him for English-born.

Fred, who is just as American as you or I or the Mississippi River, thinks this is a great joke — on the British.

It isn’t a pose with Freddy, this hang-over from his protracted theatrical spree in England. Long before he went abroad, he had realized that the sloppy London style of tailoring was more becoming to his rangy type of chassis than the tight-fitting American style. And as for talking British, I dare any perfectly good American to stay four months in the British Isles, let along four years, without talking like a blooming Englisher.

It is interesting, though, that the English in the air did seep in so much deeper with Freddy than with his sister, who doesn’t look one bit English. (As a matter of fact, she looks amazingly like our new songbird of the screen, Lily Pons.) Frankly, the only thing British about Adele, except, of course, Lord Cavendish, is an English oath, which sounds simply devastating on her child-like lips. Incidentally, she used to play piccolo with those lips, but she had to give it up because it swelled them.

“Funny Face” was notable, not only because it derived its name from Fred Astaire’s brotherly characterization of his sister, but because in its music it was the fulfillment of a pledge made more than ten years before: that someday Fred Astaire would be starred in a George Gershwin musical show.

It sounds too good to be true — like some of those press agent yarns about Fred that come out of Hollywood — but it is true that George Gershwin, now America’s foremost composer but then a piano player in Remick’s Music House, was one of Fred Astaire’s earliest friends in New York, and it is highly probable that when gangling Fred went up to Tin Pan Alley to try out some new songs, he and George entered into some Horatio G. Alger agreement.

“Funny Face” was in 1927 and New York was catching up with London in its appreciation of the master. A more tangible evidence of the same thing was the fact already chronicled: that Florenz Ziegfeld, the greatest musical comedy impressario of them all, offered Fred and his sister $4,000 a week to star with Marilyn Miller in his ill-fated “Smiles.”

While some of these things were happening to Fred Astaire, his future dancing partner, Ginger Rogers, late of Independence, Missouri, was trying out a few new steps across the street in another Gershwin show, “Girl Crazy.” Ginger had just won a Charleston contest in Fort Worth, Texas, and had moved in on New York for a little professional training— first in the stage show at the Paramount with the then reigning maestro, Paul Ash, and later in “Top Speed” and the aforesaid “Girl Crazy” — and it is a mighty good thing she got it, because future events were already casting their shadows before them in the dressing room gossip at the New Amsterdam.

Delly, Ginger’s brown-eyed, black-haired predecessor as Fred’s dancing partner, was getting tired. It was fun to be the toast of two continents, to pick up her Vanity Fair and read that “without doubt the Astaires are the reigning family of Broadway,” to be kissed by Mr. and Mrs. John Galsworthy and have her hand held by Sir James Barrie, but what she really wanted was to have a good time. According to most standards, she had managed to have a fairly good one as she went along, but, after twenty years of nearly continuous trouping, she was hardly to blame for wanting to give up all her waking hours to the supposedly pleasanter things of life.

There wasn’t a drop of theatrical blood in either of the Astaires. They had gone on the stage because they had to, and had stayed there because it was the only way they knew to earn a living. They had never really been a part of the theater. As Adele used to say, “It was an acquired taste like olives.” Fred had a driving ambition to keep him going, the zeal to excel. If he had been in the plumbing business, he’d have felt the same urge. Adele had none of that. It was common gossip that she wanted to quit.

She had had plenty of opportunities to do so. The British peerage, as we have seen, had fallen en masse. Since her triumphant return to this country, American millionaires had been equally precipitate. It was a dull month when Adele wasn’t reported engaged. There was William Gaunt, Jr., who went broke, allegedly because he was paying more attention to Adele Astaire than to his financial affairs. There was John Hay Whitney, angel of Technicolor, with whom marriage seemed any day imminent. (She ended up by being a bridesmaid at his wedding.) And there was the far-famed Billy Leeds.

Billy, as all the world once knew, was married to Princess Xenia of Greece. In fact, the Leedses, mother and son, married a considerable segment of the Greek royal family, only to have Greece go a republic on them. Then, when Billy was all washed up with royalty, he bought himself a series of fast-going yachts. Things were always happening on Billy’s yachts. You remember what happened to our own Claire Windsor! But the nearest to a fatality happened to that delectable imp, Delly Astaire.

A few weeks after their engagement was rumored in the Broadway and Park Avenue hot spots, Adele and Billy were speeding along the shore of Long Island in the latter’s new oil-burner, when something went wrong with the works. There was a fearful explosion, a geyser of burning oil, a blinding cloud of smoke and soot, and out of the reeking vapors, they pulled the bedraggled body of little Adele Astaire. Her head, face and shoulders were badly burned.

She was nearly thirty when all this happened to her, but she still had the body of a child. Only the summer before, she had been refused admission to the casino at Le Touquet because she was believed to be under-age, whereas an English sub-deb of seventeen, who was with her, was passed through the portals unquestioned. She never weighed more than a hundred and six pounds, and wore a size fourteen dress. The last day she reported at the theater, the old doorkeep muttered to his buddy:

“Miss Delly, she looks like a baby coming to her first day at the kindergarten.”

And now, so the Broadway wiseacres said, she would never act again. But the resources of modern medicine and surgery are inexhaustible when you can afford to tap them as Adele Astaire could. For a time she did retire from the public eye. Speculation became hot as to what Fred would do without her whether he could stand on his own ambling feet as an individual star. Then, suddenly, in the spring of 1931, Max Gordon astounded the theatrical world by announcing that he would present Fred and Adele Astaire in Howard Dietz’ and George Kaufman’s “The Band Wagon.”

This was the show Frank Morgan was in and also the attenuated Helen Broderick, who made such a comedy hit in “Top Hat.” Fred is great for taking his favorite people along with him. The two priceless Erics, Rhodes and Blore, were with him in the stage production of “Gay Divorcee” in the same parts they later played on the screen; and they, too, were with him in “Top Hat.”

In “The Band Wagon,” Adele was the same vivacious, electric personality she had always been. The difference was in Freddy.

When “Funny Face” was produced, there had been critical rumblings to the effect that the artistic pulling-away progress that we have already noted during their London performances was still proceeding apace. Neither brother nor sister could help it. They still danced together like “twin souls creating perfect harmony.” But the years of continuous practice on Fred’s part and the years of continuous refusal to practice on Adele’s part were beginning to tell.

Before every performance in all those twenty years, Fred Astaire had arrived early and had spent minutes, sometimes hours, limbering up his muscles, perfecting himself in his routines. Adele Astaire, after the first night of the show, never practiced. As a result, Fred had become by far the better dancer of the two. He was ready for a partner who would match his ambition with her ambition, his energy with her energy.

He was ready for Ginger Rogers.

“The Band Wagon” settled it, as we shall see. And the year that followed, as we shall also see, put the final seal on the brother-and-sister act of Fred-and-Adele Astaire.

Adele fell in love with a clerk in J. P. Morgan’s office, an upstanding young Englishman known thereabouts simply as Cavendish, but who turned out to be the son of the richest duke in the British Empire. And Fred — well, Fred found the only girl with whom he had ever thought he could find happiness. There was only one flaw in this situation so far as Fred was concerned. The “only girl” was married, very much married to another.

Don’t fail to read how Fred Astaire felt when he came to Hollywood and found out that few there had ever heard of him! You’ll learn about this and the many details of his personal life, never before published, in Photoplay for January.

Abroad he acquired that English way of dressing and talking that leads so many people to think of him as English-born.

At the ripe old age of six and seven Fred and Adele were cavorting in amateur theatricals in New York — like this!

Left, Fred and sister Adele when they were ten and eleven; center, a year later, when professional photographers came into their lives; right, at the ages of thirteen and fourteen, those difficult days of training, filled with school and dancing classes and the ever-present hope for a better “spot”.

The Midnight Ride of Robert Montgomery

It happened one night in old England. It was on a motorcycle, and Mr. Montgomery  was trying to keep both his seat and his dignity. But let Mr. Montgomery tell you in his own waggish words. It is just as lunatic as most of the roles Bob plays on the screen, and we don’t know of any other actor who would tell such a crazy story about himself. In the January Photoplay.

Source: Photoplay Magazine, December 1935