Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Astaires" by Kathleen Riley

Review by Kathryn Atwood

Fred Astaire is permanently recorded in our collective consciousness only because his electrifying dance routines were cinematically preserved. Delving just a little below that celluloid image immediately reveals a biographical surprise: before Astaire and Rogers there was Astaire and Astaire – Fred and his sister Adele -- a pair who rose together through the ranks of American vaudeville to become mega-stars on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The study of Fred and Adele Astaire is an important in the history of pop culture, not only because it helps us understand Fred, the film star, but also because the team of Astaire and Astaire was an absolute phenomenon in its day. 

Not one moment of their wildly successful partnership was preserved on film and here is the irony of Astaire and Astaire: a complete biography of Fred must include mention of Adele – generally considered to be the more naturally talented of the two siblings -- and yet when considering this duo, there is nothing visual for us to grasp hold of: all that remains of the partnership are a few publicity shots and what can be imagined from the written testimony of those who witnessed them in action.

Kathleen Riley has combined reams of this testimony (not to mention publicity stills) with all the biographical facts at her disposal to write the first – aside from one children’s book -- dual history of the siblings who were born Adele and Fred Austerlitz. Her narrative traces their Midwestern origins all the way to the end of their lives, painting a detailed picture of everything in between: their youthful days in vaudeville, their Broadway stardom, their conquest of London society, and their professional split, revealing how each sibling was affected by the other at every juncture (the inclusion of transcripted later interviews of both siblings is wonderfully illuminating on this score).

When Riley sticks to narration, the story of the Astaire siblings is told in a lovely, thorough, and relatively clear manner but when she steps forward and attempts to elucidate, she utilizes a puzzling style, quoting entire poems in a highly non-sequitur fashion and utilizes phrases such as:

n      “a complex ethos exposed with elegiac lyricism”
n      “the elegant apotheosis of Jewish cosmopolitanism”
n      “the ‘tinpantithesis’ of Aeolian Hall”
n      “the anarchic coexistence, in one, sweetly brazen figure, of a seeming mass of bewitching, opalescent contradictions”
n      “Terpsichorean”

Well, perhaps that last one can be forgiven since Fred speaks the word himself -- tongue in cheek, of course -- in the film "The Gay Divorcee" but The Astaires contains entire paragraphs -- nay, pages -- that could be easily excised without interrupting the biography's narrative flow, the only remotely negative result being that Riley would have lost an opportunity to exhibit her classical education (she refers to herself as a classics scholar in the book's introduction and on the back cover which apparently explains everything . . . and nothing). While the book was published by a university press, arguably giving Riley an automatic green light for her questionable style, a compelling argument for something a bit less elaborate for this particular subject is that Fred Astaire is universally loved, hence his biography belongs to the world, not only to those who believe poetry can be used to explain anything and who enjoy communicating with densely ornamental language.

However, when Riley lets the facts -- especially contemporary testimony -- speak without interruption, one can almost catch a glimpse of the magic that was once this pair of brilliantly talented siblings and for that reason, The Astaires is an important addition to the canon of pop culture history.

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