Astaire: The Biography by Tim Satchell - review by Patrick Taylor-Martin

Patrick Taylor-Martin

Mickey Mouse of Tap Dance

Astaire: The Biography


Hutchinson 309pp £12.95 order from our bookshop

Philip Larkin used to say say that his favourite jazz set his toes tapping and his shoulders heaving. It was never easy to imagine that large and ponderous man in such an attitude but one saw what he meant. As for Fred Astaire, none but the most resolutely earthbound can have seen or heard him without, at the very least, trying to dance up the wall. Fred’s perfect sense of timing and his wonderful rhythmic wit makes him that most attractive contradiction in terms: a timeless period piece.

He was always a superbly effortless performer, despite the amazing pains he took to get it right. Alexander Woollcott said he was ‘one of those extraordinary persons whose rhythm and humour have got all mixed up, whose very muscles, of which he seems to have an extra supply, are downright facetious’. For Graham Greene, Astaire was ‘the nearest approach we are ever likely to have to a human Mickey Mouse … He belongs to a fantasy world almost as free as Mickey’s from the law of gravity’. Unlike his later rival, Gene Kelly, he had no interest in the theory of dance. While Kelly worried about the meaning of a routine, Astaire was content simply to have ‘beat hell out of the floor’.

His relationship with Ginger Rogers, co-star in the great films of the thirties, was famously difficult. He could not come to terms with either her costumes – particularly the blue feather number she wore when they sang ‘Cheek to Cheek’ in Top Hat – or her general slackness. Mr Satchell sums up the situation neatly: ‘there is little doubt that Fred hated her’. Of course, it was part of Fred’s skill to make any partner look the business. On screen, there was a remarkable chemistry between them – and Fred, the complete professional, was aware of it, or they would not have made so many films together. One critic said that he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. He had a point.

If Ginger was never quite a lady, Fred was always a gent. He dressed impeccable, drove a small black Rolls Royce and mixed in the best circles. He was popular with English audiences from the time he first appeared in London, with his sister Adele, in Stop Flirting in 1923. The smart set were particularly taken with the show. Sacheverell Sitwell took Georgia Doble to see it on their first date. The Prince of Wales and his brothers came many times and invited the Astaires out to private suppers. Fred’s eyes took in every detail of the Prince’s clothes and the Prince’s eyes took in every detail of Adele.

Adele, in fact, never really did stop flirting. Cecil Beaton was only one of the more unlikely men to whom she generously gave a good time. She eventually married Lord Charles Cavendish, the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, and set up house with him at Lismore Castle – a far cry, as Mr Satchell likes to remind us, from the little house in Omaha, Nebraska where she and her brother were born, the children of a short order chef turned travelling salesman. The formidable Duchess Evelyn shared Mr Satchell’s sense of surprise, though she eventually grew quite fond of her lively daughter-in-law.

Adele and her mother quickly adapted themselves to the manners of the English aristocracy, though Adele forced them to accept her on her own terms. She once explained her late arrival at some country ball by shouting to her anxious husband from the stairs: ‘Oh Charlie, don’t be like that. I’ve only been thinking of you: I’ve been clipping my bush into a heart shape’. Her husband was an engagingly rackety character who, after a point to point accident as a young man, was rarely seen without a glass in his hand. He died young of cirrhosis of the liver.

Fred, on the other hand, died peacefully at the age of eighty-eight. He smoked moderately, drank moderately and ate simply – his favourite foods were steak, salad and ice cream. His favourite pleasures were golf, horse racing and backgammon. He also liked reading detective stories, and even enjoyed a night out with the police, riding round in a prowl car. He was a lifelong Republican an enjoyed the company of President Reagan. He had many women friends but was never a womaniser. After his first wife died in 1954, he remained a widower until, at the age of eighty-one, he married the girl jockey, Robyn Smith, forty-three years his junior. When Fred announced his intentions to Adele, she said: ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

Fred, of course, knew what he was doing – he always did. For Mr Satchell, he can do no wrong. He has written a thorough and workmanlike biography of his hero. His prose, it must be said, is a good deal less lightfooted than his subject. He might have pruned the clichés more rigorously and he is a little too fond of the word ‘elegant’ – he even describes the magnificent Baroque chapel at Chatsworth as ‘elegantly pretty’. But all in all, it is a job well done. Still, one wonders whether Fred really needs a biography – the films an records say everything that needs to be said. Anyone whose heart has not been lifted a little by the sound of Fred singing ‘Isn’t It a Lovely Day’ or ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ has no business reading the book – or, for that matter, this review.

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