Fred Astaire

By Joseph Epstein

Yale University Press

224 pp.



$22


Reviewed by Paula Marantz Cohen


I've spent lots of time trying to persuade people that Fred Astaire was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Well, I can finally stop trying and give them Joseph Epstein's

Fred Astaire

, the latest release in the Yale University Press Icons of America series. Epstein, formerly editor of The American Scholar, has had a long career as a cultural critic. Now, he has made the case on behalf of Fred Astaire as eloquently as one could hope.

Astaire was a great performer and a simple man. There is no dirt to be unearthed here, no unsavory elements of personality, no infelicities of taste or manners. Astaire devoted himself to his craft (not just executing those fabulous routines, but choreographing them with his collaborator, Hermes Pan). Otherwise, he was committed to his wife, fond of his friends, devoted to his children, and partial to a game of golf. He seems to have exuded the same genial simplicity and stylish ease in his personal life that he projected in his movies.

Epstein quotes Yeats - "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" - and concludes that we can't. Yet his book is a graceful effort to tease apart the strands that made up this phenomenal talent. Epstein is not pretending to the sort of critical analysis one will find in John Mueller's voluminous

Astaire Dancing

, which took eight years to write, or dance critic Arlene Croce's

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book

.

Unlike these books, Epstein's is directed at the uninitiated as much as to the seasoned enthusiast. Indeed, he has done on the page what Astaire did on screen. He has taken something rather slight - in this case, an act of homage, unencumbered by exhaustive analysis or cumbersome footnotes - and made it sparkle.

Chapters address the subject in an improvisational way yet hit all the right notes. There's an opening riff on Astaire's first partner, his sister Adele: "beautiful, effortlessly talented, candid, one of those rare women who could be attractively coarse. She was the perennial live wire, highest possible altitude and voltage." Never quite as serious about dance as her brother, Adele parlayed their early triumph on the London stage into marriage with a British aristocrat.

There's a chapter on Astaire's sartorial style. Clothes, Epstein writes, "went a long way toward making Astaire, though in his case the man also helped make the clothes." He evokes Astaire's style through descriptive detail (the sports jackets: "pliant, richly textured, and buttery soft"), entertaining anecdote (Astaire would throw his new Savile Row suits against the wall before he wore them "to get that stiff squareness out"), and well-turned observation ("He was one of the few men who could wear a porkpie hat and not seem a perfect doofus"). Whatever Astaire wore, it was, notes Epstein, "ready to be danced in on sudden notice."

There's a chapter on Astaire, the dancer, whom all the great classical dancers - from Diaghilev to Baryshnikov - extolled for his physical musicality and assimilated technique. And there's a lively comparison of Astaire with "the other guy," Gene Kelly, that revisits the familiar contest between elegance and athleticism ("The only article they had in common was the toupee").

There's a roundup chapter on Astaire's partners, followed by one devoted entirely to Ginger Rogers. Physically, Rogers fitted Astaire perfectly, being neither too tall, like Cyd Charisse, nor too small, like Jane Powell. She had a zest and effervescence that complemented his casual elegance and dry humor. That she was not as well trained in dance as some of his subsequent partners made her more willing to mold herself to his style - to let him lead, as it were. She was, in addition, a great actress, able to perform that most difficult of feats: looking authentic while being crooned to.

Epstein is particularly good on Astaire's singing, giving us a slew of testimonials from the greatest songwriters of the day. "You gave Astaire a song," noted Irving Berlin, "and you could forget about it. He knew the song. He sang it the way you wrote it. He didn't change anything. And if he did change anything, he made it better." We learn that George Gershwin's last word on his deathbed was "Astaire."

In a book full of sprightly opinions, there are bound to be some with which to disagree. Here are my quibbles: Epstein is dismissive of Rogers in the 1949

The Barkleys of Broadway

, her last film with Astaire, made for MGM 10 years after completing their dazzling run at RKO. But I love that movie, which I see as a profound commentary on the difficulties of marriage. What Epstein calls the "thicker" Rogers in

Barkleys

strikes me as simply the more mature - and no less beautiful for that.

Epstein says he finds Astaire's use of a tie for a belt affected; I beg to differ. Does he know that it was a style borrowed from the Prince of Wales? I once met a British gentleman who told me all the boys at Eton of his era didn't own belts but wore ties instead.

And one small clarification: Epstein notes that Adele Astaire once responded to a slur against Lilli Palmer for being Jewish by claiming that she was Jewish, too. Epstein implies this was simple gallantry. But a recent genealogy of the Astaire family reveals Astaire's paternal grandfather to have been an Austrian Jew who later converted to Christianity.

Writing about Fred Astaire is like trying to write about sunshine or fog. Epstein manages, somehow, to do it - to grasp the ineffable. What's more, his book makes you want to do one thing: Watch a Fred Astaire movie as soon as you possibly can.

Paula Marantz Cohen (cohenpm@drexel.edu) is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University.