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Irene and Vernon Castle: Dancers

 

"The public of the nineties had asked for tunes to sing. The public of the turn of the century had been content to whistle. But the public from 1910 on demanded tunes to dance to." - Edward B. Marks, noted music publisher.

Our great-grandparents simply loved to dance to ragtime music. In fact, the high-water mark of popularity for ragtime coincided with the fabled "Dance Craze" of the 1910s. During this period the link between dancing and popular music became stronger than ever before, and more than a hundred new steps appeared between just 1912 and 1914. It was no longer enough to just sing, play, or sit and listen to a piece of music; for a tune to be a big "hit," you had to be able to dance to it. And at the core of this mania whirled the celebrated Irene and Vernon Castle.

Irene and Vernon Castle were undoubtedly the most famous ballroom dancers of their day, and while they did not invent social dancing, they were among the first to make a career of it. The Castles popularized many innovative dances, and their talents and public attitudes made them perfect symbols for the new generation. The public, accustomed to well-padded and stiff standards of personal appearance and carriage, found them exotically slim and "chic." Both were fine athletes. Vernon was tall and slightly built, and Irene willowy, boyish, and yet thoroughly feminine. Together they were a breath of air for a world stuck in the stodgy Edwardian mode. And their brief, almost incandescent career stands as a metaphor of an entire glittering, fragile world soon to be shattered by the horror of world war.

Despite Puritan disapproval, there had been dancing in America ever since Colonial days. A very formal code of propriety governed the types of dances and the behaviors of the dancers. The presentation of a ball was a serious social ritual with an intricate and highly formalized etiquette. But the 1890s arrival of ragtime and the dances that came with it (many with black origins) began to erode these rigid conventions in middle and upper class white America. This new music was intoxicating to dance to, since it featured a rhythmic conflict between its steady march beat (propelling the feet) pitted against an eccentric, syncopated melody above (swinging the arms and shoulders). Most late Victorians found it an electrifying reprieve from the antiquated waltzes, schottisches, and quadrilles they had grown up with. So ragtime spread, as did the fashion (and passion) for dancing to it.

By the 1910s, a plethora of new ragtime dances had supplanted the older cakewalk and two step. These included the so-called "Animal Dances": the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Chicken Scratch, the Grizzly Bear, the Kangaroo Kant (or dip), the Possum Trot, the Snake, the Crab Step, the Lobster Trot, and the Fox Trot. Shortly, the One Step and the Texas Tommy would also come into style. Because these dances were easy and simple, more people began dancing in more places than ever before. Restaurants, cabarets, "roof gardens," and specially built dancing clubs and ballrooms all catered to the fad. But while Americans spun giddily across the land, the Establishment - cultural leaders, social reformers, and bluenoses of various stripes - thundered its condemnation. This "old order" felt threatened by the conduct engendered by the new music and dances; they pointed out with relish (and quite correctly), the "sensuous nature" of it all and its obviously low origins in the bordello, honky-tonk, and other such unsavory places. In their minds, something clearly had to be done to save the nation from this corrupting influence. They applied heavy-handed methods first: legislation outlawing certain dance steps was pushed through, and a campaign to suppress ragtime music also mounted. But these tactics went nowhere. At last, the Establishment stumbled across an effective, subtler new "weapon": Irene and Vernon Castle. Here was young, wholesome, "modern" married couple who danced to syncopated music with grace and decorum without stifling the fun of it. The Establishment, seeing in them an opportunity to promote the and "proper" model for social dancing, quickly crowned the Castles the media darlings of the 1910s.

Irene Foote was born in 1893 to a well-to-do family in New Rochelle, NY, a town that was home to many famous New York show people at the turn of century. Young Irene admired the actors and actresses and their big houses, and determined at an early age to join their profession. To advance her dreams she took dancing lessons and began appearing in school and church productions. But these early show business aspirations came pretty much to naught. Vernon Castle Blythe was an Englishman, born in Norwich in 1887. A graduate of the School of Engineering of Birmingham University, he made his last name "Castle" to avoid confusion with his sister, actress Coralie Blythe. Vernon first visited United States in 1906 on vacation with his sister and her husband, noted British actor Laurence Grossmith (-). During this visit, he attended some of Grossmith's New York rehearsals, and was given a bit part to play. This episode whetted his appetite for the theatre. Vernon was tall (5Ő11") and painfully thin (118 pounds) - theater critics would describe him as "a soda straw with legs." He first appeared as a chorus-boy in musicals, where his long legs and flexibility as an eccentric dancer made him stand out. He quickly came to the attention of Lew Fields (-), a major producer and one half of famous music hall "Dutch" comedy team of Weber & Fields. Vernon spent five years under Fields' tutelage, honing his comedy skills, and became especially adept at the pratfall, which he reportedly somehow did with "grace and dignity." "Mr. Fields loved him like a son," according to Helen Hayes, who worked with both of them at the time. Gradually Vernon became a mainstay of Field's shows, and a fixture in Broadway musicals.

While vacationing in the summer of 1910 in New Rochelle, Vernon met a young woman in the pool at the Rowing Club. His first impressions of this girl, Miss Irene Foote, were not recorded, but Irene remembers being not at all impressed with him: "He was too thin," and "not the type I consider handsome." However, her interest perked up considerably when one of her friends mentioned that "the string bean" was in show biz: "My heart skipped a beat. My mind immediately began to make plans and weave schemes. I was meeting a real actor for the first time, and to further my excitement, he was associated with Lew Fields, one of the top names of the Broadway stage. I felt sure if Lew Fields could be persuaded to take one look at my dancing, my career would be on its way. " Her attitude thus changed, the two began seeing each other, and just like the script of the Broadway musical they would later star in, romance blossomed.

Not surprisingly, Vernon's close association with Lew Fields was soon used to promote his ambitious girlfriend's career. Irene first appeared on the stage in 1910 in a small bit in Fields' musical comedy The Hen Pecks. At this point, the couple had not yet struck upon the idea of forming a dance team; in fact, Fields had discouraged Vernon's previous dancing aspirations, explaining that he thought Vernon had more potential as a comedian. But after the couple's marriage in May 1911, they decided to put together a dance act, and demonstrate it for Mr. Fields. They did not however, make much of an impression on that crusty theatre veteran: during the Castle's audition he got up and left without a word. When Vernon tackled him later for comments, Fields simply said, "Who's going to pay to see a man dance with his wife?"

With their dance act shelved for the moment, Vernon was approached later that year by a French booking agent offering him a chance to perform comic sketches in a Parisian theatrical revue. The attraction of Paris was a powerful draw on the young newlyweds, so he readily accepted. On their arrival however, some unpleasant flaws with this engagement became apparent. The opening of the show was delayed several weeks, and Vernon was not paid during the wait. The Castles soon ran out of money. They would have actually gone hungry had it not been for Walter Ash, their American manservant, whose skill at craps (a game then new to the French) kept them all in groceries. When the show finally did open, conditions at the theatre were so bad that the couple quit within a short period. Scraping around for any kind of work, they managed to get a job as "exhibition" dancers at Louis Barraya's famous Café de Paris, an extremely fashionable and exclusive nightclub. Much to their amazement, at this first impromptu performance the Castles were a hit, and repeating this performance each night for several weeks, were soon the toast of Parisian high society. This fabulously successful stint at the Café quickly led to offers to dance at private gatherings of the wealthy and influential throughout Europe. It also attracted the attention of several powerful American theatrical figures. But in May 1912, Irene's father died, and so the couple left Paris to return to New York and her family.

On the strength of their successes in Europe, the Castles were engaged by the Café de l'Opera, a leading Manhattan nightspot, to recreate their Paris cabaret act. And it was here that they would become reacquainted with the person most responsible for bringing the Castles to world prominence: Elisabeth "Bessie" Marbury (1856- ). A celebrated literary and theatrical agent, Marbury represented such figures as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and a bit later, Jerome Kern. She was impressed by the couple's dancing, and was most pleased with the way they had toned down and refined the most shocking aspects of the Animal Dances. Miss Marbury - a defender of ballroom dancing - reasoned that this fresh young couple could be the effective counter-argument against those who condemned it as vulgar and corrupting. "Dancing" she wrote, " is first and foremost a healthful exercise; it is pleasure; and in it is an art that brings to the front courtesy, ease of manner, grace of body, and happiness of mind." As an esteemed member of New York's elite, Miss Marbury was able to introduce the Castles into high society. Marbury first found them engagements doing exhibitions at the private salons of the Goulds, Vanderbilts, Astors, and the like. Later she used her connections in the theatrical world to place the couple into Broadway shows, including the highly successful THE SUNSHINE GIRL in 1912.

By now, Irene and Vernon Castle were on their way to becoming as famous in America as they had been Europe. But part of their growing success had to do with another Europe, the black composer from Alabama by that name: James Reese Europe. Mr. Europe (1885-1919) was a talented and ambitious composer/conductor who had been active in theatre and dance music since 1900. Around 1910 he had founded the legendary "Clef Club" New York City's all black musicians' union. For some time after, Europe and his Society Orchestra were the leading purveyors of dance music for New York's elite. It was at just such a high society engagement that he met the Castles for the first time; they had been engaged to demonstrate to "the 400" some new steps. The Castles were deeply impressed with the way Jim Europe could find the perfect tempo for whatever dance they happened to be doing. He was so sympathetic and intuitive a dance conductor that they simply had to have him (and his musicians) all the time. As Irene recalled, Jim Europe's "was the only music that completely made me forget the effort of the dance." They appointed him their musical director in the fall of 1913. Soon, Europe began to write original music for them: the Castle House Rag, the Castle Perfect Trot, the Castle Half and Half (in 5/4 time!), the Castle Walk, Castles in Europe (fox trot), the Castle Lame Duck Waltz, the Castle Doggy Fox Trot, the Castle Classic Waltz, and several others. His fresh and extremely rhythmic music complemented the Castle's dancing perfectly, and inspired them to even greater invention. In return, James Reese Europe's association with the Castles gave him national prominence, and increased the popularity of black dance music and musicians.

The year 1914 was the apex of the Castles' short, brilliant career as America's most famous couple. In that year they invented the Fox Trot, a simple dance that almost anyone could master, and which quickly came to rule the nation's dance floors. They began to appear in Vaudeville, and for awhile were reputed to be its highest-paid act. It was also in 1914 that producer Charles B. Dillingham hired them to star in Irving Berlin's first musical comedy, WATCH YOUR STEP. The show, billed as the "First Syncopated Musical," was simply a vehicle for the Castle's dancing and Berlin's ragtime tunes. Naturally, it was a smash hit. But the high point of this amazing year was the Castle's "Whirlwind Tour" of America. The idea was to present the Castles demonstrating for large audiences the "correct" way to dance. Said Miss Marbury, "I believe that this tour will be a wonderful dance crusade that will elevate the standards of dancing all over the country." Theatres in thirty large cities were booked, over a tour spanning just twenty-eight days. To convey them from New York to Omaha, and thence to Washington D.C., Toronto, and points in between, the Castles engaged their own private Pullman train. They brought with them Mr. Europe and his Society Orchestra, as well as some good student dancers from the Castle House. In each city the theatres were packed, primarily with women, who came not only to watch the dances, but also to see what Irene was wearing! This tour culminated in a triumphant return performance at New York's Madison Square Garden, featuring not only an exhausted Irene and Vernon, but also finalists from dance contests they had sponsored around the country.

As dark war clouds gathered over Europe, America's attention remained more or less on the Castles. The adoring public had made them very rich, and they were now pop stars of the first magnitude. Not surprisingly, they became tremendously influential in matters of fashion as well. When Irene, ill with appendicitis, cut off her long hair, women across America followed suit: for the first time short, "bobbed" hair was "in." Likewise, when Irene shed her corsets and adapted simple, loose fitting dresses (the better to dance in), an upheaval in women's fashion followed. And so it went. At Bessie Marbury's prompting, the couple penned dozens of "how to" magazine articles on dancing, dance fashion and etiquette. They also produced a full-length book on the subject, called Modern Dancing, which showed Americans the "Castle Way," and denounced the Animal Dances as "ugly" and "ungraceful" and "out of fashion." They also appeared in several demonstration films and starred in a full-length feature called The Whirl of Life. The Castles became, as Arlene Croce has pointed out, pioneers of the modern mass-marketed "cult of good taste," with its attendant "How To" lessons and obsession with doing "the Correct Thing." Indeed, so strong was this cult that the couple decided to create a few semi-public institutions to further capitalize on it. First, they opened the "Castle House," a dancing school and club in the New York City. This establishment, located across the street from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, catered to the elite of New York society. Castle House included several separate mirror-lined ballrooms for different types of dancing, included one with a string orchestra for the "Latin" dances, the Tango and the Maxixe, etc., and one with Europe's Society Orchestra for the American ragtime steps. With the merchandising savvy of today's Walt Disney Co., the Castles then followed up Castle House with a similar venture, "Castles-by-the-Sea" in Long Beach, Long Island. From there it seemed natural to open a nightclub, "Castles-in-the-Air," high atop the Forty-Fourth Street Theater, and a cabaret, "Sans Souci," also in Manhattan. Into each of these enterprises one or the other or both of them would make the rounds to "schmooze," give a dance lesson or two, discreetly count the money, and generally keep themselves in the public eye. They were now pulling in over $5,000.00 a week, in an era when the average citizen made $10.00 or $15.00.

By 1916, the raging European war had finally begun to cast its pall over the United States and the Castles. Vernon, still a British subject, felt increasing guilty about leading a safe, pampered life while his homeland was threatened by the Germans. After much pondering, he decided to return to England to join the military. So he left the United States in 1916, learned to fly, and was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. Capt. Castle flew one hundred fifty dangerous combat missions over the Western Front, and became a decorated veteran. While he was away, Irene kept busy, among other things starring in a silent movie serial, Patria, and doing a bit of solo dancing. In 1917 Vernon returned to America to teach combat flying to young aviation students. This was supposed to be a safe, behind the lines assignment, but tragically, Vernon was killed in a training flight crash on February 15, 1918. His student, who caused the accident, escaped with minor injuries. Funeral services were held at the famous "Little Church Around the Corner" in Manhattan, and more than two thousand mourners paid their respects.

Irene's world had fallen apart. In a single stoke, her marriage and her career were lost forever. In a larger sense the absurd, naive, wonderful world America had shared with the Castles had also been destroyed by the war, never to be found again. Irene lingered in the spotlight, now as a celebrity war widow. Still in her twenties, she tried to rebuild her dancing career with new partners, without much success. America had changed, and Irene Castle slowly receded from the public's attention. She remarried three times, and weathered stormy affairs, divorces, and scandals. Eventually she regained her old ebullience, raised a few children, and found a purpose for herself as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals. In 1939 she wrote her memoir Đ Castles in the Air, which became the basis for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, The Irene and Vernon Castle Story. Into her seventies she was known to hit the dance floor with great élan, perhaps dreaming of long-ago days with Vernon. She died in 1969.

Today there are few obvious reminders of the Castle dynasty. Only forlorn relics - dusty press clippings and faded publicity photos - remain to tell the story. All those whom they had directly impacted are long gone. But their influence on America was deep and powerful, and reverberations can still be felt. Irene especially, was the prototype of emancipated modern womanhood. While her sisters were still drudging in the kitchen, Irene was an equal partner with her husband in both business and the home. And Vernon, in a less flamboyant way, set the tone for the sophisticated gentleman-about town, an archetype that Fred Astaire would portray in the 1930s. Together, Irene and Vernon Castle made dancing interesting and accessible to almost everyone. They democratized the ballroom and made less-skilled people feel welcome and worthy. In this way, they left us a legacy richer than most.

References:

Badger, Reid. A Life In Ragtime
Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer. Penguin Press: NY, 1990.
Castle, Irene. Castles in the Air. Doubleday & Co.: NY, 1958.
Castle, Irene. My Husband. Charles Scribner's Sons: NY, 1918.
Castle, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon. Modern Dancing. The World Syndicate Co.; NY, 1914.
Marks, Edward B. They All Sang. The Viking Press: NY, 1935.

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