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'The Astaires' follows the steps of the dancing siblings' lives

"The girl seems to have talent but the boy can do nothing." That was the assessment of one manager, viewing the young brother-and-sister act of Fred and Adele Astaire.

"Fred and Adele" -- it's tough even to say it. We're so used to saying "Fred and Ginger." That's a big reason why "The Astaires," the entertaining new book by Kathleen Riley, is so much fun.

Until her death at age 84, Adele had, Riley writes, a "star quality," an "ineffable sparkle."

And though the book is about both of them, Adele is the star of this show. That's because her story has been so forgotten. Without the permanence of movies, she is a fading memory. It is fascinating how, from the start, the pair complemented each other. They were not only born to dance, they were born to dance together. They were born in Omaha, Neb., to Fritz Austerlitz, a hard-drinking brewer, and his unhappy wife, Johanna. They were Austrian Catholic immigrants with Jewish roots. In 1905, when Fred was 5 and Adele was 8, they moved to New York.

Later that year the Astaires made their professional debut, in a New Jersey amusement park. "The routine was designed to run an average of 12 minutes -- the standard for vaudeville -- and began with Fred and Adele, as a miniature bride and groom, posed atop separate illuminated cakes. Adele was dressed in white satin and Fred, fatefully, in white tie and tails."

The name "Astaire" was a stroke of genius, and seems to have evolved. In early programs, the kids were billed as "the Austers," "the Astiers," etc. "Whatever the precise derivation ... it was a brilliant choice, a name redolent of American affluence (rather like Astor) and continental chic, a name impossible now to dissociate from an image of showbiz supremacy." Riley writes. Even Anna began using the name, morphing from Johanna Austerlitz into Ann Astaire. She was enjoying the separation from her husband, still on the job back home in Omaha.

Enrolled in the Alviene School, an early school of the performing arts, the children had separate personalities from the start. "There was virtue ... in the discipline of repetition," Riley writes. "The Astaires would spend 12 years honing three basic vaudeville routines, a grueling schedule of practice and performance that instilled in Fred his often-cited perfectionism and in Adele an abhorrence of rehearsal."

Fred seems to have been an old soul. "From the age of 16 he assumed much of the managerial burden of the partnership, including the negotiation of contracts and salaries and the selection of songs and other material." Adele was lighter than air.

"By all accounts Adele was a natural clown, a wonderful madcap, outrageous, and dazzling," Riley tells us. "She could suggest infinite mischief with a turn of the mouth or a lift of the eyebrow."

The two made their Broadway debut during World War I in "Over the Top." Already, they had distinct personalities. "One of the prettiest features of the show is the dancing of the two Astaires. The girl, a light, spritelike little creature, has really an exquisite floating style in her caperings, while the young man combines eccentric ability with humor."

It is fun to track Fred and Adele through long-forgotten musicals. Fred recalled "For Goodness Sake," in 1922, as a breakthrough. "As they amble into view and mix with the youngsters they don't look as though they were anything more than somebody's children," wrote New York's Evening World. "But when they dance -- oh, boy, and likewise girl!"

The Astaires conquered London with "Stop Flirting" in 1923. The Times wrote: "Columbus may have danced with joy at discovering America, but how he would have cavorted had he also discovered Fred and Adele Astaire!"

British audiences embraced the Astaires, and the Astaires' adventures in London are the headiest part of the book. They made friends with such figures as John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham and A.A. Milne. Some of the best and most hard-bitten critics and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw and P.G. Wodehouse, fell for Adele in more than a professional sense. She was also courted by Edward, the Prince of Wales, in his pre-Wallis Simpson days. And his brother, flashy Prince George. They maintained a flirtatious correspondence for years.

Eventually she fell for Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke of Devonshire. At 34, she retired to marry him. Her career was in full bloom, but in that era, it was high time to settle down. She made a unique entrance: "The family was all gathered in the library standing like stone pillars in front of the fireplace waiting for Adele to be announced," recalled Lady Mary Cecil, wife of Charlie's older brother Edward. "When she was introduced, the heavy doors at the end of the library opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach, but instead of walking toward us, she suddenly began turning cartwheels and ended up in front of us. Everyone loved it."

Famously anti-Catholic, the Cavendish family insisted that Adele convert to the Church of England in order to get married. She did. I would have liked to have had more details on why Adele married Charles. Riley is vague on this. In any case, she made a bad bargain. Her husband turned out to be a drunk, causing her a lot of grief before dying at 38.

Fred, in his quiet way, made better choices. He had a little trouble adjusting to life on the stage without his sister. Audiences missed Adele. But his career broadened. He could dance romantically with his new partners. One of them, Claire Luce, had to tell him to take hold of her: "Come on, Fred, I'm not your sister, you know."

Neither his mother nor Adele cared a lot for Phyllis Potter, the young divorcee Fred fell in love with. But when he married her, things turned out happily. He had it all: a happy marriage, children and, of course, that dazzling career. In contrast your heart goes out to Adele, with no career anymore, a dud of a husband and no children (heartbreakingly, her attempts to have children failed). It is amazing how gracefully she seems to have handled it.

Adele's life brightened during World War II, when Col. Kingman Douglass, who was with U.S. Air Force Intelligence, set her up entertaining troops. Signing autographs, "Adele Astaire, Fred's Sister," she found those years the most fulfilling since her retirement. Irving Berlin wanted her to play Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun." But instead she got married again, to Douglass.

Riley deals briefly with the Astaires' last years. It is poignant, seeing these two living out their lives in a changed world.

A final photo shows Adele and Fred dancing together on a beach in 1961. Both have canes; Adele looks as if she is actually using hers. The picture is fuzzy (the book's generous supply of pictures is of poor quality) but it shows that after all these years, they were still a team. And what a team. "Those who were lucky enough to see the Astaires onstage dancing to Gershwin's music are now very scarce," Riley writes. "The Astaires' peculiar fascination and magic, belong, as I observed from the start, to a vanished world, which in no small part they helped to define."

News Classical Music Critic Mary Kunz Goldman is currently writing a biography of pianist Leonard Pennario.


The Astaires: Fred and Adele

By Kathleen Riley

Oxford University Press

241 pages, $28