by Joseph Epstein
Yale University Press / 224 pages / $22
Fred Astaire, writes Joseph Epstein, the veteran critic and essayist, "was the very model ... of the democratic dandy, itself an innovative figure." He adds that G. Bruce Boyer called Astaire in his movie roles "the democratic ideal: a classless aristocrat." If T.S. Eliot calling the mature Henry James "a European of no known country" isn't the same thing, it's close enough.
Astaire's career is full of paradoxes like these. Born in 1899 in Omaha, Neb., to a struggling immigrant Austrian father (he was born Frederick Austerlitz II), he had a rougher childhood than the self-consciously proletarian Gene Kelly, on the road with his mother and sister while his father sent what support he could. Yet he grew up to dress like, and hobnob with, European royalty - and befriend horse jockeys as well - while playing a classic American regular guy. (His sister Adele, his first partner, went him one better by marrying a son of the duke of Devonshire.)
Astaire's singing voice was no better, by the standards of the time, than his looks, but, Epstein writes, he changed popular-singing style from operatic to intimate, and "added a touch of eastern seaboard upper class to the proceedings." Astaire never claimed to be more than a popular entertainer, but "the great dancers and choreographers of the 20th century all agreed on Fred Astaire's brilliance."
What made all this possible? Epstein refuses to call Astaire a genius, but Thomas Edison's definition of it fits Astaire: "1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Ginger Rogers told Family Circle magazine: "I thought I knew what concentrated work was before I met Fred, but he's the limit. Never satisfied until every detail is right, and he will not compromise. No sir! What's more, if he thinks of something better after you've finished a routine, you do it over."
But without that 1 percent inspiration, the perspiration is just sweat. Astaire had the inspiration, too. Perceptive and subtle as Epstein always is, he admits that analyzing Astaire's inspiration is like trying to analyze magic, but he does his considerable best.
"The root and base" of Astaire's talent, Epstein writes, "... was an astonishing feeling for rhythm. ... Because Fred Astaire heard the music better than anyone else, he danced better to it than anyone else." And the entertainment world was moving his way. Movie musicals were changing from the mass choreography of Busby Berkeley (skewered once and for all by Mel Brooks' rotating swastika in the original The Producers) to a close-up style that favored Astaire's kind of dancing. And he sang with such precision and expressiveness that the great generation of American songwriters - Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, the Gershwins - loved to work with him. Astaire, Kern said, "can't do anything bad."
One of several surprises Epstein gives us is his judgment that Astaire's singing is best heard on the jazz albums he made in the 1950s, now on Verve CD, with Oscar Peterson and other greats: "One feels that if one could sing, this is exactly the way one would wish to be able to do it: pure, no frills, no engineering or jumped-up arrangements, ... just a fellow with good diction and some miles on him singing fine songs the way they were meant to be sung."
Epstein's strengths show best when he explains why Astaire achieved immortality with Rogers, whom he doesn't seem to have liked much, instead of with better dancers like Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell or Cyd Charisse. (Epstein does say that Judy Garland might have eclipsed Rogers if she'd been able to work with Astaire after Easter Parade.)
Besides having the perfect-size build and age for Astaire, Rogers had the perfect screen personality for him. "She was a beautiful doll," wrote gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, "who looked innocent and very happy." She fit Astaire's dancing, which is, as Epstein says, "energetic, joyous, honest delight."
Epstein handles the class angle of the Astaire-Rogers romances with the touch that made his book Snobbery a best-seller. He compares Astaire and Rogers to Marcel Proust's Charles Swann and Odette, and Rogers' character, usually a kid on her own in the big city, to Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. That may seem as unlikely as Astaire tap-dancing on the radio (in 1937, the year Epstein was born), but Epstein, like Astaire, pulls it off.
And Astaire left this life with as much dignity as he lived it. This appeals strongly to Epstein, a proud child of the middle class from an era when adulthood was to be achieved, not dreaded. Epstein writes that Astaire almost never hit a false note in his dress (the ascot he wore late in life effectively concealed an old man's neck), and he kept his private life private. Mike Royko wrote when Astaire died, He "did his work, went home, closed the door, and said, 'That's it, world. You get my performance. The rest belongs to me.' "
The book is an entry in a series on "American Icons," a noun Epstein treats with due skepticism. But Yale has matched subject and author in a way that sets the bar for the rest of the series mighty high.