Monday, May 22, 2023. Sunny and cooler yesterday in the high 60s, low 70s; after a rainy weekend.
I had dinner the other night with Mary Hilliard who has retired after a very busy career as one of the most prominent wedding and social photographers in New York, Palm Beach and Europe. Mary’s now involved in archiving her work which is a vast assignment— although she’s enjoying it.
She brought to dinner a sheet of photos she took on October 24, 1988 at the Royalton Hotel followed by an after party at the old Mortimer’s. It was a party for a book on Fred Astaire by Sarah Giles, an editor at Vanity Fair, titled Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk.
Expanding an article she wrote for the magazine, Giles presented snippets taken from 75 interviews of individuals who knew him well, such as his daughter Ava; Audrey Hepburn, Rudolf Nureyev, Diana Vreeland, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Roddy McDowall, Ginger Rogers, Hermes Pan. The editor of the book was Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday who had asked Sarah Giles to make a book out of the interviews she did for an article in the magazine.
Oh good, it was reported that Robyn Astaire, Fred’s second wife who came late in life years after the death of his wife Phyllis, did not want the book published. She felt had some unflattering information about her — she was 35 and Fred was 81.
They’d met in New York when Fred was here being honored. I don’t know the circumstances of the meeting but Fred was charmed by her. She was an equestrienne and a pilot.
Shortly after they’d met, Robyn happened to be in Los Angeles and called Fred and invited him to dinner. Fred was charmed although surprised that she picked up the check. Fred was from the old school about picking up the check but not Robyn.
The women in Fred’s life — his sister Adele, his daughter Ava, and others disapproved at the outset because of the age difference and all the other opinions that feed gossip. They just assumed that Robyn, a very good looking, self-sufficient woman, was looking for the money. But Fred liked her. He heard the doubts of others, but, as he complained to his friend and longtime choreographer Hermes Pan, he could have criticized others for personal choices they made — but he just accepted it. Besides, she made him laugh. And so it was. The marriage lasted to the end of his life.
Astaire was a working man. He had been working since his mother started him and his sister Adele in dancing class with the intention of making a dance act out of it at the beginning of the 20th century. The personality in the act was Adele. Fred was four when he started; Adele was almost six.
Adele was a natural and had a very independent, sort of saucy, personality. She was the dominant, but Fred loved and respected his sister, and always regarded her thusly. But after almost three decades as a team by then playing big time on Broadway and in London, Adele was tired. She quit and married —
the brother of the Duke of Devonshire. They moved to the family castle in Ireland. Fred was now on his own. But he was ready after more than a decade of starring with his sister.
That was also about the same time that the movies were converting into “Talkies” and musicals were the future. Fred went to Hollywood. His success is a long and wonderful story about man was basically a worker. Practical, self-reliable, he rehearsed his pieces to the point of perfection so that he made everything he did look easy. The image he cast was part of the act that he became that image. But away from the work, which included the public image, he lived a quiet life.
He met Hermes Pan in the early 30s when Fred was making his first picture at RKO. Hermes, who was ten years younger, had been a chorus boy/singer/dancer on Broadway. He’d been in a show where Ginger Rogers was an ingénue. She was leaving the show to go to Hollywood. She told Hermes he should go since they needed dancers for those new talkies.
He and his sister had been paying the rent performing a dance act in New York in speakeasies, and so along with their mother, the Pans bought a 1927 used Ford and drove across a then highway-less America to Hollywood.
It was the Depression, and it was a struggle until one day Hermes went over to RKO Studios to see about some work for a musical they were making. The dance director sent Hermes upstairs to the studio where Fred Astaire was rehearsing. Hermes knew of him as the biggest star on Broadway musicals and could only only wonder what he could ever do for Fred Astaire.
On meeting, Fred was rehearsing, putting a performance together. He told Hermes he was looking for a certain step that “connects” two different steps. Hermes offered something that came to mind and it worked perfectly. That was 1932. The two men worked together for the rest of their lives.
Hermes grew up in Nashville and Memphis in the nineteen-teens when as a boy of six and seven his “mammie” would sometimes take him home at night with her. She lived in the part of town called Black Bottom; which was primarily a black community (the area was nicknamed “Black Bottom” because of periodic river floods that left muddy residue on the streets).
Nighttime in Black Bottom, Hermes, the boy, was mesmerized by “gutbucket” jazz playing in the streets accompanied by the dances that would change all dancing in America — and even the world. And he took it with him for the rest of his life and working with Fred.
It so happened that the two men shared that in their work for the rest of their lives. Their leader was always those boys dancing to the gutbucket jazz.
The image of Fred Astaire in Sarah Giles’ book is that of a man devoted and committed to his work. His great stardom was his pay-off to the audience, but the man himself, image and all, loved his work and always wanted to do his best. Which he did, without failure, over and over.
The Book Party at the Royalton, followed by the after party at Mortimer’s (which we will have for you tomorrow) was extra-special because there was only one Fred Astaire whom everybody, every man, one way or another wanted to be like. So Sarah Giles and Vanity Fair invited the community of, and around, and beyond the man himself. You’ll recognize most of the players in one way or another. If you are old enough. 35 years later, the world, that world, their world has changed in some cases beyond recognition. So enjoy the trip, and au revoir.