Shall We Dance?
The True Story of the Couple Who Taught the World to Dance
On the eve of the Great War, they had the world at -and watching - their feet. If God is in the details, they were divine.
Vernon and Irene Castle were the world's first true celebrity couple. He, an Englishman, was tall and slim, as poised as an elegant evening out, a template for the Hollywood idols who would follow. In a staid age, she, a New Yorker, was a glorious, modern beauty, with her haired cropped into a 'shock', a disdain for crippling corsets, a love of a martini and a good time.
Together, they beat the censors and made their vibrant dancing acceptable for all. In the fashionable quarters of New York they opened a dance school and night clubs to which Society flocked. They broke the rules by touring with black musicians, and led the way forward to the Charleston-galloping Gatsby Generation. They enlightened and enchanted from London to Paris to New York, spreading a breathless joy, as though their music had one note, and their dances one step, too many. Launching one racy dance craze after another, they taught the world to dance - and often dress - the way we do today. Adored and acclaimed, they were stars long before the celebrity constellations grew crowded.
Yet the whirlwind story of perhaps the most influential dance team ever is also one of tragedy. Their timing, so perfect in everything else, saw Vernon Castle, at the height of their fame, return to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps; he saw action as a pilot on the Western Front, winning the Croix de Guerre, while his wife made special appearances to support the Allied war effort. And then, in February 1918, he was killed in a flying accident in Texas, while training American pilots for war. Irene received a last note from him: 'When you receive this letter I shall be gone out of your sweet life. You may be sure that I died with your sweet name on my lips... be brave and don't cry, my angel.'
She and many others did cry, for as far as the world was concerned Vernon and Irene Castle could have danced all night, and for ever.
‘The afternoon was already planned; they were going dancing – for those were the great days: Maurice was tangoing in over the river, the Castles were doing a swift stiff-legged walk in the third act of The Sunshine Girl - a walk that gave the modern dance a social position and bought the nice girl into the café, thus beginning a profound revolution in American life. The great rich empire was feeling its oats and was out for some not too plebeian, yet not to artistic fun.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Perfect Life’, one of the Basil and Josephine Stories, first published in the Saturday Evening Post, 5th January 1929
An excerpt from the book...
Women were arrested for wearing too little; their indiscretion apparently an invitation to natural disaster, floods and ocusts and the like. The fire-and-brimstone men in the pulpits announced doom: these flimsy fashions were, so to speak, the Devil’s design and it was eternal damnation all round.
Until Irene Castle took them on parade. She was exempt from damnation. She made it all smart and sensible and wholesome.
She was elegant and she was young and she was married. This teenager made change safe; we are told the young are the motive power of history and Vernon and Irene Castle were historic
landmarks. She validated the free, modern woman, who must be more engaged with society and men and life than her mother’s generation. It was only the beginning.
Irene and Vernon took what were previously feared as satanic and “dangerous impulses”, accompanied as they were by ragtime music, and on the dancefloor made it fun and
aloof from sexual metaphors. They looked like a couple of kids having a good time. That Vernon and Irene were married, and happily so in such a public romance, excited a psychological appeal: you too could be slim and healthy
and in love – if you danced.
Vernon’s years on Broadway and their months in Paris had earned them “overnight” fame. By then Vernon was a veteran of attention and able to deal cleverly with the attendant tricks, traps and trifles which rode in tandem with success – but not the money; he liked to spend. Irene simply swept celebrity around her like a piece of silk and wore it just as well. Of course, she’d always believed she was someone.
The Castles were also most acceptable in polite society. Elsie de Wolfe and her longtime companion, the intuitive Elisabeth
Marbury, who had lived intimately together since 1892, introduced them to an international audience. It
was the Castles’ relationship with the two women that was important in their success, for the power of prescience and the connections that these two formidable women possessed were quite remarkable.
The world was expanding in the 20th century but in some areas it remained small. Vernon and Irene, beautiful and charming, even together as slim as a whisper, danced at parties organised by Elsie de Wolfe for her friends, and for many others including Charles de Noailles, the Vicomte de Noailles, a rich aristocrat as young as the dancers but rather more wanton in his general interests. From that appearance, one soirée followed another.
An extravagant supper party at the Ritz Hotel in London in July 1912 bestowed greater “star” power on the young dancers. Colonel Anthony Drexel, Jr, a banker businessman (Drexel & Company of Philadelphia was a foundation stone of the JP Morgan colossus), enjoyed important friends: the late King Edward VII and the very much alive-and-kicking Kaiser Wilhelm II. Drexel wanted the entertainment for his guests, who included a Russian grand duke, to reflect his status. A star of the evening was the Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli, who had made his début a year earlier singing for Toscanini at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan. The fragile and brilliant dancer Nijinsky, from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, also performed, as did Diaghilev’s ravishing and mesmerising prima ballerina, Tamara Karsavina. Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle completed that extraordinary line up.
“People were marvellous to us,” said Irene, and they were, for the couple retained a freshness, a “golly gee” attitude to the people they were meeting and the money they were earning. It was as if they remained adolescents being rewarded, kids being allowed to stay up late with the grown-ups.
From their attic at 44 rue Saint-Georges they visited grand houses and Chateaux, but they always returned to the Café de Paris and to Louis Barraya, who completed their circle. The Café de Paris proprietor was also close to the American-born dancer Maurice Mouvet, who had been brought up in Paris. Maurice was an innovative ballroom dancer and in 1911 had married Florence Walton from Delaware (whose 1907 stage début was in the chorus of Lew Fields’s The Girl Behind the Counter) following the death of his first wife and dance partner, Leona Hughes. She had died from pneumonia, brought on by overexuberant performances with her husband of the Apache dance, which Maurice had co-created.
Irene didn’t like the Apache routine and its violent choreography casting the woman as the victim: “The male dancer tries to demolish the female dancer, spectacularly, and usually succeeds.” There may have been some jealousy in her animosity as Maurice and Florence were, in 1912, the only true dance rivals the Castles had. Now, they were sharing the bill with them at the Café de Paris. The kindly Louis Barraya had promised Maurice, following his wife’s death, that if he returned to Paris he could work for him. The promise had been kept and Vernon Castle had welcomed the kindness; he recognised it as the gesture of a friend.
Maurice wasn’t quite as much the gentleman. The Castles retained their table by the orchestra but Maurice and Florence, internationally renowned as they were, had to appear from behind a screen, which was, not too discreetly, concealing the kitchen door. Also they were the newcomers and didn’t receive the adulation the “resident” Castles had created. It made the evenings somewhat tense. Maurice, born in New York’s Bowery, was used to sharp elbows. After his dance, he would wander over to Vernon and Irene’s table, glower at Vernon and murmur: “It must be nice to be a star.”
Vernon shrugged it off but one night Maurice hadn’t corked the bottle soon enough and invited Vernon to step outside where he would rearrange his face. To escape the embarrassment, the Castles told Louis Barraya they would leave until Maurice and Florence had completed their engagements. Which is the way it went; the run-in with Maurice had tainted the Cafe de Paris a little even if Vernon wrote it off as more wine than Maurice.
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