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If I could step into a time machine, one of the places I’d want to visit is a Broadway (or London) theater in the 1920s when Fred and Adele Astaire enchanted audiences and sent critics to their thesauruses to find new words of praise. There is no film footage of the legendary duo, who conquered the theater world a decade before Fred found another great partner named Ginger Rogers in Hollywood. (They appear, fleetingly, in a piece of newsreel footage shot from the side of the stage, partially hidden!)

Now we have the next best thing: an evocative biography of the Astaires, who literally grew up in show business, becoming stage-savvy veterans before they were of age. Theater historian Kathleen Riley has conducted exhaustive research, with access to the Astaire family scrapbook and personal correspondence, and laid out their extraordinary success story with grace and charm. It isn’t often that one encounters a show business book as beautifully written as this.

Riley brings to life the workaday world of vaudeville—both big and small-time—as well as the heady excitement of success on Broadway and London’s West End. As popular as Fred and Adele became in New York, they were truly the toast of the town in London, winning over critics, audiences, and even the royal family. There are wonderfully amusing examples of vintage British magazine ads where the duo endorsed a variety of products, from throat lozenges to fountain pens.

Interestingly, it was Adele who commanded the lion’s share of attention and praise; no one disparaged Fred, but in many people’s minds she was the standout of the two, not because she was the better dancer but because she had a thousand-watt personality. When she decided to marry an Englishman and retire from the stage, there was genuine concern as to how Fred would fare on his own. Imagine that!

This book is a rare treat and a worthy substitute for that time machine I keep dreaming about. 

THE ASTAIRES: FRED & ADELE by Kathleen Riley (Oxford University Press)

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