Kathleen Riley

The Astaires


Oxford University Press, US
Published 2012
ISBN: 9780199738410


Included in:
– Jonathan Yardley’s Best Books of 2012 (Washington Post)
– Wall Street Journal Best Non-Fiction 2012
‘There is this beautiful book The Astaires by Kathleen Riley about Fred and Adele. It’s so well written and very accurate about their lives. It’s a magnificent book about the trials and tribulations of show business.’
– Tony Bennett

Before ‘Fred and Ginger,’ there was ‘Fred and Adele,’ a show-business partnership and cultural sensation like no other. In our celebrity-saturated era, it’s hard to comprehend what a genuine phenomenon these two siblings from Omaha were. At the height of their success in the mid-1920s, the Astaires seemed to define the Jazz Age. They were Gershwin’s music in motion, a fascinating pair who wove spellbinding rhythms in song and dance.

In this book, the first comprehensive study of their theatrical career together, Kathleen Riley traces the Astaires’ rise to fame from humble midwestern origins and early days as child performers on small-time vaudeville stages (where Fred, fatefully, first donned top hat and tails) to their 1917 debut on Broadway to star billings on both sides of the Atlantic. They became ambassadors of an art form they helped to revolutionize, adored by audiences, feted by royalty, and courted socially by elites everywhere they went. From the start, Adele was the more natural performer, spontaneous, funny, and self-possessed, while Fred had to hone his trademark timing and elegance through endless hours of rehearsal, a disciplined regimen that Adele loathed.

Ultimately, Fred’s dancing expertise surpassed his sister’s, and their paths diverged: Adele married into British aristocracy, and Fred headed for Hollywood.

The Astaires examines in depth the extraordinary story of this great brother-sister team, with full attention to its historical and theatrical context. It is not merely an account of the first part of Fred’s long and illustrious career but one with its own significance. Born at the close of the 1800s, Fred and Adele grew up together with the new century, and when they reached superstardom during the interwar years, they shone as an affirmation of life and hope amid a prevailing crisis of faith and identity.



fa2Table of Contents

  • List of illustrations
  • Foreword by John Mueller
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction: Moaning Minnie and Goodtime Charlie
  • Chapter 1: Opening the bill
  • Chapter 2: Over the top
  • Chapter 3: Dancing comedians
  • Chapter 4: Nightingales in Berkeley Square
  • Chapter 5: Fascinating rhythms
  • fa3Chapter 6: The golden calf
  • Chapter 7: Frater, ave atque vale
  • Chapter 8: By myself
  • Chapter 9: After the dance
  • Chronologies:
    • 1. (a) The shows
    • 1. (b) Charity performances
    • 2. Other notable events in theatre, 1917-1933
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


  • ‘Kathleen Riley’s book on Fred and Adele – the first full-scale study – is a welcome rehabilitation … The Astaires is a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.’ – Wall Street Journal
  • ‘Riley writes with zest and authoritative expertise, displaying a grace and elegance equal to her subjects.’ – Publishers Weekly
  • ‘A fascinating look at a movie icon and a revealing snapshot of theater history.’ – Booklist
  • The Astaires: Fred and Adele is a page-turner of a biography, briskly written and immaculately researched. Author Kathleen Riley has, among other things, been given access to audio recordings of Adele Astaire that allow her to tell her story with an authority uncommon in modern biographies. This is an excellent work, well worth reading.’ – New York Journal of Books
  • ‘[A] well-researched and captivating dual biography … If there is anything Ms. Riley, an Oxford-educated classical scholar and modern theater historian, does not know about the Astaires, it is probably not worth knowing.’ – Washington Times
  • In her fascinating new book, The Astaires, the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail. … Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing. – New York Times
  • fa5Kathleen Riley, who as a scholar is interested in both Greek drama and modern theatre history, is a stylishly swift-footed narrator of this tale. – New Criterion
  • Kathleen Riley’s research is diligent and her storytelling dynamic. But this is more than a theatrical and movie biography: the zeitgeist is a major player in her vision of Fred and Adele as a sunburst of positivity in the interwar years of dark, political, psychical crisis. – The Times
  • In this sprightly book whose every sentence shines with the author’s love of her dual subjects, Kathleen Riley writes Adele back into the story of her brother. A relationship that usually gets squashed into the first three or four chapters of a standard Fred Astaire biography is now given a whole book. This also allows Riley to explore in detail the rich bank of dance practice from which Fred’s later work emerged. – Guardian
  • Riley has brought to her account of this legendary team the heart of a fan and the mind of a scholar (her background is in Classics). Her writing is engaging and self-effacing – rather like Astaire’s dancing. Reading her book is to get as close as the imagination can take us to the original duo that stands behind the many delightful partnerships that Fred Astaire had on screen. – Times Literary Supplement
  • ‘Kathleen Riley has written a beguiling history of this blessed pair … Riley achieves something that is almost impossible – capturing in words the magic of those early performances that were never captured in the recording studio or on screen.’ – The Oldie
  • ‘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. … This book is a rare treat.’ – Leonard Maltin
  • ‘Although I was extremely close to both my father and my aunt, in this informative book Kathleen Riley has captured the essence of their lovely spirits far better than I could.’ – Ava Astaire McKenzie
  • ‘With this book, Kathleen Riley has given Adele her proper place in the life and legacy of her brother. Recreating a time when “celebrity” meant talent, charisma and dedication with her evocative prose, this book is a “must” for Astaire and musical theatre history fans.’ – Larry Billman, author Fred Astaire: A Bio-Bibliography and Film Choreographers and Dance Directors
  • ‘We are so accustomed to thinking of “Astaire” teamed up with “Rogers” that we overlook Astaire’s stage career with sister Adele. That story is told with elegance and authority in Kathleen Riley’s enthralling, thoroughly researched The Astaires, a book that sheds further light on an important period in Fred Astaire’s pre-screen career.’ – Peter Evans, Emeritus Professor of Film Studies, Queen Mary, University of London
  • ‘Of the many books on Fred Astaire, this is the most unique. Focusing on Fred’s amazing partnership with his sister, Adele, Kathleen Riley has produced a work of remarkable depth and nuanced detail.’ – Ken Barnes, Writer and Producer

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