Saturday, March 30, 2013

Vernon and Irene Castle

Vernon and Irene Castle embodied Ragtime Dance. They weren't the only dancers of the time; they weren't the best dance teachers; and they didn't last long, but they really captured the spirit of the age.

They were in the public eye for about 8 years, from 1911 to 1918.

Vernon Castle was born William Vernon Blyth in England, took on a classy sounding stage name, moved to New York and was working as an actor. Irene Foot, the daughter of a middle class family, was a wannabe actress when the two of them met. They married in 1911 and signed on with a show that left for a stint in Europe.

When the show closed unexpectedly early, the Castles found jobs as dancers in nightclubs. They were an immediate hit. When they returned to America they continued to get jobs as performing dancers. They were very popular with their audience. They were young, slender, elegant and athletic and they were clearly in love.

They were also comfortable with up-to-date technology. There are more photographs, movies, newspaper and magazine articles about them than any other social dance couple. They lived big and drove fast and spent money as quickly as they could.

Irene is a bit reminiscent of an F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine without being noticeably bi-polar. She was ambitious but lazy, genial but self-centered. Irene's memoirs make Vernon look like a carefree spendthrift but I think he was also a bit of a workaholic.

As I said, they weren't the only performing social dancers. One thing that enabled them to get the jump on the competition was their manager Elizabeth Marbury. Marbury was an established literary and theatrical agent, and had friends throughout New York society. Marbury was the mastermind behind the Castles' dance clubs, their patronesses, publicity, and even Irene's clothes. Another advantage they had was their orchestra, led by James Reese Europe. Europe wrote some of the best dance music of the time, and his orchestra was truly fabulous.
Vernon and Irene Castle 1913

The reign of the Castles was short. They were hugely popular in 1914 and 1915, then Vernon left  in 1916 to join the Royal Air Corps and fight in the First World War. He made it safely home, but was killed in an accident while training American pilots in early 1918.

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