Most dancers have heard of Vernon and Irene Castle, but most don’t know much about what made this couple so famous. Their story is not only one of fame, but an endearing story of a great romance.
We have famous couples in our modern world. Millions hang on the actions or words of couples like British royals Prince William and Kate Middleton. Hollywood celebrities are in the news every day. With the power of instant communication and social media, it’s easy for vast numbers to quickly know what’s going on with their lives. But back at the turn of the century, the idea of millions of people following the behavior of one couple like rock stars seems almost impossible to grasp. A handsome, dynamic young couple, Vernon and Irene Castle created a frenzied following that puts modern fandom to shame.
Douglas Thompson’s recently published “Shall We Dance? The True Story of the Couple Who Taught the World to Dance” delves deeply into the history of the Castles. Even though I knew of them, and had seen the famous film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I had never understood how much of a love story they represented to the world.
Born William Vernon Blyth on May 2, 1887 (Castle was actually a stage name), Vernon’s specialty was playing a gentleman drunk in vaudeville acts. He met Irene Foote (1893–1969), a precocious 17-year-old, at a lakeside retreat in the summer of 1910. Initially she had branded him as ‘not my cup of tea.’ But only minutes later he caught her attention for a couple of reasons. First, he was actually willing to listen to her constant gushing of excited stories. And for another, he had been introduced as a comedy performer from Broadway. A manipulative young thing with a dance background and eyes on a future in theater, Irene saw the potential and chased after him to get an audition with the famous producer Lew Fields.
Very quickly the two fell head-over-heels in love. Engaged on Christmas Day, they were married the following year. They went everywhere together and loved being in each other’s company. What they did best was dance. They moved together with a natural flow that captivated anyone who saw them.
They moved together with a natural flow that captivated anyone who saw them.
They travelled to Paris in hopes of making it big. In debt to their producer for the staggering sum of 1,000 Francs advance payment (that might be today’s equivalent of a home mortgage), the Castle’s vaudeville show was a flop. But audiences were enraptured when Vernon Castle danced with his wife. The dancing was unpolished and Irene said she spent more time flying in the air around Vernon than with her feet on the ground. Vernon let it all go and Irene, never afraid with his arms around her, flew with it.
In the spring of 1912, Vernon and Irene Castle became the sensation of Paris. Word spread and in a short time they were renowned, a dance couple like none the world had ever seen.
Around the entire civilized world, men and women alike sought out any news of the Castles. They were the world’s most famous couple, and certainly the most intensely followed romance. People wanted to be like them in every way. They copied everything from their dancing style to their hairstyles.
How Vernon and Irene Castle changed the perception of dance
In those days, fiery preachers across Europe and especially in America denounced ballroom dance as the devil’s work. They exhorted their followers to avoid it like the plague. In their view, the idea that men and women should dance so close together was evil. Some would tell young women that if they even thought about dancing they would immediately be relegated to the fires of hell and damnation with no hope of redemption.
Into this world stepped a young Irene Castle. In the eyes of women around the world, she was exempt from damnation. She made it all smart and sensible and wholesome. She was elegant. She was young. She was married. This teenager made change safe. She validated the free, modern woman, who must be more engaged with society and men and life than her mother’s generation.
As Thompson describes it,
You too could be slim and healthy and in love — if you danced.
And so, everyone wanted to dance like them. Whatever steps Vernon and Irene did, everyone wanted to learn them. Adjusted for inflation, they collected fees equivalent to $35,000 for a single performance and charged the modern day equivalent of $2,300 per hour for lessons. The Castles were the ultimate source of information about ballroom dance. They invented new step patterns and movement characteristics that remain to this day.
It is said that much of the Hesitation Waltz (now known as the Slow Waltz or Modern Waltz) was developed through the work of this couple. They created a dance known as the Castle Walk that eventually evolved through their influence and that of Harry Fox into today’s Social Foxtrot and later the Quickstep. The are credited with having invented the concept of the Tea Dance. They published guides for dancing. They taught private and group lessons. They performed everywhere, sometimes double-booked due to Vernon’s lack of organizational skills. But even against the craziest barriers they made it all work.
While the dancing may seem tame by today’s standards, this video clip of Vernon and Irene Castle from the silent film “Whirl of Life” recreates the 1912 Paris performances that made them famous. At that time it was revolutionary to see a couple moving in such harmony and connected to each other so closely.
Gilbert Seldes wrote the following description in 1924, which sums up so much of the unique character of the Castles:
Perhaps unexpected in all of this was the way they influenced not just dancing but style itself. Whatever Irene Castle did was copied around the world. When she changed her hair, no matter how little, women everywhere asked their hairdressers for the same.
Once, when she put a band of pearls around her hair to keep it from flying as she danced, it became a fashion statement that lasted throughout the roaring 20’s. Any style of dress she wore was suddenly in vogue. Dressmakers in every city took note that within hours of a new photo of Irene being published in a magazine, dozens of requests for the same design would flood in.
As Thompson describes in his book,
Vernon and Irene Castle set new cultural standards
The Castles were known for their unwavering support of the African-American community. Vernon was convinced that only black musicians truly understood the rhythmical essence of ballroom dance music. He insisted on these bands for all his performances. The problem was that in those days, segregation was everywhere. Vernon struggled to get his black band members on the train to travel to the next stop for his tour, because they weren’t allowed that luxury. Most clubs wouldn’t allow non-whites to enter, even as part of the band. But Vernon insisted. If you wanted him, you had to get his band. And he got his way. Gradually these restrictions eased as clubs were forced to allow non-white band members as part of the entertainment.
The Castle Tour in 1914 took this acceptance across the United States. Again, Vernon insisted that it must be his beloved African-American band. Arrangements were made, which wasn’t easy as blacks were not allowed to travel in the same rail cars as whites. The Tour presented the same show at every venue. The reception was different at every stop. The audiences welcomed and applauded. Many had never seen a black orchestra; some never a black entertainer.
Once an organizer refused to serve refreshments to the orchestra. Vernon insisted, slyly threatening that if he didn’t cooperate the performance would be substandard and a huge disappointment to the paying audience. The organizer relented. William Elkins reported that
Another passion the couple had was the care of badly treated animals. They loved all animals, especially dogs. In one case, they paid thousands of dollars for an elephant that was being mistreated by a circus, so that they could free the animal and donate it to the local zoo where it could live out a life free from daily agony.
But of course their greatest cultural influence was on the world of dance. No longer was ballroom dancing forbidden or evil. Fear of public dancing was gone. The convention that you never danced with the same person twice in succession vanished. Couples had the time, and the desire, to do as Vernon and Irene Castle did: have fun and, if you must, make it up as you go along. Grand ladies fainted at the Tango with its requirement for legs to meet and pelvic areas to touch. Yet everywhere around the world, ladies couldn’t wait to dance it again.
The War Years
Vernon and Irene’s love story really comes to life after he went to war. As WWW I began, Vernon Castle was actually trapped in France and nearly didn’t make it out of the country. After he returned to retrieve his beloved dog that he had left with a vet as he couldn’t originally leave France with a pet, Vernon was so troubled by things he observed that he felt compelled to enlist. Irene was devastated by his wish to go to war, but she loved him so much that she gave in to his request, knowing that his soul would not rest if she forced him to stay home.
Vernon learned to fly and joined the Air Corps. Despite his fame, he was sent to the front lines and served with great bravery. He flew dangerous reconnaissance missions and fought in dogfights. He even shot down more than one enemy plane. Once a bullet went right through the collar of his flight jacket but he was unscathed. Another time his plane was shot up, forcing him to land, but he was able to come down on his side of the line.
After an all-too short visit with Vernon in England during the early part of his wartime experience, Irene boarded the train and opened the carriage window to wave goodbye. Vernon, in uniform, was standing at attention. Saluting. Irene sobbed for most of her journey. She wrote a poem on a scrap of paper and later Vernon attached it to a watch chain and wore it around his neck. He wore it on every flight while he served on the front lines in France. It read:
Listen to my humble prayer
And keep him safe.
Keep him in your care always –
Watch o’er him through this weary day
And keep him safe.
Make him feel my love and sorrow.
Bring him back some near tomorrow
And keep him safe.
The couple wrote to each other almost daily. While Irene’s letters are lost to history, many of Vernon’s survived the years. They give a marvelous insight into the love story between these two remarkable people.
On February 29, 1916 he wrote, in part:
March 8, 1916:
May 14, 1916:
June 30, 1916:
August 30, 1916:
Though he lost many comrades, Vernon survived the front and travelled back to England and then to the US where he was put in charge of training new pilots at Benbrook Field in Texas. Plans were being made to put Vernon and Irene on tour to help support the war effort even as victory seemed well within grasp for the allied forces. Irene reported that she was nervous at their first practice after he returned home but very quickly their dancing felt smooth and in sync.
Instructor pilots always sat in the back seat. After Vernon lost a student who crashed into the roof of a hangar and was killed by the impact, he blamed himself for being in the safer back seat. After that he insisted on flying in the front seat despite its limited visibility as it was directly over the wings. But he enjoyed teaching. Engineers said that Vernon Castle flew the way he danced, flowing with grace and musicality. He once took Irene on a flight in his plane although it was strictly forbidden.
A fateful day
On Friday, February 15, 1918 Vernon was training a student when a series of misfortunes all came together. An aircraft was taking off as Vernon’s aircraft was about to touch down. The inexperienced student in the back seat didn’t realize the significance of the aircraft moving on the ground underneath them and Vernon, in the front seat, didn’t see the danger in time. He tried to avoid a collision but the plane stalled and they nosedived into the ground. Less than an hour later, the great Vernon Castle was declared dead. Hearing the news, Irene was said to have shown great courage, then ran to her bedroom where she promptly fainted.
The world was stunned, and grieved deeply. Vernon Castle’s funeral was one fit for a head of state. Thousands lined the streets to bid their hero farewell. The Houston Post reported: ‘Men wiped tears from their eyes, the sobs of women were audible above the slow, measured tread of the funeral procession.’ At Union Station, a guard of honour of airmen opened a pathway to the train. Captain Frederick Fedgewick of the Royal Flying Corps was responsible for the transit; thousands for the overwhelming sadness of the day. As Jack Coats said, Vernon would have liked it.
In March 1918 a letter arrived for Irene. It was a final love letter from Vernon, having been stored with his parents during the war in the event that something happened to him. It read, in part:
My only wish is for your future happiness.
It was the end of a partnership that changed the world more than it could know. Even today we owe our understanding of ballroom dance and even some cultural norms we take for granted to this beautiful and dynamic couple. Let us not forget what the Castles did for the world of dance. If you have a dance partner, give them a whirl on the floor in memory of Vernon and Irene Castle.