At the dawn of the Jazz Age, the birth of recorded sound allowed for the growth of exciting new musical genres, and these modern tunes required fresh ways to move to them. To many who filled ballrooms and dance halls across America in the years before the Great War, no dancer captured the public’s imagination more than Vernon Castle. Alongside his ravishing wife Irene, he caused a rhythmic revolution, and, as another major conflict loomed in 1939, their compelling story inspired the hit musical, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Above: Scene from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
Born William Vernon Blyth on 2nd May 1887, as the son of a publican he grew up in Norwich and London, before moving to New York with his actress sister Coralie Blythe (having changed her name from Caroline) and his brother-in-law, Lawrence Grossmith, a music hall performer and the son of the Victorian comedian, actor and composer George Grossmith.
Accepting minor roles under the wing of the legendary vaudeville star and manager Lew Fields, he became professionally known as Vernon Castle, and in 1910, he met Irene Foote, a 17 year-old amateur actress, at the New Rochelle Rowing Club. Though Irene later claimed, ‘I could tell by looking at him that he was not my cup of tea,’ her feelings rapidly changed and within weeks, ‘I realized that he was as much in love with me as I was with him.’ They were married a year later, to the dismay of her father, an eminent New York physician whose objections stemmed from his belief that ‘actors never had any money.’ Spending their honeymoon in England, Irene considered the local women to be ‘dowdily dressed,’ and complained of how she found London ‘inferior to New York.’
On their return to the Big Apple, the couple featured in their first joint venture, The Hen-Pecks which ran from February to September 1911 at the Broadway Theatre (later demolished in 1929). After the show finished, they left for Paris in early 1912, to star in a dance revue, which flopped almost immediately but brought them to the attention of the proprietor of the Café de Paris, who hired them to perform fashionable American dances such as the Grizzly Bear and the Turkey Trot.
In November 1912, they brought their act for the Café de Paris in New York and appeared in a several Broadway numbers like The Sunshine Girl (1913) and Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step (1914). Written especially for them, Berlin’s musical allowed the duo to showcase their Foxtrot – created by the vaudeville showman Harry Fox in 1914, and a firm favourite with the Castles. The pair had also choreographed their own unique dance, the Castle Walk.
Above: The Castles dancing the Castle Walk (1915)
By the outbreak of war in Europe, the Castles were well under way to creating their own American dancing empire. In 1914, they founded Castle House, a dance school in New York, Castles by the Sea, a nightclub on the Boardwalk in Long Beach, and a restaurant called Sans Souci in Times Square. The Whirl of Life, their first motion picture together, which was written by Vernon, met with overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release in 1915. They also shared a love of animals and, saddened by the countless creatures they had seen abused and mistreated for the sake of so-called entertainment, sought to rescue as many as they possibly could, leaving them with an impressive menagerie, including a capuchin monkey called Jeffrey, to whom Vernon grew very attached.
Admired for her delicate beauty and lithe figure, Irene appeared in countless fashion magazines and was credited with popularising the bob haircut. The appeal of the Castles transcended race, gender or class, and they developed a large African-American following, aided by the fact that their orchestra was led by James Reese Europe, a popular African-American bandleader who was considered to be a pioneer of Ragtime and Jazz music.
Despite his glittering show-business lifestyle, Vernon struggled with the knowledge that many of his childhood friends were living under infinitely less glamorous circumstances. Resolving to return to England and to fight for his country, Vernon gained his pilot’s license in early 1916 after attending an American flight school. With his wife, he gave a farewell performance at the Hippodrome in New York in January 1916.
Undergoing further training in England, he reflected in a letter to Irene, ‘when I get old I shall be able to tell our children all about the Great War, and bore them to tears.’ As a member of the Royal Flying Corps, Vernon took part in over 300 missions and in 1917, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Speaking to the press, he revealed, ‘You feel absolutely safe and so strong in yourself, when that wonderful engine responds to your every impulse.’
Whilst Vernon was on leave, Irene visited him in England and they performed at a charity benefit – it was the last time they danced together. Towards the end of 1917, he was made a captain and then transferred to Canada where he was instructed to give new pilots their training. In the meantime, Irene embarked upon a few moderately successful solo projects, but felt at a loss without her husband, and consequently she devoted herself to raising funds for the war effort.
Leaving Canada for America in January 1918, Vernon began his new post teaching American pilots in Texas. On 15th February, he was leaving a training field in Fort Worth when his aircraft crashed as he tried to avoid a colliding with another plane. He was the only casualty of the crash, as a monument at the site reads, ‘Neither the other pilot, his student cadet, nor Vernon’s pet monkey, Jeffrey, were seriously injured.’ Vernon Castle was laid to rest at the Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx, his grave marked by a bronze figure of a grieving woman, sculpted by the artist Sally James Farnham with his wife as the model.
Irene remarried three times and had a son and a daughter with her third husband. In the 1930s, she helped to set up the Orphans of the Storm animal shelter in Illinois, and subsequently dedicated herself to animal welfare causes, until her own death in 1969. She was buried beside Vernon. Entitled My Husband, in 1919 Irene published a memoir of Vernon and the life they had shared. Remembering her first and greatest love, she wrote, ‘He rode and swam harder than anyone else and could outsit anyone at a party, requiring very little sleep, and despising, more than anything, an idle moment. He seemed absolutely tireless and more alive than anyone I have ever known.’
My Husband – Irene Castle (1919)
Vaudeville Old and New: An Encycolpedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume I – Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly (2004)
Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution – Eve Golde (2007)