Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ragtime Revolution

Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution
By Eve Golden
University of Kentucky Press

James Reese Europe, the African American WWI military hero and bandleader, was the greatest link between ragtime and jazz. Without Vernon and Irene Castle, it is doubtful his music would have attained the same level of acceptance with white audiences. As Eve Golden makes clear in the new biography Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution, the Castles functioned as respectable society’s seal of approval, popularizing the formerly scandalous pastime of social dance, which indirectly lead to what became the Jazz Age.

The Castles are best remembered now through the 1939 bio-picture starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Astaire was perfectly cast as Vernon, Rogers less so as Irene. As there is little surviving video footage of the Castles, the RKO picture dominates the collective American memory of the pre-WWI dancing sensations.

In some ways, the Castles, particularly Vernon, were progressive in their thinking. Their relationship with Europe represented a historic precedent: a white couple exhibition dancing to the music of an African American orchestra. Golden explains:

“Vernon was always quick to remind audiences that Europe’s was ‘the best dancing music in the world,’ and Europe was delighted to find such famous and good-natured stars to accompany. Vernon and Europe became fast friends; Europe called Vernon ‘one white absolutely without prejudice.’” (p. 69)

Of the two Castles, it is safe to say Golden shows a pronounced preference for Vernon. While he is consistently portrayed as broadminded and humane, Golden often uses Irene’s own words to suggest petty and churlish aspects of her character. While it might represent a bias, it certainly seems to be a fair representation of their respective personalities, and her use of Irene’s words seems fair and in the proper contexts. Though Mrs. Castle shared her husband’s affection for Europe, Golden quotes statements on jazz which include less than enlightened racial language:

“The dancing of 1922 isn’t beautiful. It has rhythm, yes, but what rhythm! The rhythm of jungle creatures. And what sort of rhythm is that? You know enough of anthropology to answer that yourself, I’m sure.” (p. 225)

Golden paints an interesting picture of the beginnings of contemporary celebrity culture. The Castles were certainly talented, but they may not have been the greatest dancers of the 1910’s. Yet they had the right image and were able to ride an effective publicity campaign until WWI intervened, and the British Vernon enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps.

The press played a critical role in making them celebrities, but it could also be uncharitable. Golden shows ill-concealed contempt for the contemporary press’s innuendos regarding the Frasier Crane-like Vernon Castle’s manliness. Golden quotes an example from an Ohio paper, which seemed to be a frequent offender:

“‘Gosh, we bet the British army is growing impatient,’ wrote the Toledo Blade, waiting for Vernon to ‘come a-flying over the trenches in his trusty aeroplane and scare the Germans half out of their wits (which it might be added, is exactly what he would shortly do).” (p. 148)

Again, Golden has a legitimate point. Vernon Castle would fly many missions, shoot down two German planes, and was killed in the line of duty. Perhaps the Toledo Blade could have shown a little respect.

Despite the distant remove from its subjects, Revolution is a quick, enjoyable read. Golden is a strong writer, turning some nice phrases, and backing up her representations with historical source material. Since I believe James Reese Europe is an under-appreciated American hero, I would have preferred even more material on his relationship with the Castles, but that’s my bias. As written, Revolution is an entertaining biography that makes a strong case on behalf of Vernon Castle’s stature as an under-appreciated military hero, as well.