Ballroom dancers Vernon (1887-1918) and Irene (1893-1969) Castle led the craze for ragtime and Broadway routines adapted as social dances in the years before World War I.
Vernon and Irene Castle
Vernon Castle was born Vernon William Blythe in Norwich, England, on May 2, 1887. Although he graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in engineering, he also worked as a conjurer in clubs and at private parties. He came to New York with his sister Coralie and her husband Laurence Grossmith, who were actors. Adopting the surname Castle, he appeared in a series of shows produced by Broadway comedian Lew Fields: About Town (1907), The Girl Behind the Counter (1907), Old Dutch (1909), The Midnight Sons (1909), The Summer Widowers (1910), and The Hen-Pecks (1911). Castle's specialty was slapstick comedy. He was often cast as "second banana" to Fields and served as dancing partner to Lotta Faust and Topsy Siegrist.
Irene Castle was born Irene Foote on April 17, 1893, in New Rochelle, New York. She was the second daughter of Dr. Hubert Townsend Foote and Annie Elroy (Thomas) Foote, whose father was press agent for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She attended several boarding schools but did not graduate from high school. As a child she studied dancing with Rosetta O'Neill, who taught a generation of children ballroom dancing. When she was a teenager, Irene appeared in amateur theatricals, often singing "The Yama-Yama Man,"—the song made popular by Bessie McCoy in the Broadway show The Three Twins (1908). After attaining stardom, Irene credited certain aspects of her style to McCoy, "the high shoulder, the way I held my hands, and anything that looked well about my dancing."
The couple met in 1910 at the Rowing Club in New Rochelle, which was by then a popular place for show-people to live. He arranged an audition for her with Lew Fields, who engaged her as a dancer replacement for The Summer Widowers, her first professional appearance. Despite her father's doubts about welcoming an actor into the family, the couple was married in New Rochelle on May 28, 1911. They went to England for their honeymoon to meet his family, but returned to New York in time for the August opening of The Hen-Pecks with both Castles in the cast.
The Castles returned to Europe because he was engaged to appear in the barbershop sketch from The Hen-Pecks in a French revue (Enfin … Une Revue, Olympia Theatre, Paris, March 1912). The revue included a dance for the Castles set to the music of the young songwriter Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." While in Paris the Castles tried out a ballroom dance routine at the Caféde Paris and made an instant impression. Later, she attributed their popularity to being "young, clean, married and well-mannered," but their appeal was based also on her appearance—a slim, boyish figure dressed in simple but tasteful dancing frocks (as she called them). She was the image of "the girl next door." The Castles projected their delight in dancing with each other and made the new dances look easy.
The Castles sailed back to New York after six months in Paris. They were booked by Louis Martin for his fashionable Café de l'Opera, and New York went dance crazy over the Castles.
In the period after 1910 when the Castles were busy devising their many dances, Black music and Black dance—the Texas tommy, foxtrot, grizzly bear, and others—had started to filter into the mainstream of American life. Ragtime became the inspiration for the composers of Tin Pan Alley. The Castles were the first white entertainers to hire Black musicians. James Reese Europe's orchestra provided music at the various clubs opened by the Castles and for the nation-wide "Whirlwind Tour" (1914), on which the Castles and their entourage played 24 cities in 32 days.
The Castles were cast in Charles Dillingham's 1912 Broadway production of The Lady of the Slipper, but left the show. Next came The Sunshine Girl (Knickerbocker, February 1913) and the opening of Castle House, their dancing school across from the Ritz Hotel and Sans Souci, a supper club. Later they opened Castles in the Air on the roof of the 44th Street Theatre. He taught dancing to fashionable ladies during the day and performed with his wife in their current Broadway show. Afterwards they would finish up in the wee hours of the morning at one of their after-hours clubs where they also performed.
In 1914 the Castles made a silent feature film, The Whirl of Life, loosely based on their own rise to fame. They also made a series of short films of their own dances.
She became a fashion leader. When she bobbed her hair, millions of women followed. Irene's light, floating "Castle frocks," headache band, and Dutch bonnet were extensively photographed, described in the journals, and copied. She endorsed fashion designs and sewing patterns through the Ladies Home Journal and Butterick Patterns.
The Castles opened on Broadway in Irving Berlin's Watch Your Step (December 8, 1914, New Amsterdam Theatre). He played the role of Joseph Lilyburn, a dance teacher. She played herself in a number with the boys chorus, "Show Us How To Do The Foxtrot," but the hit of the show was Berlin's "Syncopated Walk," which gave America a foretaste of the jazz decade ahead.
After the start of World War I Castle, who was a British citizen, grew restless as the dark news poured in from Europe. He left Watch Your Step in 1915. The Castles gave two farewell performances at the Hippodrome in New York with an orchestra led by John Philip Sousa. Vernon sailed for England, where he joined the Royal Air Force.
While he was away, she continued playing in Watch Your Step until 1916, then made Patria, a 15-part silent film. (She appeared in 16 more films before 1923.) In 1917 she was one of the stars in the Broadway flop Miss 1917, produced by Dillingham and Flo Ziegfeld.
He became an aerial photographer and was awarded the Croix de guerre for bravery. He was killed in a plane crash at Fort Benbrook, Texas, on February 15, 1918, on a training mission with a student pilot.
She appeared in vaudeville with William Reardon (1921-1922) in an act which Fred Astaire helped create. Her public career ended by 1923 when she married her third husband, Frederick McLaughlin, and moved to Chicago. (An earlier marriage after Castle's death to Robert E. Treman ended in divorce). The McLaughlins had two children. Castle married her fourth husband, George Enzinger, after McLaughlin's death.
In 1939 Castle acted as adviser to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. She also performed in several summer stock plays. Her chief interest in later life was in the field of animal rescue work.
Irene Castle died in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, on January 29, 1969. She is buried next to her first husband at Woodlawn Cemetery, New York.
Further Reading on Vernon and Irene Castle
Vernon and Irene Castle published Modern Dancing (1914), which described the dances they created. After Vernon's death, Irene published My Husband (1919), based on Vernon's letters from the front; later she wrote Castles In The Air (as told to Bob and Wanda Duncan, 1958). Both My Husband and Castles In The Air have been reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York. A chapter describing the 1939 Astaire-Rogers film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle can be found in John Mueller's Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (1985).
Additional Biography Sources
Castle, Irene, My husband, New York: Da Capo Press, 1979, 1919.
Castle, Irene, Castles in the air, New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1980.