not in our stars, but in ourselves
As I type, it is already the 114th birthday of one of my top-five favorite humans of all time in certain time zones: on the 10th of May in 1899, Frederick Austerlitz – known to the likes of you and me as Fred Astaire – was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Like another top-fiver on my list, Vladimir Nabokov, Astaire was one year older than the twentieth century; and, in many ways, defined it. Consider what these other twentieth century men and women had to say about him:
“…a pixie—timid, always warm-hearted, with a penchant for schoolboy jokes.” – David Niven
“I remember when I was doing a film with Fred Astaire, it was nothing for him to work three or four days on two bars of music. One evening in the dark grey hours of dusk, I was walking across the deserted MGM lot when a small, weary figure with a towel around his neck suddenly appeared out of the giant cube sound stages. It was Fred. He came over to me, threw a heavy arm around my shoulder and said: ‘Oh Alan, why doesn’t someone tell me I cannot dance?’ The tormented illogic of his question made any answer insipid, and all I could do was walk with him in silence.” – Alan Jay Lerner
“He is terribly rare. He is like Bach, who in his time had a great concentration of ability, essence, knowledge, a spread of music. Astaire has that same concentration of genius; there is so much of the dance in him that it has been distilled.” – George Balanchine
“What do dancers think of Fred Astaire? It’s no secret. We hate him. He gives us a complex because he’s too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity. It’s too hard to face.” – Mikhail Baryshnikov
“He was not just the best ballroom dancer, or tap dancer, he was simply the greatest, most imaginative, dancer of our time.” – Rudolf Nureyev
“He’s the greatest dancer who ever lived–greater than Nijinsky.” – Noel Coward
“There never was a greater perfectionist, there never was, and never will be, a better dancer, and I never knew anybody more kind, more considerate, or more completely a gentleman…I love Fred, John, and I admire and respect him. I guess it’s because he’s so many things I’d like to be and I’m not.” – Bing Crosby in a letter to John O’Hara
“Astaire can’t do anything bad.” – Jerome Kern
“By far the gentlest man I have ever known.” – Frank Sinatra
“Just to see him walk down the street … to me is worth the price of admission.” – Sammy Davis, Jr.
“Once after a dinner party, Gregory Peck and I drove Fred Astaire home. Fred lived in a colonial house that had a long porch with many pillars. When we dropped him off, he danced along the whole front porch, then opened the door, tipped his hat to us, and disappeared. Wow! Greg and I couldn’t speak for a few minutes. It was a beautiful way to say thank you.” – Kirk Douglas
“He is a truly complex fellow, not unlike the Michelangelos and da Vincis of the Renaissance period. He’s a supreme artist but he is constantly filled with doubts and self-anger about his work–and that is what makes him so good. He is a perfectionist who is never sure he is attaining perfection.” – Rouben Mamoulian
“Mr. Astaire is the nearest approach we are ever likely to have to a human Mickey Mouse; he might have been drawn by Mr. Walt Disney, with his quick physical wit, his incredible agility. He belongs to a fantasy world almost as free as Mickey’s from the law of Gravity.” – Graham Greene
“If I was black and blue, it was Gene. If I didn’t have a scratch it was Fred.” – Cyd Charisse, who danced with both Messieurs Astaire and Kelly
“I guess the only jewels of my life were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire.” – Rita Hayworth
Well, you get the idea. The greatest dancer, gentleman, singer, screen star, and all-around icon – as crowned by those who know a thing or three about such matters. It is well worth your time to see any film of his, and I’ll be doing just that tomorrow (when it’s his birthday in my time zone), but here’s a sampler plate for you: some of my favorite Astaire numbers from throughout his career.
Wherever you are, Fred, I hope you are having a lovely birthday. You don’t look a day over 100, I swear.