THOMPSON: How Vernon and Irene Castle became cultural icons in 1910 | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: How Vernon and Irene Castle became cultural icons in 1910



Long before Derek and Julianne Hough, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tripped the light fantastic, there was Vernon and Irene Castle.

Today we’re dominated by social media and instant celebrity, often given for nothing more than appearing in a reality television program. It’s hard to imagine people becoming famous worldwide with no Internet, no television and no radio.

But Vernon and Irene Castle were a dancing tour de force…and cultural icons…all by the time they were 25 years old. In most endeavours, timing is everything, and that was certainly true of the Castles, their dancing and celebrity.

Their timing on the ballroom floor changed the way the world looked at dancing…encouraging millions of people to not just watch professionals perform…but to take to the dance floor themselves. The Castles - almost single-handedly - changed dancing from a spectator pastime to a participation pastime.

Born in the latter stages of the Victorian Era - he in England in 1887 and she in New York in 1893 - they forever changed ballroom dancing, which had become a stodgy, formal pursuit mostly at galas or by performing professionals to audiences.

Instead of stiff, puritanical movements…Vernon and Irene danced close together…fluidly…making it not only acceptable but de rigueur. I use the French word meaning proper because a year after meeting in 1910, they married and left for Paris.

The duo’s chemistry, elegance and quick feet captivated audiences - first at the famous Café de Paris and then all over Europe - introducing American Ragtime music and new dances to the well-to-do, including European and Russian Royalty.

They returned to America a year later…living a lifestyle of elegance in New York City that few knew. They routinely commanded in today’s dollars the equivalent of $1,000 for a one-hour private dance lesson and as much as $35,000 for a single dance performance.

By 1917, the couple’s fame had touched almost everyone in America and millions worldwide. Enchanted fans watched and admired everything the couple did. They bought Irene’s fashions…mostly designed by her…and wore shoes like Vernon’s dancing shoes. Irene was on more Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue covers than any woman for more than a decade…she literally introduced the 1920s “Flapper” era.

Vernon and Irene Castle, 1914.
Vernon and Irene Castle, 1914.
Image Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/Library of Congress

A daily newspaper in New York - in a 72-point-type headline - proclaimed America’s acceptance of Irene’s “Castle Bob” hairstyle. There was Castle body cream, Irene’s line of hats and dresses, home and interior decorating items, modern and stylish Tuxedos for men.

Irene combined jewelry - like a string of pearls - in a hairstyle…she popularized jewelled headbands for women. She introduced the Castle Cap…a modern take on the old Dutch cap worn close over the head with wired, stand away points on each side. The Castles defined luxury, high fashion and style.

But it all started on the dance floor, and by 1914 the Castles’ best-selling book…“Modern Dancing” fuelled the world’s embrace of the couple. Irene’s pioneering spirit can be seen - not only in dancing - but in the book’s fourth chapter, titled “Modern Dance as Fashion Reformers”.

They opened Castle House - a dance studio - a nightclub with the latest live music and Sans Souci, New York City’s most fashionable restaurant. They were the toast of Broadway, as well, starring in “The Sunshine Girl” in 1913 and “Watch Your Step” in 1914. Irving Berlin wrote his first score for the Castles in “Watch Your Step”…where they made popular the Foxtrot.

They were dance innovators…developing and making popular a hands-free Tango, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Glide, the Castle Polka, the Castle Walk, the Hesitation Waltz, and the Bunny Hug, among other dances between 1913 and 1917.

The Castles inspired other professional dancers - greats like Fred Astaire - who looked very much like Vernon and even wore Castle’s old Army uniform in a 1939 biopic portraying him. The Castles motivated dancer and businessman Arthur Murray, who opened hundreds of dance studios in 22 countries…capitalizing on the informality the Castles brought to dancing.

Tragically, Vernon - a talented pilot - died in 1918 in an accident while training American fliers near Fort Worth, TX, near the end of the First World War. Irene would never dance with another partner, but she then became one of Hollywood’s leading silent film stars…making a dozen movies during the 1920s.

Irene married three more times…Robert Treman in 1919, divorcing him four years later after he squandered millions of dollars in the stock market. Later that year, she married Frederic McLaughlin, a war hero who was 16 years older than she…and they were married for 21 years.

A successful businessman, McLaughlin was the first owner of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, and Irene - always with an eye for styles - designed the team’s logo and jerseys. Two years after McLaughlin’s death in 1944, she married Chicago ad executive George Enzinger for 13 years until he died in 1959.

She spent her last 10 years unmarried, advocating for animal rights…both founding and funding the "Orphans of the Storm" animal shelter in 1928, which remains active today. She died in 1969 on her farm in Arkansas, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York…next to Vernon…with the name Irene Castle on her headstone.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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