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Vernon and Irene Castle's Ragtime Revolution

Eve Golden

Publication Year: 2007

Vernon and Irene Castle popularized ragtime dancing in the years just before World War I and made dancing a respectable pastime in America. The whisper-thin, elegant Castles were trendsetters in many ways: they traveled with a black orchestra, had an openly lesbian manager, and were animal-rights advocates decades before it became a public issue. Irene was also a fashion innovator, bobbing her hair ten years before the flapper look of the 1920s became popular. From their marriage in 1911 until 1916, the Castles were the most famous and influential dance team in the world. Their dancing schools and nightclubs were packed with society figures and white-collar workers alike. After their peak of white-hot fame, Vernon enlisted in the Royal Canadian Flying Corps, served at the front lines, and was killed in a 1918 airplane crash. Irene became a movie star and appeared in more than a dozen films between 1917 and 1922. The Castles were depicted in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), but the film omitted most of the interesting and controversial aspects of their lives. They were more complex than posterity would have it: Vernon was charming but irresponsible, Irene was strong-minded but self-centered, and the couple had filed for divorce before Vernon's death (information that has never before been made public). Vernon and Irene Castle's Ragtime Revolution is the fascinating story of a couple who reinvented dance and its place in twentieth-century culture.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

My thanks to the following people and institutions for their invaluable help: Christopher Blyth; Ken Brown (Deseronto Public Library); Paul Collins; Cornell University; John Culme (footlightnotes.tripod.com); Barbara Davis (New Rochelle Public Library); Mick Davis; Steven Dhuey; William Drew; Iris Fanger; ...

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pp. 1-3

It’s a chilly Wednesday evening in Manhattan, just above freezing, and you’re out on the town for some fun. Maybe you’re a tired businessman, an out-of-town tourist, a pretty little ribbon clerk, a bored housewife on the loose. Here you are in Times Square, bundled up in your fur or overcoat, and you want to have some drinks, a bite of food. ...

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1. Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty

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pp. 4-8

William Vernon Blyth was born in Norwich, England, on May 2, 1887, into a family of hotel keepers. His paternal grandfather, William Blyth, had since 1872 been the proprietor of Norwich’s Royal Hotel Branch, located not far from the city’s train station. When Vernon was six the hotel was rebuilt and renamed the Great Eastern. ...

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2. About Town

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pp. 9-18

Vernon’s backstage caperings while visiting his sister attracted the attention of Lew Fields, thirty-nine-year-old theatrical magnate. In the 1870s, Fields had teamed up with Joe Weber, another Jewish ghetto kid from New York’s Lower East Side. Their bumptious, rude comedy had made them stars by 1890: the taller, explosive Fields ...

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3. Only Forty-five Minutes from Broadway

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pp. 19-24

“I don’t think there’s a childhood I would trade for mine,” Irene Castle wrote late in her life. And, indeed, it seems in retrospect impossibly quaint and bucolic: a lovely hometown; upper-middle-class, eccentric parents; zany show business friends; even Irene’s constant fights with her sister sound like fairly harmless sibling rivalry. ...

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4. "We would be much happier if we just relaxed and enjoyed school life"

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pp. 25-29

All was not idyllic in the Foote family as Irene entered her teens. Her father’s homeopathy could not cure the tuberculosis that steadily weakened him and compelled the Footes to take frequent winter trips to Mexico for the dry, warm air. Mexico did not prove to be healthy for Foote’s finances: he speculated on a sugar plantation ...

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5. "I could tell by looking at him that he was not my cup of tea"

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pp. 30-32

In the summer of 1910 Vernon took rooms at a New Rochelle theatrical boardinghouse that someone had recommended to him: the famed forty-five-minute ride got him out of the city and to a quaint town with a quiet, small-town atmosphere, congenial friends, and much cleaner air than Manhattan. It was there—at the Rowing Club ...

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6. Zowie, "the Monarch of Mystery"

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pp. 33-36

By the late summer of 1910, Irene’s campaign had begun: she was fond of Vernon and found him an agreeable, amusing companion, but at this stage he was mostly a step up the show business ladder. “He was very nice about it, but, as I remember, he showed no particular enthusiasm,” she admitted. ...

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7. "They liked to test out their guns"

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pp. 37-40

Actress Elsie Janis wrote bluntly of the Castles in her memoirs: “Vernon was the most tactful person I ever knew! Irene the least! The result was that women, unless they knew her well, were not terribly enthusiastic about her. To know her well was about as easy as getting chummy with the Sphinx!” Janis eventually did become friends with Irene, ...

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8. Enfin . . . une Revue

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pp. 41-44

Enfin . . . une Revue (which means, appropriately enough, Finally . . . a Revue) was a hodgepodge in two very long acts, divided into seven tableaux. Vernon’s barbershop sketch, performed in act 1, did not go over well at all with French audiences (of course, his new partner may not have had the comic timing and skills of a Lew Fields). ...

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9. "I saw the fat years ahead"

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pp. 45-50

By mid-April 1912, Vernon and Irene had accomplished as much in Paris as they felt they were going to. Irene was homesick for America, and Vernon wanted to get back to New York to pick up the shreds of his old career and see if he could incorporate this new dancing business into it. That May, Irene received a cable from her mother: ...

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10. Everybody's Doing It

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pp. 51-57

To understand why the Castles became such a phenomenon, it’s important to see that they came along at exactly the right time: in the early 1910s, in New York, just as ragtime music was catching its second wind and ragtime dancing was spreading like wildfire. Had they met and married five years earlier or five years later, they would ...

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11. "Two adolescent palm trees"

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pp. 58-62

In the autumn of 1912, an opportunity arose for the Castles to gain some public notice. In September, producer Charles Dillingham signed Vernon to appear in The Lady of the Slipper, a musical comedy retelling of Cinderella. Twenty-three-year-old rising star Elsie Janis was cast in the leading role, with the comedy team of Montgomery ...

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12. "Gowns are more or less a business with me"

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pp. 63-67

Not having succeeded in turning Elsie de Wolfe into a star, Elisabeth Marbury set her sights on Irene Castle: twenty years old, slim as a reed, with perfect “camera bones” and a sense of self-entitlement worthy of an opera diva, Irene was material ready for the molding. Marbury was well aware of the popularity of publicity photos ...

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13. "The best dancing music in the world"

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pp. 68-72

If Elisabeth Marbury invented and promoted the Castles’ look and public profile, James Reese Europe was largely responsible for their sound. The composer, musician, and bandleader was an imposing figure: tall, solidly built, with a stern, serious gaze. He was born in 1880 in Mobile, Alabama, to a former slave (his father, who later went to ...

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14. "More like a pair of schoolchildren"

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pp. 73-77

A good many dance teams came and went without leaving a permanent mark on history. Who today remembers Frances Demarest and Joseph C. Smith, Jack Jarrott and Louise Alexander, or the Marvelous Millers? Still, many soon-to-be-famous personalities made their debuts as imitation Castles. The teenaged brother-sister team ...

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15. "Syncopation rules the nation"

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pp. 78-85

As the Castles’ triumphant year of 1914 dawned, they took temporary leave of New York for a trip up to Boston, where they danced at Copley Hall, the Hotel Somerset, and half a dozen private parties. Irene showed off a brilliant new emerald green and black gown, and both Castles showed off their maxixe step, which garnered “screams of ‘brava.’” ...

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16. "The Most Talked About House in New York"

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pp. 86-94

The Castles had fame, cachet, lots of work coming in—but they needed a “command post,” a focal point to serve as a gathering place and magnet for their growing cult of followers (and a place to attract the all-important press, as well). That’s how the idea of Castle House, a combination club and dancing school, was born. ...

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17. "Dancing with Vernon was as easy as swimming with water wings"

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pp. 95-101

Eager to take advantage of the Castles’ wave of popularity, Elisabeth Marbury instituted what would today be called a multimedia blitz. In the spring of 1914, movie cameras were set up at Castle House before a small audience of invited friends, and Vernon and Irene went through half a dozen or so steps. The short film was released ...

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18. "The spirit of success . . . oozes from these two young people"

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pp. 102-105

The money went out as fast as it came in. In the spring of 1914, Vernon bought the Ely estate on Manhasset Bay, near Long Island Sound. An upscale area rich in fishing, boating, and horseback riding, Manhasset Bay was a lovely spot for weekend relaxation, convenient enough to the city for quick getaways. Although the area had been served ...

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19. "The Castles Are Coming! Hooray! Hooray!"

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pp. 106-115

As the Castles’ profile rose in early 1914, Elisabeth Marbury came up with a new scheme, one that would earn them more money and publicity than a regular vaudeville tour: the Castles would dance from city to city, from coast to coast. In the1939 biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, their 1914 Whirlwind Tour was cleverly depicted ...

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20. "We were both miserable on those vaudeville tours"

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pp. 116-123

Vernon and Irene were hoping to spend the summer of 1914 recovering from their Whirlwind Tour while spending some of their profits in Europe. Paris, Deauville, perhaps a night or two of dancing to pay for their passage. They sailed on July 18, aboard the Imperator, despite rumblings in the newspapers about “the situation” in Europe. ...

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21. "Their enthusiastic followers never . . . go to bed at all"

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pp. 124-129

Vernon and Irene had plenty to occupy themselves with and take their minds off the recent debacles in vaudeville and in print. In November 1914 they found themselves in Syracuse, trying out the Broadway-bound musical comedy Watch Your Step, the first nonrevue show with songs by Irving Berlin. ...

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22. "Mrs. Castle is exhausted"

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pp. 130-133

All was not well with Irene, and in late January 1915, she vanished from the cast of Watch Your Step at the height of its early popularity. Was she sick? Was she in a snit? Were she and Vernon on the verge of a split? Newspapers put forth all of these theories, as Vernon stated that she was “resting” at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in New York, ...

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23. "Castles in the subway,/Castles in the 'L'"

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pp. 134-139

The summer of 1915 was to have been a leisurely one, with Vernon and Irene peacefully enjoying their Long Island home, being interviewed and photographed, attending horse shows and dog shows and automobile shows. But Vernon got a big idea, put into his head by first-time film producers John and Edward Cort. ...

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24. "Oh, give me a gun and let me run to fight the foreign foe"

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pp. 140-147

Ever since the Castles had returned from Europe in August 1914, the war had been preying on Vernon’s mind. In December 1914, he and Irene had danced in aid of Belgian relief, and when they reopened Castle House for the season that month, first-day receipts went to the same cause. In the spring of 1915, a dance was held for the Blue Cross ...

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25. "When I get old I shall be able to tell our children all about the Great War"

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pp. 148-160

While Vernon was finishing up his Watch Your Step contract and taking flying lessons, the war was grinding on. Often called the “first twentieth-century war,” it combined the fresh enthusiastic patriotism of the nineteenth century with the horrible new weapons of the twentieth (Vernon’s beloved planes among them). ...

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26. "Kiss all the pets for me, dear"

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pp. 161-163

When he wasn’t complaining about missing his “mate” or passing along (nonsensitive) war news, Vernon wrote about his animals. A lot. Mostly his German shepherd, Tell, and his monkey, Rastus, both of whom he seemed to miss as much as he did Irene: “Kiss all the pets for me, dear, and tell Rastus his Daddy loves him.” ...

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27. "A super motion picture of . . . epoch-making magnificence"

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pp. 164-175

On March 31, Irene hosted a Mrs. Castle Cabaret affair for the110th Battalion, which was shipping out the next day. She auctioned off a dance with herself, and proceeds from the evening went to buy camp equipment. She was also feted by the American Legion and by Burton’s Bantams, a regiment of men under five feet tall. ...

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28. "He was out to see the Kaiser defeated"

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pp. 176-179

In late February 1917, Irene sailed again for England to see Vernon, who was able to get a week’s leave in London. It was a terrible, stormy crossing, rife with fears of submarines, and no Vernon to greet her at the pier. Fearing him dead or injured, she fretfully took the train to London, where she found his leave had been postponed at the last minute. ...

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29. "An hour's pleasant diversion"

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pp. 180-183

The success of Patria boded well for Irene’s career: in April 1917, she was signed by Pathé, the American branch of the successful French company, to appear in feature films. “I consider the engagement of Mrs. Castle one of the most important steps we have taken,” said Pathé’s general manager, J. A. Berst. ...

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30. I Love My Wife, but Oh, You Kid!

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pp. 184-189

Vernon arrived in New York in the early spring of 1917 tanned, lean, dashingly uniformed, and hobbling slightly on his walking stick, to find Irene commuting between their Lexington Avenue home and the Astra Studios in Fort Lee. He was eager to sample the New York nightlife but had to do so mostly by himself, as Irene had to be ...

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31. "Never in my life have I been subjected to such humiliation"

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pp. 190-193

The year 1917 is generally seen as the year ragtime died and jazz was born: ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin died on April 1, and the Original Dixieland Jass (later Jazz) Band’s “One Step” and “Livery Stable Blues” were recorded on February 26. It was not to be a good year for Irene. ...

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32. "His plane dove straight into the ground"

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pp. 194-196

Much to the dismay of Vernon and Gwen, the fliers of Camp Mohawk packed up their kits as the fall of 1917 approached and shipped off to Camp Taliaferro in Benbrook, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth, where the winter climate was warm enough to enable them to continue training. Jeffrey and Vernon's bright yellow roadster and drums ...

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33. "Death is nothing to me, sweetheart"

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pp. 197-205

That afternoon, Irene was at home on Lexington Avenue with her secretary, Mrs. Wagner (“Waggie” to Irene). According to her production schedule, she had probably just returned from Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she’d been filming The Girl from Bohemia. Irene was amusing herself with a pet parrot when Mrs. Wagner answered the phone.

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34. "Robert was sweet, sympathetic, and besides he did all of my bidding"

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pp. 206-208

It was very shortly after Vernon’s death that Irene began keeping company with the man who would become her second husband—a handsome thirty-year-old scion of Ithaca society named Robert Treman. Some newspaper stories claimed that Irene and Treman had been childhood friends, that their fathers had known one another. ...

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35. "A well-known dancing dame"

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pp. 209-215

In October 1918, Irene sailed for England, ostensibly to appear in a film for the Red Cross, which never came to fruition. Leaving her new husband behind, she also planned to visit hospitals and raise funds for the wounded. But rather than making a public name for herself as a Lady Bountiful, Irene unexpectedly found herself the subject of ...

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36. "Poor Irene Castle. She certainly isn't what she used to be"

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pp. 216-222

Having enjoyed such brilliant success so young, Irene felt herself old and outdated before her time. She saw herself as a dancer, not an actress, even though she might easily have continued her acting career had she wished to take smaller character parts. Other actresses born in the early 1890s found fame in the 1910s and held onto ...

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37. "Jazs, jazz, jazz! . . . The paradings of savages"

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pp. 223-227

Irene was nothing if not realistic, and she saw that she was never going to make her fortune as an actress. Her real reputation and talent was as a dancer. As early as 1920 she was talking about forming a vaudeville act, and that same year she was in negotiations with British producer Charles Cohran about doing a revue in London ...

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38. "To Chicago high society, she was a chorus girl"

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pp. 228-233

When Irene and Billy Reardon sailed for Europe in 1923, Robert Treman did not accompany them. There had been published rumors of the Tremans’ separation as early as mid-1921 which were denied by both parties. In November of that year, Irene completely lost her temper with one reporter, winning her no friends in the press: ...

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39. Orphans of the Storm

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pp. 234-236

After her marriage to Frederic McLaughlin, Irene ramped up her animal rights activities, denouncing cruelty at horse and dog shows, visiting animal shelters, speaking at the Maryland and New York Anti-Vivisection societies. She resigned in tears from the Humane Society in 1930 after steamrolling over the gentler feelings of longtime ...

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40. "What do you do for an encore to what they had?"

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pp. 237-241

In the early 1930s, as her third marriage continued to fall apart, Irene began looking about for something more to do than shill for Cutex nail polish and Corticelli Silk. Even her animal rights crusades didn’t seem to fill her life, and certainly she was a hands-off mother. Irene began looking wistfully back at her career. ...

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41. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

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pp. 242-247

One thing that did make Irene happy in the 1930s was the return of couples dancing, with the advent of swing, boogie-woogie, and big band music. Still, she found fault: “As an exhibition this Shagging and Trucking is amusing enough,” she said. “Some of the youngsters perform amazing athletic feats, but you can’t call it dancing. ...

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42. "Isn't old age awful!"

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pp. 248-252

Marriages, births, and deaths punctuated Irene’s life through the 1940s. Her daughter, Barbara, married Irving Kreutz in 1943 at eighteen; they gave Irene four grandchildren (three girls, Mary Nichole, Charlotte, and Elizabeth, and a boy, Gregg). “I think Mother was a bit disappointed none were named after her,” ...

Appendix: Stage and Film Appearances of Vernon and Irene Castle

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pp. 253-267


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pp. 268-297


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pp. 298-301


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pp. 302-315

PHOTO INSERT follows page 315

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813172699
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124599

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2007