If the name Astaire doesn’t mean anything to you, then skip this story. My inspiration for writing about Fred Astaire came as a result of a new book about the wonderful dancer-singer and his sister Adele. Kathleen Riley’s “The Astaires” was very revealing to me. I learned that stage partners Adele and Fred enjoyed a successful career together for 27 years. What? Well, it did get an early start. He was five and she was eight. She was the undisputed star of the duo. Recently I saw several videos of Fred dancing with all his various partners: Rita, Cyd, Paulette, Vera Ellen, Nanette, Eleanor and Jane Powell, Judy, and Leslie. His other partners included numerous couches and chairs, several tables, a coat rack and, would you believe, a ceiling. Of course, Ginger Rogers was considered Astaire’s best partner in spite of the fact that the others were all good and gorgeous. Ginger, always magnificently dressed, topped them all. In “The Gay Divorcee,” I was mesmerized watching on TV Astaire seducing a resistant Ginger with their duets. Their musical togetherness was tops, solid, and funny fluff. Fred had astounding physical abilities and singlehandedly redefined the notion of grace. In his classic films like “Springtime,” “Roberta,” and “Shall We Dance,” Astaire pursued his partner around the dance floor with the wit of changing rhythm, sometimes syncopated, sometimes right on the beat. Watching, I wonder when he paused to breathe. It’s surprising to learn that Astaire’s career in Hollywood didn’t have a promising start. I don’t know if this is apocryphal, but one top executive once was said to have remarked about his screen test, “He can’t act, slightly bald, and also dances.” Ha! David O. Selznick, however, was charmed by Astaire despite “his enormous ears and bad chin line.” I guess the rest is really history. Gee, I would love to live in the world of Astaire’s films, where just around the corner lays a gleaming art deco ballroom and an invisible orchestra just in case one feels like dancing (I always feel like dancing!). Kathleen Riley’s new book “The Astaires” is like a love story between a sister and brother, one bonded in blood but cemented in hoofing. The author’s tale includes a relentlessly devoted stage mother. She was concerned about her frail little boy and enrolled him in the local dancing school hoping that it would strengthen him. It all took many years of practice for the duo to become the toast of the town. When Adele retired to marry into British aristocracy, the press wondered if Fred would have a career of his own after losing his sister. One critic contended, “Two Astaires are better than one.” Actually, the dapper dancer resisted teaming with Ginger Rogers and then went on to make 10 movies with her, thereby putting on celluloid the best dancing films to date. Thank goodness! I’ve seen them all and even a couple more than once. Sadly, there’s no footage of Fred and Adele dancing together. After three decades with his sister, Fred was driven in part by the belief that he was “a detriment” to her. Actually Fred became an artist of the highest order. If you are intrigued about this sister and brother, you’ll enjoy “The Astaires,” and you can thrill to Fred’s spectacular dancing by renting a DVD of his films.
When I heard about “Girls,” HBO’s new half-hour sitcom, I was interested for a very personal reason. I have three granddaughters who, in the next couple of years, will be finishing up their college studies. In “Girls,” the show has four characters: Lean Dunham’s Hannah, whose parents have cut her off financially; her responsible friend Marnie (Allison Williams, Brian Williams’ daughter); her irresponsible buddy Jessa (Kirke, the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke); plus Jessa’s innocent cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, David’s daughter). I needed to “get” the characters – four friends adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas. Dunham is the creator, star, writer and director (who can believe that from a 24-year-old?). Unlike many women on TV, Dunham is short and pear-shaped with a tattoo on her back. She lets herself look like hell with her skin breaking out, her belly in folds, her chin doubled. She is at once hilarious and real. “Girls” is a show about life lived as a rough draft, something well-intentioned, possibly promising, actually acclimatizing its audience to vagina jokes. I frequently cringed and covered my eyes while peeking at the television screen but of course, I’m a grandmother. Some might call it a new “Sex and the City.” I don’t see it that way. I see it as a post-“Sex and the City,” with an aesthetic that’s raw and bruised. Dunham’s show takes as its subjects women who are quite demographically specific – cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds. The comedy, which didn’t make me laugh too much, is a gritty and extremely blunt portrayal of life post-college in New York. “Girls” manages to convey real female friendships, the angst of emerging adulthood, nuanced relationships, sexuality, self-esteem, body image, intimacy in a tech-savvy world. It highlights the bloodlust of surviving New York on very little money and the modern parenting of entitled children all laced together with humor and poignancy. For me, it’s graphic and unsettling – too explicit. “Girls” is a difficult show to love. I don’t plan to keep watching.
When I was a very young girl, I had a crush on a grown-up man. It was hard for me to understand, since it was certainly not his looks. He wasn’t handsome. In fact, he was rotund, almost bald, and smoked smelly cigars. It was the sound of his voice and what he said and the way he said it that attracted me. All of this came to my mind recently when I learned that one of my favorite museums, the Morgan Library and Museum at Madison Avenue and 36th Street in New York, has an exposition called “Churchill – The Power of Words.” Yes, Winston Churchill was the man whose speeches thrilled me. In retrospect, how visionary he was in knowing what would happen and in understanding what price would be paid. Churchill, a master of words and ideas, rallied his “great island nation” as prime minister with promises of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” At the Morgan, the exhibition enables the viewer to get a sense of what his wartime leadership meant. More than 60 documents and artifacts have been gathered and it’s a wonderful opportunity to see them on public display. One would suppose that Churchill had an easy childhood. Quite the contrary; it was a difficult one. His wealthy Brooklyn-born mother and neglectful titled father sent him boarding school at eight. It was funny to see a report card in which he is described as “a constant trouble to everybody.” Yet the adventurer and historian evolved. Among other awards, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. The show at the Morgan explores his use of the spoken and written word. On display are the Victorian childhood letters to his parents and his cold correspondence with President Eisenhower. It features some of his most famous oratory. If you can get to the Morgan Library and Museum, there’s so much more to be enjoyed there. There are two things I look for in every museum: one is the ladies’ room, and the other is the dining area. The Morgan has a casual café but the dining room is the original Morgan family dining room. It feels very special to eat there. The food is secondary. And the ladies’ room is clean.
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