By Joseph Epstein
224 pages; Yale University Press
Frederick Austerlitz II, a.k.a. Fred Astaire, had a long face and Dumbo ears and wore a toupee. He weighed 130 pounds and was ashamed of his ploughman's hands. Not what immediately springs to mind when one thinks of the guy who always gets the girl. In Fred Astaire (Yale University Press), Joseph Epstein sets out to discover what made this unlikely movie star "sublime." Fredophiles already know: He was born in Nebraska in 1899, three years after his sister, Adele. Mom whisked the babes off to New York for dancing lessons when Fred was 5. Adele was the blithe beautiful natural. Fred had to work at it. In 1918 they landed on Broadway. Noël Coward caught their act and convinced them to bring it to England, where Astaire discovered Savile Row and a mid-Atlantic accent. Epstein writes like an insider chatting over mai tais at the Brown Derby. Unlike Astaire, he doesn't mind stepping on toes. Fred made 10 movies with Ginger Rogers, the last nine reluctantly. Her technique wasn't as polished as his. Blue ostrich feathers from one dress went up his nose. Although Astaire had a one-octave range, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins considered him "a composer's singer." On film he danced 100 dances in 33 musicals. If Astaire had looked like Cary Grant, we might have loved him less. An imperfect man created perfection. Sublime? Night and day, he is the one.