Vernon and Irene Castle were a husband-and-wife team of ballroom dancers of the early 20th century. They are credited with invigorating the popularity of modern dancing. Vernon Castle (May 2, 1887 - February 15, 1918) was born William Vernon Blyth in Norwich, Norfolk, England. Irene Castle (April 17, 1893 - January 25, 1969) was born Irene Foote in New Rochelle, New York.
Vernon, the son of a publican, was raised in Norwich initially training to become a civil engineer. He moved to New York in 1906 with his sister Coralie Blyth and her husband Lawrence Grossmith both established actors. There he was given a small part by Lew Fields, which led to further work and he became established as a comic actor and conjuror.
The Castles' initial fame began in Paris, where they introduced American ragtime dances, such as the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. When the Castles returned to the U.S., their success was repeated on a far wider scale. Making their New York debut in 1912 at a branch of the Cafe de Paris, operated by Louis Martin, who had given them their start in Paris, the duo were soon in demand on stage, in vaudeville and in motion pictures.
In 1914, the couple opened a dancing school in New York called "Castle House", a nightclub called "Castles By the Sea" on the Boardwalk in Long Beach, New York, and a restaurant, "Sans Souci." At Castle House, they taught New York society the latest dance steps by day, and greeted guests and performed at their club and cafe by night. They also were in demand for private lessons and appearances at fashionable parties. Despite their fame, they often found themselves treated as hired menials; if a rich client was too demanding, Vernon would quote a fee of a thousand dollars an hour for lessons and often get it.
The Castles appeared in a newsreel called Social and Theatrical Dancing in 1914 and wrote a bestselling instructional book, Modern Dancing, later the same year. The pair also starred in a feature film called The Whirl of Life (1915), which was well-received by critics and public alike. As the couple's celebrity increased in the mid-1910s, Irene Castle became a major fashion trendsetter, initiating the vogue for bobbed hair and shorter skirts. Her chic wardrobe was supplied almost exclusively by the couturiere "Lucile", (Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon) but Irene also designed some of her clothes herself.
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.
The Castles endorsed Victor Records and Victrolas, issuing records by the Castle House Orchestra, led by James Reese Europe –– a pioneering figure in Black music. They also lent their names to advertising for other merchandising products, from cigars and cosmetics to shoes and hats.
The Castles' greatest success was on Broadway, in Irving Berlin's debut musical Watch Your Step (1914). In this extravaganza, the couple refined and popularized the Foxtrot, which vaudeville comedian Harry Fox is believed to have invented. After its New York run, Watch Your Step toured through 1916.
Vernon returned to the UK to become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. Flying over the Western Front he shot down two aircraft and was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1917. He was posted to Canada to train new pilots, and then promoted to Captain and posted to the US to train American pilots. While flying at Benbrook Field, near Fort Worth, Texas, he took emergency action shortly after take off to avoid another aircraft. His plane stalled, and he was unable to recover control in time before the plane hit the ground. Vernon was the only casualty. Fatally injured, he died soon after the crash, on . Irene paid tribute to Vernon in her memoir My Husband, 1919. There is a street in Benbrook named in his honor. Also placed on the street is a monument dedicated to him. Vernon was buried in New York.
Irene starred solo in about a dozen silent films between 1917 and 1924 and appeared in several stage productions before retiring from show business. She married three more times –– to Robert Treman, Frederic McLaughlin, and George Enzinger.
Around 1930, "the best-dressed woman in America" presented a radio dramatisation of her European travels with her husband, bulldog Zowie and Walter ("father's coloured servant") around the capitals of Europe in "The Life of Irene Castle". Only one episode is known to still exist.
In 1939, her life with Vernon was turned into a movie, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, produced by RKO and starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Irene served as a technical advisor on the film, but clashed with Rogers, who refused to cut or color her hair or to wear authentic reproductions of Castle's Lucile dresses. She also objected to white actor Walter Brennan playing their servant: "Walter was BLACK".
For the rest of her life, Irene was a staunch animal-rights activist, ultimately founding the Illinois animal shelter "Orphans of the Storm", which is still active.
In 1958, Irene appeared as a guest challenger on the TV panel show "To Tell The Truth".
Irene died .
Irene Castle modeling fashions of 1916-1917 in Woman as Decoration by Emily Burbank, 1917.
"Mrs. Vernon Castle who set to-day's fashion in outline of costume and short hair for the young woman of America. For this reason and because Mrs. Castle has form to a superlative degree (correct carriage of the body) and the clothes sense (knowledge of what she can wear and how to wear it) we have selected her to illustrate several types of costumes, characteristic of 1916 and 1917."