Classic Film Tours: Vernon & Irene Castle
Long before Fred and Ginger, Vernon and Irene Castle were hailed as an exceptionally talented dance duo. Though tragedy ended their partnership, her influence as a dancer and Irene’s activism lives on.
Irene Foote was born on April 17, 1893 in New Rochelle, New York. Her father was a doctor and her mother a housewife. As Foote grew, she developed an interest in dancing and studied the arts, attending a variety of performances before meeting the established dancer and comedian Vernon Blyth. The two were featured at the New Rochelle Rowing Club and with his influence, Foote was hired for her first professional dance role in “The Summer Widwers”. Their friendship quickly turned into a romance, which she married on May 28, 1911 in New Rochelle.
Blyth worked under the stage name Vernon Castle, which Irene took over when they started performing together. They worked in The Henne-Pecks (1911) and toured Paris, performing numerous American ragtime dances, including the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. They returned to New York with a great roar and found that they were in great demand both on stage and in film. They appeared regularly on Broadway, including roles in Irving Berlins Be careful where you step (1914), for which he wrote his first score with a view of the castles. On the way, the castles popularized the foxtrot.
In the same year the Castles opened their dance school in New York with the “Castle House”. They also opened a restaurant called Sans Souci, as well as the Castles by the Sea nightclub in Long Beach, New York. During the day they taught at Castle House, at night they performed in their night club. They also offered private lessons and performances at parties.
In addition to their success as a team, the castles made the tight dance to ragtime and jazz respectable. Irene even became a popular fashion trendsetter, presenting short, wide skirts and loose corsets, and often designing clothes herself. She is also credited with bringing the bob to America.
Although Vernon and Irene never had children, they loved animals and had numerous pets. Many of these animals took out animals they had rescued. Among her many pups – including a beloved dog named Zowie – was a pet monkey. They eventually bought a property near Long Island Sound with kennels and stables for their 24 dogs, 5 horses, a donkey and many more animals.
Sadly, Vernon died in a plane crash at the age of 30 after sailing to England to enlist as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps during WWI. Irene wrote My husband as a tribute to Vernon.
Irene would marry three more times after Vernon and have two children with Fredric McLaughlin, the founding owner of the Chicago Blackhawks. After moving to Chicago, Irene was credited with designing the original sweater for the Blackhawks Hockey Club.
In addition to dancing, Irene invested heavily in animal rights activism. She founded the Orphans of the Storm shelter, named after DW Griffiths Orphans of the storm (1921), in Deerfield, Illinois, with an aim to save the lives of Chicago animals and bring them to loving homes.
Irene died at her Arkansas home on January 25, 1959, at the age of 75. Vernon and Irene are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York. At the time of Vernon’s death, Irene was posing for the plaque for the weeping ballet dancer entitled “End of the Day”.
Today the castles are honored in a variety of ways. The history of the castles was made into a film entitled The story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Despite serving as the technical advisor for the film, Irene quarreled with Rogers, who refused to wear Castle’s bob or darken her hair. Castle also opposed casting white actor Walter Brennan as the servant of the Castles in the film, who was black in real life.
The castles split their time between residences in Long Island and New York City, with a townhouse on Lexington Ave. 120 in New York. Here is the property today:
Vernon’s crash site now has a memorial in his honor in Benbrook, Texas. It can be found after taking I-20 Exit 429 onto US 337 / Benbrook Blvd, just over a mile south and then left on Sproles Drive.
In 1954, Irene and her fourth husband moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and lived on the Destiny Farm. The sign that Irene helped design is still there.
Seven of Irene’s many pets were interred in the castle grounds in Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, New York. Every pet has a special epitaph. Her beloved Zowie reads:
To my dear Zowie.
I’m not so scared of death
Since you left, my dearest friend,
Your dear, stupid soul will be waiting for me.
Long before the end, however.
Orphans of the Storm, Irene’s pride and joy, is still active today. As her mission progresses, little is celebrated and discussed other than a short YouTube video about her history and connection to Castle. My inquiries about her story went unanswered and unfortunately the name Irene Castle didn’t seem to ring with the staff. Nonetheless, I think Irene would be delighted if her work continued as orphaned animals continue to be adopted on a regular basis. During my visits, I enjoyed playing with the cats and giving them a few extra pats – especially one called “Pigeon” I’m pretty clingy! Unfortunately I was unable to adopt a pet at the time, but I’m happy to say that my favorite cat is now in a happy home. (… and I’ve since adopted a cute dog!)
Even if the castles are not discussed as often today, their influence on dance and their commitment to animal welfare lives on.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek writes our monthly column Classic Movie Travels. Here you can read all the articles on Annette’s classic travel films.
Annette Bochenek from Chicago, Illinois is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent researcher on Hollywood’s Golden Age. She runs the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, where she writes about her travels exploring the legacies and hometowns of the stars of the Golden Age. Annette also moderates the film series “Hometowns to Hollywood” in the entire Chicago area. She has appeared in Turner Classic Movies and is the President of the Chicago Chapter of TCM Backlot. Not only does she write for Classic Movie Hub, but also for Quarterly silent film, Nostalgia digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.