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Puttin' On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography

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Fred Astaire defined elegance on the dance floor. With white tie, tails and a succession of elegant partners - Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland and others - he created an indelible image of the Anglo bon vivant. His origins, though, were far more humble:  Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire came from Midwestern stock that partially Fred Astaire defined elegance on the dance floor. With white tie, tails and a succession of elegant partners - Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland and others - he created an indelible image of the Anglo bon vivant. His origins, though, were far more humble:  Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire came from Midwestern stock that partially had its origin in the late nineteenth century Jewish communities of Austria.  At first, he played second fiddle in vaudeville to his sister, Adele; however, once he learned how to tap and bought his first Brooks Brothers suit, the game changed. How did he transform himself from a small town Nebraska boy into the most sophisticated man ever to dance across a dance floor?  In this comprehensive new book about the life and artistry of Fred Astaire, Peter Levinson looks carefully at the entirety of Astaire's career from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood to television.  He explores Astaire’s relationships with his vivacious dance partners, his friendship with songwriters like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and his relationship with choreographers like Hermes Pan to discover how Astaire, in effect, created his elegant persona.  Astaire put his mark on the Hollywood musical, starting his career at RKO and then moving to MGM.  From his long list of films, certain classics like "Swing Time", "Top Hat", “Royal Wedding” and "The Bandwagon" revolutionized the presentation of dance on film; but, he also revolutionized the television variety special with the Emmy-Award-Winning “An Evening With Fred Astaire”.  For ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz”, veteran Hollywood insider, Peter Levinson interviewed over two hundred people who worked closely with Astaire such as Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Artie Shaw, Bobby Short, Oscar Peterson, Mel Ferrer, Betty Garrett, Joel Grey, Arlene Dahl, Michael Kidd, Betty Comden, Onna White, Margaret Whiting, Andy Williams, and others like Quincy Jones, John Travolta, and John Williams, to provide an intimate window on to his professional as well as his personal life. His new biography of Astaire is a celebration of the great era of sophistication on Broadway and in Hollywood as seen through the life of a man who learned how to put on the Ritz and become America’s premiere song-and-dance-man: Fred Astaire.


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Fred Astaire defined elegance on the dance floor. With white tie, tails and a succession of elegant partners - Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland and others - he created an indelible image of the Anglo bon vivant. His origins, though, were far more humble:  Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire came from Midwestern stock that partially Fred Astaire defined elegance on the dance floor. With white tie, tails and a succession of elegant partners - Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland and others - he created an indelible image of the Anglo bon vivant. His origins, though, were far more humble:  Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire came from Midwestern stock that partially had its origin in the late nineteenth century Jewish communities of Austria.  At first, he played second fiddle in vaudeville to his sister, Adele; however, once he learned how to tap and bought his first Brooks Brothers suit, the game changed. How did he transform himself from a small town Nebraska boy into the most sophisticated man ever to dance across a dance floor?  In this comprehensive new book about the life and artistry of Fred Astaire, Peter Levinson looks carefully at the entirety of Astaire's career from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood to television.  He explores Astaire’s relationships with his vivacious dance partners, his friendship with songwriters like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and his relationship with choreographers like Hermes Pan to discover how Astaire, in effect, created his elegant persona.  Astaire put his mark on the Hollywood musical, starting his career at RKO and then moving to MGM.  From his long list of films, certain classics like "Swing Time", "Top Hat", “Royal Wedding” and "The Bandwagon" revolutionized the presentation of dance on film; but, he also revolutionized the television variety special with the Emmy-Award-Winning “An Evening With Fred Astaire”.  For ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz”, veteran Hollywood insider, Peter Levinson interviewed over two hundred people who worked closely with Astaire such as Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Artie Shaw, Bobby Short, Oscar Peterson, Mel Ferrer, Betty Garrett, Joel Grey, Arlene Dahl, Michael Kidd, Betty Comden, Onna White, Margaret Whiting, Andy Williams, and others like Quincy Jones, John Travolta, and John Williams, to provide an intimate window on to his professional as well as his personal life. His new biography of Astaire is a celebration of the great era of sophistication on Broadway and in Hollywood as seen through the life of a man who learned how to put on the Ritz and become America’s premiere song-and-dance-man: Fred Astaire.

30 review for Puttin' On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    If you ask someone what movie star epitomized class, you would probably get answers like Cary Grant or Ronald Coleman. For me it was and always will be Fred Astaire. Class doesn't always mean looks since Astaire was a rather odd looking man.....big ears, lantern jaw, and a receding hairline that gave way to an unattractive toupee.......but he had a style that made those things unimportant. How many men can wear brown suede wing tip shoes and get away with it? He was the best dressed man in Holly If you ask someone what movie star epitomized class, you would probably get answers like Cary Grant or Ronald Coleman. For me it was and always will be Fred Astaire. Class doesn't always mean looks since Astaire was a rather odd looking man.....big ears, lantern jaw, and a receding hairline that gave way to an unattractive toupee.......but he had a style that made those things unimportant. How many men can wear brown suede wing tip shoes and get away with it? He was the best dressed man in Hollywood and his reticent personality was charming.I don't think I have to mention that he also danced!!!! But this is supposed to be a review of the book and not the man and I must say I was somewhat disappointed. Since he was such an extremely private person it must have made it difficult to write his biography. But the author puts a ridiculous amount of verbiage into this book and it is dry as dust since it really doesn't reveal the man that was Astaire. Plus I found a couple of errors which immediately puts me off any book. It is not a terrible book but it isn't very good either.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ed

    A terrific book for what it is [italics mine:]. I had checked it out intending only to skim a few chapters about the Astaire movies I've seen and enjoyed, but ended up reading nearly every section. It's easy to read, contains a wealth of perspectives from those who knew the amazing Astaire, and, much to my liking, it deals with each movie, TV special, and record album individually, which makes books about celebrities much more interesting than those books that give short shrift to the works whil A terrific book for what it is [italics mine:]. I had checked it out intending only to skim a few chapters about the Astaire movies I've seen and enjoyed, but ended up reading nearly every section. It's easy to read, contains a wealth of perspectives from those who knew the amazing Astaire, and, much to my liking, it deals with each movie, TV special, and record album individually, which makes books about celebrities much more interesting than those books that give short shrift to the works while focusing on the minutiae of a person's life. But to each his own, you say tomato, I say, well I say tomato, too, but you get the point.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Maj

    Phew! Getting through this book was quite a feat! On the one hand there was a wealth of (sometimes differing) opinions and recollections from people who worked with or knew Fred Astaire, on the other hand, a lot of stuff repeated itself. I noticed the author died in 2008 and the book was released in 2009. With the benefit of not knowing his other work I'm going to be generous and assume the literal too-much-information-ness of the book is a result of insufficient editing on the author's part which Phew! Getting through this book was quite a feat! On the one hand there was a wealth of (sometimes differing) opinions and recollections from people who worked with or knew Fred Astaire, on the other hand, a lot of stuff repeated itself. I noticed the author died in 2008 and the book was released in 2009. With the benefit of not knowing his other work I'm going to be generous and assume the literal too-much-information-ness of the book is a result of insufficient editing on the author's part which he was not able to complete - and whoever was in charge of the book before it got released probably didn't feel qualified enough to sift through it all. But I have to say I mainly read he book for the behind the scenes info on Astaire's films and TV things and in that regard it served quite well. And for that reason I go above an average rating for this book, but just a smidge. (Btw, I personally didn't mind an entire chapter devoted to the way Fred dressed, it was perhaps the shortest one anyway.)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    A thorough, but ultimately dull book about Fred Astaire. It focuses primarily on his life as performer, with just inklings of his family life once he married. The author did a complete job of interviewing or reading others accounts of Astaire, as if there's a topic like whether he was cheap, a variety of opinions can be trotted out to speak just to frugality, or his contributions of charity. It's ok A thorough, but ultimately dull book about Fred Astaire. It focuses primarily on his life as performer, with just inklings of his family life once he married. The author did a complete job of interviewing or reading others accounts of Astaire, as if there's a topic like whether he was cheap, a variety of opinions can be trotted out to speak just to frugality, or his contributions of charity. It's ok

  5. 4 out of 5

    Deb

    Initially, I was bored with the detailed descriptions of his choreography. Then I realized many of the dance scenes were on You Tube. So I was able to read the description, then watch the actual dance.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    It was good but, holy cow, was it long.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    **#57 of 120 books pledged to read during 2017**

  8. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    Alright, I'm throwing in the towel on this one. I've relaxed my stance on finishing books recently, and as such I stopped at 132 pages and decided I couldn't go any further. The writing is just too awful. I wrote down a list of problems on sticky notes in the back of the book as I read, as follows: + Terrible sources/documentation/repeats unreliable information. + References Astaire possibly being homophobic? Who accused him of this and why? Why would you casually throw that line in there without Alright, I'm throwing in the towel on this one. I've relaxed my stance on finishing books recently, and as such I stopped at 132 pages and decided I couldn't go any further. The writing is just too awful. I wrote down a list of problems on sticky notes in the back of the book as I read, as follows: + Terrible sources/documentation/repeats unreliable information. + References Astaire possibly being homophobic? Who accused him of this and why? Why would you casually throw that line in there without discussing it further? + Blatantly obvious the writer is very much enamored with his subject- too much so, really. + Makes a comparison between horse racing and dancing? Really? + The one time Astaire appeared in blackface was when he did a tribute to a black tap dancer, and that somehow negates the racism behind the act? Um, no, it really doesn't. + Literally a racism apologist now; crit from John Rockwell saying that yeah the portrayal of blacks in movies was super racist back then but at least black people were in movies!! You're fucking kidding me right? Please tell me you're not actually serious. + Oh my God more racism. Fred Astaire- so brilliant even Asian people like him! Literally a paragraph dedicated to emphasizing how people in other countries/cultures can actually enjoy Astaire's work and how this is surprising. What the fuck even. Yeah, I'm not going to bother to read through a book that tries to protect its subject from criticism to the point of sacrificing its integrity. You can't erase the individual racism of the 30s/40s by trying to put it in the perspective of everyone else's racism. Ugh. Not sure if I will ever attempt another biography of him; his dancing was excellent, but he wasn't a terribly wonderful or compelling individual.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    This detailed biography of Fred Astaire chronicles his career in great detail, and his life to the extent that one can know it. I was surprised to hear him praised as a great singer. In early movies, his voice is somewhat musical, but he speaks more than sings the words in later ones; he does phrase well. He had minimal formal training in dance, none whatsoever in ballet. His dancing is often described as unique. In early vaudeville tours in England, he learned to dress and behave like an Englis This detailed biography of Fred Astaire chronicles his career in great detail, and his life to the extent that one can know it. I was surprised to hear him praised as a great singer. In early movies, his voice is somewhat musical, but he speaks more than sings the words in later ones; he does phrase well. He had minimal formal training in dance, none whatsoever in ballet. His dancing is often described as unique. In early vaudeville tours in England, he learned to dress and behave like an English gentleman. He cultivated his public persona, smooth, relaxed, classy, never confrontational. He was married to his first wife until she died; they did not like parties and lived very privately. His friends were similar Hollywood successes who lived quietly and invested carefully. He was often described as "shy". To me, it sounded a little bit put on, a carefully cultivated shell. It is not an easy job for a biographer to create a picture of a person who avoided interviews and kept to himself, but the author hunted down more than 200 people who had known or encountered Astaire, most of whom had very little to say. It's a long book, which I don't mind, but I often got the itch to edit a somewhat confusing sentence. It's not a smooth read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Katharine Holden

    A rather dry biography with numerous instances of tortuous writing and several glaring factual errors. There's a strange first section which lists out Astaire's Jewish ancestry in a breathless, scoop kind of tone that struck me as verging on anti-semitism. The book contains a wealth of detail that gets tiresome after a while and somehow doesn't add up to a solid picture. The author includes a vast number of lengthy Why was he great?-type quotes from anybody and everybody and a good copy editor w A rather dry biography with numerous instances of tortuous writing and several glaring factual errors. There's a strange first section which lists out Astaire's Jewish ancestry in a breathless, scoop kind of tone that struck me as verging on anti-semitism. The book contains a wealth of detail that gets tiresome after a while and somehow doesn't add up to a solid picture. The author includes a vast number of lengthy Why was he great?-type quotes from anybody and everybody and a good copy editor would have pruned them to just a few. The author quotes sources who want to remain anonymous, which is acceptable when you're talking about the fate of Jimmy Hoffa but just silly when you're talking about some casual remark supposedly said on a movie set 60+ years ago. Minor quibble: I was surprised at how few pictures are included, and almost all of those are well-known studio stills, not candids. Update: Why did I write such a detailed negative review about this book? Why expend this much energy on a Hollywood biography? Jeez.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Marianne

    I'm trying to decide if I want to rate this as a 3+ or a 4 ... it basically is TMI ... too much information ... I adored Fred Astaire when I was growing up ... dreamed of dancing with him (giggle) ... and so I was excited to read this bio ... BUT I really didn't need to know sooooo much ... it's a great reference book for someone in the biz or a professional dancer or singer who wants to emulate Mr. Astaire, but as a casual old movie-goer, I really didn't need to know all the credits of each and I'm trying to decide if I want to rate this as a 3+ or a 4 ... it basically is TMI ... too much information ... I adored Fred Astaire when I was growing up ... dreamed of dancing with him (giggle) ... and so I was excited to read this bio ... BUT I really didn't need to know sooooo much ... it's a great reference book for someone in the biz or a professional dancer or singer who wants to emulate Mr. Astaire, but as a casual old movie-goer, I really didn't need to know all the credits of each and every movie, tv show, Broadway or London show. Mr. Levinson must have spent years obtaining all the quotes and interviews of so many people ... except, of course, Robyn Astaire, Fred's widow. There's no love lost between Levinson and Robyn as he points out at the end of the book. However, even with all the information, this was an interesting biography of a very important celebrity ... and hopefully one who will not be forgotten as history is being rewritten so often lately.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    I regret reading this book. It was hideously boring, and Fred Astaire has been ruined for me. I expected him to be an upstanding human being. Instead, I found out he was: a bigot, a homophobe, so insecure that he refused to dance with people he thought were better than him, so petty that he wrote people who gave him bad reviews 30-40 letters each in different handwriting, ink, and names asking those reviewers why they would say bad things about Fred Astaire, and he didn't even choreograph his ow I regret reading this book. It was hideously boring, and Fred Astaire has been ruined for me. I expected him to be an upstanding human being. Instead, I found out he was: a bigot, a homophobe, so insecure that he refused to dance with people he thought were better than him, so petty that he wrote people who gave him bad reviews 30-40 letters each in different handwriting, ink, and names asking those reviewers why they would say bad things about Fred Astaire, and he didn't even choreograph his own stuff. Oh, and when his wife asked him to do the dishes, he instead broke them all and told her never to ask him again. Great guy.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Meg Marie

    I don't know that I will ever actually complete this book. It is 400 TEDIOUS pages. I applaud the author for his commitment to research and interviews, but man, he could have used a better editor. He goes into extreme detail about every aspect of Astaire's career. Each movie is dissected piece by piece. Then he moves on to describing Fred's character and mannerisms, including about 25 quotes from different people about what a careful, tailored dresser Astaire was. If I read one more quote from s I don't know that I will ever actually complete this book. It is 400 TEDIOUS pages. I applaud the author for his commitment to research and interviews, but man, he could have used a better editor. He goes into extreme detail about every aspect of Astaire's career. Each movie is dissected piece by piece. Then he moves on to describing Fred's character and mannerisms, including about 25 quotes from different people about what a careful, tailored dresser Astaire was. If I read one more quote from someone noting that Astaire wore his pants short to show off his socks, and ergo, his dance moves, I will probably throw this book into a wall.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sallie

    I love the Astaire-Rogers movies and this book has been interesting so far. I'm really sorry there isn't any archival footage of Fred and his sister Adele to watch now. I finished this the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it. Lots of quotes from people who knew Fred, other dancers who knew him and those young'uns who didn't - especially interesting to read what ballet stars thought of Fred - they liked his work a lot. Not everybody who worked with Fred liked him or thought him friendly, but most I love the Astaire-Rogers movies and this book has been interesting so far. I'm really sorry there isn't any archival footage of Fred and his sister Adele to watch now. I finished this the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it. Lots of quotes from people who knew Fred, other dancers who knew him and those young'uns who didn't - especially interesting to read what ballet stars thought of Fred - they liked his work a lot. Not everybody who worked with Fred liked him or thought him friendly, but most did. He was a complex man as most people are and especially geniuses - and he was a genius of dancing.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    I really enjoyed this book about Fred Astaire, whose dancing I have always loved. His career spanned vaudeville, Broadway, the height of the studio system in Hollywood, and he ended his career as a character actor. The writing is not stellar, and the organization is a bit haphazard once the author finishes the chronology of his major films. It is a very complete account - 400 pages. My mother said, "Do you really want to know that much about Fred Astaire?" Per haps a bit much if you're not a tru I really enjoyed this book about Fred Astaire, whose dancing I have always loved. His career spanned vaudeville, Broadway, the height of the studio system in Hollywood, and he ended his career as a character actor. The writing is not stellar, and the organization is a bit haphazard once the author finishes the chronology of his major films. It is a very complete account - 400 pages. My mother said, "Do you really want to know that much about Fred Astaire?" Per haps a bit much if you're not a true fan

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I wanted to like this book, but it just didn't quite cut it. Levinson's pacing was a bit odd and at times quite uneven. Also, I was quite aware of the fact that there were a few minor facts that he got wrong (such as the color of Ginger's infamous feather dress), and some of his movie synopses were not entirely correct. To be sure, these are small details, but if he got small things wrong, it's entirely possible that he got some of the bigger things wrong as well. This book needed more fact check I wanted to like this book, but it just didn't quite cut it. Levinson's pacing was a bit odd and at times quite uneven. Also, I was quite aware of the fact that there were a few minor facts that he got wrong (such as the color of Ginger's infamous feather dress), and some of his movie synopses were not entirely correct. To be sure, these are small details, but if he got small things wrong, it's entirely possible that he got some of the bigger things wrong as well. This book needed more fact checking, and a better editor.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Flora

    Found it in yesterday's WSJ along with review of another Fred Astaire book. As I am a fan, I will definitely read it. Finished it and now realize why Fred Astaire is so loved. The book is for fans only. I doubt anyone wants to read about someone who lived simply, loved one woman (victimized by a second wife in his dottage) and danced better than anyone else for 50 years. I want to watch all his movies again. Found it in yesterday's WSJ along with review of another Fred Astaire book. As I am a fan, I will definitely read it. Finished it and now realize why Fred Astaire is so loved. The book is for fans only. I doubt anyone wants to read about someone who lived simply, loved one woman (victimized by a second wife in his dottage) and danced better than anyone else for 50 years. I want to watch all his movies again.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matt Carton

    The late Mr. Levinson was primarily a publicist. It shows. He actually began one sentence in the book, "The irrepressible Debbie Reynolds..." I didn't get a sense, really, of who Fred Astaire was, when all is said and done. He was hard on himself, he was generous, he was aloof, he was kind. I guess. As bad a biography as I have ever read. I guess I'll just keep watching the pictures. The late Mr. Levinson was primarily a publicist. It shows. He actually began one sentence in the book, "The irrepressible Debbie Reynolds..." I didn't get a sense, really, of who Fred Astaire was, when all is said and done. He was hard on himself, he was generous, he was aloof, he was kind. I guess. As bad a biography as I have ever read. I guess I'll just keep watching the pictures.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    Exhastively detailed recounting of every film, vaudeville act, and tv program made by Fred Astaire. Written in a plodding, pedestrian style. For all its detail, doesn't offer much insight into this famously reticent personality. Also poorly documented, using the same few, unimpressive sources over and over again. Exhastively detailed recounting of every film, vaudeville act, and tv program made by Fred Astaire. Written in a plodding, pedestrian style. For all its detail, doesn't offer much insight into this famously reticent personality. Also poorly documented, using the same few, unimpressive sources over and over again.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dkeslin

    5/18 The fascinating biography of Fred Astaire and how he and his sister Adele broke into vaudville and Broadway. Adele was the better dancer and singer of the pair and her little brother tagged along to her dance lessons. They performe together for 16 years and then she retired. He went on by himself to cradt a career as the best classical dancer in film history.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I read Fred Astaire's autobiography years ago and was curious about his life after his wife, Phyllis died. I thought this book was interesting although sometimes there was too much information. It could have been edited better but I'm glad I read it. I read Fred Astaire's autobiography years ago and was curious about his life after his wife, Phyllis died. I thought this book was interesting although sometimes there was too much information. It could have been edited better but I'm glad I read it.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    History and insight of early show business.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alice Paterra

    Good bio, many bits of trivia, and best of all: effects performed in his famous dances.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Deb

    The author died before this was published. One assumes it was just a first draft which was published without editing, because it's extremely badly written. The author died before this was published. One assumes it was just a first draft which was published without editing, because it's extremely badly written.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rosanne

    I fell for Mr. Astaire as a young girl watching his films on TV. I've read most of the biographies, but this on is the most detailed. It's well done and interesting to read. I fell for Mr. Astaire as a young girl watching his films on TV. I've read most of the biographies, but this on is the most detailed. It's well done and interesting to read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andie Scott

    REALLY LONG! and very detailed...a little bit too much. I think a more concise biography would have been better for me.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Patty

    A dry and encyclopedic book, full of information and thoroughly researched, but ultimately dull.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Denise

    I almost NEVER read a biography, but I saw That's Entertainment was on today and it made me think of checking into it. I almost NEVER read a biography, but I saw That's Entertainment was on today and it made me think of checking into it.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    So far pretty good

  30. 4 out of 5

    Richard Dollison

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