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38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Fred AstaireEssayist and former editor of the American Scholar, Joseph Epstein is the author of Snobbery ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002), Friendship, and Fabulous Small Jews ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003). Fred Astaire is the latest installment in Yale University Press’s series Icons of America.

The Topic: Despite his "enormous ears" and a "bad chin line," Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz II in Omaha, Nebraska) became, thanks to the advent of film, one of the world’s best-known and most innovative dancers. He is still idolized, of course, for his work with Ginger Rogers, though the two had little love for each another offscreen. For his part, Astaire never liked to give up the spotlight. So much for chemistry. What Epstein reveals in this brief biography is that Astaire was both a transcendent talent and, well, just a little dull, a hard worker who "acted the part it was given to him to act, and at the end of the day, like a good artisan, packed up his tools and returned home." These days, that revelation makes his talent seem all the more magical.
Yale University Press. 198 pages. $22. ISBN: 0300116950

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"Epstein’s strengths show best when he explains why Astaire achieved immortality with Rogers, whom he doesn’t seem to have liked much, instead of with better dancers like Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell or Cyd Charisse. … Yale has matched subject and author in a way that sets the bar for the rest of the series mighty high." Jeff Landaw

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Joseph Epstein] tries to pin down Astaire’s magic, sublimity, and allure. A deeply personal book, slim, lightly researched, but insightful and elegantly written, Fred Astaire is an homage to a perfectionist, ‘guarded about his personal life,’ who did most of his talking with his feet." Glenn C. Altschuler

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a joy to read Epstein on virtually any subject upon which he decides to write, but Epstein on Astaire is especially magical. Fred Astaire, in fact, made me want to dance a little jig of celebration—but I stopped myself, just in time." Julia Keller

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Fred Astaire is a very readable and glowing 50,000-word portrait, notwithstanding Epstein’s determination not to subject Fred to rough cross-examination or prolonged background scrutiny. … If you’re introducing Astaire to a novice, know that this book not only rejects depths to explore, it prefers to believe they do not exist." David Thomson

Critical Summary

A veteran writer, Joseph Epstein comments ably on the career and the legend of Fred Astaire, but he’s hamstrung by a problem that rarely arises in entertainment today: regarding Astaire and salacious details, stories of infidelity and reckless behavior, there’s no dishy information (or, as the critic for the New York Times Book Review astutely points out, "Astaire is never going to be ‘rescued’ for a trashy age by the revelation of a sordid private life"). But Epstein’s subtle passion for his subject and a keen eye for the details of Astaire’s quest for perfection accomplish just what the author sets out to do—to trace the genius and the sublime talent that continue, more than 70 years after his heyday, to fuel our fascination with Fred Astaire.

The Icons of America Series

Yale says Icons of America is "a series of short works by leading scholars, critics, and writers on American history, or more properly the image of America in American history, through the lens of a single iconic individual, event, object, or cultural phenomenon." Other titles include Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace by Steve Fraser; Frankly, My Dear: "Gone with the Wind" Revisited by Molly Haskell; and The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky.