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How Norfolk dance star was killed by cruellest twist of fate

PUBLISHED: 07:49 10 February 2018

Double act: Vernon and Irene Castle, the darlings of ballroom dancing on both sides of the Atlantic, at the height of their fame.

Double act: Vernon and Irene Castle, the darlings of ballroom dancing on both sides of the Atlantic, at the height of their fame.

Archant

He was one half of a sensational, superstar husband and wife double act who turned the world on to ballroom dancing. Steve Snelling salutes the Norwich-born entertainer who conquered America before making the final sacrifice for ‘King and Country’ 100 years ago.

Wartime role: Vernon, his head protected from the cold, in the open cockpit of his aircraft at Camp Mohawk, Deseronto, Ontario in Canada in 1917.Wartime role: Vernon, his head protected from the cold, in the open cockpit of his aircraft at Camp Mohawk, Deseronto, Ontario in Canada in 1917.

There was an inescapable irony about the end. For nine months Vernon Castle had flirted with death in the warring skies above the Western Front, defying murderous odds to return Stateside and his adopted home, only to succumb to a simple flying accident.

It was hard to comprehend. The consummate showman, one half of the world’s first celebrity couple famed for igniting a dance revolution, had gone, a dazzling light extinguished in a weirdly humdrum, anti-climactic flash.

On the face of it, nothing about the tragic events of a century ago on a Texan airstrip near Fort Worth seemed to fit with all that had gone before. It was almost as though he had uncharacteristically fluffed his lines or misread the script.

In a little under a decade, the erstwhile comedian and conjurer, the animal-loving charmer from Norwich, had scaled dizzying heights as an entertainer. He had been feted on both sides of the Atlantic. He had earned - and frittered away - what was by the standards of the day a fortune. And he had earned the admiration of his fellow countrymen by sharing the dangers and sacrifices he could so easily have avoided by voluntarily exchanging his luxury lifestyle for the hazardous privations of a frontline fighter squadron.

Triumph followed triumph until that wretched moment over Camp Benbrook when Vernon’s attempt to side-step a disaster not of his making came to grief.

Even then, in those last desperate moments, as his customary good luck fatally deserted him, there was something of a dramatic twist to what would prove the final act in a short but extraordinary life filled with incident.

But first things first. As we commemorate one of Norfolk’s most distinguished victims of the so-called ‘War to end all War’, it is worth remembering his relatively humble origins prior to becoming one half of the legendary husband-and-wife dancing partnership - Vernon and Irene Castle.

Born in Mill Road, Norwich on May 2, 1887 into a family of hotel keepers, William Vernon Blyth - Castle was a subsequently-acquired stage name - grew up in the Great Eastern Hotel, an imposing three-storey red brick building facing the city’s main railway station across the river Wensum.

A lively, charming personality, indulged by his father and step-mother - his mother died when he was only four - Vernon was educated at College House, Lowestoft and Norwich Grammar School.

Academically unremarkable, he possessed a rare gift for entertainment that began with a boyish enthusiasm for conjuring tricks. Bookings at parties, private functions and small theatrical venues earned him valuable experience if little money.

What might otherwise have been a passing fad proved to be the launch-pad for an astonishing show business career that, initially, at least, owed everything to his actress sister, Caroline, who had adopted the stage-name of Coralie Blythe, and her husband, Lawrence Grossmith, an established comic actor on both sides of the Atlantic.

His decision to accompany them to New York in 1906 was truly life-changing. From bit part roles to Broadway stardom, Vernon seized every opportunity that came his way.

His spectacular rise is well-charted: stage success, a whirlwind romance with budding actress Irene Foote, a star-turn in Paris where their performance of The Grizzly Bear, a new dance sweeping America, transformed them overnight into the poster couple for a Ragtime revolution with a best-selling dance book, a sell-out 30-city tour and a silent movie biopic written by Vernon to follow.

Less clear are the reasons why, at the height of their joint fame and with the whole world seemingly at their feet, Vernon, the dance idol who was reputedly earning £1,000 a week, chose to give it all up for the precarious existence of an aviator with a life expectancy of fewer than 20 hours of flying time!

At least one biographer has speculated that he was tired, bored and anxious to prove himself different to the image of an “effeminate dancer”. For his own part, he always maintained he was inspired by a simple patriotism. “When the war came,” he told a reporter for this newspaper, “I could not forget that I was an Englishman.”

Either way, Vernon was determined not to shirk what he considered his duty. So, having undertaken flying lessons at his own expense and been issued with ‘pilot certificate No 407’ by the Aero Club of America on February 9, 1916, he duly embarked for England - and the war.

Four months later, following further training and a brief reunion with his wife for a Royal command benefit dance show in the West End, he was in France. He had exchanged an army of adoring fans, who included future Hollywood dance legend Fred Astaire, for a small band of aviators who made up No 1 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps.

The weeks that followed represented the harshest of initiations into a world as far removed from the glitz of Broadway as it was possible to imagine. There was nothing remotely glamorous about the costly operations undertaken by the aircrew of ‘Number One’. A relentless success of bombing, artillery observation and contact patrols frequently entailing hazardous missions over enemy territory against better-equipped opponents would test him to the limit.

His letters to Irene offer glimpses of the particular risks routinely faced and the personal demons which needed to be conquered.

Writing of one of his earliest aerial reconnaissance sorties carried out on the eve of the great British offensive launched on the Somme, he pulled few punches. “This photography is the worst job one can get because they have to be taken very low and one is well in range [of enemy anti-aircraft batteries],” he observed. “I had my plane hit three times with pieces of shell, and the concussion you get makes you think the machine is blown in half.

“I don’t mind telling you, darling, that I was sick with fright and jolly glad to get back home, only to find the wretched cameraman had put the plates in wrong and that I had to go up and take them all over again.”

As well as mastering his own nerves his reputation as an entertainer ensured he was kept busy when not flying trying to maintain his comrades’ morale with sometimes raucous results.

In another letter to Irene dated July 13, 1916, he noted: “There is an awful row going on. The continual thunder of guns outside, and the more frightful singing of the officers inside. They suffer anything from ‘Pagliacci’ to ‘Michegan’. The favourite song seems to be ‘The Simple Melody’ from ‘Watch Your Step’. They didn’t know how the rag part went; I showed them and now I realise I’ve made one of the biggest mistakes of the War!

“Every night they take sides and sing on one side ‘Play a Simple Melody’, etc, and on the other ‘O, You Musical Demon’, etc, and the pianist playing an entirely different tune makes an Indian uprising sound like music.”

As weeks turned to months, bouts of homesickness competed with the high spirits. He longed for the war to be over and yet knew victory was a distant prospect and “will cost us more than it’s worth”. “But,” he told Irene, “there is one thing the Germans must realise sooner or later, and that is: we are capable of going on with this forever, and we improve each year…”

Quite how long he might be able to stand it was not so clear. As he pointed out to Irene on September 8: “They rarely keep a pilot out here more than eight months, as their nerves won’t stand it…”

For now at least, his nerve - and his luck - continued to hold. Before the month was out, he was writing of another narrow escape and another “awful fight”. “An ‘Archie’ [anti-aircraft] gun almost got a direct hit on me,” he wrote. “It shot away a big bit of my rudder, making it terribly hard for me to steer, and a piece of the shell went right through the back of my leather coat…”

Early in the new year, by then an established fighter pilot with two aerial victories to his name, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. To many, the stage star was now a fully-fledged war hero, though one who avowedly did not like “killing things” and was anxious to play down some of the wilder stories that began to circulate.

Dismissing one exaggerated newspaper report sent to him by Irene as “a lot of rot”, he declared: “I am not attached to the French Army, and I am no hero. I’ve done good work here, they say, and have made about a hundred flights over the German lines, and have led many bomb attacks, etc, but that is no more than heaps of pilots have done.”

His tour of duty was drawing to a close but there was still time enough for one more “terrible experience” and near-miraculous escape from potential disaster. A direct hit by an anti-aircraft shell on his engine “tore about half of it away” and left him struggling to remain airborne.

“Of course,” he told Irene, “I thought I was done for, but I still managed to keep a little control over the machine, and by the Grace of God, landed just behind our second line trenches. There is hardly anything left of the machine; as it came down and landed on its back. I was strapped in tight, and except for a cut on the nose and a bruise or two, am unhurt.

“I can’t understand it, and if you could only have seen the crash you wouldn’t have been able to understand how I could come out unhurt…”

It would prove to be his last combat encounter, but sadly not his last crash. Sent home as an instructor first to Canada and then to the United States, he had survived one flying accident in which his pupil died before he took off on his final training sortie on February 15, 1918.

Unusually, following the previous year’s tragedy which had left him temporarily “unstrung”, Vernon was occupying the more dangerous front cockpit. Even more unusually, he did not fasten his safety belt.

What followed happened quickly. Vernon’s aircraft was preparing to land when, inexplicably and against existing rules, another plane with a novice at the controls took off in front of them as they descended. Unable to see anything until it was too late, the two aircraft touched before Vernon could take charge.

Reacting fast, he “pulled up into the air”, turning the aircraft as he climbed to around 75-100 feet in an attempt to save the situation. “Had he been another 100 feet up,” wrote an eyewitness, “the turn would have been completed. As it was, there lacked room and his plane dove into the ground.”

Both his own pupil and the cadet in the other aircraft survived, but Vernon, his crushed body trapped in the mangled wreckage, never regained consciousness.

The “butterfly who grew into an eagle”, as one newspaper put it, would soar no more. But his legacy as a dancer was destined to live on, not least through the inspired and inspiring example of one of his greatest fans.

Fred Astaire, who would later star as his hero in a screen version of Irene’s posthumously-published memoir of her husband, hailed the Castles as “easily the most potent factor in the development of ballroom dancing as a public pastime”.

Put simply, they had reformed and utterly transformed the nature of dancing. As one august American journal observed: “The Castles showed and taught people of two continents how modern dances ought to be danced. They eliminated vulgarity and replaced it with refinement. They restored poetry to motion…”

Such acclamation alone should be worthy of Vernon receiving lasting and long overdue recognition in his home city where attempts to have his outstanding achievements commemorated with a blue plaque continue to this day.

Thanks to local historian Philip Yaxley for his assistance with research and photographs.

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