On this day in 1938, Hollywood’s most famous dancing duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, are featured on the cover of Life magazine, offering readers a graceful vision at a time when America is in the grips of the Great Depression.
Born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska, Astaire began touring the vaudeville circuit with his sister and dancing partner, Adele, in early childhood. By 1917, the siblings were performing in New York and London. After Adele married an English lord, Astaire began working in films, starting with a small role in Dancing Lady (1933). In his second film, Flying Down to Rio (1933), he was paired with Ginger Rogers, who had been born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911, in Missouri. As a teenager, Rogers had been a champion Charleston dancer and had also toured on the vaudeville circuit. In 1930, she made a splash on Broadway in George and Ira Gershwin’s musical Girl Crazy.
Astaire and Rogers turned out to be a perfect match on the dance floor, and audiences flocked to see their dazzling, complex routines in the 10 movie musicals they made together, including The Gay Divorcee (1933), Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance? (1937). The actress Katherine Hepburn once famously said of the couple: “He gives her class, and she gives him sex.” The pair’s final film together was 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway.
Although best known for her partnership with Astaire, Rogers made some 70 films during her career and won a Best Actress Academy Award for Kitty Foyle (1940). A savvy businesswoman, she invested her earnings wisely and became one of Hollywood’s wealthiest actresses. Married and divorced five times, Rogers had no children and continued to perform for most of her life, scoring triumphs on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! in 1965 and in London with Mame in 1969. Rogers died on April 25, 1995, at the age of 83.
After his partnership with Rogers in the 1930s, the debonair Astaire continued dancing onscreen with other partners, including Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth and Lucille Bremer. He went on to make such films as 1957’s Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn, and 1974’s The Towering Inferno, which co-starred Steve McQueen and Paul Newman; his performance in the latter film earned Astaire his only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. Astaire died at age 88 on June 22, 1987.