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Hollywood love story: The six-year secret of Ginger and Fred


Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire stormed out of his dressing-room at Hollywood's RKO studios, slamming the door behind him."That woman's impossible," he raged. "She's clumsy, lazy and never learns her steps properly..."

Yet only a few hours earlier Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had whirled through one breathtaking sequence after another in Top Hat, the 1935 movie musical in which they reached the heights of dancing magic and established themselves as the most glamorous two-stepping couple Hollywood had ever seen.

Nine movies shot over six years made Astaire and Rogers the most famous dancers on earth. And the richest — as RKO's top stars they each earned an unprecedented $150,000 a picture.

Yet from the time they first met, in Flying Down To Rio, in 1933, to their last film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, in 1939, both insisted publicly that theirs was nothing more than a working relationship.

"I have a husband, Fred has a wife and we never see each other away from the studio," Ginger insisted. "In fact when we're not dancing we have really nothing in common."

But the truth, it seems, was very different. Letters and diaries discovered after Ginger's death in 1995 apparently showed that Fred and Ginger were far more than just dancing partners. Despite her marriage to movie star Lew Ayres, Ginger Rogers regarded Fred as Mr Wonderful.      
   
"She would have married him if she could," said Ginger's niece, Mary Arthur, to whom Ginger confided many of her secrets shortly before her death. "And she said that Fred felt the same way about her. But the Hollywood moral climate being what it was, they had to keep up the pretence of being just dancing partners."

In public, Astaire never lost a chance to say how much he hated the legend they had built up. "I can't stand this 'Fred and Ginger' thing," he complained. "People talk of us as a team. It makes us sound like horses."

But he was forced to admit: "She is the most effective partner I've danced with. It got so that everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

"Fred was a hard taskmaster, a perfectionist," Ginger said. "He always got cross with me because my concentration wasn't as intense as his. So there were times of stress."

There were also times — kept deadly secret by the couple — when they were supposed to be rehearsing but in fact were walking hand in hand along secluded beaches and in the Hollywood hills.

Choreographer Hermes Pan, who worked with the couple on Flying Down to Rio, was one of the few people who knew how Fred and Ginger really felt for each other. "Ginger adored him. She was married to Lew Ayres at the time and having to keep her feelings for Fred a secret was a real torment for her.

"Fred's wife, Phyllis, was never really right for him — she was very reserved and quiet, and he loved Ginger's humour and the way she was so full of life. I know he thought seriously about divorce but Fred was a very cautious man. He liked to take his time over decisions and Ginger just wouldn't wait."

Her involvement with Fred had destroyed her feelings for Lew Ayres and they separated in 1936. Only after she was certain that there was no hope of getting together with Fred Astaire did Ginger Rogers get married again — to businessman Jack Briggs.

It didn't last and when Fred became a widower in 1954 Ginger once again had hopes that the most important man in her life would be hers at last. But once again Astaire hesitated and Ginger, on the rebound, married her fourth husband, French actor Jacques Bergerac. They parted in 1957.

According to Hermes Pan, it was Ginger Rogers who broke up the dancing partnership with Astaire.

"She was anxious to develop her acting and wanted some serious parts. She won an Oscar for Primrose Path and then people had to take her seriously as an actress."

The nearest Ginger ever came to expressing her real feelings for Fred Astaire was at a press conference announcing the break-up.

"I love Fred so," she said, hurriedly adding "I mean that in the nicest warmest way. Working with Fred was a divine blessing."

Journalists noticed that Ginger Rogers was crying when she left the room and that Fred hurried out to comfort her.

After over 20 years of being alone, Fred Astaire married a woman young enough to be his daughter.
And one of the first congratulations came from Ginger Rogers. When he died in 1987 aged 88, Ginger Rogers was among the family mourners at his funeral.

"Never getting together with Fred was the greatest disappointment of Ginger's life," Mary Arthur said.
"Her own marriages never really worked, mainly I think because of what might have been with Fred."

The millions of Astaire-Rogers fans were totally unaware of the secret dramas going on behind the scenes. To them only one thing was important: that Fred and Ginger were together in their timeless world of elegance, style and romance, dancing forever cheek to cheek.

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