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Are May and December Drifting Apart? Not a Chance, Insist Fred and Robyn Astaire

updated 04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/1981 01:00AM

It was a night of high nostalgia, and a legion of Hollywood greats turned out to see one of the most luminous figures of them all receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. There were clips from his 41 movies, and fond recollections of the seven decades since Fred Astaire and his sister Adele danced out of Omaha to take Broadway by storm. Also at stage center was a lesser known but newly fascinating figure—Robyn Smith, the darkly beautiful woman jockey Astaire took as his bride 10 months ago, startling friends and family alike.

Though he seldom ventures out long after dark, the 81-year-old son of an immigrant Austrian brewery worker fairly bubbled over with buoyant high spirits. Doubtless it wasn't just the award that made the evening special. It was his first public appearance with his 38-year-old bride since a spate of published rumors that their marriage was crumbling.

The stories began appearing last winter, when Astaire was shooting a movie in Vermont. One tabloid reported that Fred, angry that Robyn was forever leaving their Los Angeles home to go racing on the East Coast and even in Argentina, had offered her $1 million for a divorce and was dating a younger woman. Another account put the ante at $5 million. Both Astaires scoff at the stories, and Robyn says that when Fred called her about them from Vermont, "I just laughed. I knew the reports weren't true, and I was just relieved they said it was Fred, not me, who was running around." Still, at Fred's insistence, Robyn is ending her 12-year racing career—after a final fling this summer at meets in England, West Germany and Italy. It is no easy step for an athlete who not only helped break the sex barrier in thoroughbred racing but has booted home more than 250 winners.

Another rumor that troubles the Astaires is that their marriage caused a rift between Fred and his kin. There was some family fretting, to be sure. After all, says Fred, "I had been a bachelor for 25 years, and when you hit your 80s, that's a knock on the door of lateness. But none of us were alienated." Astaire and Robyn spent Christmas with Adele at her home in Tucson, and Fred visited her again just before her death at 83 in January. Son Fred Jr., 45, a rancher in Northern California, and daughter Ava, 39, wed to an artist and living in Ireland, attended the AFI gala. Both were delighted for their father, but silent on the subject of the new Mrs. Astaire.

As for Fred and Robyn, they live an elegantly humdrum life in the one-story, three-bedroom Benedict Canyon home he built in 1960, six years after the death of his first wife, New York socialite Phyllis Baker Potter. Though the place is "no mansion," as Fred says, it has a crescent-shaped pool and an enormous terrace with a view of the Pacific. Robyn uses the bedroom that once was Ava's. Fred's room has two pianos, on which he composes an occasional song. Does he still dance? "A few steps. Just for myself, if I hear music that moves me to do it." He says he still enjoys acting (Robyn's translation: "He still likes to make a buck"), but remembers his celebrated dancing films as brutally demanding physically. Nowadays, he admits, "I'm happiest doing nothing. We simply spend a lot of time here at home."

He and Robyn occasionally play golf, though from Fred's point of view, "The courses seem to get longer and I get shorter." That goes for his evenings, too. The Astaires socialize mainly at dinners with old pals like Randolph Scott and Gregory and Veronique Peck. ("They're Fred's friends," says Robyn without embarrassment. "I really don't have any.") In the past year they recall going to only two big do's—Frank Sinatra's 65th-birthday wing-ding in Palm Springs and a New Year's Eve gathering at the Pecks'. They both dislike parties, but, says Robyn, "Once he is out of the house, he's okay. On New Year's Eve he told me to take him home at midnight, but I couldn't drag him away." They finally left at 3:30 a.m.

Most afternoons Fred watches The Guiding Light and As the World Turns; he was hooked on the soaps by his mother, Ann, who lived with him off and on for 20 years before she died in 1975 at 96. The Astaires usually retire by 10:30 p.m. and rise at 5, when Robyn goes for a run. Fred, who maintains his dancing weight of 132 pounds (on a 5'9" frame) by eating sparingly, often breakfasts on just a boiled egg brought to him by his housekeeper.

The couple met in 1973 when sportsman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt introduced them at Santa Anita. Robyn was preparing to ride a horse named Exciting Divorcee, a 20-1 shot. "I'd heard of Fred, but I'd never even seen one of his movies," Robyn recalls. Astaire put a small wager on the nag and was astonished when it came in first. "When Fred won his bet," Robyn teases, "that's when he fell in love."

The two continued to meet occasionally, but not romantically, until 1978. Then Robyn, who was living in New York, flew to Los Angeles to shoot a TV commercial, and impulsively invited Astaire to dinner. "I was a little shocked," Fred admits. "I was used to doing the asking myself." They went out, though, says Robyn, and "that was when I fell in love. He was so cute, humble and charming." What followed, she admits candidly, "wasn't a case of an older man chasing a young girl. I pursued him." But when Fred proposed marriage, Robyn hesitated—briefly. "I said, 'Look, shouldn't I just move in with you?' He said, 'No, we're marrying, and that's that!' "

Robyn refuses to talk about her childhood, and once made a practice of putting off reporters with fabrications—telling them she came from a rich Honolulu family, graduated from Stanford and had been an MGM starlet. "People accuse me of reinventing my life, but that isn't quite true," says Robyn. "There are some things that happened in my childhood that I really can't remember, and others that I don't want to remember because I just can't handle them."

She was born Melody Dawn Constance Palm in San Francisco. Her mother, Constance, put her up for adoption and she was taken in by Orville Smith, a prosperous Oregon lumberman. But when Melody was 4, her mother sued to have the adoption set aside on the grounds that Smith was not a Catholic. Mrs. Palm won, but soon afterward put the girl in the first of a series of foster homes. "I wasn't able to take care of her because of my health," she later told a reporter.

When Melody Dawn graduated from high school in 1961, she turned her back on Portland and the past and arrived in Hollywood as Robyn Smith. Though she attended Columbia Studios actors' school and signed a Filmways contract, she found work only in commercials. Then in 1968 she saw her first horse race, when a date took her to Santa Anita. She fell in love with the sport, became an exercise girl and was soon licensed as a jockey. In 1969 Robyn moved to New York. She has said she took that step on her own; others maintain that she was brought East by Howard "Buddy" Jacobsen, the high-living New York trainer now serving a 25-years-to-life prison sentence for murder. By 1972 she had begun riding for Vanderbilt's Sagamore Stables. She and Vanderbilt became friends, though Robyn emphatically denies the pervasive rumors that she was romantically involved with the millionaire.

Though her marriage is not without incident ("She can be quick-tempered," says Astaire diplomatically), Robyn says, "Fred knows how to handle me. He doesn't fight me. I'm moody, but he's more mature. In the past," she adds, "there have been a lot of men who have been interested in me, and I've had a lot of attention, but there is a big difference between that and being truly cared for. This is the first time in my life that I feel really loved—really happy—and I don't intend to let go of that." And her husband? Says Robyn: "Fred cares for me more than he cares for himself, and that's saying an awful lot."

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