Keeping the Flame

updated 02/22/1993 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1993 01:00AM

IT WAS MEANT TO BE A NIGHT FOR PUTTIN' ON your top hat, tyin' up your white tie, brushin' off your tails. Last Dec. 6, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Ginger Rogers was honored for her life's achievement in film—the same tribute that her late dance partner, Fred Astaire, had received in 1978. Rogers, 81 and largely confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the event and eagerly anticipated the night, three weeks later, when it would be televised on CBS.

It was televised, all right, but minus the film highlights seen by the live audience: those marvelous clips of the golden-curled Rogers dancing with the elegant Astaire in movies like 1933's Flying Down to Rio and 1936's Swing Time. Instead, the disappointed TV audience saw footage of Rogers in nonmusical roles and dancing solo. Giving Ginger her due as a star in her own right (she made 73 films without Astaire, including 1940's Kitty Foyle, for which she won an Oscar), it was still rather like presenting Allen without Burns. No top hat, no white tie, no tails. Fans were as baffled as the show's producers, who pleaded for permission to include the clips up to the day of the broadcast.

Ironically, the Fred-and-Ginger routines were withheld from the televised production at the insistence of the same woman who campaigned for Rogers to gel the award in the firs place—Fred's widow, Kohyn Astaire. At issue were infringement of film rights and, depending on one's viewpoint, either principle or possessive-ness. Says Rogers, who hasn't spoken to Astaire since the ceremony: "I feel very sorry and very unhappy that this could have come to this situation. It certainly puts me and Robyn at swords point, and I don't like that." Says Astaire, 48, just as sadly, but with an edge of vehemence: "I really thought I was doing something nice (or Ginger. But it was the worst thing I ever did."

And therein lies the sad and twisted tale of the ferocious loyalty—perhaps misguided, and surely misconstrued—felt by Robyn Smith Astaire, the onetime star jockey who startled Hollywood by marrying a film icon 46 years her senior in 1980.

It all began last April when Astaire telephoned George Stevens Jr., who has produced the Kennedy Center show for 15 years, and urged him to consider an award for Rogers. Stevens agreed. "I heard from Ginger," Astaire says. "She called me up and thanked me profusely." Indeed, just 10 days before the ceremony, Robyn, who had become a licensed pilot after Fred died in 1987, flew her own Glasaire plane, called Fred, from Santa Monica to Rogers's home in Rancho Mirage for an overnight visit. The friends chatted about the tribute "like two gals," Rogers recalls. At that time, Astaire made no mention of any problem with the film clips.

Meanwhile, though, legal gears were grinding. Astaire had readily agreed that film clips of Fred with Ginger could be shown for the live ceremony—but not for the televised production. Turner Entertainment Co. owns the rights to Fred's RKO and MGM movies. Bui as Robyn explains it, "Fred retained the rights to the clips of his films from his very first film in Hollywood." And in an addendum to his will, Astaire put Robyn in sole control of the rights to use of his name and film image. Thus, Turner Entertainment may show Fred's films in their entirely, but only Robyn can authorize use of clips of Fred Astaire.

Robyn contends that Stevens and the Kennedy Center demanded the rights to the film clips "in perpetuity." Says she: "When I heard the word 'perpetuity,' I refused. I would never give the clips in perpetuity. Fred would never give the clips in perpetuity. What's the point in having control over the clips if you give them away?" Stevens denies this. According to him, the request was for a onetime presentation only. He claim that Robyn, through her business manager, asked for $70,000 for the use of four clips for the TV production.

Robyn flatly denies asking for any money for the clips. Her lawyer. Steven Ames Brown, claims that she asked for documentation that the Kennedy Center is a nonprofit institution. He also states that Astaire wanted to know where the money from the live show and the TV broadcast was going and wanted to see the
sponsorship contract with General Motors, which was underwriting the event. He maintains that the Kennedy Center refused to comply with the request and that Astaire and her advisers thus treated the TV show as a profit-making affair. To which Rogers responds, "I just know she knows the Kennedy Center is a nonprofit organization. If she doesn't, I don't know what rock she's been hiding under."

Astaire, however, is on solid legal ground. In addition to the addendum to Astaire's will, there is the California Celebrity Law, enacted in 1984, which grants heirs the right of control over their spouses' and parents' works. Robyn also has the moral support of the coexecutors of the Astaire estate: Fred's son, Fred Jr., 57. a rancher in San Luis Obispo, and his stepson, Eliphalet Nott "Peter" Potter IV, 64, the son of Astaire's first wife, socialite Phyllis Livingston Potter, who died in 1954. (Along with Fred's daughter, Ava McKenzie, 50—who divides her time between Bucks County, Pa., and Ireland—they are the beneficiaries of a trust established for them by Astaire in 1942. The trust was amended in 1985 to include Robyn.) Says Fred Jr.: "I'm behind Robyn 100 percent. I think my father knew how people exploited personalities [after their death], and he didn't want that to happen to him. Protecting him is Robyn's job."

On the other hand, Ava, who has kept her distance from Robyn since she married Fred in 1980, says tersely, "I'm sorry those clips could not be shown. I wouldn't have any idea why she's doing this." The show's producers say they are also puzzled. Astaire's assertion that she didn't know the clips would appear on TV when she first promised them, says an irked Stevens, "suggests a rather reclusive existence for someone whose husband was honored by the Kennedy Center—a presentation that was shown on TV."

The operative word here is "reclusive." That is largely what Robyn has been since Fred's death 5½ years ago, and her very seclusion likely led her to misjudge the fallout around Hollywood from her decision. Except for her flying—itself a solitary avocation—she has devoted these last years solely to the task of preserving her husband's property, his artifacts, his image as America's top-hatted, toe-tapping gallant. To that end, Astaire has filed a series of lawsuits—including one with Ginger Rogers against Nabisco—charging misuse of the dancer's image. Result: a judgment and a permanent injunction against Nabisco. Says her business manager, Thomas White: "Dead though he may be, Mrs. Astaire's love for her husband is as alive now as it was, I'm certain, when he was living. Mrs. Astaire is the keeper of the flame for Fred Astaire."

That sentiment probably best explains Robyn's motives in this and her other legal adventures. Surely $70,000 wasn't the reason; Robyn has turned away numerous lucrative proposals to merchandise the Astaire name in advertisements, most notably the Paula Abdul commercial for Coca-Cola featuring Groucho Marx, Humphrey Bogart and Gene Kelly. Besides, she was well provided for in Fred's will, inheriting all of his tangible assets, including the four-bedroom Beverly Hills home worth more than $3 million and his 1967 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.

To Robyn, the matter is simple. When her husband died, she says, "People thought they could use his image without anyone's permission, and I have to go after them. I'm constantly scolding people because they think they own him."

It seems clear that in her mind no one owns Fred Astaire but Mrs. Astaire, and she has remained faithful to his memory (perhaps literally so, as she does not date) since the day of his death. She still lives in the mansion that he occupied for nearly 30 years. Photos of his friends and his family still adorn the tables in the living room and the walls of his bar and library. Robyn is particularly attached to two pictures. One is an oil painting of Triplicate, Astaire's most successful racehorse, which defeated Louis B. Mayer's horse in the 1946 $100,000 Gold Cup at Hollywood Park. The other is a photo of herself astride Exciting Divorcee, the long-shot filly she rode to victory at Santa Anita on New Year's Day, 1973, the day she met her future husband.

"I was riding for the stable of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt," says the 5'7" Robyn, who has maintained her riding weight of 105 lbs. "He'd been a friend of Fred's for years, and he introduced us that day. I didn't think [Exciting Divorcee] had a chance, because Willie Shoemaker was riding a 3-to-5 shot. But Fred, out of courtesy I'm sure, bet on Mr. Vanderbilt's horse. I didn't think we'd ever catch Shoe, but right at the end she pulled ahead. It paid a fortune, and Fred made about $5,000 that day. I always teased him later, 'That's when you fell in love.'

She and Fred dined at Chasen's in L.A. that night, then didn't see each other for another three years. Robyn went back East, where she established herself as a winning rider. But she admits to pursuing Astaire whenever she visited Los Angeles, and they married quietly at his home on June 24, 1980, when Fred was 81 and Robyn 35.

The couple led a modest life. Fred made only a few TV films in the '80s, and Robyn retired from the track because Fred worried about her getting hurt, she says. They stayed home and played gin rummy, shot pool, watched old movies. "Every night after dinner," she says, "we'd tango out of the dining room to entertain the help." She adds, quietly, "He was so much fun. For the first time in my life, I had someone who truly loved me. I was so lucky."

Her fairy-castle world fell apart when Fred caught pneumonia in 1987. A daughter of the horse regiment, Robyn describes her husband's illness in veterinary vernacular. "He never complained," she says, "but I noticed he was breathing faster, and his nostrils were flared. That's what happens to racehorses.

"Finally," she continues, "I snuck him into a hospital where I could protect him. He was terribly dehydrated because he had gone off his feed. He didn't suffer, but there was nothing anyone could do. I buried him on our wedding anniversary, seven years to the day."

Her husband's death plainly devastated Robyn. A product of more than 20 foster homes, she would often embellish her childhood in interviews, variously claiming she was a Stanford graduate, a contract starlet for MGM and the daughter of a rich Hawaiian family. ("I used to fib a lot about my early life," she now confesses, "because I guess I was just embarrassed.") Actually, in her early 20s, she started hanging around the stables at Santa Anita, begging for a job as an exercise girl and a chance to ride. By 1973 she had become America's most celebrated female jockey. Now, with Fred gone and no thought of returning to the silks, Robyn has found herself bereft of purpose save for preserving—and protecting—the Astaire legend. Thus the tirelessness of her vigil, and her reason for refusing to allow a few simple film clips—taken, after all, from movies that appear somewhere in the land every week—to be used on national television, even for an old and dear friend.

Robyn says that her husband once looked her in the eye and said, " 'I've been taken advantage of all my life. Please don't let them take advantage of me. And I know you won't. I'm leaving you in charge because I trust you implicitly.' " It is to that charge that Robyn says she will remain forever wedded, up there in her hilltop mansion. "I'll never marry again," she says. "I loved him and I owe him so much. It's impossible for me to think of another man."

MARK GOODMAN
DORIS BACON and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

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