The Seventies had been an active decade for Fred Astaire: although he worked less frequently, he remained constantly in front of the public. Always reluctant to accept praise and honors, the accolades and retrospectives nevertheless had begun for Astaire and his multiple achievements. He was besieged and barraged by the world with offers of honors, degrees, chairmanships, projects and festivals. He tried to pick and choose carefully, not wanting to offend nor wallow in endless babble and pomp about him.
In 1973, he accepted a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. In 1978, he was given a special tribute by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a "National Artist" Award from the American National Theater and Academy and, in November of that year, he was among the recipients at the first Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., genuinely honored to be in the company of composer Richard Rodgers, contralto Marian Anderson, choreographer George Balanchine and concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein. ASCAP gave him their "Pied Piper" award on September 24, 1980.
Multiple theatrical projects based on his life and work were continually proposed, with him giving permission only to Jerome Robbins and the New York City Ballet for "I'm Old Fashioned," based on the dance he had done with Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier. However, his Will stipulated that his life story could never be the basis for a theatrical project. The thought of someone portraying Phyllis was simply unacceptable to him.
His daily routine consisted of going to his office each morning to review the scripts and offers that continued to come in for him with Michael Black, his agent at ICM (International Creative Management). Ava remembered that at home, "Daddy always woke up early - three or four. Then he'd do all of the crossword puzzles. He loved gin rummy. He would play every Sunday afternoon with his best friend in the world. Bill (William) Self. And he loved pool... He loved the game shows on television, and he used to like soap operas. He and the housekeeper (Jo Coady) and Aunt Delly in Phoenix would all watch them and then talk on the telephone for hours about the episodes". Soap operas were something that Ann had introduced him to. He continued to compose music and tried to keep abreast of the latest songs and musical stage, film (going to the movies in the afternoon when he wouldn't be recognized and barraged by fans) and television productions.
Although he confessed: "Going to a party - a big party - just drives me crazy. I can't stand it," he did enjoy smaller social events with longtime friends Hermes Pan, Bill Self, Robert and Natalie (Wood) Wagner, Gregory and Veronique Peck and new friends Richard and Ava had introduced him to: Twiggy, Allan Ludden and Betty White, Gary Collins and Mary Ann Mobley, and Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore. Always serious about family and professional behaviors and attitudes, he maintained his sense of poking fun at pomposity and the trumped-up image the world had given him. After dinner in a Beverly Hills restaurant with Richard, Ava and Twiggy one night, he suddenly broke into a tap routine on the streets, shouting "Hollywood! I love you!"
Hardly the "swinging bachelor" that contemporary George Burns was, Astaire, nevertheless, had enjoyed the company of several younger ladies and on New Year's Day, 1973, he met the four-decades-younger Robyn Smith.
Robyn was a rarity - a female jockey. She was racing horses for Alfred Vanderbilt when they met, and over the years she and Astaire kept in touch, usually at the track. In 1977 she made a Shasta soft drink TV commercial and they renewed their friendship. After a series of dinner dates, the friendship grew into love. Robyn readily admits that she pursued the shy and gentle man.
Robyn Smith Astaire is somewhat of an enigma to the public. She was born either Robin Miller on August 14, 1944 or Melody Dawn Constance Palm on August 14, 1942 and her early life was one of foster homes. Taking the name "Smith" from Jane and Orville Smith, one of her foster families, she had tried an acting career, being briefly under contract to Filmways, but, in 1968, a boyfriend took her to Santa Anita and the passion which would become her career was born. Although she received resistance from the male-dominated sport, she persevered and became a winning rider.
The romance was not welcomed by the press, the fans nor Fred's family. Both Adele and Ava had a difficult time accepting this thirty-six-year-old woman as a romantic object of their eighty-year-old brother and father's affection. The social life of the Astaire family had always been so ordered, so structured - but on June 24 (or 27), 1980, the couple were married at Fred's Beverly Hills home. It was reported to the press that Fred and Robyn were married "early last week...performed by a minister and was very private, very quiet." Neither Delly nor Ava attended.
The schism caused by the marriage drastically changed Astaire's personal life. Ava evacuated her wing of the house and Delly never came to visit. Her health had greatly suffered and her famous inexhaustible energy was finally failing. Ava agreed to be with her father whenever she was needed, as Robyn's horse racing career continued and she seldom traveled with her new husband. However odd incidents occurred- for example, Fred's phone number was changed without warning and no one was informed, including Ava and Fred. Jr. To be fair to Robyn, it has been said that Fred was happy with her and that she gave him a new lease of life. He certainly appeared happy to his daughter and their son-in-law, as recollected in Richard McKenzie's memoir.
Richard had read the novel Ghost Story and talked to his father-in-law about appearing in an upcoming film version. Astaire accepted the role and with co-stars Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal, braved the difficult Sarasota Springs location. New York, winter location. Experiencing the coldest weather in fifty years, the older stars performed like the "Pros" that they were, although several of them, including Astaire, became ill.
AS if the rigors of filming in difficult conditions were not enough, Fred received the sad news that Adele died of a stroke on January 25, 1981. Luckily, they had been together for the Christmas holidays a month before when he stopped in Arizona on his way to the Saratoga Springs location. But her death grieved him greatly. Ava, who had been with Delly when she died, hurried to her father's side and remained with him throughout filming at the request of director John lrvin. Unfortunately, the finished Ghost Story had little reward for Astaire and his prestigious co-stars (New York Post, Archer Winsten: "The most depressing aspect of the film is to find such fine old stars stuck in a film of such little merit.")
Fred in a candid moment at the AFI Tribute.
On April 10, 1981, Astaire accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. In the first major Astaire family appearance since his wedding, Robyn, Richard and Ava and Fred, Jr., with his wife, Carol, joined Fred at the place of honor. Stars and friends arrived from all over the world to pay tribute to the man, with only Ginger Rogers being unable to attend. After the glowing evening of film clips and loving tributes. Astaire was noticeably touched.
After being reunited with Ginger in July, 1982, when the libraries of RKO were donated to the film archives at UCLA, Fred Astaire's public appearances were few. He played a little golf and often spoke to his children and dear friends like lrving Berlin, but his health had begun to seriously fail. By March, 1987, he was unable to travel to New York to receive an award with Rudolph Nureyev from Capezio Dance Shoes.
On June 12, 1987, he had a severe cold and doctors suggested that he check into the Century City Hospital because of breathing problems. Robyn admitted him into the hospital under the name of "Fred Giles" to avoid publicity. The cold settled into pneumonia and on June 22, ten days later, at 4:25 a.m., Fred Astaire passed away. Only Robyn, Fred, Jr., Richard and Ava and Hermes Pan attended the simple funeral service three days later. He was buried at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California, next to his beloved Phyilis, his mother, Ann, and sister and most successful partner. Adele. His wishes in his Will, "I direct that my funeral be private and that there be no memorial service" were followed.
On to Postscript...