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Fred Is Her Co-Pilot

COVER STORY

Robyn Astaire is certain that her late husband would back her restrictions and financial demands regarding the use of his likeness. Others say, 'Dirt Devil?'

August 17, 1997|Irene Lacher | Irene Lacher is a Times staff writer

A cultural icon's place in the public's heart is much like a politician's: He belongs to everyone and everyone acts as though they've elected him to Olympus. That's true for no one more than Fred Astaire, the American god of an American art form, the smooth soft shoe. Long after the curtain fell on his career, his audience remains as devoted as any fervent constituents.

And when people think you're messing with their legends, watch out. Indeed, Astaire's widow, Robyn, has found herself embroiled in controversy over the way she has handled her guardianship of his image.

In the 10 years since Fred's death, the storybook romance between the world's greatest hoofer and the first great female jockey, 46 years his junior, has produced a dark epilogue. In this Hollywood story, the widow can pay the rent with no problem. In fact, she's the one who has been cast as the villain.

Daggers have been drawn over the way Robyn Astaire has meagerly--and expensively--parceled out approval for the use of clips of his classic films. The furor was ignited when she prevented the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington from using Fred Astaire clips for its televised tribute to Ginger Rogers in 1992--the same honor Astaire himself had received in 1978.

Meanwhile, Robyn Astaire's pricey demands for the use of Fred's clips held up the 1994 MGM film anthology "That's Entertainment! III," according to sources close to the production. MGM blamed the delay on technological problems.

Then when Fred was seen dancing with Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners in commercials during Super Bowl breaks this year, the anti-Robyn din grew louder. Critics accused her of hypocrisy, saying she was selling out Fred's image to pad the war chest she used to protect it. All along, she has been vilified--a rare distinction for anyone so close to the pantheon of old Hollywood stars.

When the Dirt Devil commercials began appearing, TV journalists "would stop reporting the news and just start talking about me and lambasting me," she says. "They were saying, 'Fred never would have OKd this.' Wait a minute. They don't know me and they sure as hell don't know Fred. I'm his wife. His closest confidant."

"I was a little amazed at the controversy," says Mike Merriman, chief executive officer of Royal Appliance Manufacturing Co. in Cleveland, which makes Dirt Devil products. "There was John Wayne doing Coors Beer and there was no response. Maybe some people felt John Wayne is in a bar and the image fit, and there's a disconnect with Fred Astaire with a vacuum cleaner. But I think Fred trusted Robyn to safeguard his image."

Fred Jr., who lives in San Luis Obispo, continues to be supportive of Robyn. He told People magazine: "I'm behind Robyn 100%. 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."

But Fred's daughter, Ava (pronounced AH-vuh) Astaire McKenzie, is prominent among her critics. She told Variety's Army Archerd that she was returning her own Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner to the company, "saddened that after [Fred's] wonderful career, he was sold to the devil"--the Dirt Devil. McKenzie declined to be interviewed for this story.

Veteran entertainment reporter Bob Thomas, author of "Astaire: The Man, the Dancer" (St. Martin's Press, 1984), considers Robyn Astaire's critics "misdirected," particularly those who have failed to win her imprimatur for projects.

"They think maybe she was unreasonable in holding out her approval, but that's between her and them," he says. "That's business, and she can be just as tough as any shark in the agency world."

Is Robyn Astaire the greedy ogre her critics contend, condemning her husband's image to obscurity in her misguided craving for money?

Or is she the protective widow, pining after the only person who really loved her and tending the fires of his lifelong perfectionism?

Winning an audience with Robyn Astaire to learn her answer is, as one writer put it, harder than scheduling an appointment with the Dalai Lama. It took several months to arrange an interview, and Astaire, who is fiercely private, declined to meet at the Beverly Hills home she shared with Fred and has left unchanged since his death. The interview took place at Santa Monica Airport, where Astaire houses two planes--a six-seat Piper Aerostar Super 700 and a two-passenger aerobatic Glasaire--that she uses to commute to her job as a corporate pilot for an air transport firm in Chino. She took up flying shortly after her husband's death. "I'm not one to sit home and watch soap operas," she says briskly.

In person, she is wraithlike and intense, with a tomboyish gait and the air of a younger Katharine Hepburn, from her wide, mannish pants to the chiseled planes of her face. She is 5-foot-7, and daily running has helped her maintain her riding weight of 110 pounds.

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