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From Ace Jockey to Fred's 'Baby'

For Robyn Astaire, it was love at second sight.

August 17, 1997|Irene Lacher

Robyn Smith Astaire was always a woman without a past, so for years she invented one, she says. There was something about mounting her first horse at 2 on the family ranch. Majoring in English at Stanford. A starlet's contract with MGM.

"I dissemble a little bit, I like to say," she says.

She was enrolled at Columbia Pictures' acting workshop 30 years ago, and even then there were people who were optimistic about her future. Martin Ransohoff, then president of Filmways production company, told a reporter in 1972: "I believe if she had stayed in Hollywood big things could have happened for her."

Indeed, they did. Robyn Smith eventually made her MGM connection, but not according to the usual star-is-born script. By the late '70s, she was Fred Astaire's final dance partner, the one he whirled around the marble floors of his Beverly Hills manse, the one he loved the most, the one you never saw. Instead of performing for Fred's admiring hordes, their encores were for only a select few--the household staff who watched them tango off after dinner, night after night.

"We joked around a lot," says Robyn Astaire, 52. "We'd do this, da-duh, da-duh, da-duh-duh-uuh-boom. Fred danced up until a couple of weeks before he died. He was so alive. I'm not a great dancer, but anyone who dances with Fred becomes a great dancer."

Astaire says she was born in San Francisco and spent much of her youth in Los Angeles. But when Sports Illustrated profiled her at the peak of her fame as a jockey, the magazine could find no birth record for any Robyn Caroline Smith for several years on either side of her birth date, Aug. 14, 1944.

She says little about her childhood, although what she does say may speak volumes about the sometimes brittle way she presents herself to the world.

"I was sold when I was a baby and went through a lot of foster homes," she says, quickly turning a stoic cheek, "but if I had a choice of having a wonderful adulthood as opposed to a wonderful childhood, I'd take the adulthood."

Says reporter and Fred Astaire biographer Bob Thomas: "I've had inklings that she was mistreated as a girl, but I don't know if the truth will ever really come out."

Adulthood is where Robyn Astaire's known history officially begins. In 1968, she was broke and knocking on barn doors at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, asking for a chance to exercise horses in the male preserve of horse racing. Four years later, she made the cover of Sports Illustrated as the first great female jockey in a difficult, dangerous profession, "no 'National Velvet' [but] pure and simple Horatio Alger."

Even back then, some people faulted her for muscling her way through with blinders on. She was described as obsessive about her work, often tactless and strung so tightly that the least irritation would set her crying. She often preferred the company of horses to people.

"I like to be around the animal that won for me because that means a lot to me," she told the magazine. "[But] not all of it is the animal. I just like to be alone. I don't think I'll ever get married. I'm just a loner. I've had friends who see me grazing, and they come over and want to talk with me. It doesn't occur to them that I might just want to be alone with a horse."

But the next year, she was on the road to replacing one charming hoofer with another. On New Year's Day in 1973, she was riding horses for Alfred Vanderbilt, who was an old friend of Fred Astaire's, another racing fan.

"Mr. Vanderbilt said, 'Look over there' and waved to his friend Fred Astaire," she recalls. "Fred Astaire to me was a recognizable name, but I hated musicals growing up--I now love them, of course--so I waved, and Fred waved back. Cute, but never gave it a second thought."

She told Astaire not to bet on her horse, Exciting Divorcee, because the filly was the longest shot on the board. Somehow the horse pulled ahead by a nose and won the race. The crowd went nuts. So did Astaire, who had ignored Smith's warning and bet on her anyway.

"How could he bet against his friend's horse?" Robyn Astaire asks. "I think he made about $10,000 that day. I used to tease Fred later. I'd say, 'You fell in love with me when you won that bet,' because he loved to win a bet."

Four years later, Robyn, who was living near the Belmont Park racetrack on Long Island, N.Y., reluctantly took a few days off from racing to film a commercial for Shasta soft drinks in Los Angeles. She invited Astaire to dinner.

"I thought, 'A woman taking me out to dinner! What's this?' " he later told the Chicago Tribune. "I'd never had a woman take me out to dinner. I got a kick out of it."

Love struck as soon as they arrived at the Bistro restaurant in Beverly Hills.

"He came around and opened my door," Astaire says, "and he took my hand to help me out, and something just happened. It was like bzzzzzzzz. So we had a wonderful dinner and we came back and played some pool--he beat me--and that was it. I was really in love. I mean, it just really hit me."

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