This story has it all. Celebrity, dancing, social justice, cultural influence, money, fame, music, media, romance, beauty, fashion, war, a dashing pilot – and a monkey. And it all came to a tragic end here in Fort Worth.
Every other year on Memorial Day, there’s a solemn ceremony in Fort Worth to remember 12 British, Canadian and American volunteer pilots of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force in World War I who died here.
It’s part of a relatively unknown part of Fort Worth aviation history when the city established itself as a military, aviation and aircraft manufacturing hub. It was key to setting in stone the identity Fort Worth would develop for the rest of the century and beyond. It also involved the death of one of the most famous people in the world at the time, Vernon Castle.
The British-born Castle and his wife, Irene, were the Justin Timberlake and Britany Spears of their day.
Much like Louis Armstrong, who freed American music from the shackles of European tradition, the Castles freed American dance from established European ideals. They introduced and popularized the tango as well as ragtime-oriented dance styles and invented their own as well. The Castle Walk, as it was called, eventually evolved into the foxtrot.
In the days before TV, radio, sound in films and social media, the public moved on their every utterance and photograph. They initially became famous in Paris in 1912 and soon swept the world. People copied their hairstyles and dress as well as their dances. According to a website, Delta Dance , this all took place as preachers across America condemned ballroom dance as the work of the devil. It was “Footloose” in the first decade of the 20th century. But the Castles, who were just barely out of their teens, made these dances seem quite innocent and fun. Particularly Irene, whose youthful exuberance and smile indicated she just a girl who wanted to have fun and not much interested in cavorting with Satan or pleasing dance-fearing preachers.
Vernon was apparently the better dancer of the two, but Irene sold the act. She was the star. She said she didn’t really have to learn the steps since Vernon had her off her feet most of the time. Vernon didn’t seem to mind. He was in love. If you read his love letters to Irene, which he wrote every day they were apart, you can tell he was smitten.
The website quotes sources saying that whenever Irene Castle appeared with a new hairstyle or dress in a magazine, dressmakers and hairstylists would be flooded with requests to come up with something similar. They had influence.
The Castles were also social activists. The band that accompanied them was integrated at a time when segregation was the norm everywhere. But the Castles were powerful enough that they could push these social boundaries. Such was the demand for tickets to see them, they got their way most of the time.
Apparently, one theatrical operator didn’t want to let the Black members of the Castles’ band sit on the stage. Vernon threatened to give a substandard performance, and the operator backed down. The Castles also had a deal with Victor Records and Victrolas and issued records by the Castle House Orchestra, which was led by James Reese Europe, a pioneer in Black music. That, too, was rare for the time.
They also had an influence on my family’s history. Somewhere along the line, my grandmother, Lillian Chitwood, who grew up in Oklahoma, saw them dance and was mesmerized. When she later married and became Lillian Francis, she named her first child, Irene and gave her second child, my father, the middle name of Vernon.
The Castles helped remove the stigma of vulgarity from what was called “close” dancing and set the stage for the jazz age in the 1920s. In 1914, the couple opened Castle House, a dancing school in New York and a nightclub in Long Beach and a restaurant. They advertised products from cigars to cosmetics to shoes.
And the Castles’ influence on dance continues. In 1914, they wrote a book, Modern Dancing, laying out their dance styles and dance steps. That book still sits on the bookshelf of Gracey Tune, a tap dancer and founder and artistic director of Arts Fifth Avenue.
“It’s still relevant to dance,” she said. “That’s why I have a copy.”
So how does this all tie in with Fort Worth and Memorial Day?
Like many Hollywood celebrities of today, the Castles were animal lovers, adopting 100s of dogs and cats and famously buying an elephant that was being mistreated by a circus. The elephant was given to a zoo to live out its life.
Vernon Castle was in France when Germany invaded in World War I. He escaped, but he had to leave a dog he had with him behind. Concerned about the dog, Castle returned to France to retrieve the dog which he had left in the care of a veterinarian. There he witnessed the war’s devastation.
This privileged superstar, who could charge over the modern equivalent of $2,300 per hour for dance lessons, felt he had to do something. He did. Irene was devastated as were Broadway producers who had a show planned with the famous pair.
Vernon Castle not only learned to fly, he apparently took to it like he did to dancing. He served with distinction as a pilot in the British Royal Flying Corps, often flying dangerous missions. He flew reconnaissance missions and fought in dogfights, shooting down more than one enemy plane. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military honor, in 1917. Most sites say he flew over 300 missions during World War I, which seems extraordinary, said Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum.
“Those flights were very dangerous and for him to survive was amazing,” Hodgson said.
Vernon then came to England and then was assigned to the U.S., where he was put in charge of training new pilots at Benbrook Field near Fort Worth.
So how did Fort Worth end up with not one, but three training fields in World War I?
As the U.S. entered the war, several Texas and Oklahoma municipalities applied to be camps for the war effort. Ben E. Keith, then the Chamber president, led the effort, and with then Mayor W.D. Davis, presented Fort Worth’s case for a camp. Fort Worth officials cited the city’s rail facilities, the meat packing plants and the horse and mule market. The military chose Camp Bowie and the city’s connection to the Department of Defense began. Those same city leaders also succeeded in getting three airfields located in the area. There were three fields at Hicks, Everman and Benbrook.
The three aviation camps were used to train American and British pilots, because the weather in Fort Worth was more accommodating than in Canada or Britain. In November, 1917, 75 planes were on the flight line at the Benbrook field and many civilians saw some of their first airplanes.
That’s how Vernon Castle, dancer and celebrity, found himself in Fort Worth, instructing pilots toward the end of World War I.
Instructor pilots typically sat in the back seat, which was more dangerous, said Hodgson. But after Castle lost a student in a crash, he insisted on flying in the front seat.
On Feb. 15, 1918, Vernon was training a student when an aircraft began to take off as Castle was about to land. Vernon tried to avoid a collision, but the plane stalled and nosedived into the ground. The student pilot and Vernon’s monkey, Jeffery, survived. Vernon, 30, was declared dead within the hour.
Castle’s body lay in state in Fort Worth, and then was taken down Main Street to the train station for transportation to New York City. The procession was escorted by an honor guard of 250 American and British fliers, and thousands lined the streets of New York to grieve for Castle. He was buried in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery with a tombstone featuring a nude, life-size bronze of Irene.
Castle was hardly the only pilot or trainee to die at the field. According to the city of Benbrook’s history of the field, it recorded more plane crashes than any other Canadian air training field. Some of those who died are buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Fort Worth.
Irene lived for another 50 years, but their once overwhelming status as turn-of-the-century influencers quickly dimmed as the jazz age they helped trailblaze exploded. There was a film of their life, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, in 1939 starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But it was more a vehicle for the stars rather than an accurate portrayal of their lives. Again, Irene had to make some social justice moves, protesting the hiring of a white actor to play a black friend of the couple.
But there is a memorial to the dancer who flew so high for a time in the early part of the 20th century. The former Benbrook Field is now part of a housing development just off Highway 377 in south Fort Worth. On a street named Vernon Castle Avenue, by a water tower is a concrete pylon topped by a small sculpture of a metal biplane by Benbrook resident David Crutchfield.
Remembering the Royal Flying Corps flyers
On Memorial Day there will be a remembrance service at 10:30 a.m. at the Royal Flying Corps Cemetery in Greenwood Memorial Park sponsored by Greenwood Memorial Park and The Friends of the Royal Flying Corps Cemetery.
The Remembrance Service honored the 39 pilots who were killed in flight training between November 1917 and April 1918 at the three airfields in Tarrant County where 1,500 pilots won their wings.
There will be music by the Fort Worth Scottish Pipes and Drums, a flyover by the Stearman Biplane Flyover Pilots and remarks by the Consul General of Canada, the Honorable Susan Harper and Squadron Leader Guy Harvey of the Royal Air Force.
To see the Vernon Castle Memorial:
The address of the memorial is E. Vernon Castle Ave., Benbrook. Take the I-20 exit 429 onto US 337/Benbrook Blvd. and go south a little over a mile, then left onto Sproles Drive. Take the third left onto Vernon Castle Avenue. The monument is in front of the big water tank.