The late Julia Raphael of Ennis, a small North Texas town, was 9 years old when she, her mother Fannie Jolesch Raphael and aunt Mamie Cerf were attending synagogue one Sunday in 1917 in the neighboring oil-boom city of Corsicana. After services, they headed back home, but as their chauffeured car passed the depot, they noticed a crowd gathering around a train that was drawing to a stop.
A tall, slim lady in a big white hat emerged from the rear of the train and waved a handkerchief. “Mamie let out a squeal,” Raphael recalled. “My aunt was beside herself. She yelled ‘It’s Irene Castle!’ and motioned to the driver to pull over.”
The car screeched to a halt and the little girl and two ladies made their anxious way onto the platform to get a closer look of the famous ballroom dancer and silent movie actress who was now blowing kisses to fans and being handed babies to pose with. Raphael remembered photographers jumping down onto the tracks with their cameras and tripods and running to set them up near the star’s train.
Corsicana-born Adelaide Nielsen was also in the throng that welcomed the arrival of Castle’s private railway car 98 years ago.
“It wasn’t an expected stop,” Nielsen said. “At least that’s what we understood. Somebody told my father, who held me up in the crowd to see Mrs. Castle, that her train had been rerouted for some reason and had only stopped in Corsicana because she and her friends had run out of ice for their drinks. I don’t know if that’s true but that was the kind of things stars did then. We loved it!”
Actually Castle and her entourage, which included her agent Elisabeth Marbury and members of Castle’s film production company, were right on course, heading for Houston for a scheduled appearance to promote her new movie, Stranded in Arcady. She was also expected to make a pitch there for the sale of Liberty Bonds; America then being in the middle of the First World War.
Her train had almost stopped in Ennis before heading to Corsicana. News of the performer’s pending arrival spread through town and a crowd collected at the depot just off Ennis Avenue. Yet Castle’s train chugged through, the famous lady stepping out only briefly on the rear balcony to wave to fans. But the crowds that congregated in Corsicana by the time her private car arrived were so large the star must have felt she couldn’t ignore them.
Raphael said her mother later told her there were so many people surrounding the train because “a porter had given away the secret” that Castle was on her way from Ennis and would “arrive any moment.”
Partnered on the dance floor by dapper husband Vernon, Irene Castle’s renown as a hoofer on stage and screen was matched in the years just before, during and following World War I by her popularity as a trendsetter. One of the leading couturiers of the era, Lucile (in private life Lady Duff Gordon) designed most of Castle’s gowns and hats. Inventor of the modern fashion show and designer of choice to every celeb from Queen Mary to Mary Pickford, the London-based Lucile was the first to challenge French dictatorship in the couture industry, opening in 1911 a successful Paris branch that gave her rivals a run for their stylish money.
By 1917, when Irene Castle swung through small town America, the star was Lucile’s best advertisement, influencing the way young women dressed, how they arranged their hair, even how they stood and walked. The Lucile styles Castle set included sheer, layered skirts (just skimming the ankles), looser waistlines, tango shoes with ribbons crisscrossing up the legs, and flowing lines in general.
“All the clothes Irene Castle wore were high style and everybody copied her,” Raphael said. Nielsen added she even got an Irene Castle doll for Christmas one year: “It had a chiffon, floaty sort of a dress, just like the things she wore.”
Fashion history bears out that it was Castle who ignited the craze for bobbed hair as well as short skirts. Shorn locks had appeared as extreme hairdos in Europe a few years earlier but it remained for the pretty American dancer to make the trend stick when she rose to instant acclaim in Irving Berlin’s breakout hit Watch Your Step on Broadway in 1914.
Raphael related an account of how the famous ballroom dancer’s short hairstyle came about. “You know women wore their hair up in those days,” she explained. “But when the new jazz dances came in, it was hard to keep it pinned while you were twirling around. They say that’s why Mrs. Castle cut her hair. She was tired of dancing at restaurants and having her bobby pins fly out and into somebody’s dinner plate!”
“She also started the flapper fashion of wearing headbands to keep your hair from getting in your face while you were dancing,” Nielsen expounded. “Every girl wore those, whether she danced or not. At least when you dressed like that, you looked like you danced! They were called headache bands and they did give you a headache. We used to make ours out of a string of pearls and then we’d attach a brooch to it. We all looked silly, I’m sure, but we had fun and thought we were special!”
On the day Raphael saw her idol in downtown Corsicana, she recalled Castle was wearing a white leghorn-style hat with a cascade of pale blue feathers that matched her dress. Nielsen remembered every detail: “Her blue outfit had tiny buttons down the front, a pleated skirt and ‘see-through’ sleeves. She looked so neat and trim. We all wanted to wear those wonderful clothes.”
Raphael and Nielsen, who became friends in later years when they appeared together as amateur players at Ennis’ Little Theatre, agreed the day in Corsicana was memorable for getting to see, even at a distance, their girlhood fashion heroine.
“Mrs. Castle stayed only a few minutes, I think,” Raphael recalled. “She waved and smiled and threw her hanky to some girl who cried over it, and then she was gone.”
For Nielsen, seeing Castle was “like a dream,” she said, adding that “when she started to go back inside the train, she blew a kiss in our direction. Papa said ‘Catch it, and blow it back.’ Well, I did, and in my childish mind, I thought she caught my kiss. I don’t know if she even saw me in that crowd, sitting on my father’s shoulders, but I would like to think she did.”
The star’s reception in Texas in 1917 may have been the only happy memory she had of the Lone Star State. The following year her husband enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. When Vernon was tapped to train American pilots in the burgeoning conflict, the dancer-turned-aviator was assigned to Benbrook Field near Fort Worth where, during routine flight maneuvers, the young man’s plane crashed, killing him instantly. A street in Benbrook is named for Vernon Castle and a monument at the wreck site commemorates his career and heroism. There’s no evidence that his wife, who went on to dance solo for a number of years, ever returned to Texas.
“I always wondered if she came back,” Nielsen said. “She likely didn’t. But I will always cherish the memory of her waving and kissing the air of Corsicana, and when the train set off, everybody chased after her. It was magical.”
Note: The author’s interviews with the late Julia Raphael and Adelaide Nielsen were conducted in 1988 and 1997 respectively, and were first published in the Ennis Daily News in 2007.