Verne and Dorothy and the roaring teens

Posted by Preston G. on November 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm
Nov 072011

One of the things that I remember doing with my grandfather as a kid was going to Benbrook Lake to go fishing or water skiing. There probably weren’t really too many of these expeditions, but they stand out in memory. Verne had a boat with a 65 hp outboard motor on it, and I learned to waterski behind it. Of course he could do everything necessary to tow the boat to the lake, put it in and take it out by himself, with one arm.

We also used it on the occasional fishing trip. My dad and Verne I and my brother Verne II and I went out to troll up and down the dam at night a couple of times. Once we went without our friend Horace Webb, who was the real fisherman, and caught nothing. Another time Horace went and we caught enough bass that my mother just about fainted when faced with the prospect of cleaning them. We probably didn’t do anything different when Horace wasn’t with us or was, but it made a good story that the fish just liked Horace.

It turns out that just down the road from where we used to put the boat in the lake there is a monument in the town of Benbrook that connects, sort of, to Verne and Dorothy’s early life. The monument marks the spot that British dancer, actor and aviator Vernon Castle died in a military training plane crash in Feb. 1918. Vernon Castle had moved to New York from England early in the century and started a career in acting and dancing. In 1911 he married Irene Foote of New York. They became the Fred and Ginger Rogers of their day, dancing on stage and in silent movies from 1911 to 1916 when Vernon returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps to do his part in the Great War.

They first became famous introducing American dances to Paris, after which they returned to New York to become Broadway stars, dance teachers to the rich, and stars in silent films. They introduced a number of new dances, including the Foxtrot, the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear, the Castle Walk and their own version of the tango. There are extracts of their films on Youtube in which you can see them dancing.

WWI began in 1914, and in 1916, after learning to fly, Vernon returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. He served in France for 2 years and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his exploits. He was then sent to Canada to train flyers, but it was soon determined that the weather in Texas would be better for flying than in Canada and training was moved to a number of bases in Texas. By this time the U.S. was in the war and training of U.S. flyers was also going on in Fort Worth. On Feb. 15, 1918 while on a training flight, Vernon maneuvered to avoid a collision with a cadet and stalled his plane at too low an altitude to recover. The cadet in the rear seat and Vernon’s pet monkey survived the crash, but Vernon died within minutes afterward. He was 30 yr. old. The picture at the top of this post is the monument that stands today on Vernon Castle Ave. in Benbrook. Below is an aerial photo of Benbrook Field during WWI.

Irene Castle married several more times in her long life and continued as a dancer. In 1939 the story of the Castles was told in a movie starring (who else?) Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Irene Castle later published an autobiography called “Castles in the Air.”

In Verne’s letters he describes going to the “cabarets” in Los Angeles. During the teens there was a dance craze started in American cities. Restaurants added dance floors and couples danced the new dances introduced by the Castles and others. This was a step in the direction of the clubs of today, where strangers danced, often with their bodies close together, something that wouldn’t have been done in polite society a few decades earlier.

Verne liked to dance and attended dances in Dallas and in Arizona, but he saw the new cabaret development as a bad thing, and apparently Dorothy agreed. (I can’t tell from the letters whether Dorothy really like to dance or not.) He had the definite impression that morals were looser in Los Angeles than in Dallas, and I think he saw a connection to the cabarets. Verne was shocked when he asked a girl in his office to go to a show and she replied that she was going out with her husband that evening, but she would be happy to go out with him the next evening, and assured him that her husband wouldn’t mind. Verne minded and told her so.

In a letter of April 10, 1919, Verne said,

“Dear, I agree with you that dancing is one of the greatest evils that we have and anything that makes us run after pleasures only will tend to have the same effect. There have been some interesting statistics made on dances and from them it would appear that they are the worst evil that we have. We have done away with liquor and the next step will be the doing away with public dances, but from the way we are going it looks they are going to be a long time in going. The young set will not be reasoned with and the older people can sometimes see what they have learned by experience. I cannot believe that things will always go in this manner but it looks as if there is no relief in sight yet. As far as France is concerned I often wonder if she has really learned her lesson.”

Most of the French were still taken with the spirit of social revolution, but in America the reforming spirit of Prohibition was still strong and it hadn’t yet been faced with the unintended consequences of trying to use the law to reform morality in defiance of human nature and ancient traditions. It would be interesting if Verne had recorded the development of his thinking during the ’20s, but I don’t think there are enough letters from those years to be able to follow what he thought. He had a conservative bent, but he was also realistic and I suspect that he changed his thinking somewhat with the experience of the ’20s.

It’s funny that we look back to the early 20th century as a time of innocence relative to what came later, but some people saw it at the time as a time when things were getting out of control. Compared to 19th century norms where a chaperone was a necessity, things were “out of control.” I suspect that conservative-minded people always see the world as going to hell in a hand basket and liberals always think it isn’t getting to the future fast enough. In reality there is always vice and virtue in a society, and in the same heart, and every tale is in the end the tale of individuals. Each makes his or her choices and each reaps the rewards or consequences later in life and in the end. Verne and Dorothy believed that.

Preston G.

Retired biochemist. One of 16 grandchildren of Verne Garrison and Dorothy Logan Garrison.

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