Women lined up to meet British Royal Flying Corps Capt. Vernon Castle. They also lined the route for his funeral procession, sobbing, after he died a wartime hero in a Feb. 15, 1918, crash.
For a generation long gone, Fort Worth was “the place where Vernon Castle died.” He and his movie fashionista wife, Irene, made the tango and the foxtrot elegant when preachers still called dancing sinful. His death drew headlines like Elvis Presley’s or Michael Jackson’s.
Devoted Castle historians will gather at 8:15 a.m. Thursday at a British military cemetery inside Greenwood Memorial Park to observe the centennial of his death at age 30 at a now-gone Benbrook military airfield.
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“He was like a Brad Pitt of that day,” said Amanda Hill, a Canadian archivist and historian on Castle’s 84th Aero Squadron, which was based in Deseronto, Ontario, but was sent to Texas that winter to train.
“He was a big star, and the fact that this famous dancer had become a military pilot was very exciting.”
Castle, British-born as Vernon Blyth, had already flown 300 missions behind German lines and earned the French Croix de Guerre medal before he was sent to Canada in April 1917 and eventually to Texas.
His marriage to lithe teenage bride Irene, their dancing career and his heroic death swerving to save another pilot turned into a 1939 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie that premiered at the now-gone Worth Theater: “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.”
Before Castle joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, the Chicago Tribune wrote jokingly that he and Irene were making “more money in a week than the average preacher makes in a year.”
They had met as stage performers in New York but launched their dance careers in Paris.
They returned to New York as tango superstars — billed as the world’s “king and queen of dance.” Broadway fans streamed to their shows and socialites paid them $2,000 per dance lesson, the equivalent of $50,000 today.
They shocked a stuffy and segregated nation, not only with sultry dances but by hiring mostly African-American musicians. In a 1917 Boston Herald commentary, African-American poet James Weldon Johnson wrote that Castle always thanked the musicians and credited his dancing to “your people.”
He left it all for the sky and the air force, saying, “I feel like a slacker.”
“He felt guilty and wanted to do his bit for the war effort,” Hill said.
After a year of combat and then seven months in Canada, by November 1917 he wound up with Canadian pilots in Texas for winter training at airfields near Benbrook, Everman and Saginaw.
The Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News described him dancing with local women at River Crest Country Club, taking a pet rhesus monkey along as he cruised the city in a new luxury sedan and flying stunts over homes in Highland Park before landing on the golf course for an event.
“He was having a good time and a very good social life — you might say he was enjoying life,” Hill said.
That Christmas, the Star-Telegram said boys wanted toy airplanes to “fly like Vernon Castle.”
39British or Canadian military pilots were among more than 100 killed training near Fort Worth.
On the morning of Feb. 15, he was flying in the front seat of a Curtiss “Jenny” with an American trainee behind him. He tried to loop over a Canadian trainee taking off, but wasn’t high enough and crashed.
“He was taking evasive action to avoid another airplane,” said Bill Morris, 74, of Benbrook, a director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum and one of the historians involved in the Thursday ceremony.
Crashes were common. Castle was the 31st pilot killed at the three fields here, 10 of them Americans.
(A memorial on today’s Vernon Castle Avenue in Benbrook is about four blocks west of the crash site near Wade Hampton Street.)
More than 2,000 mourners, many of them pilots and officers from the air bases and U.S. Army Camp Bowie, thronged the old Robertson’s funeral chapel at Taylor and West 10th streets to hear the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church rector conduct the service.
United Press International reported that Fort Worth police had trouble managing a large crowd of women who wanted inside. The Houston Post reported that women could be heard sobbing all along the procession from the chapel east on 10th to Throckmorton Street and south to the old Texas & Pacific railway station.
Aircraft flew overhead, dropping flowers.
Newspapers nationwide bannered headlines and photos of the procession. Back in New York, Castle was buried privately in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Fort Worth debated how to honor its fallen hero.
The next year, city leaders renamed a divided boulevard to Circle Park on the north side as Vernon Castle Boulevard.
But five years later, with the 1920s and Ku Klux Klan moralizing on the rise, the City Council removed Castle’s name.
The Star-Telegram asked an unidentified north-side pastor why he petitioned for the change.
“He was a dancer,” the pastor said.