Irene Castle and Zowie

Irene Castle with Zowie in Paris, 1912. Although Zowie has often been referred to as a small terrier or Griffon, one news article claimed she was an English bulldog. In this picture, she looks more like part-bulldog to me.

“Her death last year was the hardest to bear of any – until his came. Somehow I like to think that her little soul was waiting to greet his, so that he mightn’t feel strange or alone in the great world above us. I can see her jumping and running for joy and licking his hand to show she has not forgotten, and crying – just a little—to find I had not come too.”—Irene Castle shares memories of Zowie in her book “My Husband,” 1919

You’ve no doubt heard of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This is a story about a great dance team that rose to fame when Fred and Ginger were just children.

Vernon and Irene Castle

In the early 1900s, Vernon and Irene Castle were two of America’s favorite stars. The dances they created, like the Castle Walk and Hesitation Waltz, were all the rage around the world. Irene and Vernon were international symbols of youth and beauty, and millions of people tried to dance and dress and style their hair just like them.

The story of Irene and Vernon Castle

The Castle story is a wonderful love story for all time, full of romance, adventure, struggles, fame, and tragedy. But my favorite part of their story is how they supposedly met in 1909.

According to one story told in the Tarrytown Daily News and several other upstate New York papers, Vernon and Irene were both swimming in the Long Island Sound at the New Rochelle Yacht Club in the summer of 1909 when a little English bulldog swam beyond her limit and began to flounder.

Irene Foote Castle

The Foote family, around 1899. Irene spent her childhood surrounded by many animals, including her father’s horses and dogs.

Irene and Vernon both came to her rescue and thus became acquainted. They named the dog Zowie after Zowie, the Monarch of Mystery, which was a role Vernon Castle (his stage name) played in The Hen-Pecks at the Broadway Theatre. (Other reports claim that Irene and Vernon received the dog as a gift from Irene’s father after they married, which makes more sense when you look at the timeline. The Hen-Pecks first opened in February 1911, so they couldn’t have named the dog after Zowie the Monarch of Mystery in 1909. But of course, I prefer the rescue tale.)

Pryer Terrace, New Rochelle, Foote residence

In 1906, the Footes sold their large home at 304 North Avenue (now the site of the New Rochelle Transit Center) to the developers of Halcyon Park. They moved to a larger house a few blocks away on Pryer Terrace across from the Beechmont Oval Park, where Dr. Foote erected a large red barn for his horses and kennels for his dogs. Irene and Vernon were married in this home, shown here, in 1911.

Born in 1893 in New Rochelle, New York, Irene was the daughter of Dr. Hubert Townsend Foote and Annie Elroy Thomas Foote. She lived in New Rochelle until 1910, when she moved in with her older sister, Elroy, on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan to be closer to her new beau, Vernon William Blythe. Vernon proposed to her on Christmas Day, 1910, and they married on May 28, 1911, at the Foote residence in New Rochelle.

In 1912, the Castles traveled to Paris, where Vernon was appearing in a French musical revue. Their stay in Paris was short lived, though, as Irene had to return to America in May 1912 to attend her father’s funeral.

Edward Bliss Foote

Irene’s grandfather, Edward Bliss Foote, was a medical doctor who shared an office with Dr. Hubert Foote at 120 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. A pioneer in the sexual revolution, Edward Foote called for sexual freedom and offered women birth control advice in the 1860s. He also invented several female birth control devices, such as the womb veil (a precursor to the diaphragm). Edward was once declared a “danger to the nation” by conservative postal inspector Anthony Comstock.

Accompanied by Zowie, Irene spent a lot of time on the ship looking out for icebergs and staying on deck, determined to get in a lifeboat if necessary (the Titanic had gone down only a year earlier). “In the confusion of abandoning ship, they would think I was carrying a baby” she told the press. “A very ugly baby.”

A Castle Tour of New York City

During their brief marriage, Vernon and Irene spent most of their time between New York City and Long Island. They had a townhouse in the building previously occupied by Irene’s father and grandfather at 120 Lexington Avenue. They also purchased the J.R. Ely estate in Manhasset near the Long Island Sound. Here they had kennels and stables for their 24 dogs (including 12 police dogs), 5 horses, donkey, and numerous other animals.

Irene and Vernon never had children; however, they had lots of pets to keep them company, many of whom were performing animals that they rescued from the theater. In addition to Zowie, some of their favorite fur-babies included a German shepherd named Tell van Flugerard, a monkey named Rastas, and a dog named Punchinello. Many say that in addition to their dancing, it was their shared love of animals that kept them united.

Rossmore Hotel, Louis Martin Cafe, Broadway

When they returned to New York in 1912, Irene and Vernon Castle enjoyed success at Louis Martin’s Café between Broadway, 7th Avenue, 41st and 42nd streets. The building that housed the café was erected in 1873 as the Rossmore Hotel, seen here. In 1909, it was remodeled as the lavish Café de l’Opera and then in 1912, restaurateur Louis Martin renovated the building to house his new restaurant, the Café de Paris. Martin’s business failed in 1913 and the building was demolished by 1915 to make way for an 11-story office building. NYPL digital collections.

24-26 East 46th Street

On December 15, 1913, the Castles opened a dance hall called the Castle House at 24-26 East 46th Street, opposite the entrance to the Ritz-Carlton. This building had previously been occupied by Josefa Neilson Osborn’s dressmaking company (called Mrs. Osborn’s Company). Here, in the large ballrooms on the second floor, the Castles taught clients including Mrs. Stuyvessant Fish and Mrs. William Rockefeller all the new dances in between glasses of lemonade and tea. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

120-122 Lexington Avenue

Irene and Vernon Castle had a townhouse at 120 Lexington Avenue, left, which was previously the medical offices and laboratories of Irene’s father and grandfather, and also the meeting place for the New York City Women’s Suffrage League in the late 1890s. The couple also held title to the adjoining building at 122 Lexington.

Irene and Vernon Castle Estate, Manhasset

In the spring of 1914, they bought the James R. Ely estate on Manhasset Bay, Long Island, where they had kennels and stables for their 24 dogs and 5 horses.

Castles by the Sea, Long Beach, NY

In 1914, the Castles opened Castles by the Sea, a resort and dancing school at the former Danse de la Mer pavilion built by Senator William Reynolds on the Long Beach boardwalk, just east of the Hotel Nassau (today, the Ocean Club condominiums at 100 W. Broadway). The opening of the resort was featured in the 1915 silent film Whirl of Life, in which the Castles made their motion-picture debut. In later years the front of this building was extended and a theater and other stores were added. It burned down in the 1930s and today the site is occupied by the Allegria Hotel.

Irene and Vernon Castle

Irene and Vernon with their German shepherd Tell and Griffon Kiki on the porch of their Manhasset home, sometime around 1915.

Goodbye, Zowie and Vernon

Born in Norfolk, England, in 1887, Vernon was very concerned about the fate of his home country during World I. So he temporarily gave up dancing, enlisted in the British military, and joined the 84th Royal Flying Corps Squadron. He flew 300 combat missions, shot down two German planes, and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross) for heroism.

In 1917, Vernon returned to the U.S. as part of a program established by General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to train American and Canadian aviators at Benbrook Flying Field in Texas. That same year, the couple lost two beloved pets. On July 18, 1917, Punchinello, a small dog (probably a Griffon), was killed in a fall. A few weeks later, on August 2, Zowie passed away. Both dogs were buried in the Castle plot at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County.

Irene Castle plot Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

The Castle plot is one of the largest at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Seven of Irene’s pets were buried here, including Poudie, Rastas, Sweetie, Kiki, Punchinello, and Zowie, each beneath a headstone inscribed with their name, date of birth and death, and an epitaph. Zowie’s reads: To My Adored Zowie. I do not cringe from death so much, Since you are gone, my truest friend, Thy dear, dumb soul will wait for me. However long before the end.

On February 15, 1918, Vernon was killed during a training mission in Texas. According to news reports, Captain Castle had attempted to avert a collision with another plane by “zeeming up” 75 feet. At such a sharp angle, his engine died, causing the plane to turn on its side and plunge nose-first to the ground. Neither the cadet student nor Vernon’s monkey Jeffrey were injured in the crash.

Vernon Castle and Jeffrey

Vernon often flew with his pet monkey Jeffrey. While at the British front in Paris, he also reportedly opened a private American bar with the latest New York cocktails served by Jeffrey.

Vernon was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. For his memorial, Irene recreated a bronze sculpture of a tired ballet dancer titled End of the Day, which depicts a nude dancer coiled into a ball after an exhausting day of practice. A memorial for Vernon was erected in 1966 at the crash site in Texas near the corner of Vernon Castle Avenue and Cozby West.

Just six months after Vernon’s death, in August 1918, Irene was secretly married to U.S. Army Captain Robert E. Treman, reportedly a childhood friend. (Their public marriage took place on May 3, 1919.) She sold her property at 120 and 122 Lexington Avenue two months later, and the couple moved into their gift from Terman’s father — a large home called Greystone on Cayuga Heights Road in Ithaca.

Four years later, on July 24, 1923, the couple got a divorce in Paris on the ground that “he refused to observe the marital relations.” (In the early 1900s, many couples established legal domicile in France in order to more easily obtain a divorce in the French courts.) The couple’s beautiful home overlooking Cayuga Lake was purchased for $67,000 by the Sigma Chi Alumni Association at Cornell University in 1925. Today the home is the chapter house of the Alpha Phi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity.

Irene Castle

Following her marriage to Frederic McLaughlin, Irene hung up her stage hat and gave marriage and motherhood a try. On January 4, 1925, she gave birth to a 7-pound baby girl, Barbara Irene. On July 18, 1929, she gave birth to a son, William Foote. Although the press surmised that motherhood would put an end to her fondness for animals, that was simply not the case.

Not unlike Mable Lorraine Miller, the femme fatale in my last post who had five husbands, Irene didn’t waste any time making her next conquest. Just four months after her divorce to Captain Treman, she married Major Frederic McLaughlin, a divorced sportsman from Chicago who was a millionaire coffee merchant and owner of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.

Irene Caslte and dogs

Irene Castle was an avid campaigner for animal rights for much of her lifetime. In 1927, she founded Orphans of the Storm, an animal shelter for dogs in Deerfield, Illinois. Each year, she hosted “pooch balls” to raise money for the shelter. Sadly, she lost 90 of the 125 dogs sheltered there in February 1930, when a suspicious fire destroyed the facilities. The shelter was rebuilt, and is still in operation today.

In September 1937, Irene sued her third husband for divorce (I’m beginning to think that divorce was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s). She withdrew the suit two years later, but the couple continued to live apart. Frederic died in December 1944, and Irene was married one more time in 1946 to George Enzinger, a divorced Chicago advertising executive.

Irene Foote Castle Treman McLaughlin Enzinger died at the age of 75 on January 25, 1969, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Just five years earlier, while in New York to be the guest of honor at America’s Ball of the Year, Irene told a reporter that when she died, she wanted her gravestone to say “humanitarian” rather than “dancer.” She said she only danced for fun and money, but “Orphans of the Storm comes from my heart. It’s more important.”

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

In 1939, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played Vernon and Irene Castle in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. The RKO radio picture was based on “My Husband” and “My Memories of Vernon Castle,” both written by Irene. The movie even featured a dog named Zowie, albeit, this dog does not look like a bulldog.

HartsdaleSectionIreneCastle+HatchingCat.jpg

  1. Gerald says:

    Great work, Peggy as always re The Hartsdale Canine Cemetery;
    BTW, here is a historic photo of the original Castle plot at Hartsdale;

    https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?ui=2&ik=e8282901cb&view=att&th=14ef4c1d096e7bfa&attid=0.1&disp=safe&realattid=f_icw8hti10&zw

  2. Thank you, Gerald. I couldn’t open the link, however, as it appears to be connected to gmail. Do you have a JPEG file of this photo — if not, perhaps I can check to see if Ed has a photo in their files. Would love to see it and use it in my story!

  3. […] years later, in 1914, Henry Bizallion joined Ellin Prince Speyer, Mrs. Vernon Castle, James Gardner Rossman, and several other notable New York and New Jersey dog lovers in […]