As an editor, I pay a certain amount of attention to centennials, bicentennials, sesquicentennials, and the like. This year, for example, is the centennial of the birth of William Golding, Spike Jones, and Hubert Humphrey and the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter. But I was momentarily taken aback not long ago when I realized that it is also Ginger Rogers’s centennial.
Of course, Fred Astaire’s dance partner is a generation older than I—for the record, I was born the week before her 39th birthday—and I never had anything remotely resembling a romantic interest in her. But I developed a youthful appreciation for Ginger Rogers, and for two distinct reasons: one perverse, one less so.
The perverse reason is that, for whatever cause, my parents strongly disapproved of Ginger Rogers—she had probably supported General Eisenhower in 1952 instead of Adlai Stevenson—and anybody on the household librorum prohibitorum aroused a sympathetic interest in me. The other reason is that, very nearly alone among my contemporaries in the Swinging Sixties, I had a taste for the popular culture, especially the music, of the 1930s and immersed myself in Fats Waller, old issues of Life, and Busby Berkeley’s movie musicals. I was introduced to Ginger Rogers in 42nd Street (1933), where she had a secondary role as the chorus girl Anytime Annie (“She only said ‘no’ once and then she didn’t hear the question”). Blonde, wisecracking Ginger seemed to personify the spirit of the age.
Let us move forward a decade or so, and I am toiling away at U.S. News & World Report as an exceedingly junior reporter/editor, under the thumb of an especially disagreeable boss. There was a newspaper advertisement to the effect that Ginger Rogers (!) would be making a promotional appearance at a Washington department store the next day around lunchtime. It should be explained that, in the early 1970s, Washington was well off the beaten track for Hollywood types, and lunch hours at U.S. News were measured with rigorous precision. But I calculated that, splurging on taxis, I could rush to Woodward & Lothrop and back without jeopardizing my employment.
The next day I brought to the office some old 42nd Street sheet music that featured a portrait of Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie, surrounded by suitable art deco graphics, ideal for inscription. What I hadn’t calculated, however, was that this was during the height of the Watergate crisis, and at the very moment Ginger was extolling the virtues of such-and-such perfume at Woodies, I was obliged to watch a minor figure in the scandal, Herbert Kalmbach, plead guilty in the federal courthouse.
So it was painful, thereafter, to play any tunes from that album of sheet music and see the picture that Ginger Rogers hadn’t signed. But then, after a decade of frustration had passed, I simply mailed the picture to her ranch in Oregon, along with an explanatory letter—and was kindly rewarded with a fulsome inscription and a second signed portrait: “This extra is for your patience and persistence,” she wrote.
Which ends the saga nicely—except, of course, that Ginger Rogers and I had still not met. Nor did years of living in Los Angeles lift the burden: There were one or two occasions when, once again, I missed a chance to see her around town; and I had no excuse to interview her since somebody at the Los Angeles Times had already drafted her advance obituary.
Indeed, it was not until I moved back to Washington in the early 1990s, and Ginger Rogers was a year or two away from death, that our paths finally crossed. It was a small luncheon in her honor at the National Press Club, and, ever the importunate fan, I brought along a copy of her recent autobiography (Ginger: My Story, 1991). By this time, of course, Anytime Annie was a decidedly elderly woman, and I was no longer a youthful admirer. She seemed to be immensely frail—I have a recollection of her being in a wheelchair—and her mind, shall we say, seemed slightly less acute than in years past.
But she looked and sounded like Ginger Rogers, exuded the air of an old-fashioned movie star, and was certainly in a capacious mood. She was moved to tears by one tribute paid by an old promoter, and I was shrewd enough to sit beside her young female secretary, who soon invited me to meet her boss.
This would have been the culmination of a lifelong quest—except that I was suffering from laryngitis that day and could barely speak. Indeed, I managed to croak a few appreciative syllables, which I doubt she understood; but she did sign her memoir with a lavish inscription and smiled benignly at my gestures of thanks. She couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t talk, but I danced with Ginger Rogers, figuratively speaking, for a moment.