The Last Waltz: The Death of a Cloud Dancer

Chiseled on a monument in the little British Royal Flying Corps plot in Greenwood Cemetery are two lists of names: “Buried Here” and “Buried Elsewhere.”

At the top of the “Buried Elsewhere” list is the name of Vernon Castle.

Castle was born in England in 1887. He and his wife Irene were a dance team, had been the toast of Broadway and East Coast society. They are credited with popularizing ballroom dancing with such dances as the foxtrot, turkey trot, and the Texas tommy. They literally wrote the book on modern dance (photo from Library of Congress).

Irene was also an actress and fashion trendsetter.

When World War I began, Vernon returned to England to become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. He flew three hundred combat missions.

camp taliaferro castle monkeyThen Castle was assigned to Canada to train pilots. Observers on the ground in Canada said they could always tell if a plane in the air was being flown by Castle because of the grace of the maneuvers. One aviation mechanic described Castle’s flying as “absolutely beautiful, like he was dancing in the air.”

Then Castle was promoted to captain and assigned to the United States—Carruthers Field in Benbrook—to train pilots. Carruthers Field (Wing 3 of Fort Worth’s Camp Taliaferro) was located roughly between Winscott Road and Benbrook Highway south of I-20. (That’s Castle’s pet monkey, Jeffrey. Photo from Library of Congress.)

taliaferro castle in jenny loc

Vernon Castle in a Jenny. (Photo from Library of Congress.)

castle 11-17In November 1917, just as Camp Taliaferro opened, local residents could see Vernon Castle in the air over Benbrook or Mrs. Castle on a screen downtown at Byers Opera House.

Local residents might also see Vernon Castle about town. While here he became popular in Fort Worth society and at the Army’s Camp Bowie. He played polo, he danced at benefits to aid the war effort.

Then, on February 15, 1918, Castle and a cadet went up in a Jenny over Benbrook. Castle’s Jenny crashed as he maneuvered to avoid a collision with a plane flown by an RFC cadet pilot. Castle’s plane was only seventy feet off the ground at the time. The cadet pilot in the other plane and the cadet pilot in Castle’s plane survived. Jeffrey the monkey also survived.

taliaferro castle wreckage loc

Castle’s death was the fifth flight fatality that week at the three airfields of Camp Taliaferro. (Photo from Library of Congress.)

taliaferro carruthers castle caisson BPLVernon Castle’s caisson. This photo shows the procession leaving Louis P. Robertson’s funeral parlor downtown and passing the 1893 city hall. (Photo from Benbrook Public Library.)

taliaferro castle funeral locVernon Castle’s funeral was held in Manhattan’s Little Church Around the Corner. (Photo from Library of Congress.)

As the Greenwood monument states, Castle is “buried elsewhere”: in the Bronx, New York.

castle 1939In 1939 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (once a student at Fort Worth’s Central High) starred in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. The world premiere of the movie was held at the Worth Theater.

And in Benbrook, at the site of the crash (on a street named for him), stands a monument to the cloud dancer.

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7 Responses to The Last Waltz: The Death of a Cloud Dancer

  1. Marilyn Finley says:

    I am thrilled to read that you have not forgotten Vernon Castle and that you are marking the Centenery of his death. Vernon was my Grandad’s (William Finley) cousin. Vernon’s Mother was Jane Bligh (nee Finley)

    My Grandad would be very proud, as all Vernon’s descendants in the UK are.

    Thank you for honouring and remembering him

    Kind regards

    Marilyn Finley

    • hometown says:

      Thank you. What a life he lived in the short time allotted to him. And how those RFC cadets must have felt like Moses in Midian (a stranger in a strange land) when they found themselves in Texas training for a war in Europe.

    • Irene Castle McLaughlin says:

      I am Irene Castle’s grand daughter and have been trying to locate descendants of Vernon’s sisters. If you are in contact with any family members and could connect me, please contact me at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University Cambridge Ma.
      Today is the 100th anniversary of Vernon’s death and I too appreciate the post. Castle McLaughlin

  2. Jim Hodgson says:

    Great article.

    We will be conducting an informal memorial at the Royal Flying Corps gravesite at Greenwood Cemetery February 15, 2018, at 8 AM.

    Jim Hodgson
    Fort Worth Aviation Museum

  3. J.R. Boye says:

    Love this piece. Next month will be the 100th anniversary of captain Castle’s death. I’ve been to the memorial in Benbrook before, but I just may visit again on February 15th.

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