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Dec 24, 2015

Asheville girls shaped Arthur Murray’s life

by Rob Neufeld

 

            Once upon a time, Asheville had been a dancing city.  Folk dancing and clogging persist in the mountains, but the hip dances in Southside joints and the ballroom dances downtown have become subjects for history.

            For the ballroom dancing, one figure and one place stand out: Arthur Murray at the old Battery Park Hotel, the Biltmore Estate-quality manor that had once sat atop a now-vanished hill.  (Battery Park Apartments now occupies the location.)

            In late 1914, as England was mounting its historic first aerial bombing on Germany, Arthur Murray, age nineteen, arrived at the Battery Park.  As a teen, he’d started dancing as a way of getting beyond his Jewish immigrant neighborhood, the Lower East Side in New York.  He discovered he had a gift.

            He won a waltz contest.  He taught at the Vernon and Irene Castle school.  Baroness de Kuttleson, an established dance teacher there, took him under her wing.  She advised him to lop off his last name, Teichman, because it sounded too German.  She took him to Asheville.  She charged his clients $50 per lesson, and pocketed $45 for herself.

            From all accounts, Murray—tall, foreign-looking, elegant, and a great dancer—had been a huge hit. 

            He grew a moustache.  “When Edith Vanderbilt saw him,” Jane Heimlich, his daughter, recounts, “she instructed him to take that fool thing off.  He was quick to do so.  She was one of his staunchest supporters, and often invited him to the Biltmore House to give lessons.”

            Heimlich, author of authoritative alternative medicine books and wife of surgeon Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, has just published a memoir, titled, “Out of Step.”  In it, she vividly recalls her father’s charm because of its connection to her mother’s suicide attempt.

            Her mother, Kathryn, whom Arthur had married in 1925, would go on to be as big a star as he on the TV show, “The Arthur Murray Party” (a popular variety show, on which young comic Johnny Carson had gotten his TV break).

            But in 1930, Arthur, who had already established a world famous dance-by-mail business, further wedded himself to his work by starting a chain of dance studios.  He travelled from his suburban home to his founding studio in Manhattan and spent days and nights with young female teachers and socialites.

            “The women were like the Southern girls that Arthur had admired so much in Asheville,” Heimlich writes. 

            Murray published a book, “The Secret of Popularity.”

            Kathryn, who had enjoyed the life of a flapper, but who did not dance, went to parties and drank bathtub gin, Heimlich relates.  A hired woman took care of the house, which included the Murrays’ twin daughters.  One night, Kathryn climbed out a window, dropped, and broke her spine.

            Asheville had its own tragic post-Crash jumps.  But in 1914, the city had been flying high.  The Great Gatsby, if he’d been here, would have been drawn to Battery Park Hotel dances like an outsider to the glow of the good life.

            Murray’s path to high society involved wooing rather than the takeover approach of the fictional Gatsby.  In 1914, charming Arthur received a letter from Edith Vanderbilt, who stated she was in charge of arrangements for the Christmas Ball.

            “Dear Mr. Murray,” she wrote, “I have been requested…to ask you if you would be kind enough to perform an exhibition dance at the ball tomorrow, Tuesday evening, Dec. 25.   I understand there is a young lady in Asheville who would dance with you, and I will ask you to please extend to her this invitation.”

            At future dances, Murray partnered with such local lasses as Misses Dorothy Lytle, Jeanette Hartzog, Doris Davenport, Louise Wise and Eustice Hudley.  On Saturday afternoons, he gave classes to children. 

            “To dance smartly, as society girls must,” Murray wrote in a brochure, “it is necessary to learn from well-bred teachers who are reared in an atmosphere of culture.”

SOURCES

Information in this article has been drawn from Jane Murray Heimlich’s new book, “Out of Step” (Orange Frazer Press); an interview with her; and “Encyclopedia of World Biography (Advameg).

 

PHOTO CAPTION

Arthur Murray poses with his wife Kathryn on the cover of their daughter Jane’s new book.

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I notice one of the local ladies who danced with Mr. Murray was Doris Davenport. I would assume this is the same lady who went on to marry Chester Pierce Munroe and lived for years on Edgemont Rd in Grove Park. Pack Library just received a collection of her papers last year which had ended up in the care of her neighbor after her death. The photo album, available online, is amazing and I can't wait to read the letters between her children, her end of the correspondence returned to her when they both died young.

 

http://tinyurl.com/47ro48q

 

http://history.abls.lib.nc.us/dbtw-wpd/abls/images/MS208_003%20Dori...

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