Vernon Castle Airplane Crash Site Memorial
Vernon and Irene Castle were a husband-and-wife dance team, and the first pop superstars of the 20th century. The couple reworked ragtime "animal dances" -- the Fox Trot, Grizzly Bear, and Turkey Trot -- so that white people would accept them, in the same way that Pat Boone would sanitize black music fifty years later (To their credit, the Castle's also invented their own popular dances, such as the Castle Walk and the Hesitation Waltz.). They were young, rich, and famous, and they authored books, starred in early Broadway musicals and movies, and sold their names and faces to everything from record players to shoes to cigars.
Vernon, however, felt increasingly guilty about his life of luxury. He had been born and raised in England, and World War I was ravaging Europe. Vernon joined the Royal Flying Corps, was quickly commissioned as an officer, and flew 300 combat missions. He shot down two German planes and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross) for heroism.
In 1917 he returned to the U.S. to teach aviation students how to fly. On February 15, 1918, at a military airfield outside of Fort Worth, Texas, his plane stalled during a climb and roll maneuver. (Vernon was trying to avoid crashing into another cadet-piloted plane.) Vernon was only 75 feet in the air, but he had given the safer rear seat to his student, and died when the plane fell nose first into the ground. According to the monument at the crash site, "Neither the other pilot, his student cadet, nor Vernon's pet monkey, Jeffrey, were seriously injured." (Jeffrey's ultimate fate is unknown, but Irene's monkey, Rastas, is buried at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York.)
The former Benbrook Field is now a tree-shaded housing development. The crash site is marked by a concrete pylon topped by a small sculpture of a metal biplane by Benbrook resident David Crutchfield. The monument had fallen into disrepair, but was restored by a local Eagle Scout in the late 1990s and the plane was dedicated on October 11, 1997. The monument is an odd site among all the Leave-It-To-Beaver-era houses, and is dwarfed by a large water tank built behind it at some later date, by a generation that no longer cared much about Vernon Castle.
A windy poem by a Ruth Finley, penned in 1918, graces one side of the monument: "He danced and gave his dearest gift; That little children yet unborn; May dance with gay, unshackled feet; To tunes not piped by Battle's horn..." etc.
Vernon was buried in New York City's elite Woodlawn Cemetery. Irene posed for a nude, life-size bronze of her willowy self and placed it kneeling atop Vernon's tombstone, bent in deep mourning. She then lived for another 50 years, and had three more husbands.