Peppe In Her Step: The Audrey Peppe Story

The daughter of Frank and Alice (Loughran) Peppe, Audrey Frances Peppe was born October 12, 1917 in New York City. She grew up in Manhattan - and later, Hempstead Town in Nassau - with her younger brothers Kenneth and Allen. Her father was a very successful real estate broker in Washington Square, bringing in sixty five thousand dollars a year during The Great Depression. Her paternal grandparents were Italian immigrants.

Audrey Peppe and Robin Lee in 1931

Brown haired and freckled Audrey was educated at Friends Seminary Day School, the Gardner School For Girls and Long Beach High School. In 1939 she recalled, "I started in ballet dancing when I was four years old. After I had acquired some confidence in that line, and after having heard so much about skating, it was only natural to transfer my affections to the ice." She started skating at the age of six at the Skating Club Of New York and was taught the basics by her aunt Bea Loughran, who would go on to become the only American in history to win three Olympic medals in figure skating. Later, Bea would accompany her to competitions though her primary coach was Willy Böckl.

Appearing in her first club carnival at the age of ten, Audrey was on the ice at six in the morning every day. Her little free time was spent swimming, golfing, playing tennis and attending dance classes. Though European skaters like Sonja Henie, Belita Jepson-Turner and Melitta Brunner complemented their skating with off-ice dance, Audrey was one of the first American skaters of note to do so.

Audrey Peppe with Ollie Haupt Jr. (left) and Robin Lee (right)

Audrey made her national debut in 1930, losing the junior women's title to Dr. Hulda Berger but winning "the hearts of spectators with a remarkable performance" in the free skating. The following year, she won the Skating Club of New York's junior women's 'Class A' competition for the third time, gaining permanent possession of the winner's cup presented by Gertrude Cheever Porter. She also won the Waltz at that event, skating with female partner Nancy Church. In the years that followed, she amassed top six finishes at four U.S. Championships and the 1933 North American Championships.

The judging system in place at the time which placed so much of the emphasis on school figures hurt Audrey greatly, particularly so early in her career. Many of her competitors were excellent at figures and she - suffice it to say - was not. She finished dead last in figures in many of the events she entered but was in the top three in free skating practically every time. She had an Axel and a Lutz in her repertoire and newspapers raved of her "lightning fast" speed. Maribel Vinson Owen recalled her fine crossfoot spin. One account of her performance at the 1934 U.S. Championships from "The Philadelphia Inquirer" raved, "Audrey skated like wildfire and looked like a comet as she spun around on her skates. Her egg shell colored velvet costume blended with crimson accoutrements tended to heighten her daring leaps, jumps and twists." She placed only fourth at that event.

Audrey's first break came in 1936 at the age of eighteen, when she won the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships and earned the right to represent America at the Olympics and World Championships. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, she placed twelfth but defeated several better known skaters in free skating. In Paris at the Worlds, she placed an unlucky thirteenth.

In 1937, Audrey went to London to train under Howard Nicholson, one-time coach to Sonja Henie. A membership with the National Skating Association allowed her to compete in the European Championships in Prague, where she placed eleventh. At the World Championships in London that followed, she placed dead last despite the Polish judge having her tied for third in the free skate. In both instances, it was again the figures that did her in.

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine

Perhaps most famously, Audrey ever so narrowly lost the 1938 U.S. women's title to Joan Tozzer. Egbery Cary, Jr., a judge from Philadelphia, placed her third behind Tozzer and Jane Vaughn, sealing her fate at that event. "TIME" magazine recalled, "To the tune of the Hungarian Rhapsody, she delighted the crowd with flaring spins, jumps and dance steps. But Joan Tozzer so impressed the judges with the simplicity and smoothness of her free-skating repertory that they gave her performance almost as many points as Miss Peppe's. When the two-day totals were tallied, Joan Tozzer was awarded the crown by the slim margin of one-tenth of a point." The result really ticked off the 'powers that be' at the Skating Club Of New York, adding fuel to the decades long rivalry between the old Eastern Seaboard clubs - Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Later that year,
Audrey headlined her club's carnival at Madison Square Garden with Felix Kaspar, making history as the first 'leading lady' in the production not shipped over from Europe.

After finishing second to Joan Tozzer again at the 1939 U.S. Championships, Audrey was named to the 1940 Winter Olympic team. When those Games were cancelled in September of that year due to the outbreak of World War II, she decided to call it a day.

Audrey turned professional, signing with the Skating Artists Agency of Chicago and touring with the U.S. with the "Hello America!" European Ice Revue. In 1940, she married David Benner, the assistant manager of the tourist lodge at Sun Valley and became the 'skating instructress in charge of ice revues' at the resort. Sonja Henie's hit film "Sun Valley Serenade" came out in 1941 but it was Audrey - not Sonja - who starred in the first ice summer revues in Sun Valley during the second World War. She also appeared in the second edition of "Stars On Ice" at the Center Theatre at Rockefeller Center in New York, which Sonja produced with Arthur M. Wirtz. Through their mutual work with Howard Nicholson, the two were acquainted and Sonja only had very nice things to say about Audrey in the press.

Audrey Peppe and Oscar L. Richard posing at the Playland rink in Nye, New York. Photo courtesy Westchester County Archives.

In 1944, Audrey divorced her first husband and married Robert Rapée, the son of famed symphonic conductor Ernö Rapée. She returned to New York and taught skating for many years at the Rye Skating Club and Skating Club Of New York. Sadly, she passed away on April 1, 1992 in Flushing, Queens at the age of seventy four. Her only child passed away of multiple sclerosis two months after she did.

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