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Adele Astaire: Dancing Royalty, Aristocrat by Marriage

Adele Astaire, sister of Fred Astaire swapped her dancing career for life in the British aristocracy to become Lady Charles Cavendish.

Fred and Adele Astaire in 1921.

Fred and Adele Astaire in 1921.

Who Was Adele Astaire?

Adele Marie Austerlitz was born on September 10, 1896, in Nebraska. She was almost three years older than her brother Fred. Their American-Austrian/American-German parents were Frederic (aka Fritz) and Johanna (aka Ann).

Adele was the first of the siblings to take dance classes and because she and Fred showed an aptitude, Ann, Adele, and Fred relocated to New York. Fritz continued his life and work in Omaha, Nebraska.

By the age of 9, Adele was working in vaudeville. She could act, sing and dance, the archetypal triple threat. Fred followed in her wake and painstakingly learned to perform. She found the show business life easier than her brother because she was naturally more outgoing. They chose the name Astaire over Austerlitz for their careers, with mom Ann also adopting Astaire as her surname.

In 1917, Fred and Adele performed in their first Broadway shows after working on the vaudeville circuit since 1905.

Adele Astaire was gregarious and naturally talented.

Adele Astaire was gregarious and naturally talented.

The Astaires Hit Broadway & London

Fred agonised over steps, Adele didn't. Her lack of commitment compared to his own relentless need to rehearse and perfect moves drove him to distraction. Yet at performance time she was always ready and confident to perform to the best of her ability, which was excellent. Often, Fred was at the performance venue for a couple of hours before Adele raced in with only a few minutes to spare before curtain-up.

She became well known for her dancing and her comedy skills, even ad-libbing which caused Fred to quake at her free spirited nature. She was also good at swearing if you believe the stories. Critic Heywood Broun called Fred and Adele Astaire "the most graceful and charming young dancers in the world of musical comedy."

Among their list of successful shows on Broadway were The Band Wagon and Funny Face, which later became screen hits without her. Fred starred opposite Cyd Charisse and Audrey Hepburn in the screen versions made in 1953 and 1957.

The Broadway successes led to Fred and Adele appearing in the London West End in 1923, 1926, and 1928. Their 1923 show was a massive hit, running for 418 performances. As internationally recognised stars, the Astaires' were invited to parties and events hosted by British royalty, the aristocracy, and even fellow performers.

Charlie and Adele Cavendish

In 1924, Fritz Austerlitz passed away.

Fred and Adele starred on Broadway in Lady Be Good! with music by George and Ira Gershwin. It was a triumph that saw them transfer the show to London in 1926. The Duke and Duchess of York—later King George VI and Elizabeth, Queen and then Queen Mother—invited the stars to meet their newborn baby Elizabeth, Britain's future Elizabeth II.

The Astaires' returned to the U.S. in 1927 and whilst appearing on Broadway they arranged a screen test. Neither Adele nor Fred liked their screen tests and shied away from a future in the movies. In the summer of 1928, Adele was burned in a motorboat explosion and it took her months to recover. In November 1928, the Astaire siblings returned to London.

On the closing night of Funny Face, Adele met Sir Charles "Charlie" Cavendish. He was the second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire. The family's county seat was Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

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There has always been a question mark about why the Dukes of Devonshire were and are based in Derbyshire. A 16th century typo seems to be the probable cause. There were already Earls of Devon and Derby and it seems that the dukedom was intended to be Derbyshire as this was the location of Chatsworth House, but an administrative error saw them made into the Devonshires and no one has corrected this in the ensuing centuries.

Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish

Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish

Life at Lismore Castle in Ireland

After 27 years performing alongside Fred, Adele left the partnership in 1932 and retired from the stage forever. Fred, as we know, went to Hollywood and has been celebrated as one the best dancers in cinematic history.

Legend has it that when Adele met the Cavendish grandees at Chatsworth for the first time she cartwheeled into the room where her soon to be in-laws were assembled. Charlie and Adele married in the private chapel at the Derbyshire pile on May 9, 1932.

Adele was content with her decision to leave her career behind and although in the following years she was approached by numerous producers and writers who wanted her to star in their shows she always declined their offers.

Her life centred on Charlie and their home Lismore Castle in Ireland, one of the substantial residences in the Cavendish property portfolio. Tragically, a daughter died the day after her birth in 1933 and twin stillborn boys followed in 1935. A final miscarriage in 1939 left their marriage unblessed by children.

Adele was faced with a husband increasingly dependent on alcohol. Charlie's illness saw him admitted to nursing homes and hospitals and led to hopeful holidays in German spa resorts but he never got sober.

Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Ireland

Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Ireland

Adele Astaire During World War II

Adele wanted to play her part in the World War Two effort, but she wasn't sure how. In 1942, she took the advice of an American stationed in London, Colonel Kingsman Douglass, and began her work at the American Red Cross' Rainbow Corner canteen in Piccadilly Circus, London. She wrote letters on behalf of soldiers and she went shopping for them. Thriving on the challenge, she increased her workload to seven days a week.

A deteriorating Charlie was cared for by his mother-in-law Ann Astaire at Lismore Castle. In spring 1944 Charlie's body surrendered to the years of alcohol abuse. He was 38 years old. Adele was given compassionate leave to attend his funeral in Ireland where he was buried near to his and Adele's lost children.

Adele's New Life With Kingsman Douglass

In 1947, Adele remarried. Colonel Kingsman Douglass was an investment banker in civilian life. The Cavendish family allowed Adele to spend three months per year at Lismore Castle for as long as she helped to maintain it. She spent most summers between 1948 and 1979 there. Her first husband's family also gave her a generous financial settlement for her new life with Kingsman. She gained three stepsons.

The couple relocated to Virginia and later to Jamaica. Kingsman died in 1971 and Adele moved to Arizona. She passed away on January 25, 1981. Some of her ashes were scattered by Charlie and her children at Lismore and the rest were scattered in California by her mother's grave. Ann died in 1975 at age 96.

Fred and Adele remained close throughout their lives. He survived her by six years.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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