Adele Astaire was a Broadway and vaudeville legend who gave up a career in the spotlight for a life of tragic disappointments.
1. She Danced Solo
Adele Astaire was the older—and lesser-known—sister of the vaudeville and Hollywood legend, Fred Astaire. While she never graced the screen with her elegant and swan-like movements, she did manage to dance her way into Lismore Castle. However, her post-vaudeville years were filled with personal tragedies and romantic disappointments that left her dancing solo.
2. She Had Rhythm And Grace
Adele Marie Austerlitz was a force of rhythm and grace from the very beginning. She was born in September 1896 in the heartland of Omaha, Nebraska, three years before her more famous brother, Fred. By the time she could walk, it was obvious that she would leave an indelible mark on the world of dance.
3. She Bonded With Her Brother
Watching her graceful movements, Adele’s parents made the decision to enroll her in dance lessons. At the same time, they decided to enroll her younger brother Fred as well, and the two developed a deep bond and synchronicity. Their time together as dance partners would not last forever, but their bond as siblings would endure the most tragic of hardships.
4. She Had A “Natural Ability”
With their “natural ability," both of the Astaire children stood out from the other kids. While the Astaires were not wealthy, they knew they could waltz and pirouette their way to success. With nothing but their hopes and dreams, the family uprooted their life in Omaha and moved to New York, enrolling Adele and Fred into the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts.
5. She Became A Young Vaudevillian
Under the guiding hand of her new dance maestro Claude Alvienne, Adele embarked on a dazzling journey into the world of vaudeville. With Alvienne’s expert guidance and choreography, she conjured a dance bonanza unlike anyone had ever seen before that would leave audiences spellbound. At just nine years old, Adele was about to become a star.
6. Her Steps Were Electrifying
The innovative dance routine that Alvienne produced for Adele and Fred saw a stage intricately adorned with two colossal wedding cakes. The two little Astaires breathed life into the confectionery wonderland with their dance moves. Dressed as a diminutive bride and groom, they swept through a mesmerizing waltz atop the towering cakes, their nimble feet setting aglow tiny electric lights.
They put on a glorious performance—but they certainly weren't famous right out of the gates.
7. She Outgrew Her Brother
Astaire and her brother performed their little routine on and off for a few years. At first, they struggled to strike a balance between their vaudeville career and regular school. Eventually, however, Adele outgrew her younger brother and became too tall for their bride/groom routine. They knew one thing, though. They were either going to make it together or not at all.
8. She Was “Gregarious”
As they grew older, Adele and Fred also grew apart. Even though their dance instructor created a more mature routine for them, the differences between the Astaire children became apparent off-stage. Adele developed a reputation for her colorful use of language, frankness and “lively, gregarious” personality as compared to her younger, more timid, little brother.
9. She Was Never On Time
On stage, Adele and Fred delivered perfect performances, but the effort they put into it varied. As the more uptight of the two, Fred used to show up to the various theaters where they were performing hours in advance. Adele, on the other hand, usually waltzed into her dressing room mere minutes before their curtain call.
10. Her Brother Was A Moaner
Despite their radically different personalities, Adele and Fred made for great dance partners and forged a deep bond that would last their lifetimes. Adele’s nonchalance never bothered Fred and his uptight nature never annoyed Adele. Adele even gave Fred an affectionate nickname, “Moaning Minnie," for his tendency to fret and worry before their performances.
11. She Had Her Brother To Thank
Even if he was timid, Adele had her brother to thank for their breakout performance. After Fred placed an ad in Variety magazine, the dancing duo landed their first Broadway show. Critics and audiences alike fell in love with the young siblings with The New York Globe commenting that Adele was “a light, spritelike little creature” and complimented her “floating style”.
12. She Was More Than Just A Dancer
Adele and Fred brought something to the stage that audiences had never seen before. “Strictly speaking,” The New York Times wrote, “the Astaires are dancers. But they have more than one string to their fiddle. With them, dancing is [a] comedy of manners[...]” There was nothing comedic about the money they were banking though.
13. She Was Endearing And Effervescent
By 1921, Adele and Fred had turned into Broadway fixtures. Their sell-out shows became must-see events in New York and wherever they toured. Accordingly, the money was pouring in and they were making around $750/week (around $10,000/week today) for their performances.
It didn’t hurt that Adele increased their public profiles by endearing herself to reporters and critics with her effervescent personality.
14. They Had A Signature Move
At the culmination of their electrifying dance routines, Fred and Adele Astaire would stand side by side, their arms outstretched like they were clutching the handlebars of bicycles, ready to embark on a mesmerizing journey. As the orchestra serenaded them with a rhythmic cascade of "oompahs," the dynamic duo would commence their magical Runaround—a signature move that defined their careers.
15. She Was A Whirlwind Of Motion
With each step, their circles would expand, spiraling into a whirlwind of motion, a mesmerizing dance that transcended the ordinary. Finally, like ethereal apparitions, Adele and Fred would gracefully vanish into the wings, leaving their audiences breathless and longing for more. It was clear, however, that Adele was the real talent.
16. She Had Comedic Timing
In the early days of their career, Fred heaped the credit for their success on Adele. He said that it was Adele’s “comedic timing and expressions” that made their routines so effective. Even the drama critic, Heywood Broun, agreed, calling Adele and Fred "the most graceful and charming young dancers in the world of musical comedy”.
But Adele was so much more than a dancer.
17. She Had A “Squeaky” Voice
Even though audiences knew Adele as a dancer, she had other unique talents that endeared her to her fans. One of those talents was her singing. Over the course of her career, Adele developed a reputation for having an “adorably squeaky" soprano voice. Before long, however, she wouldn’t have anything “adorable” to sing about.
18. She Was Friends With A Prince
Adele and Fred took their act overseas to the United Kingdom where they regaled royalty with their dance moves. The future King of England, the Prince of Wales, attended Adele’s and Fred’s show ten times and became close friends with them. In fact, there was rampant speculation that Adele was more than friends with the Prince.
19. She Danced With A Prince
While performing in England and throughout the United Kingdom, Adele taught the Prince of Wales new dance moves. Nosey journalists even spotted the two dancing together at a club, looking particularly chummy. More might have transpired if Adele's father hadn't unexpectedly departed this life, compelling the dancing pair to return to the United States.
20. She Returned To The Royals
After a few years back in New York, lighting up the Broadway stages with their electrifying dance moves, Adele and Fred returned to London. In between their rousing performances, they rekindled their friendship with the British royal family but, by then, there was no hope of a royal affair for Adele. But she could still get a castle if she really wanted one.
21. Her Career Nearly Ended
Along with her brother, Adele returned to Broadway and more sold-out performances. But their hectic dance schedule had begun to take its toll on Adele. Slowly, she imagined a life beyond the stage. In the summer of 1927, however, her dance career nearly ended in a tragic accident. In fact, it’s a wonder that she survived it.
22. She Was In An Explosion
Adele had a nearly fatal accident. While cruising around Long Island, the engine of the motorboat she was in exploded. The catastrophic explosion sent searing hot oil flying into the air and most of it landed on Adele’s upper body. Badly burned, she had to put her career on hold until, thankfully, she made a full recovery.
23. She Had A Funny Face
After making her recovery, Adele and Fred made a triumphant return to the stage. Once again, they took their act to London, premiering their hit show Funny Face. The media dubbed Adele’s return as “another outbreak of 'Astairia’” as audiences went wild for the dancing duo. But one fan, in particular, was doing cartwheels for Adele.
24. She Fell For A Lord
After their final London performance of Funny Face, Adele met the man of her dreams. No, not the Prince of Wales, but the dashing Lord Charles Cavendish. Even though he was nearly 10 years her junior, Adele and Cavendish hit it off and decided to travel together to Paris. Sadly, their whirlwind romance had to come to an end.
25. She Went Back To Broadway
Adele’s whirlwind romance didn’t seem like it was going to last. After Paris, Cavendish returned to the United Kingdom and Adele returned to New York. She continued performing alongside her brother with yet another Broadway favorite, The Band Wagon. But if there was anything that could break up the sister-brother duo, it was love.
26. Her Beau Crossed The Sea For Her
Not wanting to let her go, Cavendish moved his lavish life in the United Kingdom to the gritty streets of New York, just to be closer to Adele. The two picked up where their romance had left off in Paris but this time they were determined to make it work. At long last, Adele saw a life for herself off the stage and outside of the glaring spotlight.
27. She Never Really Liked The Theater
With a man in her arms (who wasn’t her brother and dancing partner), Adele made a shocking confession. Even though she was, unquestionably, the best female dancer in the world, her heart had never been in it. The theater life, she said, had always been “an acquired taste…like olives”. She was now craving a new dish—a Cavendish, to be exact.
28. She Wanted To Seal The Deal
Now that she had fallen in love—and with a British lord, no less—Adele began to imagine a life outside of vaudeville theater. As the two continued their courtship, it became obvious to Adele that she wanted to be with Cavendish forever. She saw no point in waiting for Cavendish to make a move so she decided to seal the deal herself.
29. She Got Down On One Knee
Ever since she was young, Adele had always been brash and forward thinking. She knew what she wanted and she went for it—and she wanted Cavendish. At the famous speakeasy, 21, Adele did something that was unprecedented for the time. She got down on one knee and proposed to Cavendish. Needless to say, Cavendish accepted.
30. She Took Her Final Bow
With her new engagement secured, Adele looked forward to a life post-Broadway. On the beautiful evening of March 5, 1932, under the glimmering lights of Chicago, Adele Astaire took her final bow as a vaudevillian for one last performance of The Band Wagon. It marked the end of her mesmerizing 27-year dance partnership with her brother.
31. She Was One Of A Kind
The world didn’t quite know what to make of Adele’s early retirement. As the curtains fell on her emotional final performance, the American drama critic Ashton Stevens somberly proclaimed her exit from the theatrical world. "Heaven,” he lamented, “doesn't send every generation an Adele Astaire". Sadly, they would never get her back.
And it wasn’t for lack of trying.
32. She Broke Up The Band
With a heavy heart but a head full of memories, Adele, accompanied by her mother, embarked on the RMS Majestic bound for London and her new life. Meanwhile, her brother and decades-long dance partner, Fred, remained on American soil to craft his enduring legacy. Thus, after nearly three decades, the Astaire siblings parted ways.
33. She Played Backgammon With Churchill
While aboard the RMS Majestic, Adele found herself rekindling one of her extraordinary friendships with none other than Winston Churchill. Their camaraderie flourished as they engaged in spirited (if a little aggressive) games of backgammon. While at sea, Adele had no way of knowing just how much her fans missed her—and what they’d do to get her back.
34. She Slipped Away In Secret
As the RMS Majestic pulled into port, a storm of reporters swarmed the pier, more eager than ever to get a photograph and quote from the recently-retired dancer. In this tumultuous sea of fame, Churchill emerged as Adele’s savior. With unwavering determination, Churchill distracted the feisty reporters while Adele and her mother slipped away, preserving her newly discovered privacy.
35. She Left A Lasting First Impression
Shortly after her arrival, Adele and Cavendish decided that it was time for her to meet her future in-laws. Her first impression left the stiff upper-lipped Cavendish family reeling. Upon entering the room in which they had been waiting to greet her, Adele cartwheeled her way across the carpet to the utter amazement (or horror) of her future mother-in-law.
36. She Had To Put Off Her Wedding
Despite their awkward initial meeting, Adele and the rest of the Cavendish clan became quite close and the wedding plans proceeded as scheduled. The universe, however, tried to prevent Adele from entering what would turn out to be a doomed marriage. She and Cavendish had to postpone the wedding when he landed in the hospital for appendicitis.
37. She Had To Fix The Plumbing
On May 9, 1932, Adele and Cavendish finally tied the knot. They moved into the imposing Lismore Castle in Ireland but, despite its grandeur, it lacked the kind of sophistication to which Adele had become accustomed, such as modern toilets. She paid out of pocket herself to update the Cavendish family estate, calling the money her dowry.
38. She Still Looked Out For Her Brother
As Adele struggled to adjust to her new life with Canvedish, so too was her brother, Fred, struggling to adjust to his new dance partners. While she didn’t miss dancing and performing, Adele certainly missed her brother. Right before his first performance since she had retired, Adele playfully sent Fred a telegram that suggested, "Now Minnie, don't forget to express your woes".
39. She Lost Her Baby
Behind the stone walls of Lismore Castle, Adele’s apparently happy post-retirement life was not what it seemed. Just one year into her marriage, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Tragically, however, the birth had been premature and her daughter did not survive. It was only the beginning of the darkest period in her life.
40. She Suffered A “Twin” Tragedy
Two years after losing her first child, Adele tried once again to start a family. This time, she became pregnant with twins. If she had dreams of raising a dancing duo like herself and her brother, however, those quickly faded to a nightmare. She gave birth to two stillborn boys. Her husband wasn’t even able to comfort her.
41. She Was All Alone
Adele loved Cavendish dearly—but Cavendish loved the bottle even more. Fueled by the loss of their children, Cavendish’s addiction worsened. As his health deteriorated, he spent ever more time away from Adele, seeking treatment in German spas, nursing homes and hospitals. For the first time in her life, Adele was all alone.
42. She Never Returned To Show Business
As Adele’s life fell to pieces, her brother’s reached new heights. Fred had successfully made the transition from Broadway to Hollywood but Tinseltown thought his act was missing something—or someone. David Selznick and other Hollywood heavyweights tried to lure Adele back into show business but she refused each offer.
43. She Joined The Red Cross
After suffering yet another failed pregnancy and with a husband consumed by his addiction, Adele found solace elsewhere. In need of something and someone to care for, Adele joined the American Red Cross. In an effort to raise the spirits of the injured servicemen and those engaged in active combat during WWII, Adele committed to signing "up to 130 letters" weekly.
44. She Lost Her Husband
After years of struggle and hardship, Adele’s love story with Cavendish came to a tragic end. At just 38 years old and after 12 years of marriage, Cavendish succumbed to complications arising from his destructive addiction. The sad—but not altogether unexpected—turn of events left Adele destitute and desperate. She needed someone to save her.
45. She Married A Spy
With nothing left to lose, Adele embarked on a new chapter of her life—one that would finally bring her some measure of happiness. Following a brief courtship, she married her old American comrade from her WWII days, Kingman Douglass. With a colorful past as a shrewd investment banker and top spy at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Douglass provided Adele with excitement.
46. She Kept The Castle
Even though she had remarried, Adele still adored the Cavendish family and considered them to be a part of her life. Fortunately, the Cavendish clan felt the same way for her. So, when Adele asked if she could continue on at Lismore Castle, the Cavendish family agreed that she could stay there for three months of the year.
47. She Finally Found Happiness
Following her own tragic losses, Adele would have been happy to get children any way she could. Through her new marriage to Douglass, she became the stepmother to three healthy boys. Thus ensued an idyllic period in Adele’s life that spanned New York, Virginia, Lismore Castle and even a vacation home in Round Hill, Jamaica.
48. Her Husband Had Back-to-Back Accidents
Tragedy struck once—or, actually, twice—again at the life that Adele had carefully constructed. In the tumultuous year of 1968, fate delivered a series of cruel blows. First, her second husband, Douglass, was struck by a speeding bus, leaving him with grievous injuries. Then, tragedy struck again when Douglass became involved in a car accident, further afflicting his battered body.
These relentless trials reached a heartbreaking peak in 1971 when a ruthless brain hemorrhage took his life.
49. She Clung To Her Old Memories
Adele, left to navigate the storm of grief, sought solace in the arid embrace of the Phoenix, Arizona region. However, the echoes of her past beckoned her across the vast Atlantic to the castle in Ireland, a place that had once been a sanctuary shared with her first husband. From 1968 until 1979, she clung to this cherished refuge during the summer months.
50. She Had A Mouth Like A Sailor
Renowned for her indomitable spirit, Adele defied the ravages of time. Even well into her late seventies, the vibrant rhythm of life coursed through her veins, as she took to the streets each morning for a rigorous jog. A force of nature, she rebounded from illnesses with a tenacity that defied adversity and unapologetically shared her opinions in “Marine-type” English.
51. She Remained Close To Her Brother
Throughout it all, Adele remained inextricably bound to her brother, Fred. Their unbreakable bond transcended distance, with letters, packages, and long-distance phone calls bridging the miles between them. Their conversations often wandered into the realm of their beloved soap operas, sustaining the enduring connection that had defined their lives.
52. She Exited Stage Right
On the fateful day of January 25, 1981, the world lost its greatest dancer and a Broadway luminary as Adele drew her final breath. She had reached the venerable age of 84, her complicated life a symphony of grace and rhythm. Sadly, her beloved brother Fred departed this life six years later.