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Adele Astaire - Muses & the Beau Monde

Adele Astaire, born Adele Marie Austerlitz, later known as Lady Charles Cavendish; September 10, 1896, was an American dancer, stage actress, and singer. After beginning work as a dancer and vaudeville performer at the age of nine, Astaire built a successful performance career with her younger brother, Fred Astaire.

The brother and sister act initially worked their way through vaudeville circuits, finally achieving a breakthrough with their first Broadway roles in 1917. Astaire became known for her talents as a skilled dancer and comedienne, starring in hit Broadway musicals such as Lady, Be Good! (1924), Funny Face (1927) and The Band Wagon (1931). The siblings took several of their more popular shows to Britain's West End during the 1920s, where they were soon international celebrities, meeting members of the British royal family and prominent figures from contemporary arts and literature circles.

In 1932, after a 27-year partnership with her brother, Astaire retired from the stage to marry Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, the second son of Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire. After the two had been courting for some time, Adele proposed marriage to Charles Cavendish at a speakeasy named 21, and he accepted. She was tired of the relentless travel and rehearsals required of a performer, and had been considering retirement. For her, theatrical life had always been "an acquired taste... like olives".

In Chicago on March 5, 1932, after one final performance with Fred in The Band Wagon, Adele officially retired from the stage. American drama critic Ashton Stevens declared her departure from theatre a sad occasion, commenting that "Heaven doesn't send every generation an Adele Astaire".Following a farewell party, Adele and her mother boarded the RMS Majestic and sailed for London, while Fred remained in the United States to continue his career. Adele renewed a friendship with fellow passenger Winston Churchill, whom she had earlier met while performing in England, and the pair enjoyed games of backgammon together during the voyage. Upon the ship's docking in Plymouth, reporters attempted to ambush Adele and were deterred only by Churchill, who distracted them until Adele and her mother could disembark without harassment.

In April of that year, after rejoining Charles, Adele met the rest of the Cavendish family for the first time. Her future sister-in-law, Lady Mary Gascoyne-Cecil, later gleefully recollected Adele's colorful entrance: Adele was formally announced, quietly entered the room where the Cavendish family were waiting, and then launched herself into a series of cartwheels across the floor until she had reached her new relatives. Despite the initial reservations of Charles's mother, the Duchess of Devonshire, Adele was welcomed by the family. The couple moved to the Cavendish estate of Lismore Castle in Ireland. Despite offers of both stage and film roles from producers eager to see her return to acting, Astaire declined to come out of retirement.

In 1942, as Adele searched for ways to contribute to the wartime effort, she met Colonel Kingman Douglass, the American chief of U.S. Air Force Intelligence who was stationed in London. Douglass suggested that Adele work at the American Red Cross's 'Rainbow Corner' canteen, located near Piccadilly Circus. Adele agreed to his suggestion. Her mother, who had remained in Ireland to be near her daughter, now stayed home at Lismore to care for the often bed-ridden Charles, sending Adele regular updates. In London, Adele wrote letters home for soldiers, writing and posting up to 130 letters in a single week.

She took shifts at the information desk, danced with soldiers, and helped the men shop for necessities while in London. After the London Blitz began, she increased her work hours and served at the Rainbow Corner seven days per week. Adele's wartime work gave her a renewed sense of purpose and fulfilment, helping her cope with recent personal difficulties. In March 1944, Charles died as a result of long-term alcohol poisoning, aged 38. Adele received compassionate leave to attend his funeral at St. Carthage's.

In April 1947, Adele remarried, this time to her old American acquaintance from the war, Kingman Douglass. Douglass, who had previously been married and divorced, now worked as an investment banker. He later briefly served as Assistant Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Initially lacking the personal funds necessary to move back to America, Adele broke the news of her engagement to the Cavendish family in Ireland, and received their financial support to move on to the next stage of her life. She was also given permission to continue spending three months a year at Lismore Castle, provided that she helped contribute towards the upkeep of the property. Adele gained three stepsons from her marriage to Douglass. Aside from returning to Lismore Castle periodically, Adele and her new husband lived in New York, Virginia, and eventually Round Hill, Jamaica. Adele often entertained family and friends at her Jamaica home.

Adele remained retired from stage life. In 1953, authors P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, both fans of Adele, wrote a teasing epilogue for her and her brother Fred, who had successfully transitioned to film work after his Broadway career.

"Adele closed her career with a triumphant performance in The Band Wagon ... She then married the Duke of Devonshire's second son and retired to Lismore Castle, leaving a gap that can never be filled. Fred struggled on without her for a while, but finally threw his hand in and disappeared. There is a rumour that he turned up in Hollywood. It was the best the poor chap could hope for after losing his brilliant sister."


Fred and Adele at Lismore Castle

Douglass died in 1971 due to a brain haemorrhage. Afterwards, Adele moved to Phoenix, Arizona. She continued, until 1979, to spend summers at the castle in Ireland she had shared with her first husband. Adele was known for her robust health, jogging regularly every morning well into her late seventies. According to her relatives, Adele quickly overcame illnesses, soon getting back on her feet "and in Marine-type English, telling what she thought of the world." She remained close with her brother, exchanging constant letters, packages and long-distance phone calls, chatting together about favourite soap operas. In November 1972, Adele and her brother were both inducted into the newly created American Theater Hall of Fame.

Adele Astaire died on January 25, 1981, in Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, Scottsdale, Arizona, after suffering a stroke. She was 84. Some of her ashes were scattered in Ireland, by Lismore Castle and the graves of her children and first husband, while the rest were buried near her mother's grave in Chatsworth, California.



Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations

A Novel Fred & Adele

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