When Adele Astaire met Lord Cavendish

The iconic dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers achieved legendary status all over the world, thanks to a string of hit movies during the golden age of Hollywood.

However, many people don’t realise Ginger wasn’t Fred’s first dance partner. This honour went to his sister Adele, who was a brilliant dancer. She guided her younger brother’s career and was described as his “shining light”.

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As children growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Adele seemed destined for superstardom, while Fred was simply her dance partner. She was the driving force behind their partnership, which lasted from childhood until their early 30s.

In adulthood, it was Fred who became a dance legend, while Adele gave up her movie career for love. She said goodbye to Broadway when she married a British lord.

Adele Astaire’s dance career

Adele was born in Omaha in September 1896 to Johanna and Frederic Austerlitz, who worked for Storz Brewing Company. She loved singing and dancing from a young age and her parents enrolled her at a local dance school. Performing at parties and recitals, all who saw her believed she was destined for greatness.

Her brother Fred was born in May 1899. He would copy Adele’s dance steps as a toddler. Johanna had visions of the siblings forming a vaudeville brother and sister dance act, so she enrolled Fred at dance school too.

Her intuition paid off, as after their father Frederic lost his job in 1905, the family moved to New York City to launch Fred and Adele’s showbusiness career. They adopted the stage name Astaire, as Johanna felt Austerlitz wasn’t snappy enough.

Their first act was called the Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. Fred wore his now legendary top hat for the first time to make him look as tall as Adele. By November 1905, the critics had labelled them “the greatest child act in vaudeville”.

After 12 years, they finally made it to Broadway in 1917, when they starred in Over the Top, a patriotic revue to boost morale during World War I. They performed for US and Allied troops. Adele was 21 and Fred 18.

This was followed with many more shows on Broadway and London’s West End, including George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good in 1924, Funny Face in 1927 and The Band Wagon in 1931.

Adored by critics and theatre goers alike, they were the leading showbusiness dance partnership of their era.

Love over career

Adele was reportedly the driving force behind the duo, helping to propel Fred to his future movie career. Although less well-known, her fascinating life story has been recalled for modern audiences in the biography, Adele, by Nicola Cassidy.

In 1932, after 27 years of dancing together, Adele said goodbye to her professional partnership with Fred, when they were aged 36 and 33 respectively. She gave up her dancing career for love – marrying Lord Charles Cavendish after a five-year romance and going to live in magnificent Lismore Castle, in County Waterford, Ireland.

When Adele Astaire met Lord Cavendish, she was at the peak of her dancing career. Their first meeting in London took place in 1927, when she was starring with Fred in Funny Face.

Charles’ parents were the 9th Duke of Devonshire Victor Cavendish and his wife Lady Evelyn. A former student of Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he later became a lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment.

At 22, Charles was considerably younger than Adele, who was 31. However, they were quickly attracted to each other. Charles whisked her off for a romantic break in Paris, before she returned to the US with Fred. He travelled to New York and continued to date Adele, taking a job at JP Morgan & Co bank.

However, Adele grew tired of her relentless schedule of rehearsals and travelling as a performer. She told Charles she was considering retirement, describing theatrical life as an “acquired taste”. They decided to get married, and Adele officially said goodbye to the stage following her final performance with Fred in The Band Wagon on 5th March 1932.

Fred was said to be upset that she deserted him, but not for long, as being a solo dancer led to his meeting Ginger Rogers and becoming a Hollywood megastar.

Married life

After sailing to London on the HMS Majestic, Adele met her husband’s family for the first time. Initially, his mother had reservations about the showbusiness star. However, she was welcomed by all the family at a formal meeting at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

The couple married on 9th May 1932 in the private chapel at Chatsworth, with the Cavendish family’s blessing. Adele was given the courtesy title of Lady Charles and they went to live in their marital home, Lismore Castle, where she loved relaxing in the beautiful Irish countryside, as it was a massive relief after the gruelling work schedule she had followed since childhood.

Their marriage was happy at first and they refurbished the interior of the castle, including installing modern bathrooms to replace the antiquated ones. However, despite the idyllic setting, their marriage didn’t go well: the couple wanted a child, but tragically lost three babies at birth. A devastated Adele was widowed in 1944, when Charles died at the age of only 38.

Adele loved the castle and even after remarrying in 1947, effectively disinheriting herself from Charles’ family, she was permitted to stay there for three months a year. She continued her annual visits until 1979. Her brother Fred often accompanied her.

Following Adele’s death in Arizona at the age of 84, in January 1981, some of her ashes were scattered at Lismore by her niece – Fred’s daughter Ava Astaire.

Lismore Castle today

The castle is owned today by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and the Cavendish family. Largely untouched from the time when Adele and Charles lived there; a lot of the decor remains from their refurbishment as newlyweds in the 1930s.

The estate has been owned by the family since the 18th century, after the 4th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, met Lady Charlotte Boyle in childhood. They married in 1748, when she was only 17. Charlotte inherited Lismore Castle on her father’s death in 1754, as his sole heir. Ever since, it has been passed down through generations of the family. When Adele Astaire met Lord Cavendish, it changed both their lives, as any successful meeting can.

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