How Fred Astaire’s sister Adele married the owner of an Irish castle

A new book tells the fascinating tale of how Fred Astaire’s sister Adele gave up her own dance career to marry the owner of an Irish castle, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Adele Astaire
Adele Astaire

Above, Adele Astaire and Fred Astaire; below, Adele fishing on the River Blackwater; Adele and her husband, Charles Cavendish of Lismore; inset below, author Nicola Cassidy

WHEN Nicola Cassidy settled down to watch a documentary at her home in Co Louth one evening a few years ago, little did she know the journey on which it would take her. The programme was about Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, seat of the Duke of Devonshire and ancestral home of the Cavendish family.

Cassidy was in the process of finishing her second novel, and a glancing mention in the documentary provided her with the inspiration for her third — Adele, based on the life of Adele Astaire, the sister and former dancing partner of legendary Hollywood star Fred.

“A lot of the time, I just wait for stories to come to me. I have learned to just relax into things, whether that is reading, or watching TV, material just tends to seep in,” says Cassidy. 

“I was watching the documentary about Chatsworth House on Netflix, and there was a little snippet about Adele Astaire, who had married Charles Cavendish [son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire]. 

It was over in about 30 seconds, but it said he was buried at Lismore [St Carthage Cathedral] and they had this connection to Waterford. I was like ‘What? This is a brilliant story’.

It took Cassidy about of two years to research, write and get it out. She was not disappointed by what she found as she began to research how Adele had gone from a hard-scrabble childhood to performing in vaudeville with her brother to the highest echelons of the English aristocracy, becoming chatelaine of an Irish castle.

Long before Fred paired with Ginger Rogers to form one of the most iconic partnerships in entertainment, Adele was the driving force behind her younger brother’s dancing career. 

Adele Astaire and Fred Astaire
Adele Astaire and Fred Astaire

Adele was originally the one who was marked out for stardom, and Fred began dancing lessons when they moved with their mother Ann from Nebraska, Omaha, to New York to pursue Adele’s promising dancing career.

After years touring the US, the pair broke through to Broadway and later became stars in London, where in 1927, Adele met Charles Cavendish after he came backstage after one of her shows. 

They married in 1932, bringing the curtain down on Adele’s stage career and her 27-year partnership with Fred, and leaving the way clear for him to team up with Rogers in the first of the ten musical films they made together.

“It really was a love match with Charles,” says Cassidy. “My understanding is that his family weren’t too impressed. I compare it to the Meghan Markle situation today — she was American, she was brash, and was from a poor family. 

“It wasn’t who they saw their son marrying. My understanding is that they accepted her eventually and thought she was good for him.”

Adele went on to spend a lot of time at Lismore Castle in Co Waterford, owned by the Cavendish family and given to the couple as a wedding present. 

Cassidy was able to gain access to the castle, which gave her an invaluable insight into how Adele must have felt the first time she saw the imposing edifice. Like the heroine of her novel, Cassidy was bewitched by the castle, perched dramatically on the river Blackwater in picturesque Lismore.

“Adele drove herself over the threshold when she came to Lismore. It is really untouched from when she was there, a lot of the decor is the same. 

Adele and her husband, Charles Cavendish of Lismore
Adele and her husband, Charles Cavendish of Lismore

“Adele came in and modernised the whole castle, as it hadn’t really been touched since the 19th century. You could still feel her presence there.”

It may have been a fairytale setting but unfortunately, her life with Charles did not follow the theme. She lost several babies at birth and Charles was a chronic alcoholic, dying in 1944, aged just 38. 

However, Adele retained a strong attachment to the castle, even when she remarried in 1947 (to Kingman Douglass, an investment banker and a director of the CIA).

“Remarrying was a big choice for her because she disinherited herself but she still didn’t want to give up the castle so they came to an agreement that she could have it for three months a year,” says Cassidy.

Adele continued to visit Lismore until 1979, and was often joined by her brother Fred. When Adele died in Arizona in 1981, some of her ashes were scattered at Lismore, in somewhat unusual circumstances.

“Ava Astaire [Fred’s daughter] scattered some of them there. She actually threw them over the wall because she couldn’t get in. Somebody was in residence and she didn’t want to ask them so she put them in over the wall,” says Cassidy.

Nicola Cassidy
Nicola Cassidy

The novel is a blend of biography and fiction, which she says plays to her strengths as a writer. “I’m not a biographer or a historian, I’m a storyteller,” she says. 

A lot of people are drawn to novels and reading as an escape, whereas a biography is more learning than entertainment. I put them both together.

As part of her extensive research process, Cassidy also visited Boston University to view archives that had been donated by Fred’s daughter Ava and her husband, Richard McKenzie, who lived in Schull, Co Cork, for 30 years. 

He wrote a book called Turn Left at the Black Cow about their experiences of living in Ireland.

Adele fishing on the River Blackwater
Adele fishing on the River Blackwater

“I couldn’t believe all of Adele’s diaries and letters were there. She was a terrific diary-keeper. When you read someone’s inner thoughts… for me to be able to access that as a novelist, that is how I really got to know her.”

As for her relationship with Fred, Cassidy says Adele was very supportive of her brother.

“Before I started researching, I thought how could she not be jealous of Ginger Rogers, because she [Adele] was dancing with him for 27 years, and the minute she leaves, in comes Ginger Rogers and nobody remembers Adele. 

But when she bowed out, she was ready, she wanted to get married and have children. It was difficult for her to see some things that happened but overall, she was so proud of Fred.

Cassidy says Adele was a fiery character but she wouldn’t get hung up on jealousy. 

“They were very different characters. He loved to practise, she loved to party. It was interesting that his career did take off when she bowed out… there was an element of her perhaps holding him back a bit because she was really out front and he was a little bit meek behind and when she was removed, he could shine.”

Unfortunately, Cassidy herself, like many authors, has lost some of her opportunity to shine, with the cancellation of the launch event of her book due to the Covid-19 crisis.

“It has been really tough. My launch was meant to happen on the Saturday, March 14, and everything shut down on the previous Thursday.

“I had a family-friendly event organised, with face painters, and a school of dancers coming down, with a little Fred and Adele dancing.”

Cassidy says Adele Astaire’s fascinating life story is perfect reading for the times we find ourselves in.

“My previous two books had elements of crime fiction, and they were a bit gritty. This has none of that, it is total escapism and glamour, and that’s what people need now. It was a joy to write and is hopefully a joy to read.”

Adele, by Nicola Cassidy, published by Poolbeg Press, is available now.

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