After learning about Fred Astaire’s talented older sister, Adele, who was a successful actor, singer and dancer in her own right, Eliza Knight knew she needed to tell her story.
The USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction, who lives in Mount Airy, will release her latest novel, “Staring Adele Astaire” (William Morrow) on June 6. The book tells a fictionalized story of this real-life, less famous sibling, set in the age of vaudeville.
72 Hours chatted with the author ahead of the release.
What drew you into the story of Adele Astaire?
I was doing research for my other novel, “The Mayfair Bookshop,” and I was reading letters that Nancy Mitford had written to her sisters as part of that research, and she mentioned how she had just gone to lunch with her friend, Delly, and Delly was hilarious. She said something funny about all the bright young things and all the free loving going on at the time. I scrolled down to the bottom where they have the notes and it said Delly was Adele Astaire, sister to Fred Astaire. And I was like, “Wait a second, Fred Astaire had a sister?” Because I had no idea. Most people don’t. It’s sad how her history sort of faded into the background once he went on to become a Hollywood star. She had this amazing career she ended to marry the son of a duke in England.
How did you dig into her story?
I had a chance to go to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at the Boston University, and they have an Adele Astaire collection. I spent two days digging through the boxes, and there was just letters and her diary and scrapbooks full of old articles and reviews, and it actually proved to be more interesting than what you can find online. I also read Fred Astaire’s memoir, “Steps in Time,” and he had a lot of wonderful things to say about his sister and some funny stories and little anecdotes that really brought both of them to life in a more personal way than a celebrity stage star kind of thing.
What were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her?
She married the son of a duke, and when he passed away, she married another man, an American who ended up being one of the guys who started the CIA. She moved from one exciting life to another.
One of the things I found to be the most fascinating was that during their [hers and Fred’s] dancing together, Adele was considered the more famous of the two. In fact, when she was invited to London to perform on the stage on the West End, they just invited her, even though she and Fred had been dancing partners. And she said, “Well, I’m not coming unless my brother can come,” and they were like, “Well, OK, I guess.” It’s just hilarious because everybody knows Fred Astaire as this amazing famous dancer and performer, which he was.
The other thing that surprised me is that there is no video of Adele dancing or performing. You have tons and tons of videos of her brother, but there’s nothing of her. You will find they recorded some of their songs from their most famous performances, and you can listen to those and they’re really enjoyable.
How do you make use of fictional elements to tell Adele’s story?
It’s a little bit about filling in the gaps, being able to make up the conversations and being able to hit those emotional hot points and to really explore some different themes. One of the big themes in the book is different relationships — friendships, sibling relationships, mother/daughter relationships, relationships between people in the theater world.
A lot of the book focuses on those things in Adele’s life, but the other point of view is from a fictional character named Violet Wood. I used her to give us a view of someone’s life is who isn’t a star already. When the book starts, Adele is already on the rise, so we didn’t get to see a lot of the struggles she went through, and Violet’s story really tells a lot of those struggles.
Adele also had her brother with her as a protector, and a lot of women who were working as chorus dancers didn’t have someone to protect them, and they were often taken advantage of by directors and managers. So we get to see more of the seedier side from Violet’s point of view.
As far as fictionalizing Adele, it’s really about being about to fill in some of those gaps and explore some of those emotional arcs in her life and also to make it a compelling drama.
Where did you look to understand a character like Violet?
I studied some of the earlier dancers, and one of the women I sort of based Violet on was Daisy Wood. Her middle name was Violet, so it ended up being a little homage to her. Daisy ended up becoming a little more famous than Violet did, but she started out in the same area in the East End of London and came from a large, poorer family and really had to work hard to get where she was performing in the United States. I sort of used her as an inspiration for that, and then some other dancers who came from a poorer lifestyle.
Adele and her brother were born in Omaha, Nebraska. Their parents weren’t wealthy. Their mother took them to New York to put them in a performing arts school when they were 5 and 8, and their dad stayed back in Omaha to work to fund that. So it was a lot like using some of their background too to show what it was like for Violet to really push and make it. It’s fun to explore some of that more gritty determination, I think.
Why did the Astaire parents want their kids to be performers?
The kids had a pretty good talent for dancing, but their dad, when he came to the United States, was a musician, and he had tried himself to make it in the music world but did not have any luck. I think part of it stemmed from a desire to see his kids succeed in a talent he himself had not been able to do.
Their mom was pretty young when they were born, a teenager, so I think she was really drawn to that sort of a lifestyle as well. She remained their manager pretty much her entire life. Even after they were all adults, she lived between their houses and really relied on them just as much as they had relied on her. They were like a really tight-knit trio. It was a fascinating relationship.
When Fred got a Lifetime Achievement Award a few months after his sister had passed away, one of the first things he said was he was so grateful to her and owed it all to her. It’s a really, really sweet dedication.
Why did Adele give up that kind of fame for marriage?
She was 36 and had been performing since she was younger than 8. She was feeling her age, and she wanted to have children and do the whole mom thing. She had been in the theater every single day, and they traveled all over the place, and for her it wasn’t what she wanted out of motherhood, so she was pretty much done.
Fred had really been having some desire to be in Hollywood and do movies, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that. She pretty much was like, “This is your time to shine. I’m ready to cut back from the limelight and be a mother.”
She lived nearly 50 years after she got married. Did she ever feel tempted to go back to her career?
With her first husband, she unfortunately suffered several miscarriages and she had a stillborn child and she also birthed a child who lived a little while, a couple of hours I think. When that happened, she went to Hollywood and auditioned for a movie and was accepted. But there was an issue with taxation, and her home was in Ireland at that time, so she passed on that one. But later on, she was cast in a production with Pinewood Studios, and they got halfway through the movie before she pulled out of it. She didn’t like the character and then also her husband was suffering from a lot of health problems at that time, so she felt guilty leaving him in Ireland while she was over in England filming for months at a time. She didn’t try to do anything with acting again at that point. I think she figured it wasn’t for her.
So how did she spent her time?
During World War II, she and her husband did a lot of stuff for the war effort. She volunteered at a Red Cross canteen in London, and she would teach the American soldiers how to dance. She wrote letters home for them. At their castle in Ireland, they had some airmen convalescing who had been injured. She put together fundraisers and things like that. She became more of a philanthropist. After she married her American husband later in life, they spent their time between America and Jamaica and Ireland, and she pretty much lived a quiet life. Her husband worked for the government, and they had some horses and things like that. She spent some time visiting her brother and her niece and nephew.
What was your big takeaway from her story?
I think the most important thing is it’s a wonderful story of a woman who had a really exciting life who sort of faded from the limelight. A lot of people talk about how Fred overshadowed her, but I’m not necessarily certain he overshadowed her versus he found a different medium to explore and succeed, whereas she wanted to back off from that life, to quote/unquote “have a normal life” — as normal as you can when you summer in a castle in Ireland every year.
We should all be so normal!
Erik Anderson is a freelance writer in Frederick who cares about few things more than the history of his community. Email him at email@example.com.