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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are legendary Hollywood pin-ups, famous for their talent and charisma as dance stars. But a new novel by Irish historical fiction author, Nicola Cassidy, reveals that long before Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire had an original dancing partner, his sister Adele. Although forgotten by history, she was the driving force behind Tinseltown’s most famous dancer and movie star, who also made Co Waterford her home. 

Adele, written in a bio-fictional format, follows the early life of the Astaires, from their humble beginnings in Omaha, Nebraska, to their stage training as children, through the Vaudeville and dance hall circuit and finally to Broadway. It was here that Adele shone and throughout the Roaring 1920s became more famous than her younger brother Fred, attracting devoted fans, fashion lovers, and royalty.

Cassidy was inspired to write the book after watching a BBC documentary about Chatsworth House, owned by the Cavendish family into which Adele would eventually marry. Cassidy explains, “As soon as I looked into Adele’s story I could see this fascinating character, different to Fred Astaire, much more outgoing, gregarious, and she had a wonderful but tragic life. She spent so much time in Ireland, yet she’s not in our memory – she has been bypassed by the Judy Garlands, Greta Garbos, and of course, Ginger Rogers of this world. I wanted to bring her back, remind the world of who she was.” Cassidy undertook extensive research for the novel, interviewing sources who knew Adele and travelling to the US to visit the Astaire archives, where she discovered family photographs, detailed scrapbooks and intimate diaries. 

Adele moved to Ireland after her marriage to Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932, settling in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. Adele wrote of her arrival in Waterford, “Most of the girls wore their hair in ribbons. I felt a bit like a queen come to meet her masses. Up ahead on the bridge, two men leaned with their behinds resting on the wall. They looked on curiously from under flat caps. I joined Charlie at the other side of the car to take a proper look at Lismore, curling my arm into his. “It’s magnificent.”’ Adele set about remodelling the castle and bringing it up to date and it’s often been said, “King John built the castle, but Adele Astaire plumbed it.” 

Adele enjoyed the peace and quiet of rural Waterford, welcoming many celebrities including Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin. She became close to John F Kennedy and great friends with Jacqui Kennedy. JFK stayed at Lismore Castle in 1947, visiting his sister Kathleen (Kick) Kennedy, who had also married into the Cavendish family.

Sadly, Adele’s life was also blighted by tragedy – all of her three children died at birth. Her husband also died prematurely of alcoholism and is buried, alongside their first-born daughter in St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore. Adele continued to visit Lismore Castle every summer until 1979, shortly before her death in January 1981. 

Adele, Nicola Cassidy, Poolbeg Books, is out now

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