Starring Adele Astaire
By Eliza Knight
William Morrow; paperback; $18.99
Eliza Knight is an award-winning USA Today and internationally bestselling author. Her love of history began as a young girl when she walked through the halls of Versailles. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and Novelists, Inc., and the creator of the popular blog, History Undressed; a co-host of the History, Books & Wine podcast; and a co-host of the true-crime podcast Crime Feast.
Kinght's new novel of historical fiction is Starring Adele Astaire, and it tells the story of a determined young dancer with rags-to-riches dreams. It is a tale that's full of glitz and glam. It shines a long overdue spotlight on the life of Fred Astaire's lesser-known older sister and dance partner, Adele Astaire.
Endearing herself to audiences from New York to London, Adele was a sparkling, stylish star who danced with her brother, Fred. While she is toasted by royalty and beloved by countless fans, Adele dreams of a loving husband and a houseful of children, prompting her to leave her career behind when she meets and ultimately marries Lord Charles Cavendish. The decision does not come without costs, and new struggles await in her new life.
Adele befriends Violet Wood, who, ever since she could walk, she wanted to dance on the London stage. Violet is filled with ambition, and she is more than willing to make the sacrifices it will take to become a star herself, and her rags-to-riches hopes are within reach.
From the fast-paced world of roaring twenties New York to the horrors and sacrifice of wartime London, Adele's and Violet's lives intertwine. Each must ask themselves, is fame worth the price you must pay?
A Conversation With Eliza Knight (provided by William Morrow):
How did Adele Astaire first come to your attention, and what inspired you to want to write about her? Several years ago, when I was doing the research for The Mayfair Bookshop, I discovered a letter from Nancy Mitford to one of her sisters, chatting about how she'd had lunch with a delightful woman named Delly. I thought I knew all of Nancy's friends, but Delly wasn't familiar to me. So, I did a research dive - and guess who it was, none other than Adele Astaire, sister to Fred Astaire. At the time, she was the more famous of the two, having made her start in the US Vaudeville circuit and then Broadway in NYC, she was lured to the stage in the West End of London where she promptly then became fast friends with socialites, royalty, literary phenoms and more. As often times happen, her name and fame faded into obscurity. I enjoyed so much digging into her life and weaving a story, that I hope you will all delight in it as much as I did!
What did the research process involve? There are a number of layers of research that goes into writing a book. First, you want to learn everything there is to learn about the person you're writing about. But you also want to learn everything you can about their friends, their family, the era that they lived in, the places they lived, and what sort of current events were going on at the time. You want to know everything about what they did for fun, what they did for work. What did they eat and drink? What clothes did they wear? What sort of lingo did they use? For Adele, I read biographies about her and her brother. I read Fred's memoir. I read a book written by Fred Astaire's son-in-law. I read about jazz music, theater, and the people they called friends. But what was the most fun for me, was the two days I was able to spend at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University's library. They hold the Adele Astaire Collection, which is filled with letters, receipts, scrapbooks, diaries, newspaper articles and reviews, a costume from the Vaudeville days, and so much more. I was lucky to get the two days with them, given it was in the midst of Covid and they hadn't been open for nearly the whole year I was writing the book. My research there shifted a lot of scenes in the book, and I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to go there.
What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research? There were a number of things that surprised me while researching, like that Adele went through a pair of dancing shoes a week, and that in the early days, her hair was styled to look like a bob but actually came down to her waist. But I think the most fun fact I discovered during my research was that when her and Fred decided they wanted to buy a Rolls Royce - and to have the only one in NYC - instead of using their savings, they just picked up an extra gig of dancing at a night club for 6 weeks after their daily theater performances. They made nearly $30,000 doing so and bought themselves a new car.
Did you draw on any real figures when creating the character of Violet? Yes! In fact, Violet was a character inspired by Daisy Violet Rose Wood, a music hall singer from Hoxton - which is a neighborhood on the East Side of London. Though she was born about two decades before my fictional Violet Wood, in 1877, and she was famous on stage about a decade before my story takes place. She was one of nine children. (In my original draft, Violet was one of six.) Six of Daisy Wood's siblings were also performers like her. Due to family circumstances, and marriage, she retired from theater, but only for a short time until their financial circumstances urged her back on stage. She was offered a position as a performer in NYC with some of her sisters, which was received well. And they continued to perform on and off together through the 1930s and 1940s.
Can you speak to the relevance of Adele's story today? No matter the generation, I think we are drawn to stories about women who persevered. And Adele was a perfect example of not only persevering and thriving, but of surviving. She started from nothing, and had plenty of setbacks, but continued to push and push. Most of the time, she was ready to show the world her funny side, which wasn't just a character, it was the very essence of her. She was vibrant, clever, silly and insanely talented. But she was loved fiercely, whether it was her brother, mother, husband, friends, or dance itself, she was a force that couldn't be ignored.
When I think of Adele, I am full of admiration for how much she accomplished in her life, and that is one of the things I wanted to share with the world, this wildly exciting person who is an excellent example of finding, and living, your truth, your passion. Someone who faced fear, put on a brave face and marched forward.
Additionally, and on a not so bright side, is the darker side of the performing world. Much has changed, but much has not. In Adele's time, women were not always respected for their artistic talents, but seen as playthings. There were beholden to a male authority figure within their particular showbiz field who might expect certain favors, even demand it, because they think it's their right to take advantage of a woman, or to barter sex for roles. That is still unfortunately something we're hearing about today. It is an ugly relevance, but one that needs to be addressed.