How the sister-brother dance team of Adele and Fred Austerlitz became Adele and Fred Astaire
A very interesting review in today’s New York Times of The Astaires, by Kathleen Riley, tells about the 27-year-long dance partnership of the sister and brother act of Adele and Fred Astaire, “the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time.” The spectacularly successful partnership, in which the charismatic, electrifying Adele was the main attraction and Fred, in his own words, “was just there pushing away,” began when they were seven and five years old, and ended when Adele married and left show business, which of course led to Fred, then in his early 30s, starting a new career in Hollywood.
We also learn, sadly, that there is no footage of Adele and Fred dancing together.
The review includes this tidbit of how the name Austerlitz evolved by stages into Astaire:
They made their debut only months later, in “The Wedding Cake,” an elaborate 12-minute act designed for them, featuring the children as bride and groom, each atop a huge wedding cake, Adele in white satin and Fred, yes, in a miniature top hat, white tie and tails. [Their mother] Johanna knew that a less “foreign,” not to mention less Jewish, name than Austerlitz was needed for the stage, and thus her children became “The Astaires,” after various trial runs as “The Austers,” “The Astiers” and “The Astares.”I don’t agree with the Times reviewer, Toni Bentley, that Austerlitz is a Jewish-sounding name; to me it just sounds German (though in fact it was a Jewish name; Fred and Adele’s paternal grandparents were Jews who converted to Catholicism a year before Fred and Adele’s father was born). And I also note Bentley’s scare quotes around the word “foreign.” Of course “Austerlitz” was a foreign-sounding name, and not appropriate as a name for American show business. Always in the twisted minds of liberals, there is no such thing as “us,” and therefore there can be no such thing as “them.”
However, the step-by-step development of Fred and Adele’s last name, leading finally to the magical “Astaire,” is instructive. First they simply dropped the “litz” from “Austerlitz,” producing the simpler “Auster.” Then they aimed at something more exotic, “Astier,” with the first syllable being a short “a” instead the “aw” sound of “Auster,” and the second syllable having a French spelling and sound. But this also was a bit too foreign, not a name appropriate for the American stage. Then they made the key leap, hitting upon the elegant-sounding “Astare,” with the emphasis shifted from the first syllable to the second syllable with its open, extended vowel sound, “air” (in which the “r” is not pronounced or only very lightly), which fit the “Mid-Atlantic” upper-class and theatrical speech of that time. All that remained at that point was to change the spelling of the second syllable, so that it looked like “air” as well as sounding airy.
This is an example of evolution in the true sense. The marvelous name “Astaire” was inside “Austerlitz” from the start; it just had to be unfolded, in a series of experimental, creative steps.