Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lillian Nordica, 2: Unlucky in Love


       Lillian Nordica’s ambitious plan for a Westchester version of Germany’s Wagnerian opera festival was widely publicized. It quickly ran into trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Well, I suppose she has a few acres of land somewhere or other," observed German-born operatic promoter Oscar Hammerstein, perhaps sensing a competitor. "But that is the only solid thing about the scheme. The rest is dream, pure dream, a sheer dream." 
Hammerstein was something of an expert on opera houses. In New York City, he had built the Harlem Opera House on 125th Street in 1889 and the Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street in 1906. These offered opera at popular prices far below those charged by the Metropolitan.
 “Anyhow, who wants a home for Wagnerian opera?" he questioned. "I can see New Yorkers trooping out to some God-forsaken place up the Hudson in search of a German opera house."  To soften the blow of his harsh judgment, he added, "I hope Madame Nordica will wake up from her dreams before they have cost her all her salary."
Her plan for a music school and opera house in Harmon was equally scorned in Germany, where it was pointed out that what made the German festival so successful was its atmosphere. Atmosphere could not be exported to the Hudson River, "which, as everyone knows, is a low, unhealthy river where only malaria and mosquitoes are bred." 
In April of 1909, Lillian announced her engagement to George Washington Young, a dapper, white-haired Wall Street financier on the board of several corporations. He wooed her with gifts of emeralds and pearls, and they were married in London in July of that year. Her newest husband soon reported doleful financial reverses, and Lillian began advancing money to him. Before long, he had run up his debt to her to more than $400,000. He also convinced her that the site of her German opera festival should be in Deal, N.J., an Atlantic beachfront community where he was building an opulent new home--with her money. Young turned out to be less a financier and more a smooth talker. A sadder but wiser Lillian soon realized that none of her three marriages had brought her happiness.  
      In England, Lillian had acquired a new mission: women’s right to vote. She was inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragette leader, who advocated militancy and violence to gain public recognition.
Responding to a group of reporters, Lillian said, "Smash windows? Yes!  When men take the view that to gain an end warlike methods are excusable, they are heroes. Many a man has fought and gone to prison for his principles, and I think no great reform has been brought about without there being those willing to cast themselves into the breach and fight. It is all very well for those in power to keep on their way, ignoring us. We have to draw attention to ourselves. If we are to be heard, we have to make ourselves obnoxious, perhaps, at times."
She sang in June 1910 in a concert for the suffrage cause at Irvington, her hometown in Westchester, and town fathers had the village clock's chimes stopped for two hours.
"I have," she declared, with a touch of wry wit, "sung perhaps at more dedications of church steeples, vestry carpets, orphan asylums and sewing circles than any other woman of my profession."
In 1912, she appeared in a giant suffrage pageant staged at the Metropolitan Opera House at which former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke. Lillian, regal-looking as Columbia in a crown of stars (one for each state in the union in which women had been emancipated), sang the national anthem "with great fervor." It was the last time her voice would be heard in that hall.
A lightning rod for controversy, in 1913 she submitted to an unusual public interview on the stage of the Hudson Theater on 44th Street. Her interrogator was Robert Erskine Ely of the League for Political Education, which eight years later would open the Town Hall on 43rd Street.
Lillian outlined her position, explaining that she was for equal pay for equal work. Asked whether she believed women would stand together, she responded  by asking if women did not already stand by their families, if women were not the trusted secretaries of businessmen, and if 30,000 working girls then on strike were not standing together.
Years ahead of her time, she said she believed in higher education for women and added that she would vote for a woman for president should one ever run. She reminded her listeners she had never lost money with a female impresario.

Last Act 
      Almost as though she had a premonition of her own death, she told William Armstrong, a former music reporter for the Chicago Tribune, "At my funeral I want a baritone to sing Wotan's Farewell, and an orchestra to play the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. For me that music has such dear memories."
She continued, "And then I want some great speaker to say . . ." She broke off, searching for the right words. Changing the mood and almost mocking her somber tone, she supplied the desired sentiment: "She did her damnedest." 
At the age of 56, Lillian Nordica embarked on an ill-advised concert tour that would take her around the world. Following successful concerts in Australia, she had a complete emotional and physical collapse.
After resting, she resumed her tour. Her next concert was to be in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Ironically, her train to Sydney was late and the Nordica party wired the captain to hold the ship, the Tasman, for their arrival.
In the Torres Strait, the Tasman ran aground on a reef and was damaged. Forced to stay on deck because of the danger of sinking, Lillian contracted pneumonia from exposure during a storm and was taken to a primitive hospital on Thursday Island. Here she made a new will leaving nothing to her avaricious husband.
Among the patients in the hospital was a small American boy who had been taken ill while on a world tour with a San Francisco boys' club, and had been set ashore from the steamship Moanu. Lillian sang softly to him and comforted him. The child seemed to be growing better, but had a relapse and died. Sick as she was, Lillian remembered this lonely little boy. In a cemetery on Thursday Island stands this gravestone:

At her request, she was taken to a hospital in Batavia in Java, where her heart began to fail. One of her last acts was to make still another will cutting off her husband. She died there on May 10, 1914.
Her body was placed in a teakwood coffin and brought to London. After a brief funeral service in the same church in which she had been married only five years before, she was cremated. It was the only one of her wishes that was fulfilled. Her husband returned to New Jersey with her ashes that she had wanted to be given to her sisters. 
Lillian Nordica’s estate was valued at more than a million dollars. George W. Young, who had never repaid his debt of $400,000, immediately sought to break the will that excluded him. Lillian’s jewelry and furs were auctioned off in New Jersey.
In the end, after witnesses to its signing were produced, the courts upheld the will Lillian had made on remote Thursday Island. By then, much of the fortune she had earned in a lifetime of rigorous opera and concert singing was eaten up by legal expenses. The residue was divided among her three surviving sisters. George W. Young died in 1926 in Atlantic City.
No operatic role sung by Lillian Nordica ever ended more tragically. No baritone sang Wotan's Farewell. No orchestra played the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. And no great speaker intoned the words she hoped would be said about her.

      After Lillian's death, a plan was announced to erect a statue of her as Isolde in New York's Central Park. The sculptor was to have been Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, but the First World War intervened, and the idea was forgotten.
During World War II, a Liberty Ship named the S.S. Lillian Nordica was launched at the New England Shipbuilding Company's yard at South PortlandMaine. Her wartime crew dubbed the ship the "Lucky Lillian." On two occasions, ships in the convoy around her were torpedoed, but she came through unscathed. She also survived the German saturation bombing of the harbor of Antwerp.
Lillian's birthplace in FarmingtonMaine, is maintained as the Nordica Homestead Museum and displays her costumes, music, personal mementos and gifts she received. The 400-seat Lillian Nordica Auditorium in Merrill Hall of the University of Maine at Farmington commemorates her last concert in 1911 in the town of her birth. It is reputed to be haunted by Lillian’s ghost.

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