- Historic Sites
The great tenor came to America in 1903, and it was love at first sight—a love that survived an earthquake and some trouble with the police about a woman at the zoo
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
On the voucher of each paycheck he would scribble a word or two evaluating his own performance. Thus, on a check for Manon s Chevalier des Grieux: “ buona ”; for a Rigoletto , “ Meravigliosa .” He tolerated no adverse comments. When a New York critic reported, “Caruso sang with great emotional intensity despite the difficulties he had to contend with in his mezzo-voce,” he pinned the review to a backstage bulletin board and scrawled across it, “ LIAR !”
Despite his temper he was always generous. During the Christmas holidays he would take the $2,500 due him for a performance, convert it into gold coins, and stuff the pockets of his costume. After the curtain he would shower the stage crew with gold. He was just as generous to the poor outside the theater. He seldom rejected an appeal for money. At one point he was virtually supporting scores of people, the majority hangers-on, spongers. When told that it was impossible for all these people to be deserving, he replied: “You are right. … But can you tell me which is and which is not?”
During the first World War he raised twenty-one million dollars for War Relief and took his salary in Liberty Bonds. He insisted on paying his taxes early: “… if I wait something might happen to me, then it would be hard to collect. Now I pay, then if something happen to me the money belongs to the United States, and that is good.”
The Met and the Victor Company provided only a part of Caruso’s immense American earnings (his estate, at his death, exceeded nine million dollars). Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mrs. Ogden Goelet, and Mrs. William Astor vied with each other to engage him for their private musicales, paying him two to three thousand dollars to sing a few arias. He also made two movies—silent!—under the auspices of Jesse Lasky at the Famous Players Studio on Fifty-sixth Street, each enriching him by one hundred thousand dollars. In the first, My Cousin , he portrayed both a renowned Italian tenor and his cousin, a sculptor. According to one film historian, “few films ever enjoyed less success.” The second, A Splendid Romance , proved so dreadful it was never released.
Caruso was reluctant to undertake concert tours with their interminable train journeys, poor food, and cheerless hotel rooms. To discourage a Detroit impresario, one of the first to offer him a contract, he set his fee at six thousand dollars. The impresario instantly accepted. “ E pazzo! ” (he’s crazy) exclaimed Caruso, but he could not forgo such a thumping sum, and eventually he performed in most of America’s big cities.
In Columbus, Ohio, the billboard posters proclaimed, “Posterity Will Envy You the Privilege of Hearing the Most Glorious Voice of This Generation.” When Caruso sang at the Cow Palace in Fort Worth, eight thousand Texans turned out to hear him. In Atlanta he sang for the inmates of the Federal Penitentiary. In Chicago he was received like an emperor at the café operated by the reigning gang lord of the day, “Big Jim” Colosimo. Caruso returned the compliment by arranging an opera audition for Big Jim’s mistress, Dale Winter.
On April 17, 1906, after singing Don José with the Met in San Francisco, Caruso retired to his suite in the St. Francis Hotel. “I went to bed feeling very contented,” he recalled later. “The opera had gone with fine éclat. … But what an awakening!… I wake up about five o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean. … I get up and go to the window. … And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children…
“I make my way to Union Square where I see some of my friends, and one of them tells me he has lost everything except his voice. … And they tell me to come to a house which is still standing; but I say houses are not safe, nothing is safe but the open square. … So I lie down in the square for a little rest, while my valet goes and looks after the luggage, and soon I begin to see the flames and all the city seems to be on fire…”
He vowed never to set foot in San Francisco. “Give me Vesuvius!” he cried.
Among the possessions he saved, clutching it to his breast as he fled, was a framed, autographed portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had presented it to him the week before when he sang at the White House. He vowed never again to set foot in San Francisco, and he never did. “Give me Vesuvius!” he cried. The Met itself did not revisit the stricken city for forty-two years.