- 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
By 1906 Ada Giachetti was back in Caruso’s Villa Bellosguardo near Florence, tending their two sons and awaiting his coming during the opera’s off-season. While remaining faithful to her, Caruso, ever susceptible to the blandishments of female fans, consoled himself for her absence with a succession of mild flirtations. In November, however, he became enmeshed in a scandal that might have wrecked the career of a lesser celebrity.
For thirteen years there had been on duty at the Central Park Zoo a plainclothesman, one James J. Kane, whose assignment was to watch out for mashers. On November 16 he arrested Caruso in the Monkey House: a Mrs. Hannah Graham complained that he had pinched her bottom. Hauled off to the district police station, howling, weeping, terrified, Caruso was jailed for an hour until the Met manager posted five hundred dollars bail.
During the hearing in magistrate’s court, Caruso’s plight was compounded. Officer Kane pictured him as a habitual offender. “I saw Caruso several times in the animal houses last Winter,” he told newspaper reporters, “and noticed that he was trailing women and annoying them as he did on Friday in the case of the woman calling herself ‘Mrs. Graham.’ He usually appeared in the Zoo on Sunday afternoons and stayed for hours at a time. … His hands were in his pockets, and I could never make out until Friday [November 16] just how he used them to such annoyance, for he never took them out. After arresting him on Friday evening I examined the coat and found that there was a slit in one of the pockets. Through this he could reach out a hand through the buttoned space. When he was annoying Mrs. Graham I was first attracted to his method by the accidental pushing out of a gold charm. That caught my eye, and then I noticed part of the man’s hand protrude and touch the woman.”
On the fateful Friday, Kane related, he had observed Caruso for some time before the arrest, saw him first start to follow a girl of about twelve, then to throw suggestive glances at three different women.
Kane was followed to the witness stand by a mysterious woman in white who failed to identify herself, nor was she ordered by the magistrate to do so. She testified that a few months before, Caruso had sidled up to her in a crowd and attempted to fondle her. Finally, the prosecutor alleged, a year earlier, following a society reception, a woman guest, also unnamed, offered Caruso a lift in her car only to have him molest her en route.
No corroboration supported any of these accusations. In fact, the prime complainant, Hannah Graham, did not show up in court. Nor did it seem to matter that although she had sworn publicly that she had never seen Officer Kane before in her life, he turned out to have been the best man at her wedding. Despite Caruso’s hysterical denials, the magistrate pronounced him guilty of a misdemeanor and fined him ten dollars.
Did the great singer misbehave as charged? To judge from the letters that flooded the newspapers, a good many people believed so. After all, wasn’t bottom-pinching an old Italian custom? Public opinion was divided between moral indignation and tolerant amusement, with the latter predominant.
Bisogna soffrire per essere grandi (One must suffer to be great). It was a saying Caruso often repeated. In May 1908 he underwent intense suffering at the hands of Ada Giachetti. She deserted him to run off to South America with her handsome young chauffeur. Caruso sought solace in the arms of various women, among them Ada’s sister, Rina; Elisa Ganelli, a department store salesclerk; and, possibly, the tempestuous prima donna Luisa Tetrazzini.
Caruso’s days of dalliance ended forever in the autumn of 1917, his forty-fourth year, when he met a conventbred New Englander named Dorothy Benjamin at a party. Over her father’s furious objections, they were married in Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church on August 20, 1918.
For most of their years together they lived, when in New York, at the Hotel Knickerbocker, occupying fourteen rooms on the ninth floor. A daughter, Gloria, was born at the Knickerbocker on December 18, 1919, an event that moved the Met gallery the next night to acclaim Caruso’s performance with shouts of “ Viva papa! ”
Caruso idolized his wife. When on tour he wrote to her almost daily in an English as picturesque as his speech. From the St. Paul Hotel, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 6, 1920: “Here I am again to you, my own sweetheart, to pass some of my time in your company and let pass from me this little nervous which the blowing of the wind has put in my sistem. … I had this morning, after making my toilet, some other stupid interview. … I tell you, if it was not for such big amount of money which I gat, many time I can send this people to Hell!…”