Bravo Caruso!


En route from Omaha to Denver, October 7: “Far away from you I have a sentiment of fraidness. I do not know what is this but I feel like a boy without protection. What is this then? Can you explain? At this feeling I add the one of my work and, been far away from you, my life is the most miserable one… I am beguinning to be old and I am afraif that you will stop to love me. I will kill you, Gloria and myself if that is so! Your Rico.”

From the Hotel Fontenelle, Omaha, October 12: “I need you like wather when I am thorsty. I need your voice, sweet voice, which is so good for my nervs. I need you all around me.”

A man of many idiosyncrasies, Caruso always traveled with his own down pillows, linen pillowcases, blankets, and sheets—he could sleep only on linen—which he insisted must be changed daily. Fearful of falling out of bed, he also took along wedge-shaped cushions to secure himself. His shirts, even if worn only an hour, he would not wear again until they had been laundered. As he donned each garment, he would douse himself with Eau de Cologne. He favored Caron perfumes and would stroll through his suite spraying every room with it.

At home in his Knickerbocker apartment, a flowing white dressing gown enveloping his portly body, he would begin his day about eight o’clock by perusing the newspaper music reviews and reading (with special attention to the cartoons) La Follia , an Italian-American periodical to which he contributed caricatures. Then he would loll in a bath perfumed with verbena—he took two baths a day—and for half an hour he would breathe in the vapor from an inhalator containing a mixture of glycerin and Dobell Solutions (sodium borate). He would then examine his vocal chords in a dentist’s mirror inserted in his throat. If they appeared the least shade off their usual color, he would paint them with a special balm. Despite this concern for his respiratory apparatus, he smoked two packs of Egyptian cigarettes a day.

Despite his concern for his voice, he smoked two packs of Egyptian cigarettes a day.

Before he dressed, assisted by his No. 1 valet, he submitted to the ministrations of a barber and a manicurist. When at last fully clad, he presented a splendid figure—shoes of soft, malleable kid fashioned to his specifications, his small hands encased in custom-stitched yellow gloves, polychrome checkered vest, wide-brimmed Borsalino hat, gold-headed cane, assorted jewelry. In front of the hotel his chauffeur, Fitzgerald, waited at the wheel of a green Lancia.

On the day of a performance, however, Caruso seldom ventured outdoors. Silence reigned in the apartment as he played solitaire to calm his nerves, drew caricatures, fussed with a coin and a stamp collection. “Each time I sing I feel there is someone waiting to destroy me,” he once said, “and I must fight like a bull to hold my own. The artist who boasts he is never nervous is not an artist—he is a liar or a fool.” For further distraction he began collecting antiques and became so avid that, to accommodate them all—his bronzes and marbles, furniture, rare fabrics, snuffboxes, watches—he maintained his own private gallery on Fiftieth Street just off Fifth Avenue.

There were shouts from the audience: “Stop him! Don’t let him go on!”

He usually entered his Met dressing room at least two hours before curtain time. He vocalized a bit, then began an extensive medical ritual. He took snuff to clear his nostrils, sipped a little diluted Scotch, and gargled with heavily salted water. In several pockets of his costume he secreted vials of the water with which to gargle surreptitiously and rid his throat of any mucus between arias. For a pre-opera snack he confined himself to a quarter of an apple and half a dozen dried figs, which he considered so conducive to good health that he obliged his hapless secretary to eat some too. Before the orchestra had sounded a note of the overture, the stage manager, Ludovico Viviani, would observe a mark of respect paid to no other singer. Rapping on the dressing-room door, he would ask, “May we begin, Mr. Caruso?”

With his childish fondness for horseplay and practical joking, Caruso sometimes nearly disrupted a scene. During a tender passage in La Bohème he once pressed a hot sausage into the hand of Mimi, sung by the imperious Nellie Melba, whispering, when she dropped it, “English lady no like sausage?” With Geraldine Farrar singing the same role it was a lump of ice, and with the baritone Eugenio Giraldoni as the villain Barnaba in La Gioconda it was an egg. La Bohème seemed to bring out the worst in him. He victimized two notable Collines, Vittorio Arimondi and Pasquale Amato, filling the stovepipe hat worn by the first with water and sewing up the sleeves of the overcoat to be worn by the second. Yet all the practical joking, all the relentless sophomoric high spirits, dwindled to insignificance when he sang.