Selling The Swedish Nightingale

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Her unusual acceptance in high places made her, in turn, a seemly fiancée in the eyes of a Captain Claudius Harris. Jenny must have been smitten by the sight of him in a full-dress uniform; certainly he had nothing else to recommend him. She rushed into an engagement to him but kept pushing back the wedding date while she argued with him over details of the marriage contract. The brainless Captain Claudius was blessed with a protective mother who guided his hand during the negotiations. Jenny resisted a demand that she retire from the stage and sing only in church or for charity, and she also balked at a clause calling for her to turn over all of her considerable wealth to her future husband. But it was Claudius himself who doomed the marriage, falling asleep one night while Jenny was singing to him. Angry and hurt, she fled to the Continent in late 1849, hoping to forget Captain Claudius and his mum.

It was then that P. T. Barnum came into her life. Though he had never seen or heard Jenny Lind, the American showman had read about her triumphs while touring Europe with his first great attraction, General Tom Thumb, in 1845 and 1846. He knew that concert halls sold out wherever she appeared; that she was celebrated for her virtue; and that she had delighted the crowned heads of Europe (an achievement always appealing to otherwise democratic Americans). He decided to bring her to the United States.

Barnum dispatched a smooth-talking Englishman named John Wilton to track her down and make her an offer. He was prepared to go as high as $1,000 a night for up to 150 concerts, plus expenses, but he hoped to achieve his goal for far less. As an incentive to sharp bargaining, he offered Wilton a sliding-scale commission based on his success in softening Jenny’s terms: the better the deal Wilton made, the higher the commission he would receive. But when Jenny finally agreed to see Wilton in L’fcbeck, she opened the interview by announcing that she already had four offers to tour America and one to tour Russia. What exactly did Mr. Barnum have in mind? Wilton realized that this was no time for haggling, and he presented Barnum’s top offer.

After checking Barnum’s credit rating with his London bank, Jenny accepted. But she also insisted on the services of Julius Benedict, a German conductor, composer, and pianist with whom she had worked in England, and of Italian baritone Giovanni Belletti as assisting artist. (Solo recitals were still unknown in America.) Benedict’s fee was $25,000; Belletti’s half that. In addition, Barnum was to pay for a secretary, a maid, and a manservant, plus the cost of a sixty-piece orchestra and a carriage and pair in each city the tour played.

When Wilton reached New York in February, Barnum took all this in stride. But, he learned, there was still one more stipulation. The total fee for all three artists—$187,500—had to be deposited in advance with the banking house of Baring Brothers in London before Jenny would budge from Europe. Barnum had not bargained for this; he was accustomed to a more casual, pay-as-you-go system. But he remained optimistic, even when New York bankers refused to accept a percentage of the Lind tour as collateral for a loan to be sent to London. Undaunted, Barnum mortgaged everything he owned, and when he still came up short, persuaded a Philadelphia minister who thought Jenny would be a good influence on American morals to lend him the final $5,000.

Yet even Barnum must have had moments of doubt. Few Americans had ever heard of Jenny Lind. An encounter with a conductor on a railroad train from Philadelphia to New York drove the point home. Barnum proudly told the trainman that he had just signed a contract with Jenny Lind and she would be coming to America for an extended tour.

“Jenny Lind!” replied the conductor. “Is she a dancer?”

Barnum clearly had his work cut out for him. If this was all Americans knew of “the greatest songstress in the world,” he wrote, “I am not sure that six months will be too long a time for me to occupy in enlightening the public in regard to her merits.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The “enlightening” began right away. Barnum’s first announcement to the press set the tone. “A visit from such a woman,” he proclaimed, “who regards her high artistic powers as a gift from Heaven, for the amelioration of affliction and distress .… will be a blessing to America.” Next came an authorized biographical pamphlet and photograph. “It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind,” the pamphlet said, that produced Jenny’s vocal “potency.” Barnum correctly surmised that Jenny’s piety and her history of giving frequent benefit concerts for hospitals and orphanages would weigh more with the nonmusical public than the fact that the singer had a range of two and a half octaves and an extraordinary trill.