Selling The Swedish Nightingale

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As Jenny’s arrival in America grew nearer, Barnum doubled and redoubled his efforts to drum up interest. Jenny had turned down engagements in Europe during her last weeks there in order to rest up for the voyage. But at Barnum’s urgent request she agreed to give a pair of concerts in Liverpool, her port of embarkation. As he expected, the fact that the two Liverpool concerts were Jenny’s last ones before sailing for the wilds of America brought an unprecedented surge of affection from her British public. There was a frenzied demand for tickets to the farewell events. The first took place on August 16, the night before the regular Saturday transatlantic ship cast off for America. Barnum had ordered his British agent to go to London and, as he delicately put it, “Procure the services of a musical critic.” The critic was hastened to Liverpool to cover the concert. He finished his review at 1:30 A.M. Barnum’s man hotfooted it to the newspaper office, presumably paced nervously while the article went to press, then rushed copies of the early edition down to the dock. The review, detailing the unbridled enthusiasm of the Liverpool audience and its grief at Jenny’s imminent departure, appeared in U.S. newspapers a week before her arrival.

Barnum’s bag of tricks was bottomless. Next, he wrote a letter addressed to himself and signed it with the name of composer Julius Benedict, who was traveling with Jenny. It appeared in the New York Daily Tribune on August 14. “I have just heard Mile. Jenny Lind,” the “Benedict” letter announced, “whose voice has acquired— if that were possible —even additional powers and effect by a timely and well-chosen repose. You may depend on it, that such a performance as hers—in the finest pieces of her repertoire —must warrant an unprecedented excitement.… Mile. Lind is very anxious to give a Welcome to America in a kind of national song, which, if I can obtain the poetry of one of your first-rate literary men, I shall set to music, and which she will sing in addition to the pieces originally fixed upon.”

The letter was followed with Barnum’s own announcement that the “Nightingale’s” request for a “national song” would be filled by means of a public contest. He offered $100—soon raised to $200—for a winning poem, entries to be received by “P. T. Barnum, Esq., New York.” Seven hundred and fifty-three hastily written efforts were received. The winner was the poet and world traveler Bayard Taylor. He needed $200 as much as the next poet, but he later admitted that the Jenny Lind Prize Song was always a source of embarrassment to him. It began:

I greet with a full heart the Land of the West Whose Banner of Stars o’er a world is unrolled; Whose empire o ‘ershadows Atlantic’s wide breast, And opes to the sunset its gateway of gold! The land of the mountain, the land of the lake, And rivers that roll in magnificent tide— Where the souls of the mighty from slumber awake, And hallow the soil for whose freedom they died!

Prize poem in hand, Barnum had yet to break the news of it to Jenny and Benedict, still in mid-ocean blissfully unaware of the whole business. No evidence of his legendary powers of persuasion is more impressive than the fact that he later got Benedict to set Taylor’s dreadful lines to music and talked Jenny into singing them.

As the S.S. Atlantic entered New York harbor, Barnum and a reporter for the New York Tribune rode out aboard the quarantine boat that went to meet it. Barnum carried a bouquet of red roses, which presented certain problems when it came time to clamber up the rope ladder that hung from the side of the large vessel. Barnum opened a few buttons and manfully shoved the prickly bouquet into his vest, then hauled his considerable bulk aboard. When the ship’s captain ushered him into the presence of his star, he was annoyed to find her already holding a bouquet three times the size of his own. The owner of the shipping line had beaten him to it by boarding the vessel at Sandy Hook.

 
 
 
 

The Tribune correspondent’s report was more realistic than most. “Jenny,” he noted, was “rather more robust in face and person than her portraits would indicate.” Her mouth and nose “though molded on the large Swedish type convey an impression of benevolence and sound goodness of heart.” (The reporter’s surprise at her actual appearance was understandable: all the pictures of her that anyone in America had seen had come from England and were of the ethereal, disembodied-spirit type dearly loved by Victorian artists.)