Selling The Swedish Nightingale

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The legendary tour began in earnest in November—a seven-month royal progress that would take the entourage to fifteen U.S. cities, with a side excursion to Havana. The outpouring of love that greeted Jenny as she moved from town to town seemed ominous to the London Times . If a mere singer could, with the help of a “private adventurer,” so arouse national enthusiasm, could not a political adventurer copy the method? “… the same reckless system of exaggeration, the same intense vulgarity of means …” could be applied to fields other than music, the Times warned.

But this stern message from across the waters failed to dampen the Nightingale’s reception in Washington. President Millard Fillmore himself called on Jenny at the Willard Hotel. The cabinet went to her concerts en masse. She even managed to cope with the fierce devotion of Daniel Webster, who attended several times, frequently rising and bowing to Jenny, and singing along whenever he knew the melody.

The Washington triumphs added a new item to Jenny’s repertoire. Barnum had found a copy of a dimly remembered song called “Home, Sweet Home” from Sir Henry Bishop’s otherwise forgettable opera Clari . The lyrics had been written by Boston poet John Howard Payne. Barnum had learned that Payne would attend the first concert. He urged Jenny to learn the song and to end the program with it, correctly surmising that after a plaintive rendition, sung by a presumably homesick Swedish girl to an aging American poet, there would not be a dry handkerchief in the house. The song created a furor, and it became a staple of Jenny’s programs. Hastily reprinted by its publisher, it was soon firmly fixed on the national piano rack as one of America’s favorite songs.

Barnum’s contract with Jenny had called for 150 concerts at $1,000 each. After her Castle Garden triumph he had rewritten the agreement to give Jenny a percentage of the profits in addition to the fee. (Whether the idea for this renegotiation originated with Barnum, as he claimed, or with Jenny remains unclear.) But in the end she sang for him only ninety-five times. He had inserted a generous release clause into the contract, and on June 9,1851, she notified him that she had had enough.

What happened to upset the markedly cordial relations between the two? Had Jenny, as one of the showman’s illwishers maintained, revolted because Barnum had persuaded her to review a parade of elephants opening “Barnum’s Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie”? Possibly. Had she been mortally offended at being booked into a hall that had recently housed animal acts? Who knows?

Barnum’s own diagnosis of the problem makes as much sense as any other. Like most musical luminaries—before, since, and for all time—Jenny was surrounded by a gaggle of sycophants, a horde of “advisers” who, from the day of her arrival in America, had filled her ears with venomous anti-Barnum sentiments. He was cheapening her image, they told her. She would fare much better if she managed her own American career—with their help, naturally.

Barnum did not argue with her decision, and they parted friends. He was secretly delighted to see the end of the whole business. He had earned more than anyone had thought possible. The venture that was supposed to ruin him had brought in a total of $712,161.34—nearly three and a quarter million dollars in today’s terms. In retrospect he would write of the tour that it “was an undertaking … bold in its conception, complete in its development, and astounding in its success. It was an enterprise never before or since equalled in managerial annals.” Having achieved this pinnacle of entrepreneurial expertise, he was ready to return, at least temporarily, to the more peaceful atmosphere of his American Museum on Broadway.

Thus Jenny entered the concert management business on her own. Difficulties of which she had never dreamed arose in nearly every town—travel arrangements, hall rentals, ticket sales, things that had always seemed so simple, developed complications; preconcert publicity dropped off alarmingly; so did audiences; the press became cooler, sometimes even hostile.

Jenny realized too late how much drudgery had been quietly absorbed by Barnum. By interposing himself between her and the public, he had always managed to keep what one writer called her “angel face” before the world. Now newspapers were beginning to comment on occasional “stingy” and “thundercloud” expressions. Toward the tour’s end, another factor intervened that further cooled down America’s love affair with Jenny Lind. His name was Otto Goldschmidt.

Otto was a serious young German musician—nearly ten years younger than Jenny—who had been a student of Mendelssohn. When Julius Benedict, exhausted by the pace, left the entourage and returned to London, Jenny sent for Otto to serve as her accompanist. Shortly thereafter she married him, and Otto proved to be a model husband.