Selling The Swedish Nightingale

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When it comes to the performing arts, Americans have often suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority. Foreign artists are considered somehow better—more glamorous, more gifted, more refined—than our own. We have lavished our applause on the likes of Bernhardt, Burton, and Garbo, reserved our stormiest bravos for Paderewski, Chaliapin, and Nureyev, and lost our national composure over Lola Montez, Anna Held, and the Beatles. In the nineteenth century, American opera companies drew best when billed as Italian; even today American performers frequently find it pays to conquer Europe before wowing them in Omaha. The late Sol Hurok was the most successful modern impresario to profit from this fascination with foreign stars. But his triumphs paled-as did those of all his predecessors and their exotic imports—when compared to what happened in 1850 when P. T. Barnum brought the Swedish singer Jenny Lind to America.

High culture was not the forty-year-old master showman’s usual métier. Believing that the American people loved to be humbugged, he built his reputation by ballyhooing such frauds as a “Feejee Mermaid” (fashioned from the body of a fish and the head and paws of a monkey) and a wrinkled old black woman whom he billed as “George Washington’s one-hundred-and-sixty-one-year-old nurse.” But he had nothing against the real goods—provided they could be made to turn a profit.

In 1850 Jenny Lind was probably the most famous performer in Europe. She had everything: a thrilling voice, dramatic talent, and a reputation for piety, modesty, and good works. Her success had been dazzling. When she appeared on the streets of Germany and Austria, male admirers rushed to unhitch the horses from her carriage and pull it themselves. It was said that when she sang in London the House of Commons could not obtain a quorum, and the royal court once postponed its annual visit to Scotland. Even Queen Victoria had thrown a bouquet at her feet in tribute.

To composers like Chopin, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Schumann, and Mendelssohn her musicianship was a revelation. “There will not be born in a whole century another being so gifted as she,” announced Mendelssohn, and he tailored the soprano part of “Elijah” expressly to her voice. Hans Christian Andersen heard her sing in Copenhagen in 1834 and lost his heart to her; he wrote that he had “seen a vestal virgin,” and he courted her in vain for years with stories she inspired (Jenny coldhearted in “The Snow Queen”; Jenny warmhearted in “The Emperor’s Nightingale”).

Born in Stockholm in 1820, Jenny was the illegitimate daughter of an illnatured schoolteacher named AnneMarie Felborg and a good-natured wastrel named Nikla Lind. At the age of nine she was discovered in storybook fashion. She was sitting at her window one day, serenading her cat, when a ballerina’s maid passed by, heard her extraordinary voice, and rushed off to tell her mistress about it. The dancer arranged an audition for Jenny, and she was accepted as a student at the Royal Theater School. By the time she was seventeen, she was one of the most valuable musical properties in Sweden; at twenty she was a member of the Swedish Royal Academy and court singer to the king.

In 1841 her voice seemed to have worn out, and she left Stockholm for Paris to try to save it. She had learned much about acting, dancing, and repertory at the Royal Theater School, but proper breathing and a secure vocal technique had not been part of her training, and too many demanding roles had taken a heavy toll. In Paris, she studied with Manuel Garcia, a renowned vocal teacher who showed her how to sing all over again. When she returned to the stage—more often in Austria and Germany than in Stockholm, to the chagrin of her Swedish admirers—she was a sensation. She then traveled to London in 1847 where, amid new triumphs, she was called “the Swedish Nightingale.”

Jenny Lind and Victorian England were made for each other. In an era when many opera stars were notorious courtesans, the emergence of a militantly virtuous singer (the “prima donna immaculata,” the German poet Heine cynically called her) was a novelty. Other prima donnas may have reigned as queens of the demimonde, but no singer had previously been a houseguest of the Bishop of Norwich. In fact, the bishop’s invitation had required some courage. For a stage performer to be received at court was one thing, at an Episcopal palace quite another. Nor was it universally condoned. “It is very right and proper,” wrote one appalled clergyman, “that jackdaws should build in the church. They have vested interests there. But farewell the primitive purity of the establishment which affords a resting-place for nightingales.” Nonetheless, this was a minority view. Jenny’s demure virtue opened doors for herself and made it easier for performers who came after her to become respectable.

 
 

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.

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.)

Perhaps forty thousand persons greeted Jenny’s ship when it finally docked on Sunday, September 1, 1850. She and her entourage made their way through the adoring crowds to Barnum’s carriage. The showman himself leaped into the driver’s seat “as a legitimate advertisement,” he explained later. “My presence on the outside of the carriage aided those who filled windows and sidewalks along the whole route in coming to the conclusion that Jenny Lind had arrived!”

She had indeed. Enthusiastic throngs milled around the Irving House Hotel all night, cheering and calling her name. They cheered even louder when two hundred members of the Musical Fund Society, escorted by a company of firemen in red flannel shirts, joined the crowd and began a nightlong serenade.

Barnum was gratified by the turnout. He had not been entirely sure what size concert hall Jenny needed. Now he knew. He hired the largest in town, Castle Garden, in Battery Park. Hundreds followed Jenny’s carriage to and from rehearsals. New York merchants eagerly abetted Barnum’s grand design by rushing into print to advertise hastily renamed Jenny Lind products: everything from Jenny Lind cigars to Jenny Lind sewing stands, gloves, scarves, riding hats, perfume (unfortunately for Jenny, the idea of paid endorsements was still far in the future).

Then, with the concert just five days away, Barnum staged another event that raised an even greater journalistic furor than the Prize Song Competition—the Great Jenny Lind Opening Concert Ticket Auction.

It had required discreet stage managing. A few days before the auction, Barnum visited the office of his friend John N. Genin, a hatmaker, and offered him a golden opportunity: he would be the first man in America to buy a ticket to hear Jenny Lind sing. “Pay whatever you have to pay for the ticket,” Barnum told him, “and consider it an investment in the future.” Delighted, Genin agreed.

Barnum next visited a Dr. Brandreth, who made and widely advertised various patent medicines. “Buy the first Jenny Lind ticket at auction,” Barnum recalled himself saying, “and let every newspaper in America, in Europe, announce that Dr. Brandreth, Jr., the maker of the celebrated Brandreth pills, secured the first Jenny Lind ticket at $50 or $100 as the case may be.”

On the day of the great auction over three thousand people paid the admission fee of twelve and a half cents to enter Castle Garden. Among them were Genin’s bookkeeper and Brandreth’s cashier, each man’s secret instructions unsuspected by the other. Brandreth’s man opened at $25. Genin’s came back with $50. Other bidders dropped away at $225; so did Brandreth’s cashier. John N. Genin was the winner. And Barnum’s prediction that possession of the first ticket would make his fortune proved true. So widely had reports of the auction been circulated that visitors to New York thereafter regarded Genin’s shop as one of the town’s major tourist attractions and bought Genin hats as souvenirs for the folks back home.

(The auction would be repeated in several cities where Jenny appeared. In Boston the first ticket went for $625. It was craftily purchased by a singer named Ossian F. Dodge, whose concert career from that moment on took a turn for the better. The highest-priced auction ticket was sold for $650 to Colonel William Ross of Providence, Rhode Island. Having outflanked his rivals around the country, the colonel failed to attend the concert. He did not like music.)

Jenny Lind’s opening concert at Castle Garden—on September 11, 1850—was a landmark in the annals of the performing arts in America. Not even her frenetic advance publicity could make her performance an anticlimax. Seven thousand strong, the audience succumbed.

“Jenny Lind’s first concert is over,” the Tribune ’s music critic wrote that night, “and all doubts are at an end. She is the greatest singer we have ever heard and her success is all that was anticipated from her genius and her fame.”

Barnum later struck a commemorative medal of that wildly acclaimed event and grandly presented one to each businessman or banker who had turned him down in his quest for $187,500.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Over the next two months Jenny performed concerts in Philadelphia, Boston, and in Providence, Rhode Island—where Brown University officials were forced to give infatuated students a half-holiday and suspended the rule that forbade any form of entertainment on week nights.

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.

Jenny’s complete satisfaction with her spouse was not universally shared by her public. The image of her as a matron was somehow jarring, and many listeners recalled what one commentator had said: “Maidenhood is in her voice!” “Why is Madame Goldschmidt so much less than Jenny Lind?” Harper’s Monthly asked itself. Because, it replied, “she who has conquered the world by song and goodness, has herself been conquered,” and by one “no better, no worthier, no stronger than the average of men.” Jenny did not help her cause by billing herself as “Madame Otto Goldschmidt (late Jenny Lind).”

Then there was the thorny question of Otto’s solo work. Failing box-office receipts had caused Jenny to dismiss her orchestra and sing with piano alone. But the public had paid its money to hear Jenny sing, not to listen to Otto’s long German piano works. The problem of spirited audience participation during Otto’s offerings became so great that loyal Jenny took to seating herself conspicuously on the side of the stage and staring the audience down while her devoted consort played.

At last, Jenny decided wisely to end the tour and return to Europe. Her farewell American concert was sung at Castle Garden on May 24,1852. This time the house was half empty. Barnum was out front and later went backstage to say good-by. He was too sportsmanlike to gloat. But as the Swedish Nightingale and her Otto finally sailed away, he must have thought of what a gala, historic, unforgettable farewell concert he could have staged for her.