September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
When Marian Anderson died recently, obituaries of the great American contralto recalled how, in the spring of 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to give a recital in Constitution Hall, their auditorium in Washington, because she was black, and how Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, offered her the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she sang out-of-doors on Easter Sunday.
I was present at another outdoor recital that Miss Anderson gave. Though it’s less famous, it too sums up a moment in American history. The date was July 10, 1944; the place, Lewisohn Stadium, in the West 14Os in Manhattan. The stadium, which was torn down some years ago, served a dual purpose: during the academic year it was the football field of City College, and in the summer it was a music bowl. The popularly priced summertime stadium concerts made a notable contribution to the musical life of the city while they lasted. I imagine the musicians to whom the concerts gave summer employment were as pleased to be there as the capacity crowd—about twenty thousand—who turned out to hear the famous singer.
In my recollection the night sky was as velvety as Miss Anderson’s voice. New York City wasn’t as noisy during the Second World War as it is today —gasoline rationing cut down traffic on the ground, and there was no civilian traffic in the air—so the audience was very much aware of a commotion outside the stadium, sirens and car horns competing with the orchestra. But the interruption was brief, and we settled back to listen to the music until the intermission. The musicians put down their instruments, and the audience began to stand and stretch. Then the microphones picked up another, smaller, backstage to-do. Everybody turned to look. Out strode a very odd couple—New York City’s stubby, barrel-shaped mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, and the leader of the Free French, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, looking like Cleopatra’s Needle, the Egyptian obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park.
The audience, astonished and thrilled, started cheering. We knew that de Gaulle was in the city after having visited Washington, where he had conferred with President Roosevelt, and from our cheering you could tell that we wished their talks had ended the long diplomatic dissension between FDR and the Free French leader. They hadn’t; they had just settled a few issues that arose after our forces had landed in Normandy a month earlier. We couldn’t accord de Gaulle formal diplomatic recognition, but we gave him an ovation. Eventually the mayor calmed the demonstration and said a few words. The conductor raised his baton, and, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, Marian Anderson led us in singing the Marseillaise .
She was a tall woman, and, like many singers, of substantial size. She was wearing a bright-blue dress that glistened in the stage lights. Standing beside each other, the trio ought to have looked comic: besides the disproportion of their shapes and sizes, none was beautiful by the standard of Hollywood movies or Greek statuary. But they didn’t look funny; they looked noble. Each was a great person in a different way, and at that moment their greatness embodied all the idealism of the Second World War. The black woman, the French general, and the populist mayor led us in celebrating the beginning of the liberation of France, and more besides; our singing together expressed our hope that men and women of diverse nationality, ancestry, race, and talents would soon celebrate peace in freedom and harmony.
I was young that summer—I was working in New York between my junior and senior years in college— and I was to hear Miss Anderson many more times. I remember when she broke the color bar at the Metropolitan Opera singing Ulrica in Verdi’s Masked Ball . Yet her performance of the Marseillaise remains a beacon in my memory. When she struggled against prejudice she was struggling for all Americans, and when she sang for de Gaulle and France, she was singing for all humanity.