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Bravo Caruso!

July 2024
16min read

The great tenor came to America in 1903, and it was love at first sight—a love that survived an earthquake and some trouble with the police about a woman at the zoo

WHEN, ON COLUMBUS DAY OF 1980 , the operatic superstar, Luciano Pavarotti, sitting on a bay horse, his massive bulk arrayed in fancy dress, jounced up New York’s Fifth Avenue at the head of the annual parade celebrating the discovery of America, some elitist opera patrons were dismayed. A primo tenore , they believed, should stand aloof from the common run, should maintain an inaccessibility, a certain mystery. But there is lofty precedent for Pavarotti’s extracurricular capers, set by a man who was probably the greatest singer ever heard and almost certainly the best loved, who made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House eighty years ago last November—Enrico Caruso.

Caruso was known, when about to sing Canio—the sobbing cuckold of I Pagliacci —to walk the three blocks from his Times Square hotel, the Knickerbocker, to the opera house, wearing his clown costume, followed by a cheering, laughing, adoring crowd.

Caruso’s antics—as well as the voice that one critic described as “gold swathed in velvet”—greatly stimulated the popularity of opera in America. Before Caruso came, American opera had been a small, special world; today there are more than one thousand companies in existence, ranging from university workshops to such institutions as the Met, the Chicago Lyric, and the San Francisco Opera.

Quick to laughter and to tears, amorous, buffoonish, with little formal education, speaking a comically fractured English, round and paunchy, Caruso presented an image that appealed enormously to multitudes of ordinary Americans. A gifted caricaturist, he would, during a newspaper interview, dash off a likeness of the reporter and hand it to him. (He was once very insulted when Mark Twain failed to invite him to a dinner Twain was giving for cartoonists.) The American press reported his every word and deed, from the practical jokes to which he subjected his fellow artists on stage to the gargantuan repasts he consumed after a performance.

Though relatively few Americans would ever hear him in person, Caruso and grand opera were synonymous to millions of them. They collected the Red Seal records he made for the Victor Talking Machine Company, a total of 266 titles, which yielded royalties of $1,825,000 during his lifetime and considerably more than that after his death. They sat enchanted before their crystal radio sets listening to his broadcasts. (Caruso was the first opera star on the air when, on the evening of January 13, 1910, Lee De Forest, the inventor of the radio amplifier, transmitted portions of I Pagliacci from the stage of the Met to the Victor Company in Camden, New Jersey.) Generations of bathroom tenors attempted to render such Carusoassociated standards as “Vesti la Giubba” from I Pagliacci and “La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto .

Caruso preferred American audiences to all others and spent the major part of his professional career on this side of the Atlantic. Often called upon to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at patriotic or fund-raising rallies, he concocted a phonetic version of the lyrics, his Italian accent being otherwise impenetrably thick. It went like this:

O seiken iu su bai dhi dons erli lait Huat so praudli ui heild At dhi twailaits last glimmin …

Caruso began his singing career early. Born in 1873 to a Neapolitan mechanic, the eighteenth of twenty-one children, only three of whom survived infancy, he was already roaming the city at the age of fifteen, picking up coins as a street singer. A wealthy opera addict named Eduardo Missiano chanced to hear Caruso perform outside a public swimming pool and took him to a renowned voice teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. Unimpressed, Vergine compared the youth’s voice to “gold at the bottom of the Tiber—hardly worth digging for.” He nevertheless agreed to take him on in return for a 25 percent share of any money he might earn singing during the next five years. The lessons ended after three years, and Caruso’s formal musical training thereafter remained almost as meager as his scholastic education. He could read a score only with difficulty. He played no musical instrument. He sang largely by ear.

Caruso was twenty-one when he made his operatic debut in Naples at the Teatro Nuovo in an obscure role in an obscure work by a wealthy amateur, L’Amico Francesco . He received fifteen lire per performance and a fifty-lire bonus of which Vergine doubtless exacted his 25 percent. During the next year, 1895, he sang the lead in Cavalleria Rusticana in Caserta and principal roles in several operas with a touring company in Egypt. By 1898 every European impresario knew his name.

Though Caruso was still unknown to American audiences, Maurice Grau, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, offered him a contract at $200 a week for twenty weeks, beginning during the 1899 season. Grau retired (the contract unsigned) before Caruso arrived, and his successor, Heinrich Conreid, had misgivings about the Neapolitan’s drawing power. According to legend, he polled newly immigrated Italian bootblacks as to whom they considered their country’s greatest tenor. The response was unanimous—Enrico Caruso. So Conreid then offered him $960 a performance, and Caruso accepted.

It was aboard the S.S. Sardegna on November 11, 1903, that Caruso, at the age of thirty, first beheld New York Harbor. With him at the rail was Ada Giachetti, a voluptuously beautiful soprano ten years his senior, who had become his mistress not long after they sang together in a Palermo production of La Bohème . She had borne him a son they named Rodolfo, after the hero of the opera, and she would bear him another, Enrico, Jr. They registered at the Hotel Majestic on Central Park West as Mr. and Mrs. Caruso, a fiction that probably deceived no one.

When on November 23, 1903, at the Met’s seasonal opening night, he sang his first role there (the duke in Rigoletto ), the applause was feeble. Although custom then permitted encores—Toscanini would ban them upon becoming the Met’s chief conductor in 1908—the audience called for only one repetition of “La Donna è Mobile,” an aria Caruso was accustomed to deliver at least three times. The critics did not express much enthusiasm either, in part perhaps because the short, dumpy tenor seemed grossly miscast as the dashing duke. The following week, however, he sang Radamès in Aida and drew a warm reception from both audience and critics; three nights later, on December 3, his Rodolfo brought down the house.

The Met paid him $2,500 for each performance. He could have made more.

Thereafter un cuore ehe cantava (”a heart that sang”), as one fellow singer described Caruso’s voice, together with his highly publicized offstage activities, made him the most celebrated performing artist of the epoch. During the next decade and a half he gave 607 performances at the Met, averaging 40 a season and, with a single exception, starring in every opening-night production. “Caruso operas,” as I Pagliacci , La Bohème , and La Juive among others came to be known, were invariably sellouts. When Caruso sang, scalpers got as much as five times the box-office price for a ticket. The Met, financially troubled then as now, owed its survival in large part to Caruso. So did the burgeoning Victor Company. His recording of “Vesti la Giubba” alone sold more than a million copies.

Caruso grew to love New York so much that upon arriving for the opera season he once scooped up a bit of earth and kissed it. He never wearied of tasting the city’s common pleasures. With childlike glee he rode the horsecars, the Third Avenue El, the ferryboats. He luxuriated in the hot, aromatic baths then available in barbershops. A habitué of the Central Park Zoo, he would stand enthralled before the monkey cages, roaring with laughter. At the circus in Madison Square Garden, another favorite haunt, he would climb over the railing and, to the delight of the multitude, shake hands with the clowns. Wherever he went, he was recognized and adored.

Caruso favored two Italian restaurants—Pane’s on West Forty-seventh Street for lunch and, for supper after the opera, Del Pezzo’s on Thirty-fourth Street. Celebrity watchers, familiar with his habits, would crowd the doorways so that his private secretary and cherished friend, Bruno Zirato, had to clear a path for him as he advanced, burbling, “Hello, good morning, thank you very much.” He left a standing order at Del Pezzo’s: “Reserve for me every night until further notice a private dining room and prepare enough Italian food for me and half a dozen guests.” His legendary capacity for food inspired the establishment of a restaurant chain bearing his name. An addition to many New York menus was Spaghetti Caruso —spaghetti with chicken livers.

At the peak of his career the Met paid Caruso twentyfive hundred dollars a performance. He could have made more. When Oscar Hammerstein, who headed the rival Manhattan Opera, let it be known that he would go as high as five thousand dollars, the Met’s magisterial director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, left the dollar line on Caruso’s new contract blank for him to fill in as he chose. Declining to demand an increase, the tenor observed: “I don’t think there is a singer in this world who can give in one performance more than $2,500 worth of singing. … If I ask you for one cent more than $2,500 the public will find out one way or another and want from me that cent more of singing, which I have not got. Therefore, leave matters as they are…”

On the voucher of each paycheck he would scribble a word or two evaluating his own performance. Thus, on a check for Manon s Chevalier des Grieux: “ buona ”; for a Rigoletto , “ Meravigliosa .” He tolerated no adverse comments. When a New York critic reported, “Caruso sang with great emotional intensity despite the difficulties he had to contend with in his mezzo-voce,” he pinned the review to a backstage bulletin board and scrawled across it, “ LIAR !”

Despite his temper he was always generous. During the Christmas holidays he would take the $2,500 due him for a performance, convert it into gold coins, and stuff the pockets of his costume. After the curtain he would shower the stage crew with gold. He was just as generous to the poor outside the theater. He seldom rejected an appeal for money. At one point he was virtually supporting scores of people, the majority hangers-on, spongers. When told that it was impossible for all these people to be deserving, he replied: “You are right. … But can you tell me which is and which is not?”

During the first World War he raised twenty-one million dollars for War Relief and took his salary in Liberty Bonds. He insisted on paying his taxes early: “… if I wait something might happen to me, then it would be hard to collect. Now I pay, then if something happen to me the money belongs to the United States, and that is good.”

The Met and the Victor Company provided only a part of Caruso’s immense American earnings (his estate, at his death, exceeded nine million dollars). Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mrs. Ogden Goelet, and Mrs. William Astor vied with each other to engage him for their private musicales, paying him two to three thousand dollars to sing a few arias. He also made two movies—silent!—under the auspices of Jesse Lasky at the Famous Players Studio on Fifty-sixth Street, each enriching him by one hundred thousand dollars. In the first, My Cousin , he portrayed both a renowned Italian tenor and his cousin, a sculptor. According to one film historian, “few films ever enjoyed less success.” The second, A Splendid Romance , proved so dreadful it was never released.

Caruso was reluctant to undertake concert tours with their interminable train journeys, poor food, and cheerless hotel rooms. To discourage a Detroit impresario, one of the first to offer him a contract, he set his fee at six thousand dollars. The impresario instantly accepted. “ E pazzo! ” (he’s crazy) exclaimed Caruso, but he could not forgo such a thumping sum, and eventually he performed in most of America’s big cities.

In Columbus, Ohio, the billboard posters proclaimed, “Posterity Will Envy You the Privilege of Hearing the Most Glorious Voice of This Generation.” When Caruso sang at the Cow Palace in Fort Worth, eight thousand Texans turned out to hear him. In Atlanta he sang for the inmates of the Federal Penitentiary. In Chicago he was received like an emperor at the café operated by the reigning gang lord of the day, “Big Jim” Colosimo. Caruso returned the compliment by arranging an opera audition for Big Jim’s mistress, Dale Winter.

On April 17, 1906, after singing Don José with the Met in San Francisco, Caruso retired to his suite in the St. Francis Hotel. “I went to bed feeling very contented,” he recalled later. “The opera had gone with fine éclat. … But what an awakening!… I wake up about five o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean. … I get up and go to the window. … And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children…

“I make my way to Union Square where I see some of my friends, and one of them tells me he has lost everything except his voice. … And they tell me to come to a house which is still standing; but I say houses are not safe, nothing is safe but the open square. … So I lie down in the square for a little rest, while my valet goes and looks after the luggage, and soon I begin to see the flames and all the city seems to be on fire…”

He vowed never to set foot in San Francisco. “Give me Vesuvius!” he cried.

Among the possessions he saved, clutching it to his breast as he fled, was a framed, autographed portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had presented it to him the week before when he sang at the White House. He vowed never again to set foot in San Francisco, and he never did. “Give me Vesuvius!” he cried. The Met itself did not revisit the stricken city for forty-two years.

By 1906 Ada Giachetti was back in Caruso’s Villa Bellosguardo near Florence, tending their two sons and awaiting his coming during the opera’s off-season. While remaining faithful to her, Caruso, ever susceptible to the blandishments of female fans, consoled himself for her absence with a succession of mild flirtations. In November, however, he became enmeshed in a scandal that might have wrecked the career of a lesser celebrity.

For thirteen years there had been on duty at the Central Park Zoo a plainclothesman, one James J. Kane, whose assignment was to watch out for mashers. On November 16 he arrested Caruso in the Monkey House: a Mrs. Hannah Graham complained that he had pinched her bottom. Hauled off to the district police station, howling, weeping, terrified, Caruso was jailed for an hour until the Met manager posted five hundred dollars bail.


During the hearing in magistrate’s court, Caruso’s plight was compounded. Officer Kane pictured him as a habitual offender. “I saw Caruso several times in the animal houses last Winter,” he told newspaper reporters, “and noticed that he was trailing women and annoying them as he did on Friday in the case of the woman calling herself ‘Mrs. Graham.’ He usually appeared in the Zoo on Sunday afternoons and stayed for hours at a time. … His hands were in his pockets, and I could never make out until Friday [November 16] just how he used them to such annoyance, for he never took them out. After arresting him on Friday evening I examined the coat and found that there was a slit in one of the pockets. Through this he could reach out a hand through the buttoned space. When he was annoying Mrs. Graham I was first attracted to his method by the accidental pushing out of a gold charm. That caught my eye, and then I noticed part of the man’s hand protrude and touch the woman.”

On the fateful Friday, Kane related, he had observed Caruso for some time before the arrest, saw him first start to follow a girl of about twelve, then to throw suggestive glances at three different women.

Kane was followed to the witness stand by a mysterious woman in white who failed to identify herself, nor was she ordered by the magistrate to do so. She testified that a few months before, Caruso had sidled up to her in a crowd and attempted to fondle her. Finally, the prosecutor alleged, a year earlier, following a society reception, a woman guest, also unnamed, offered Caruso a lift in her car only to have him molest her en route.

No corroboration supported any of these accusations. In fact, the prime complainant, Hannah Graham, did not show up in court. Nor did it seem to matter that although she had sworn publicly that she had never seen Officer Kane before in her life, he turned out to have been the best man at her wedding. Despite Caruso’s hysterical denials, the magistrate pronounced him guilty of a misdemeanor and fined him ten dollars.

Did the great singer misbehave as charged? To judge from the letters that flooded the newspapers, a good many people believed so. After all, wasn’t bottom-pinching an old Italian custom? Public opinion was divided between moral indignation and tolerant amusement, with the latter predominant.

Bisogna soffrire per essere grandi (One must suffer to be great). It was a saying Caruso often repeated. In May 1908 he underwent intense suffering at the hands of Ada Giachetti. She deserted him to run off to South America with her handsome young chauffeur. Caruso sought solace in the arms of various women, among them Ada’s sister, Rina; Elisa Ganelli, a department store salesclerk; and, possibly, the tempestuous prima donna Luisa Tetrazzini.

Caruso’s days of dalliance ended forever in the autumn of 1917, his forty-fourth year, when he met a conventbred New Englander named Dorothy Benjamin at a party. Over her father’s furious objections, they were married in Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church on August 20, 1918.

For most of their years together they lived, when in New York, at the Hotel Knickerbocker, occupying fourteen rooms on the ninth floor. A daughter, Gloria, was born at the Knickerbocker on December 18, 1919, an event that moved the Met gallery the next night to acclaim Caruso’s performance with shouts of “ Viva papa!

Caruso idolized his wife. When on tour he wrote to her almost daily in an English as picturesque as his speech. From the St. Paul Hotel, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 6, 1920: “Here I am again to you, my own sweetheart, to pass some of my time in your company and let pass from me this little nervous which the blowing of the wind has put in my sistem. … I had this morning, after making my toilet, some other stupid interview. … I tell you, if it was not for such big amount of money which I gat, many time I can send this people to Hell!…”

En route from Omaha to Denver, October 7: “Far away from you I have a sentiment of fraidness. I do not know what is this but I feel like a boy without protection. What is this then? Can you explain? At this feeling I add the one of my work and, been far away from you, my life is the most miserable one… I am beguinning to be old and I am afraif that you will stop to love me. I will kill you, Gloria and myself if that is so! Your Rico.”

From the Hotel Fontenelle, Omaha, October 12: “I need you like wather when I am thorsty. I need your voice, sweet voice, which is so good for my nervs. I need you all around me.”

A man of many idiosyncrasies, Caruso always traveled with his own down pillows, linen pillowcases, blankets, and sheets—he could sleep only on linen—which he insisted must be changed daily. Fearful of falling out of bed, he also took along wedge-shaped cushions to secure himself. His shirts, even if worn only an hour, he would not wear again until they had been laundered. As he donned each garment, he would douse himself with Eau de Cologne. He favored Caron perfumes and would stroll through his suite spraying every room with it.

At home in his Knickerbocker apartment, a flowing white dressing gown enveloping his portly body, he would begin his day about eight o’clock by perusing the newspaper music reviews and reading (with special attention to the cartoons) La Follia , an Italian-American periodical to which he contributed caricatures. Then he would loll in a bath perfumed with verbena—he took two baths a day—and for half an hour he would breathe in the vapor from an inhalator containing a mixture of glycerin and Dobell Solutions (sodium borate). He would then examine his vocal chords in a dentist’s mirror inserted in his throat. If they appeared the least shade off their usual color, he would paint them with a special balm. Despite this concern for his respiratory apparatus, he smoked two packs of Egyptian cigarettes a day.

Despite his concern for his voice, he smoked two packs of Egyptian cigarettes a day.

Before he dressed, assisted by his No. 1 valet, he submitted to the ministrations of a barber and a manicurist. When at last fully clad, he presented a splendid figure—shoes of soft, malleable kid fashioned to his specifications, his small hands encased in custom-stitched yellow gloves, polychrome checkered vest, wide-brimmed Borsalino hat, gold-headed cane, assorted jewelry. In front of the hotel his chauffeur, Fitzgerald, waited at the wheel of a green Lancia.

On the day of a performance, however, Caruso seldom ventured outdoors. Silence reigned in the apartment as he played solitaire to calm his nerves, drew caricatures, fussed with a coin and a stamp collection. “Each time I sing I feel there is someone waiting to destroy me,” he once said, “and I must fight like a bull to hold my own. The artist who boasts he is never nervous is not an artist—he is a liar or a fool.” For further distraction he began collecting antiques and became so avid that, to accommodate them all—his bronzes and marbles, furniture, rare fabrics, snuffboxes, watches—he maintained his own private gallery on Fiftieth Street just off Fifth Avenue.

There were shouts from the audience: “Stop him! Don’t let him go on!”

He usually entered his Met dressing room at least two hours before curtain time. He vocalized a bit, then began an extensive medical ritual. He took snuff to clear his nostrils, sipped a little diluted Scotch, and gargled with heavily salted water. In several pockets of his costume he secreted vials of the water with which to gargle surreptitiously and rid his throat of any mucus between arias. For a pre-opera snack he confined himself to a quarter of an apple and half a dozen dried figs, which he considered so conducive to good health that he obliged his hapless secretary to eat some too. Before the orchestra had sounded a note of the overture, the stage manager, Ludovico Viviani, would observe a mark of respect paid to no other singer. Rapping on the dressing-room door, he would ask, “May we begin, Mr. Caruso?”

With his childish fondness for horseplay and practical joking, Caruso sometimes nearly disrupted a scene. During a tender passage in La Bohème he once pressed a hot sausage into the hand of Mimi, sung by the imperious Nellie Melba, whispering, when she dropped it, “English lady no like sausage?” With Geraldine Farrar singing the same role it was a lump of ice, and with the baritone Eugenio Giraldoni as the villain Barnaba in La Gioconda it was an egg. La Bohème seemed to bring out the worst in him. He victimized two notable Collines, Vittorio Arimondi and Pasquale Amato, filling the stovepipe hat worn by the first with water and sewing up the sleeves of the overcoat to be worn by the second. Yet all the practical joking, all the relentless sophomoric high spirits, dwindled to insignificance when he sang.

Gallons of ink have been spilled in an effort to explain the tenor’s uniqueness through his physical equipment and vocal exercises. It was noted that he had a mouth so cavernous he could close his lips over an egg without breaking it and an athlete’s chest expansion of nine inches. Others wrote of his ability to coordinate “into one act the flying together of the vocal chords and the emission of breath” and spoke of his unstrained breathing, resulting in pure, harmonious tones.

Yet many fine tenors have possessed such capacities. What set Caruso far apart was the intensity of the emotional effects upon his audience. His vocalized feelings, variously spiritual, earthy, carnal, seemed to resonate within the hearer’s body. Rosa Ponselle, the American soprano who made her debut opposite Caruso, called it “a voice that loves you.”

Enrico Caruso, who reached the summit of his glory in America and who, in America, found the supreme love of his life, began, at the age of forty-seven, to die in America. The first symptoms occurred on December 8, 1920, during a performance of I Pagliacci . Having caught a severe chill the week before, he collapsed between acts; a doctor allowed him to go back on for Act II.

Three days later, while singing Nemorino at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he started to cough blood. “From the wings Zirato’s hand held out a towel,” his anguished wife recalled many years later. “Enrico took it, wiped his lips and went on singing. Towel after towel was passed to him and still he sang on.” There were shouts from the audience: “Stop him! Don’t let him go on!” At the end of the act he let himself be taken home, the only time in his entire career he failed to finish an opera.

Caruso had made his last recording on September 16, Rossini’s Messe Solennelle . On Christmas Eve, pale, shaky, his side aching, he sang his last role, Eleazar, in Halévy’s La Juive . A series of pulmonary complications, including pleurisy and pneumonia, followed. In the spring, somewhat restored and full of optimism, he sailed back to Naples with his wife and infant daughter aboard the S.S. Presidente Wilson . On July 17 Caruso sent Fucito, his accompanist, a postcard: “In the best of health thanks to the sun and sea baths. I have voice to sell for still a score of years. Whatever I do, I do with great vigor.” A few days after Fucito received the card, Caruso was dead.

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