A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
Nothing but an Earthquake
SOBBING DIVA FAINTS ON STAGE
DIVA STRICKEN WHILE SINGING
LOTTE SEASICK, COLLAPSES ON STAGE
HYSTERICAL, SHE STOPS OPERA
DIVA FLEES STAGE, NEAR COLLAPSE
Such were the headlines that appeared the next day, May 5, 1938, in Philadelphia, in Huntington, West Virginia, in Pittsburgh, Newark, and Detroit. The news had sped around the world. To Austria, to Australia. To everywhere where opera was known.
It was the opening performance of the Covent Garden season. Erich Kleiber was conducting. The opera was being broadcast. Lehmann had just started the monologue. She sang the first six bars of the vocal part, then suddenly stopped, just before the phrase, “als müsst’s so sein” (“as if it had to be so”). She cried out in English: “I can’t! I can’t!” Then she raised her hands to her head, ran into the wings, and fainted.
The distinguished opening-night audience sat there stunned. The orchestra stopped playing, the curtain came down. Then a member of the management came before the curtain and appealed from the stage to Mme. Hilde Konetzni, who was known to be in the house, to save the performance. According to Walter Legge’s account, a costume was improvised for her by pinning together the elegant evening wraps of several kind ladies from the audience. Lotte’s costume was too small for the even more ample figure of Mme. Konetzni. In only twenty minutes the performance continued, with the new Marschallin, at exactly the point where it had been interrupted. Mme. Konetzni received an ovation for her gallantry and spunk, as well as for her fine performance under trying circumstances, without a rehearsal or any clue as to the staging.
One man asked for his money back, and got it.
Meanwhile Lotte found herself on a stool in the wings, trembling and crying uncontrollably. Miss Constance Parrish, who had been watching the performance from out front, hurried backstage. She sent her eyewitness account to Viola and Frances:
The troupe were all around her. She was in floods of tears and said she could not continue, that her voice would not function. We took her up to her dressing room and a doctor appeared from the audience and said it was a nervous collapse. [A throat specialist] examined her throat and said there was redness between the vocal cords but nothing on them, and he offered to touch her up to carry on. But her nerves were in no condition to do so.
Lotte’s letter to Frances fills in further details:
On the day of the Rosenkavalier I felt very miserable and was in very bad voice. But the vocal cords did not look bad at all, a little flabby perhaps, but heaven knows that I have sung with them in much worse shape!!! And now comes a strange thing that I can’t explain to myself: I felt totally hoarse—so hoarse that I was sure everyone in the audience was whispering about me… Yet everyone—but everyone—tells me that I did not sound hoarse at all. So I must be crazy. I can’t explain it any other way. In any case, I suddenly could not go on singing. And I don’t remember anything else until I was backstage and Parrish was holding me in her arms….
These Englishmen are really gentlemen. The press as well. No one mentioned anything political, because I asked them not to. When they all asked me why my nerves broke down like that, I told them that I had worries of a personal nature, and they respected that absolutely.
The first story to reach the press was that Lehmann was suffering from chills caused by sea-sickness during a stormy Atlantic crossing.
All sorts of rumors began to circulate, of course. That there were hostile Nazis in the cast. That Lotte’s jewels were being smuggled out of Austria.
Lotte had almost no jewelry and none at all in Austria.
There were several rabid Nazis in the cast. Someone attached a Star of David to Lotte’s dressing-room door.
Years later, in her book Singing with Richard Strauss, Lotte had this to say about that night:
The entire cast had come from Berlin so that I, an unequivocal and staunch opponent of the Nazi regime, felt surrounded by enemies, with only Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor, as my friend.
On the day of the performance, moreover, I had received bad news. My husband had fallen ill with tuberculosis, the dread disease that was to kill him within a year, and the children of his first marriage, being half-Jewish, were in acute danger now that Vienna had been taken over by the Nazis….
I still feel very strongly, however, that I should have overcome my fear. I broke the first commandment of the theatre—the show must go on—and have never forgiven myself for this failure. Nothing should have been allowed to stand in the way of my fulfilling my duties and obligations. By plunging into the role I should have made myself forget all thoughts of personal suffering. I failed, and the nagging memory of that failure, pursuing me through the years, has been my punishment.
Incidentally, Sir Thomas made sure that even that terrible episode ended on a mildly humorous note. He came to see me in my dressing room, and, when on emerging he found himself surrounded by a glum and worried crowd, he issued a bulletin on the spot. “No grounds for concern,” he said, smiling, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Madame is being attended to by a very handsome young doctor. She’ll recover presently, I’m sure.”
The day after her onstage breakdown Lotte consulted several doctors. One diagnosed a state of nervous exhaustion and ordered two days of total rest. The other, sent by Elisabeth Schumann, “put her right in two treatments.”
She was much better by Monday the 9th, although she was still desperately worried about Otto. The doctors in Davos reported that he had tuberculosis and that the treatment he had received in Austria had been completely wrong for him. That news, on top of the troubles of his children and the financial crash in Vienna, was devastating to Otto, and, of course, to Lotte too.
When she was well enough to do so, Covent Garden asked her to receive the press, so as to allay any fear that she might not sing other scheduled performances.
OPERA STAR SAYS: “I WAS SO ASHAMED!” was the headline in The Daily Herald of May 10. Lehmann’s statement to the press, as reported in that paper, was as follows:
It was worry, and not my cold, that made me stop singing….I was so ashamed the next day that I wanted to leave London at once.
Now nothing but an earthquake will stop me from singing at Covent Garden on Thursday night.
I have been through hell these last few weeks. The cold only came as a last straw on top of all my personal troubles.
I have often sung before with worse colds. I even sang in a première in Vienna the day after my mother died.
But this time the worries were too great.
If my husband had been with me…I might have been strong enough to go on.
I do not know what happened to me or what I said. I saw black shadows before my eyes….
A special secretary had to be hired to handle the thousands of letters of concern that poured in from all over the world.
The day after the press conference, on the very day the reports appeared in print, Covent Garden had another crisis, and this time Lotte Lehmann was the heroine who saved the performance. Richard Tauber, who was to have sung Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart, developed throat trouble only hours before the opening curtain. There was no understudy. Rosenkavalier was given instead, with the fervent hope that the people who came to hear Mozart and Tauber would not demand their money back when faced with Strauss and Lehmann.
It was one of the great Lehmann nights in London. Some thought it was the finest Marschallin she had ever sung there—and she had sung that role in six of her twelve seasons at Covent Garden.
Lehmann herself was very happy to have proved that her voice was still intact.
The critics were only sorry that they had to miss the last act to meet their deadlines; for the performance had to begin at the starting time announced for The Abduction, 8:30, or there would have been no audience. And Der Rosenkavalier is a very long opera.
Here is an excerpt from Richard Capell’s review in The Daily Telegraph of May 11:
…A supremely beautiful and affecting performance [was] given by Lotte Lehmann as the Marschallin. As if to make up for last week’s disaster, it seemed, she gave a finer subtlety and deeper tenderness than ever to a part which London operagoers of the last fifteen years must feel to be peculiarly and even exclusively hers. Word after familiar word in Rosenkavalier will be associated, while memory lasts, with Lotte Lehmann’s characteristic enunciation, to say nothing of the charming woman and true princess she represents in her appearance.
Two days later, on the 12th, she sang another performance, this time for an audience that had come to hear her. The next day The Daily Mail wrote that Lotte Lehmann “made the greatest personal conquest of Covent Garden since Dame Nellie Melba….At the end of the first act Mme. Lehmann received ten curtains and at the finish of the opera tears glistened on her face as she came out to bow her thanks.”
On the day between those two performances Lotte found herself weeping convulsively, over and over. After the second Rosenkavalier she had had a late supper with Bruno Walter, who was in London for only a very few hours. He described to her the horrible ordeal his own family was suffering. The news had reached Walter and his wife, during the intermission of a concert he was conducting in Amsterdam, that one of their daughters had been arrested by S.S. men, together with her friends, while they were playing bridge one evening. They were thrown into a prison cell, seven men and women all together, with only one bed, one mattress, and an open privy in the center. The food they were offered was so disgusting that they could only eat the bread. After almost two weeks of frantic efforts by the Walters’ powerful connections in Vienna, the daughter was finally set free. Getting her out of the country was another matter. The borders had been closed immediately after the Anschluss. Walter was told that he could go back into the country, but might never be able to get out again. After many incredible difficulties, which Walter describes in his book, Theme and Variations, the entire family was reunited in Switzerland.
Walter also told Lotte about Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg’s ordeal, which Walter had heard from him at first hand, via telephone. Schuschnigg had been ushered into a room at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountaintop retreat, and shown a large map with the plan of the German invasion of Austria. Then he was taken in to Hitler, who shouted at him for an hour, treating him as his prisoner, offering him nothing to eat. He was given a time limit to accept an ultimatum. Poor Schuschnigg nearly lost his mind and returned to Austria a broken man. During the actual invasion, he was forced to listen to Hitler’s speech and the ovations it aroused. When he smashed the loudspeaker in bitterness and desperation, another one was attached to the ceiling, where he could not reach it.
Lotte was more afraid for her stepchildren than ever.
The letter from Miss Parrish describes the state of her nerves:
The next morning [after the second Rosenkavalier], when I called for her, she told me about [Bruno Walter’s] visit and his terrible account of his daughter’s imprisonment and Schuschnigg’s ordeals. Then all her own troubles loomed before her and she broke down completely. I said and did all I could to buoy her up and so did the doctor, where we went afterwards. He gave her an injection of phosphorus and said she was reacting from the effort of Rosenkavalier the night before, but that she would be all right, and he urged her to stay on in London. The injection calmed her down later on; but to show the state of her nerves, that evening an Australian girl, a pupil of her brother’s, came to see her and brought her excellent news of him, but instead of cheering up, she again broke down and did not sleep a wink all night….
The next evening, while sitting in her dressing room before Rosenkavalier she told me it was going to be her last performance, that the doctor now saw she could not get hold of herself and that he was going to give her two strychnine injections to get her through this performance, as she had the same feeling as on the night of her collapse….In the first act I saw how she was fighting with herself. For one awful moment, just before Ochs’s entry, she faltered, but gallantly conquered herself. What worried me most of all, however, was the fact that she was having to force her voice, and I trembled for fear she would have a Bluterguss [a hemorrhage] and no Meyer Hermann [her New York doctor] to look after her. After the first act she asked to be released from her three remaining engagements. Beecham came up to see her and everyone at Covent Garden was very sympathetic and kind….
Besides another Rosenkavalier, for which Lotte recommended Mme. Konetzni, there were to have been Die Walküre with Furtwängler and Fidelio with Beecham. Lotte was obviously in no condition to cope with such strenuous roles. Miss Parrish continues her report:
Mme. Schumann came in [to Lotte’s dressing room] during the Second Act and at first wanted her to carry on; but when we told her about the strychnine injections she too realized the danger and thought it better to cave in.
At any rate, Lotte proved to the London public that there is nothing the matter with her voice and that she is still supreme. She has gone away in a blaze of glory. Her high notes were more beautiful than ever. In the trio one got the impression she could soar up to any heights. To give her confidence, Mme. Schumann stood in the wings and sang the trio with her, though, as Lotte said to me afterwards, it did not prove necessary….
At the end of the performance a member of the company came in to say good-bye to Lotte, and, with tears streaming down his face, he told us of his own most poignant tragedy. Afterwards Lotte said: “I am only human, I can’t take any more of this.”
Then, the next morning, the curtain lifted and it was like a fairy story. Manon and Co. had escaped and were safe in Paris and Lotte would be with them there the next evening. When she rang me up she was so excited she could hardly get the words out quickly enough—and the joy in her face when I saw her that afternoon! She looked ten years younger and laughed and smiled….My! how happy we were, even though she was leaving the next day….
If only the fairy tale could have happened ten days sooner I think Lotte could have carried through here; but she was much too far gone on Friday to even consider it. Anyway, I don’t think wild horses would have stopped her joining them in Paris!
I do not yet know the details of their flight, except I understand that that wonderful Manon told the lawyer that they did not mean to spend the rest of their lives in Vienna and that the ransom of one million schillings was going to be paid. She thereupon packed all their trunks and they all made off with their passports and emigration visas. The only thing they did not have was the permit to leave, but apparently the dolt at the frontier let them through without it. I suppose he thought they looked young and innocent and did not bother!
The train was the Orient Express, made famous by so many mystery stories and movies. It was a grand gamble, and they won. To leave Austria one needed two things (besides a passport): official proof that all taxes had been paid, and evidence of professional necessity to travel abroad. Otto’s children had neither. The taxes due on their mother’s estate were still in dispute. Perhaps that is what Manon meant by the million-schilling ransom. They bluffed it out at the border with a great show of the casual confidence they could not have been feeling.
Lotte’s letter to Frances tells the sequel:
Did you ever hear of such cleverness??? I was overjoyed—at least one worry, the greatest one, was out of the way. I met the children in Paris, though not so cheerful as I had expected them to be. They were all a bit shaken by what they had gone through. Even Manon had become very quiet. I knew now that Otto would be very much relieved, and that was a great relief to me. We all went together to Davos [Switzerland]. There is something strangely uncanny in the air there! It is not the altitude alone; there are supposed to be certain “earth-currents” there which make the area so favorable for those with lung diseases. I do not think, though, that it is good for Otto, and I don’t believe he will stay. He is always very hoarse, looks tanned but miserable, so peaked and angular. I am terribly worried about him. He was treated like a dog by the famous head doctor of the sanatorium, who is known to be a brutal fellow (unfortunately we found that out too late). He said to Otto: “You have tuberculosis, and if you want to save your life, then you belong in bed for six months; you’re not an old auntie, so I can tell you the truth.” Otto had a horrible shock—that’s not the way to talk to him. He doesn’t want to be in a sanatorium any more, he doesn’t want to go to any more doctors. It cost me a great effort to wring from him the promise that he will consult a specialist in New York….I myself cannot take the air in Davos. It made me quite feverish. I was coughing, had a strange kind of cold, felt utterly shattered, and couldn’t sleep. I was freezing the whole time—there was deep snow up there….
The family went to Cap Martin on the French Riviera for some overdue rest.
Lotte needed money. Otto’s position with the Viennese insurance company had been a rather vague one, an insubstantial title with little or no salary behind it, so that he would have an occupation on his passport, and an identity other than that of “Mr. Lehmann,” the opera singer’s husband. Now, in any case, even that shadow of a job was gone. For some time now, Lotte had been sending money regularly to his sister in Germany and other relatives. With her husband, her brother, and four stepchildren to support as well, Lotte’s financial burden was enormous. Now she asked her manager to arrange some concerts for her in America. It was a shock to her when he could only come up with two dates. It seemed better to see what could be done in Europe.
Meanwhile, Otto’s condition was getting critical again. Since he refused to go back to Davos, Lotte sent him with Manon to America in June, where he checked into a sanatorium at Lake Saranac, New York. Manon was instructed not to leave him alone. Lotte stayed behind, with her three stepsons. She sang some recitals in France and Holland and tried to get some desperately needed rest at Deauville.
On August 3 Lotte sailed with Pucki, Hans, and Peter from Le Havre. Their arrival in New York was covered by all the papers and there were lots of photos of Lotte and her three athletic-looking escorts. The whole family, Lotte included, announced their intention of applying immediately for American citizenship. The first necessity was to find temporary housing for the “children,” since the apartment that had been rented for Lotte in New York was too small. They were farmed out among the fans. Frances generously took on two of them. Then Lotte helped to find them jobs; through her connections and thanks to some influential admirers, Pucki was able to work for NBC and Peter for Agfa. Hans had always wanted to be a pilot. Lotte arranged for him to have flying lessons on the West Coast, and he was guaranteed a position after three months’ training. She even made the down payments on cars for two of the young men. Manon eventually went to Hollywood and got married.
Lotte was informed that her home in Austria was now occupied by Nazi officers. She thought with aching nostalgia of her rose garden, where every bush represented a particular performance she had sung. Friends in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York, who knew about her garden, had sent her rose plants instead of cut flowers, as souvenirs of her recitals.
But Lotte tried always to look ahead and not behind. She resolved to start a new rose garden as soon as she found a new home.
She poured out her feelings in a long letter to Else Walter:
That I lost a second homeland—that is now the common lot of so many that one individual has no right to complain any more….As old as I am, I have never stopped picturing new goals. Now I have to make a new home—and why should I not feel at home in America? I love very much this country that I first saw in the gorgeous colors of fall. You simply can’t imagine these fairy-tale forests, as if on fire with gold and red, a most glowing red…I was as if intoxicated, although at the moment I have little enough occasion to be drunk with joy….
Heaven knows it was not easy to find jobs for the children, you can believe me. America is not in a rosy condition, economically, as you well know….
Being a mother is exhausting me. Singing is child’s play compared to that. How one underestimates it, when one has not experienced it! Worry over the children has nearly finished me. But now I am relieved that they are taken care of for the present.
I waited until the end to tell you about Otto… Oh, Else, he is so frightfully sick. The doctors say he will get better. I can hardly believe that, when I look at him. He is the shadow of himself, so enervated, wretched, and weak. He has been lying in bed for eighteen weeks already. He still has to stay in bed for months. Imagine that. He is pitifully thin, there is always some fever, even though the terrible spitting of blood has stopped….He never wanted to believe he was sick. He was always vain about his health, proud of being a dashing, good-looking man….Both of his lungs are infected, though he does not know that yet….It is very hard for both of us that I can only be with him so seldom. I love him so much—never was I nearer to him than now, when he is so miserable. I mull over in my mind what I might be able to do to make him happier. But how can I help him?
Between concert engagements, Lotte tried to be with Otto as much as possible, but she had to earn money to cover their enormous expenses. She worried about him constantly, and tried to make sure that there was always someone with him who spoke German, to keep him company; for Otto still spoke scarcely a word of English and was frightfully homesick for his lost fatherland. Lotte sent Marie, her maid, to Saranac to cook for him, because he longed for Austrian food.
Coppicus, still her manager, had managed to find a few off-season singing dates after all: she sang in the Hollywood Bowl, in Colorado Springs, Santa Barbara, and Milwaukee. The regular recital season started for Lotte at Town Hall on October 18, and continued with a series of joint recitals with Lauritz Melchior. Each sang a group of songs; then they joined forces for three Schumann duets (which they later recorded); more solos were followed by the love scene from Die Walküre. As an encore they sang “O namenlose Freude,” the rapturous reunion of husband and wife from Fidelio.
Lotte’s new season with the Metropolitan started with a happy discovery: in Risë Stevens she found her favorite Octavian. Their first Rosenkavalier together, the first of many, happened to be Miss Stevens’ debut with the company. It took place on November 22, 1938, not in New York but in Philadelphia, where the Met often performed on Tuesday evenings. It was the beginning of a delightful friendship, as well as of an artistic collaboration that was deeply satisfying to both of them and unforgettable to their delighted audiences.
From Subway to the Met, a biography of Miss Stevens in mid-career:
Lotte Lehmann sang the role of Marschallin at Risë’s first Metropolitan appearance in Rosenkavalier. Although German-trained and a veteran of the rivalries in continental opera houses, Madame Lehmann came to Risë’s dressing room at the end of the performance and embraced her. For anyone who cares to hear, she said:
“This child will be the greatest Octavian the world has ever seen.”
While Madame Lehmann remained with the company, Risë would never take an individual curtain call in any performance where Madame Lehmann appeared. From her she learned not only the subtleties of Rosenkavalier but was encouraged to attempt other roles which had been thought beyond her capacities. The friendship started in those early days has never for a moment been allowed to lapse. In the writing desk at her apartment Risë keeps one drawer for material which she considers particularly precious. Half of the items are telegrams or letters from Madame Lehmann, congratulating her on performances or bolstering her up for greater efforts.
There were glowing reviews the day after that debut performance:
…The Metropolitan launched its season here last night at a new highwater mark with dazzling brilliance on both sides of the footlights….The performance of Der Rosenkavalier came near making operatic history…nothing short of superb…an evening of delight from the first page of the score to the last. Of course Lotte Lehmann was the Marschallin….There would have been no perfection without her presence in a role to which she is as Flagstad to Isolde—namely the greatest of our time. In excellent voice, Mme. Lehmann gave her usual heart-warming impersonation….
But a stage debutante whom last night’s audience took especially to its heart was a young American mezzo, Risë Stevens….She is, vocally and dramatically, one of the best—perhaps the best—”Octavian” seen here in many years, possessed of a fine vocal equipment intelligently used and of a stage presence and acting ability far above the usual “operatic” standards. Strauss should have been present though. For last night’s performance was undoubtedly the kind that every good composer will hear of his own music in Elysium when he puts down his pen…. (Edwin H. Schloss, The Philadelphia Record, November 23, 1938)
Miss Stevens had studied Octavian with one of the great ones, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, in 1937, at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. That summer she took advantage of every chance to hear Lotte Lehmann at the festival. In January 1986, during an interview with the author in New York, she reminisced about those early impressions, and about the unique inspiration she found in singing with Lotte Lehmann:
I shall never forget her Evchen, her Fidelio with Toscanini. There was not anything with her that I missed. But Rosenkavalier was naturally the thing I was most excited about; that was, after all, my reason for being in Salzburg. As a student, I was allowed to watch rehearsals of the festival performances. It became a dream of mine one day to sing Octavian opposite Lehmann’s Marschallin!
After that summer, in Prague and elsewhere, I sang many performances of Der Rosenkavalier with many partners, with the Konetznis, with almost everyone who was singing the part in those days. But none of them fully existed for me; until I was able to sing with Lotte Lehmann I had not yet sung with the Marschallin herself.
When I finally had the chance to sing with Lotte, I was like a sponge! I wanted to soak up that interpretation, to feel her reactions, to watch her mold a scene. I learned from her, I learned so much! As a colleague she was wonderful to me. She was a mentor. She handled me almost as if I were her own child. I had that feeling when I was on the stage with her, and even in our curtain calls.
Some of her rivals in Vienna may have called her a difficult colleague; but I never ever witnessed anything like that with her. She was far from difficult. Conductors, too, adored her.
As a singer, as a person, as a performer, Lotte had a tremendous effect on my life. She had a kind of charisma that very few people possess. You don’t see that kind of magnetism any more, it doesn’t seem to exist today. I had such an awe of her that I almost felt—in a way—inhibited by that huge personality. But every time I stood on the stage with her I learned something new. There was such a total involvement in whatever she sang! I found myself so mesmerized that I almost tried to sound like her. I used to copy tones and inflections. Our voices blended so well that when she would finish a cue I would try to take the same tone and go on from there; and she would do the same. It was a wonderful give and take. With our acting it was the same. We would bounce reactions back and forth.
I loved the special sound of her voice, I really loved it. No one else had that heart-tugging quality, nor such intensity.
I shall never forget Lotte’s farewell performance, the last we did together at the Metropolitan. I wept so much that I could hardly control myself.
And her recitals! I tried never to miss a concert that she sang, particularly in Town Hall, because there was an intimacy there. I would sit close and really observe her very carefully. She lived, really lived those songs. I learned so much from her. Her whole being was involved in singing, not just her voice. I’m not talking about big gestures. But what she did with that body and those hands! To watch her hands alone was really to learn a lesson. Her hands had expression, they said something. Teachers today are teaching their students not to be so intense, to give a relaxed feeling in singing, so that from the throat on down nothing is saying anything. Hands just dangle at their sides. Isn’t that weird?!
When Lotte walked on or off a stage you were fascinated. She mesmerized her audience. There wasn’t a moment when I took my eyes off her, because it was always a fabulous learning process for me.
Communication with an audience is the ultimate beauty of singing. You could have heard a pin drop at those recitals. How the audience drank in every single nuance! She felt it all; and you felt it with her because she expressed her inmost feelings. It was so real.
That ability to create poetic reality was perhaps Lotte Lehmann’s most miraculous gift. Every role on the stage, every song in a recital had that quality.
On November 26, 1938, Lotte sang her last Elsa, ever. Three roles remained: Elisabeth, Sieglinde, and the Marschallin. That season at the Met she sang an Elisabeth and two more Marschallins, the last on January 7, a broadcast performance, with Risë Stevens, that has been preserved on records.
Then death stalked back into her life. Otto died on January 22, 1939.
Lotte was on tour when it happened. She was in Spokane when she heard the news that he had contracted pneumonia. Lotte immediately canceled her remaining concerts and tried to charter a plane. That was impossible, flying conditions were bad. There was a blizzard in the East. She took a train. Desperately she hoped to reach his side in time.
At Fargo, North Dakota, she was able to persuade officials of the Great Northern Railway to delay the train for fifteen minutes while she telephoned the sanatorium at Saranac.
The doctors called for Otto’s friends to be near him. Viola went first. Robin Douglas, her new husband, followed with Frances and Pucki. The roads were covered with ice. Robin could not drive her car, so Frances had to do all the driving during a long, exhausting night. First to Saranac, which they reached at 4 a.m. Then to Syracuse, to meet Lotte’s train. Viola and Pucki stayed with Otto. Driving conditions were indescribably harrowing. Giant billboards were blown from their moorings and flapped this way and that across the icy roads. From Syracuse Frances called Saranac; Viola told her that Otto was dead. Lotte, who had called from Toledo, had already heard the heart-breaking news. Callous photographers had actually tried to photograph her weeping. When her train reached Syracuse she cried out: “Peter!” He ran into the train, to join her, and suddenly it left the station with both of them on board. Frances and Robin headed back to Saranac through ice and snow.
For those who went through it, that was a night they would never forget.
The funeral took place under a tent, because of the weather. Among the floral tributes there was an arrangement of white carnations in the shape of Otto’s favorite horse, a Lipizzaner stallion. To Frances it looked like a sheep. Unfortunately she said as much to Marcia Davenport, her companion in the carriage to the cemetery. “That one was from me,” said Miss Davenport. After a funeral a laugh can break the tension. Europeans understand that; German-speaking countries have a Leichenschmaus after the formal ceremonies. The word means “corpse-banquet,” literally. Everyone has a jolly time telling funny anecdotes about the dear departed. But this was America; and the occasion seemed anything but humorous.
Before he died, Otto had told Lotte that of all their friends the one she could best depend upon would be Frances Holden. Otto had always liked her especially. He knew she would be able to take care of Lotte without making any emotional demands upon her.
Lotte needed someone to lean on, to be there for her. She hoped that Frances could be that person. But Frances was reluctant to come so close to the woman Lotte Lehmann, much as she revered Lotte Lehmann the artist.
Viola was out of the question. She was married again and there were problems with her marriage.
There was friction with Otto’s children, except with Peter; and they needed now to lead their own lives.
Lotte’s brother Fritz was still in Austria when Otto died. Lotte urged him to emigrate too. In February he arrived in America with Theresia, his second wife.
Lotte needed someone to turn to.
First, however, she had professional obligations to fulfill. She had canceled all remaining performances at the Metropolitan for the rest of that season. But there were recitals and concerts. She needed the income. And she needed to lose herself again in singing, the only real cure for her distress.
Then there was a second tour of Australia.
Lotte and Paul Ulanowsky, now her permanent accompanist, sailed from Los Angeles on March 1. First stop: Honolulu, for a recital. Then on to the Antipodes.
It was a very different sort of trip this time.
Lotte and Otto had been very close to each other on the previous tour. It had seemed like an exotic vacation; Lotte had been more relaxed about her singing than usual, happy at her overwhelming success, exhilarated with the conquest of a new continent.
She returned a widow, depressed and disoriented.
The Australians felt the difference immediately. Her first recital struck them as strangely somber and subdued. Lotte seemed to have changed. She sensed their disappointment, perhaps, and interrupted the program to tell the audience that she had lost her husband just a few weeks before. Her listeners were moved, the ice was broken. Gradually she recovered her usual warmth and vivacity. By the second concert she was almost herself again.
As before, the Australian press gave exceptional coverage to everything that Lotte Lehmann said or did. The papers were full of her. Of the stray dog whose owner she had found. Of her dim view of Australian blue laws and “gloomy Sundays.” Of her visit with the blind children, who called her the “Pussy Lady,” because she had let them stroke her fur coat.
A chance remark about her admiration for Bing Crosby, her host on the Kraft Hour, stirred up a typhoon. The controversy over crooning raged for days. Here are some samples:
…Can we be quite sure that Lotte wasn’t pulling somebody’s leg? Nobody questions the dreadful Bing’s popularity. It is one of the awful facts of life—like ringworm, poverty, and income tax. It shows not that Crosby is a great singer, but that a large section of popular taste is ever so much lower than the most pessimistic of us ever feared…. (Wireless Weekly)
A Mr. Harold S. Elvins, the director of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, was highly indignant: “Crooning is the most abominable by-product of the age, utterly unintelligent and without virtue whatever. I don’t know anything about Bing Crosby and I don’t know anything about crooning, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
One would think, then, that that was that. But there was more, much more. In The Sun, for instance:
…Mme. Lotte Lehmann [said]: “Bing Crosby is so delightful, as he stands behind the microphone with his hat on his head and his hands in his pockets.” Well, what is there in that? If he stood with his trouser pockets on his head and his hands in his hat, Lotte’s enthusiasm could be understood.
Lotte had prepared completely new programs for her second visit to Australia; but there were many requests for a repeat of Schumann’s touching cycle about a woman’s life and love, Frauenliebe und -leben. Eight weeks after Otto’s death, it was a severe test of her self-control as an artist to sing that last song, about the loss of a beloved husband. Her voice never faltered; but tears streamed down her cheeks during the heart-breaking nostalgia of the long piano postlude. Most of the audience cried with her.
Back from Australia, Lotte invited Fritz and Theresia to join her in Santa Barbara, where she spent the summer. Brother and sister loved each other deeply; but their two powerful personalities could no longer live together under one roof.
When they returned to the East, Lotte rented a house in Riverdale, a suburb of New York where Toscanini and Elisabeth Rethberg had also made their homes.
Viola was having a nervous breakdown. She was under the spell of Schubert’s cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter), in which several of the songs have as their theme the color green. Suddenly everything and everybody began to look green to her. One day in late September, when she was acting rather strangely, Frances was asked to drive her to Lotte’s house. For a while Viola seemed to be quietly resting. Then, without warning, her emotions became more violent. She struck Frances. Lotte was terrified and ran out into the street in her bathing suit, with a Pomeranian under each arm, shouting at every passing car: “Help! Someone here is going crazy!” The people seemed to think that person must be she, and stepped on the gas. Finally Fritz remembered that there was a sanitarium across the street. A frantic telephone call brought over a doctor. Viola followed him meekly. She thought he was Jesus.
That night Lotte was afraid to sleep alone. She asked Frances to stay with her. Little by little, Frances found herself inextricably entangled in Lotte’s life. Lotte needed her strength and came to depend upon her more and more. Frances had taken a sabbatical year from her professorship at New York University and had then asked for an extension. In the end she gave up her own career entirely to devote herself to Lotte Lehmann. It is doubtful whether Lotte could have continued singing as long as she did if Frances had not been there to keep her going.
For one thing, Lotte had developed an obsession about her age. At fifty-one, she was convinced that she was finished as a singer, in spite of the protestations of her friends, the adulation of her fans, and the reassurance of her doctors. She had lost her zest for life.
Frances sensed that Lotte needed to find a new and stimulating creative outlet. She had the inspired idea to get her started painting. Lotte’s very first effort in oils, a snowstorm in Riverdale, turned out remarkably well. She graphically captured the force of the elements in paint on canvas. Her energy began to flow again. She hurled herself into her new hobby with the same sort of intensity she had lavished on Sieglinde or Fidelio.
At the end of a performance Lotte was almost always much too excited to think of going to sleep. Now she found painting the perfect way to wind down. After a particularly stimulating Rosenkavalier, she would set up her easel and get out her paints—all energy. Frances—an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type—would have to pose. If she so much as yawned, Lotte would pretend to be angry: “I do all the work and you‘re the one who’s tired!!!” (Lotte loved exclamation points.)
The Metropolitan Opera season of 1939-1940 was Lehmann’s busiest ever, with eight performances in the New York house and another six on tour. Her roles were the Marschallin, Sieglinde, and Elisabeth. Frances went with her on the tour. Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta. They drove around the country in an open car, Lotte often singing on the way. They would stop for picnics under the shade of a tent. Then they drove right on to Santa Barbara and bought a house high up on a mountain. The way there was so precarious, that several times Lotte begged the driver to turn around; but the road was too winding and narrow for any such maneuver and the real estate agent was sure the eventual view would be worth the nerve-wracking ascent. It was. Lotte fell in love with the place. They moved right in.
Five weeks later it burned down.