A Documentary Biography


By Beaumont Glass

(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)


A Drop of Theatre Blood

The first Lehmann tones—not bel canto but probably expressive—rang out on February 27, 1888, in Perleberg, in the northern part of Germany, a middle-sized town about halfway between Berlin and Hamburg. The new arrival received a string of names: Charlotte Sophie Pauline Lehmann. The ten syllables quickly dwindled down to three: the family called her Lotteken.

With the same inimitable relish that made a jewel out of every song she sang, Lotte Lehmann in her memoirs and early letters takes us back into another century and another world, the world of her childhood, and recreates its atmosphere with her flair for characteristic detail.

She remembers the night watchman calling the hours, the Gypsies who passed through the town, the ragged little Slovakian boys who peddled mousetraps, the linen lady whose visits cheered Lotte’s ailing mother. “Lumpenmatz,” the rag man, would fish out of his rag bag foul-smelling bits of St. John’s bread (a popular seasonal delicacy in German-speaking countries still) as a reward for the children who brought him pieces of used clothing they had begged from their mothers.

Here, in her own words, is the organ-grinder:

There was always great excitement when a special genius of the barrel-organ came down the street with his picture-cart: it was a kind of forerunner of the “movies,” a “performance” with musical accompaniment. Above the organ-mechanism there was a large box with pictures in lurid colors pasted all around it. The series of pictures told a story, and the horrible “thrillers” of today are tame compared to the blood-thirstiness of those wild tales. They always started with some cruel murder. Blood flowed in streams from tables and benches; one saw the poor victim, usually a beautiful woman, quite dead beyond a doubt, lying on the floor, long yellow hair hanging down in improbable glory, dripping with blood. Then came the  murderer; and one was convinced that he was a killer, for his face spoke volumes. At the end one had the relief of seeing him die, generally beheaded, and one had the pleasure of enjoying his mortal terror and of admiring with a shiver the lifted axe. I could never sleep after one of those exciting performances, especially since the impresario of those productions used to rattle off the whole proceedings in a heart-rending voice… I still remember one verse quite distinctly—a lovely beginning: “Robert was a vicious killer. He dispatched in one dark night/All his children plus their mother. ‘Twas a gory, bloody sight.” Sometimes the hoarse voice of the “Director” was drowned out by the barrel-organ, but always enough of his narration stuck in my head for me to act it all out later for Mama in a dramatic performance that generally netted a box on the ears, for I had been forbidden to watch those horror stories.

There was a doll shop in Perleberg…

It belonged to a little, deformed, asthmatic lady who was herself as tiny as one of her dolls. There was something spooky about her when she slowly and with effort moved about among the lifelessly smiling doll faces. That shop had a strong attraction for me. I especially loved to lose myself in enraptured contemplation of the little Negro dolls, which I preferred to all the others. I wonder why. Perhaps because they were so different from the every-day faces of the white-cheeked dolls? It would really be interesting to know why in my collection Negro dolls could never be missing and were always my favorites….

Now and then an acting troupe would come to town, and Lehmann remembered the leading lady, behind the scenes, wan without her grease-paint, wearily sewing spangles on a robe that later, on the stage, would conjure up all the glamour of the theatre for those people of Perleberg who could not afford to visit Hamburg or Berlin.

Lotte’s father, Carl Lehmann, was a proper German official, upright, industrious, methodical, orderly.  He was a secretary of the “Ritterschaft,” a kind of benevolent society, with branches in various parts of Germany, that also functioned as a bank and managed estate matters for the landed gentry of the area.

The rent-free house in which Lotte and her brother Fritz grew up belonged to the Ritterschaft. It was a fine two-story house, overgrown with vines. There was an acacia tree in the little front garden, a big garden in back and a poultry yard. The garden was their father’s pride and joy. Part of it was given to Lotte, for her to look after herself. Her father had also set up a playground for the children, with a swing, parallel bars, and a roundabout.

Papa had a taste for poetry and a positive attitude toward life. Fritz recalled his characteristic walk, always leaning forward and whistling some little tune or other. He was a very early riser, a trait that Lotte inherited. Once the sun had risen it was hard for her to stay in bed. (Years later she would wake up at six and wait impatiently for the clock to strike seven, so that she could call a bleary-eyed friend or accompanist to discuss whatever new idea had been running through her head during the night.)

Her mother, Marie, had a very different nature, introverted and addicted to worry. She suffered very poor health throughout most of her life. Although Carl Lehmann’s salary was a respectable one for those days, his wife’s medical needs were such that money was always in short supply and the family had to watch every penny. Money was a serious problem—sometimes a desperate one—even well into Lotte’s first engagement as an opera singer. It was the cause of endless disputes at home; and the relationship between her parents, good people both, was often marred by disharmony where money was concerned.

Here Lotte describes the situation in her own words:

As far back as I can remember a lack of money played the leading role in our lives. The eternal worry, the eternal illness of my mother, undermined the happiness of that marriage. I saw many tears, heard many quarrels, and I felt that money must be something bad, dominating, unconquerable. It embittered my parents against each other, even though my father’s wonderful sense of humor quickly won the upper hand and made him quick to forget what those of heavier blood perhaps cannot forget at all.

I like to think of my parents as young people. I love most especially the photos that show them as an engaged couple, both looking so well, each as if made for the other….One knows so little about one’s parents. One sees them always as “parents”—not as warm-blooded human beings with passions and failings and charming caprices….How fervently I hope that my parents enjoyed their blossom time! That all the differences that came later did not totally extinguish their memories of a beauty that was past! I often say that in front of their pictures.

I was deeply biased. It bothers me still today that I didn’t resist getting involved, that I always took Mama’s side, passionately and unquestioningly, whenever “right or wrong” were being weighed. No one asked me to butt in or to favor one side over the other. Mama always leaned on my brother, who was just as much under her influence as I was. Very late we children learned that my good father was not always “in the wrong,” and that we are still very much in his debt. In his last years I became really close to him—I had always been his darling, even when he didn’t always show it all that clearly, as Mama did her feelings for her son. But those two or three years of closeness could not adequately atone for the missed opportunities of my youth.

Music was a common bond—not classical music, for they knew next to nothing about that, but the folk songs that were so much a part of the average German’s life in those days. Papa played the zither and sang tenor in the Perleberg glee club—Fritz called it “the Half-a-Lung Society.” Carl Lehmann’s enthusiastic high C was featured in all of their concerts, though the director sometimes had to cut it short. Mama had a beautiful, mellow contralto which was never heard in public but which played a formative part in Lotte’s love of singing. It was a voice that should have been trained; but Marie’s father was sternly opposed to any idea that his daughter might ever be a performer.

There was another singer in the family: Aunt Lenchen, Papa’s hunchbacked sister, who lived with them for a while before her early death. Lotte later described her voice as that of an angel; but her disability banished all hope of performing in public.

Lotte loved to chirp along with the rest of the family, but when company came (which was seldom, for Mama was usually ill) it was Fritz who was asked to sing, first as a boy soprano, later as a promising tenor. Unfortunately his voice was ruined by an over-eager choir director who made him sing soprano, tenor, or bass according to the need of the moment while his voice was still changing.

Whereas Lehmann always saw herself as having been quite an ordinary little girl—her mother used to say that Lotte had never given her a moment’s trouble as a child—Fritz, who was six years older, was the wild one, the adventurer, the unpredictable artist. He loved to dress up as an Indian—with the scalps of Lotte’s dolls hanging from his belt—to scare the good burghers, out for their Sunday walk in the woods. He was always up to something, the ringleader in many an escapade, and Lotte looked up to him with awe and admiration. She would have loved to join the fun—and sometimes did when they were alone together—but no proper schoolboy would have anything to do with a little sister in front of his friends. Fritz was always in and out of trouble, especially around report-card time, and caused his mother no end of worry; yet, perhaps for that very reason, it always seemed to Lotte that Fritz was Mama’s favorite. Long after she was a grown woman and a famous opera star it still hurt her that Mama would make more fuss over a violet from Fritz than over a new car from her.

Lotte adored her mother. She was a motherly mother, kind, full of concern, always forgiving. Unfortunately, she was also almost always ill. Lotte’s closeness to her mother was a dominating factor in her life as long as her mother lived. Separation from one another always brought on many tears. When Lotte, grown up, went on tour, first to South America, then, years later, to North America, her mother missed her painfully and wrote touching letters full of the fear of “wild Indians” and other imagined dangers. When Lotte sang a new role or a premiere or a particularly important concert, Mama would put garlands of flowers around her picture and “hold her thumbs” (the European version of crossing one’s fingers) until they ached. Lotte was very much under her influence. Mama was always very sweet and kind; but some need of Lotte’s seemed somehow ever unfulfilled, nevertheless, She was almost over-anxious to please her mother and yearned for constant reassurance of her love. Mama cried easily and often. She suffered from chronic gastric pains; reading or writing inflamed her eyes severely. Even in her picture as a lovely young woman one can sense the melancholy strain. Lotte, looking at that picture, describes hers as a somber beauty, without light. She had loved a young lieutenant who fell in the Franco-Prussian War; sometimes she had the tactlessness to refer to that “love of her life” in the presence of Lotte’s father. Both of Lotte’s parents came from the same town, Prenzlau, to the north of Berlin, where Marie’s parents had owned a mill. Her family had been quite well off until her father died, leaving them suddenly without means. Carl Lehmann was a handsome young man, with good prospects. He had been decorated for his service in the war. They married, moved to Perleberg, and settled down to raising their two children.

At Easter there were egg-hunts. At Christmas, Mama would dress up as the Weihnachtsmann—the German version of Santa Claus—and distribute presents. Every summer the family would go off to Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea for a vacation at the beach. There Mama, almost a recluse at home, would be surrounded by friends, adding a cello-like alto to the familiar old songs they all loved to sing.

There were always pets at the Ritterschaftshaus. Lotte Lehmann had a life-long passion for animals that began with Mohr, an old poodle, and Maunzi, a yellow tom-cat. They were the first in an unbroken line. She loved animals and animals loved her. Even deer, normally so shy, would eat out of her hands. Lotte hated to see any animal suffer. She would run away when she learned a hen was to be killed. Years later in Chicago, then the meat capital of America, the thought of the animals brought there to be slaughtered filled her with revulsion. She even “hated” Meta, the maid-of-all-work, for killing a fish. The hatred, however, did not last very long, for Meta was a favorite playmate in the fascinating dress-up game they called “countesses.”

Lotte, Meta, and Selma Betz, a friend from school, would wrap old bedsheets around their waists, give each other flowery names, mince around the house with dainty steps, and make up the kind of high-flown talk they had picked up from Meta’s mystery novelettes. The really thrilling parts of those stories, however, were just too scary to act out; bits like this would keep Lotte awake at night: “And suddenly the coffin-lid was lifted and the pale Countess Elvira stepped out…” Meta tried to convince Lotte that the Ritterschaftshaus was haunted. She had seen a ghost on the stairs. Perhaps Meta is to blame for Lotte’s lifelong fear of being alone in the dark.

Playing countesses was a sort of embryonic step toward opera. Soon Lotte was “Queen Louise” in a school operetta. Her still tiny voice was nevertheless the best in the school and already there was talk of training for a singing career. But Papa would have none of that.  She would have a proper, practical profession. Still, he let her put on plays in the vine-covered summerhouse in the garden. He even supplied paper lanterns and, afterwards, led the dancing and singing. On that stage Lotte played her first trouser role, in one of her brother’s hand-me-downs and a false mustache, good practice, no doubt, for the Octavians, Composers, and Fidelios that lay in the future. The first play she ever saw had been Cinderella, performed by a troupe of midgets. Then came Camillo von Kunzendorff and his traveling players.

According to family legend Papa was descended from an illegitimate son of Sophie Arnould, the great French singing-actress. In an unpublished article called “Growing Up,” Lotte fantasized about that drop of theater blood that was then beginning to stir in her veins:

That red, glowing drop of blood in my family—has it given me the restlessness of an artist? Has it given me the will to create, to give myself to the theatre? Has it given me the glorious blessing of self-transformation? Who knows?… I find it intriguing to think that Sophie Arnould haunts about in my bloodstream and has me do things in my lively life that none of my other ancestors would understand.

I wish I could say that already as a child the theatre devil held me in his clutches and made me someone “unusual.” Unfortunately that was not the case. Looking back, I think that I was a very average child, only moderately gifted in anything, never outstanding in any way….I was quiet and obedient, played quietly in the corner with my doll,…and had a pretty little voice. I was nothing more than a “good girl.”

Instead of being proud of that, I feel rather uncomfortable at the thought of myself as such a model of virtue….

There were secret piano lessons, paid for out of Mama’s household allowance, to surprise Papa on his silver wedding anniversary. Then came dancing lessons and Lotte’s first admirer, a sturdy farmboy from Fritz’s class at school. Her first love, when she was twelve, was her music teacher at school. Her first engagement—it lasted perhaps five minutes—was to the boy next door.

Another talent began to flourish about this time: she loved to paint. Her specialty was an appropriately flamboyant rendition of Hell.

Mama was never very happy in Perleberg and longed to live near her relatives in Berlin. Eventually she persuaded Papa to apply for a transfer to a Berlin branch of the Ritterschaft—a real sacrifice for him, for he loved the garden he had cultivated so often between dawn and the start of office hours at the Ritterschaft next door.

In 1902, soon after Lotte’s confirmation, the Lehmanns made the move. Fritz had gone on ahead to begin his training for the humdrum routine of officialdom. To please his worried mother he had given up his dream of going to sea. The family found an apartment on Hochmeister Street in the cheap northern sector of Berlin. It was very different from the spacious house and garden and the clean air of Perleberg.