Before there were Gibson Girls -Before there were Sinatra’s Bobby Soxers -Before there were Swifties (Taylor’s fans) and Little Monsters (Gaga’s fans) and Beyhives (Beyoncé’s fans) there were Gerry Flappers, those ardent, expressive young women who followed their idol, Soprano Geraldine Farrar’s every golden utterance. These girls and women were loyal, showing up by the hundreds for her concert and performances screaming, yelling, crying, holding up banners and showering her with hundreds of bouquets.
Alice Geraldine Farrar was born in Massachusetts in 1882. She began studying music in Boston at the age of five. At twelve she sang in a child’s opera in her hometown of Melrose. By age nineteen she debuted in Germany where her family had moved so she could continue her studies. She became a member of the Berlin Court Opera for four years, thrilling sold out houses, including royalty. When she sang in France audiences and critics loved her, except for one who accused her of having only 3- 4 notes. London critics were kinder. Returning to America she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera at age twenty-four. The opera was “Roméo et Juliette” and Geraldine was an instant success. She was labeled star and diva immediately. American newspapers cheered on one of their own, praising the “Yankee girl’s magnificent voice and perfect mastery of her assignment.” Audiences demanded a dozen curtain calls from her. They buried her in roses as she stood on stage drinking in the applause.
During a time when American opera was enjoying its golden age, Farrar was a star of rare beauty. With blue-black hair, blue eyes she stood merely 5’4” but was measured as an amazon of talent. Men dropped proposals at her tiny velvet-clad feet. Possible lovers include the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, Italian conductor Toscanini, tenor Enrico Caruso, a handful or two of princes, dukes, and barons, not to mention millionaires on both sides of the Atlantic. She deserved the title of “Diva,” but not for its negative connotations.
Not only was she praised for her vocal talents — and she sang masterly in French, Italian and German — but also for her acting abilities. As her popularity grew the police would be called in to hold back the screaming Gerry Flappers who worshiped their goddess. Hundreds of bouquets of roses were tossed at her after every act. The love was unprecedented. Audiences stood pressed together spending upwards of $100 for a seat. The Gerry-flappers wept and shouted.
In 1907 she appeared in the Met’s debut of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as the tragic Cio-Cio San (cio-cio means butterfly). Pinkerton, her callous lover was played by Enrico Caruso. She meticulously prepared with the help of a Japanese companion. Farrar spent weeks taking tiny steps around her apartment, wearing a silk kimono and heavy wig. Her debut would be filled with superlatives. “A brilliant success,” “graceful,” “greatest triumphs in history.” By 1916 the Met would pay her a salary of nearly (if not completely) $2,000 per performance.
Her personality was or grew larger than life. Her “divaesque” behavior included training a flock of geese to appear on stage with her in. In Carmen, opposite Caruso, in the third act fight, he for real slapped her and she for real bit him back.
The year following her Met debut she was in rehearsal for Madame Butterfly again, this time with the darkly handsome Arturo Toscanini, the great Italian conductor and soon-to-be-her lover when sparks began to fly. The two clashed over her interpretation of either the role or the performance in general. Headstrong and with her success as wings Farrar let the maestro know that, she, being the star, he should do what she said. He famously replied, “The stars are all in the heavens, mademoiselle. You are but a plain artist, and you must obey my direction.” Their feud carried on, with Farrar sometimes late for rehearsal. Despite such head-butting the two fell deeply in love. Toscanini was in no position to leave his wife, however.
In 1915 Cecil B. DeMille discovered Geraldine. He cast her in the first of four films they would make together. He tempted her with a large salary and all the perks of a grand star. She was given her own private rail car to travel from New York. When she arrived in Hollywood, she was greeted with the standard flowers and sycophants, chauffer and elegant Hispano-Suiza to take her to her grandly furnished house, servants to attend to her. When she arrived for shooting, she was shown her own bungalow with a grand piano. And she was paid $2.00 for every minute of sunlight she was in California.
Her Hollywood career would be brief, but she did acquire a first for her. In 1916 she married her co-star actor Lou Tellegan, a handsome stage actor who had been born in the Netherlands. Tellegan had appeared on the stage with his lover Sarah Bernhardt and starred opposite her in the 1910 film “La Dames Aux Camilles” (my roundabout way of connection to finding Farrar’s story). Though Bernhardt was thirty-seven years older than Tellegan, newspapers constantly announced their impending marriage, which never happened.
Farrar cooed to the newspapers that this “caveman” had “swept her off her feet.” Their on-screen life was as tempestuous as their off screen. It was said he was jealous and tried stealing scenes from her. DeMille despised him giving him neither the title nor salary he thought he deserved.
By 1921 Geraldine had begun hiring detectives to follow Lou who discovered her husband engaging in a “petting party” with a minor actress in a Riverside Park. Get a hotel, kids!
Furious, Farrar locked Lou out of their home. He sued her for separation charging cruelty. She filed for divorce and named names, a whole lot of them. Reporters or detectives discovered Tellegan had spent a month of “bliss” in a cottage in Long Beach with one young lady. Was Farrar so busy on the set she didn’t notice the absence of her philandering hubby for an entire month?
In the midst of the acrimonious divorce, while Farrar was singing back East, he sent flowers to the theatre. A reporter asked Geraldine what the flowers meant; her male companion knocked the reporter to the ground. The divorce was finalized in 1923. Farrar called him a “moron.” Apparently, he had some French criminal record that she discovered and used against him to her advantage.
Then came the hard years for Tellegan. On Christmas of 1929, possibly drinking, he fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand. He burned his face seriously enough to have to seek plastic surgery. This mishap took place in Atlantic City and though he was unconscious for a while he managed to perform that night in the theatre. What a trooper!
Not long after he was being labeled a “failed actor,” and “washed up.” There followed lean years, little work, a lot of debt, a face reworked by a surgeon’s scalpel. He lamented “there is no place for a has-been in Hollywood.” Finally in 1934 at age 52, at a friend’s beautiful home at Vine and Franklin in Hollywood (the freeway is there now) he locked himself in the guest bathroom, shaved, powdered his sad face and in front of a the mirror stabbed himself repeatedly with scissors until he died. Farrar’s response was not kind. “Why should that interest me?”
Farrar had quit Hollywood and returned to singing. But not for much longer. She believed “singers should vanish from the public eye before they began apologizing for their voices.”
She vowed to quit when she was at the top. And she did. Of her last performance at age forty on the stage of her beloved Met, swallowing tears she told her fans “I have always tried to give the audience 100 percent of what I am and what I can do.” Besides a mountain of flowers, she was handed a scepter and tiara. Traffic was halted on Broadway because of the size of the crowds when she departed.
Farrar’s later years were quiet. She volunteered with the American Red Cross and the Girl Scouts. She enjoyed gardening and her dogs. She listened to opera on her 78 records and she left the drama in the past. She retired to a large home called “Fair Haven” in Connecticut. She had a small circle of friends but remained independent and self-reliant. She even zipped into the City to see operas and concerts. She would go on to writer her own bizarre biography, using the voice of her dead mother to laud her accomplishments.
Unlike some beautiful women (Lili St. Cyr being one that I wrote about in “Goddess of Love Incarnate”) Geraldine had no problem aging. She accepted the fact she would age, and she would no longer be a star. She had no problem with interviews, as long as they were conducted on the phone. No in person photographs. She wanted her fans to remember her as she had been.
She died in 1967 at the age of eight-five. Her voice and all its “heavenly beauty” silenced forever. Her obituaries claimed she was the last vivid and scintillating stars, having lived a life bigger than her on stage creations. That night the Met Opera House was performing Madame Butterfly.
A 1954 column claimed she would donate all her love letters and papers to the Library of Congress. Let us hope she did.
Camilla Ella Williams was born in Virginia in 1919. Her father was a chauffeur and her mother a laundress. She would be proud of the fact on her mother’s side there had been no slaves. She was raised with a profound love of God and church. Everyone in her family had to attend. Camilla and her siblings were told they had to sing in the choir, because that was their gift. She took singing lessons from a local Welsh man who taught at the university. But because she was African American and because of Jim Crow he could not allow her to come to the university. He found either his home or another place away from prying eyes to teach the gifted girl.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in music education at the, then Virginia State College for Negroes Camilla began teaching music at a black school in Danville, her hometown.
Others knew she deserved more. In 1943, a group of her Virginia State alumni paid her way to Philadelphia so she could study with the distinguished voice teacher Marion Szekely-Freschl. Between lessons she supported herself by working as an usherette in a movie house. One has to wonder at the images she watched on screen. Was she searching for other faces like hers? Talented, beautiful, and black. Where were roles for African American actors other than those of domestics?
That year, and the next Williams won a Marian Anderson Award, a newly established singing competition to help young singers. Marian Anderson being the acclaimed African American singer with a “rich, vibrant contralto.” And who, importantly, and timely still, said:
“As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.”
The two would have a lifelong friendship. In fact, much later Williams would introduce Anderson at her behest to a couturier who made her white gown when she received the Freedom Medal from President John F. Kennedy. Soon, thereafter Williams embarked on a concert career. It was at a recital in Stamford, Connecticut, near where Farrar lived, that the two sopranos meet. The concert was arranged by a friend of Lady Astor’s niece, who employed Williams’ father as a chauffeur. Farrar was blown away. Farrar would help Camilla secure a recording contract with RCA Victor. She wrote her friend the manager, Arthur Judson telling him to manage Williams. Judson a 6’4” 200-pound white man was at first suspicious the letter was a hoax. He should manage this young African American girl he knew nothing about? Farrar assured him he should, and he did. He had also represented Marian Anderson.
In 1946 Williams was the first African American to a receive a regular contract from a major opera company. She played Cio-Cio San at the City Opera in New York. Farrar was there to cheer her on. Later she told the newspapers Williams’ butterfly was “one of the great Butterflies of our day.” Papers however much they noted the soprano was “unusually gifted” always remarked on the color of her skin. Critics commended that the “Negro Singer `Real Find.’” Still she was an “instant success” like her mentor before her Farrar. The New York Times, Noel Straus wrote, “There was a warmth and intensity in her singing that lent dramatic force of no mean order to the climactic episodes, and something profoundly human and touching in her delivery of all of the music assigned her.” Perhaps most satisfying was having Camilla’s aged mother in the audience and listening to the tumultuous applause for her little girl by a mostly white audience.
Williams was graceful, petite, and gorgeous. And with makeup looked as convincingly as Farrar, changing many skeptical opera patrons about having an African American in the part. Her success and contract carved a place for African American women to follow. At the time to have a black woman perform with an all-white opera company was revolutionary.
However, Hollywood did not come calling and perhaps she would not have wanted them to anyway. She stayed in opera but was denied most “European” roles, instead performing the “exotic” heroines. She would later say “Mozart was so right for my voice. But they were afraid to put me in a white wig and whiter makeup.”
Still she had other major successes. In 1963 she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the White House prior to Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech.” She recorded Bess in Porgy and Bess for Columbia records, and is considered by many to be the definitive Bess. However, Camilla did not like the stereotypical depiction and treatment of blacks in the opera. She refused to perform Bess on the stage.
In 1950 Williams married Charles Beavers, a civil rights attorney (she was an activist herself) who was close to Malcolm X. Though honored in her time, the recognition she did not receive because of her race in the opera world hurt. “The lack of recognition for my accomplishments used to bother me, but you cannot cry over those things,” she said. “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right.”
She would go on to tour America, Africa, Asia, New Zealand, Australia. Williams became the first African American Professor of voice and in 1997 became a Professor Emerita of Voice at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
She too would write her bio, “The Life of Camilla Williams.” She died in 2012 at age 92.
A tale of two divas, both remarkably talented. It is not lost on me the extraordinary privilege one was afforded. The salary and perks one demanded and received because of her skin color. Both however deserve to be remembered. Both firsts in many areas of their professions, both talented, dignified people.
“I do not think I am; I am.” -Puccini, Butterfly
#BLM #BlackLivesMatter #GeorgeFloyd, #pride
Honored for her work inspiring women, in 2020 Zemeckis will be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in part for “sharing and preserving stories of women who were once marginalized and stigmatized . . .” but due to her work “these women are now celebrated for their independence and personal agency.” The Medal is officially recognized by both Houses of Congress and is one of our nation’s most prestigious awards. Past recipients include Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Elie Wiesel, Sen. John McCain and HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.
www.lesliezemeckis.com for more of her work.