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Books: This Swede

6 minute read

JENNY LIND, THE SWEDISH NIGHTINGALE (345 pp.)—Gladys Denny Schultz—Lippincott ($6.50).

When Sweden’s Jenny Lind entered New York Harbor on a paddle-wheel steamer in 1850, P.T. Barnum went out in a rowboat to greet her, carrying a spray of red roses in his arms. She was a plain young woman of 29, hair parted in the middle. Her nose was a Nordic spud. She had a wide mouth, and she wore no cosmetics. But she was the most celebrated operatic soprano in the world, and a few days later a man bid $225 to buy the first ticket to her first concert in America.

Barnum was tone deaf, but he had brought Jenny Lind to America because he absurdly hoped to change his image. When people thought of Barnum, they thought of sheer bazazz, and he wanted them to think of fine arts and culture. This cost him a down payment of $187,500 before the singer would set foot on board ship. But his investment paid off in cash if not in permanent dignity, as Jenny Lind made a 12,000-mile, 165-concert sellout tour during which a single seat went for $653; another time, 1,000 standing-room tickets were sold in 15 minutes.

Come & Hear. The press went completely insane, and every other line seemed to have been written by Barnum. “Sell your old clothes,” said Holden’s Magazine, “dispose of your antiquated boots, hypothecate your jewelry, come on the canal, work your passage, walk, take up a collection to pay expenses, raise money on a mortgage, sell ‘Tom’ into perpetual slavery, stop smoking for a year, give up tea, coffee and sugar, dispense with bread, meat, garden sass and such like luxuries—and then come and hear Jenny Lind.” She sang Mozart, Weber, and Meyer beer, offset by such additional items as Comin’ Through the Rye and The Last Rose of Summer. Presenting a little-known song from an opera called Clari, she immortalized Home, Sweet Home. Her voice spanned nearly three octaves, top ping out at G above high C. Her high F-sharp was pure enough to split a ray of light, and she had an incredible ability to sing very softly at that altitude. No one could match her messa di voce—the technique of holding a single note while in creasing and diminishing its volume. She did it as if she were twirling a knob on a hi-fi amplifier. Some of this was wasted on numbers like Old Black Joe, but she al ways sang parts from the operas in which she had won her fame, from Norma to Lucia di Lammermoor.

Washington Irving came down the Hudson to Manhattan and was vastly impressed with her. So, in Boston, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who declared that “she sings like the morning star.” Even Niagara Falls fell at her feet as she stood on a projecting boulder and sang an aria to the plunging cataract. Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster, a young Northerner hopelessly in love with the South, was forever grateful to her because she added his songs to her repertoire, including one she called “Mein Old Kentucky Home.” Nathaniel Hawthorne thought she was dull, but few agreed with him.

When Jenny Lind arrived in Washington, President and Mrs. Millard Fillmore dutifully hiked through the woods between the White House and the Willard Hotel to leave their calling card. She began her first Washington concert before an audience that included the Fillmores, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and 14 empty seats in the front row, reserved for the seven members of Fillmore’s Cabinet and their wives. The Cabinet was off at the Russian ministry having dinner and soaking up exotic wines and vodka. Jenny Lind was singing Hail, Columbia when they swayed down the aisle and took their seats. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Secretary of State, stood up drunkenly and sang along with her, while his wife tugged furiously at his long black tails.

Gladys Denny Schultz, author of this biography, once wrote advice to teen-agers in the Ladies’ Home Journal, an experience that may account for the essence of nosegay that rises from too many passages in her book. Generally skillful in her long treatment of Jenny Lind’s American tour, which culminated in the singer’s marriage to her accompanist, Author Schultz is often grossly sentimental in her account of Jenny’s early life. The daughter of a debt-ridden, often jobless man named Niklas Lind, Jenny was born out of wedlock. She was discovered and sent trilling her way to fame when a passer-by who had connections at Stockholm’s Royal Theater heard her singing songs to her cat.

Silent Mirror. Though the book is overlong and exaggeratedly dramatic, it is full of surprising incidents. When Jenny stayed with friends in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen would come around to tell stories to the children of the house, a pretext for seeing her. He fell in love with her. He wrote The Emperor’s Nightingale for her. When she was cold toward him, he wrote The Snow Queen. When he begged her to marry him, she silently handed him a mirror. That night, he wrote The Ugly Duckling. (Author Schultz offers a modified version of this famous anecdote: she claims that Jenny really meant to impugn her own appearance, arguing that it is beyond belief that Jenny Lind could be that cruel.)

Jenny Lind’s friends included Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Schumann and Brahms. Her great friend Felix Mendelssohn loved to sit at his piano and explore her upper register. Frederic Chopin referred to her affectionately as “this Swede.” She often rode along the trails of Wimbledon with the 78-year-old Duke of Wellington, who decorated his dotage with bright young ladies of the stage. The crowned potentates of the Continent competed for her friendship, from Prince Metternich of Austria to King Frederick William of Prussia. She was a close friend of England’s Queen Victoria. Accordingly, when Jenny Lind died in 1887 at the age of 67, a memorial was inscribed to her in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey—the first time in the Abbey’s history a woman had been so honored.

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