Madame Nordica’s Homesick Pearl: 1914

Lillian Nordica with pearls and tiara

Mme. Lillian Nordica with some of her famous pearls, and a charmingly simple tiara. http://www.lilliannordica.com/lillian-nordica

HOW NORDICA’S “RESTLESS PEARL” WON ITS WAY HOME

The Strange Story of the Famous Singer’s “Homesick” Gem, Its Curious Influence on Her Career, and the Tragedy That at Last Ended Its Wanderings.

While the body of Mme. Lillian Nordica, the greatest American prima donna, is making its way to her native country for burial a strange story precedes it. Since her lonely death at Batavia, Java, the story became current in the Dutch town in the South Seas and, passing from lip to lip, has arrived in New York. It is a tale of mystery and its chief figure is a restless yellow pearl.

The prima donna loved jewels. When she died it was found that she had collected a round million dollars’ worth of them. In her collection pearls were her favorites. The costliest and most beautiful object in her jewel box was a three-strand necklace of creamy pearls whose value is $105,000. Another and smaller necklace was of pearls, but held in the light they flung out-blueish rays. The greatest Brunhilde preferred the rich shades of the larger and more valuable necklace. It was her wont to hold these favorites of hers in the sunlight or in the strong light and exclaim: “Look at the yellow beauties!”

The singer, like Calve, loved yellow. It was the color of sunshine. It seemed to her to hold charm of life, to hold and reflect it And that was why, according to the strange story, she bought the pearl in which, this story centres.

It was a yellow pearl and was her first great jewel. She bought It in the early jewelless days while she was studying in Paris and while the world of music was waiting to be conquered by her.

It lay in a jeweler’s window In the Latin quarter, displayed at an absurdly low price. Passing the shop with another music student she saw it, lingered and admired it. Against her will it lured her within the shop. She asked to see it, and the jeweler placed it in her hand.

“Look,” she said, “it is like a great yellow eye! How can you sell anything so beautiful at that ridiculous price?”

The French shopkeeper shrugged his expressive shoulders. “It is the absurd, the ignorant superstition, mademoiselle. It has it that this pearl brings to its owner success, but with it many tears and much unrest. But of those La Belle American need not be afraid.”

“Will it bring failure?” Lillian Norton–for that was Nordica’s name–laid the pearl upon the counter and gazed at it with mingled admiration and misgivings.

“But no, mademoiselle! On the contrary, I have it from the man who sold it to me that the person who owns it will have the great success. He will grow rich and famous, but the tears and the unrest–he said he was not happy in the home. He was marrying, he said, his third wife. The others he said have parted from him in the life. He was about to marry the third and he would not have in the home a disturber. He sold me the pearl for a little less than I offer it to you, a very little less, Mademoiselle.”

“It’s like Balzac’s ‘Peau de Chagrin,’ isn’t it? But I’m not superstitious,” said the young American. “I have no husband. I have only my ambition, and if this does disturb them I shall not care.”

“He is only restless, Mademoiselle,” reiterated the shopkeeper. “He have come from the waters of Java, The natives say the deep yellow pearl is ever homesick for its native waters. It will never let its owner rest until it is back at home.”

“Some day,” said the singer, “I may restore him to his native waters.”

Laughing, she departed with the yellow, eye-like pearl.

But before she left she asked another question:

“Just where did the pearl come from?”

“From one of the atolls in the Gulf of Borneo, madame. We have traced its history. I warn madame that it is superstition but it is not happy.”

The singer laughed.

Hitherto Lillian Norton’s life had been one of poverty, of hard work, of grim determination and unflagging resolve. But she overflowed with Yankee grit Born on a farm in Maine, the granddaughter of Camp meeting John, a revivalist whose resonant notes shook woods or shores where he camped and sang of a Summer; a shopgirl in Boston until she was discovered by a vocal teacher who heard her singing as she re-arranged the goods on the counter; too poor to rent a piano, practicing with the aid of a pitch pipe for two years; three years of barnstorming, concert work, these had been her experience when she came to Paris to study and fell in with the restless pearl. But her face was turned to the East. In her soul was an unconquerable resolve.

Yet from the moment of her purchase of “the restless pearl” troubles beset her. She made her debut in a village in northern Italy and the Italians groaned at her. Bruised but not beaten she returned to Boston. Boston refrained from hisses, but not from severe criticism. To New York she went and sang in the Academy of Music. New Yorkers were a shade kinder, but they, too, lacked enthusiasm. It was far from a triumphal entry into her own country.

To Europe she returned, taking a new name to hide the old defeats. No longer was she Lillie Norton. She had become Lillian Nordica.

To Paris came Fred Gower.  Gower was a young American whom Professor Bell had sent to France to introduce his telephones A countryman told him of the struggles of a beautiful and talented young American and her mother to keep their brave heads above the waters of debt and penury while the daughter strove for grudging recognition from the arbiters of musical destinies in Europe. Fred Gower met the Widow Norton and her daughter and with the daughter he fell in love in the rash, headstrong way of his temperament.

They were married. Soon they discovered themselves to be unhappy. Friends of both diagnosed the case as one of hopeless incompatibility. The artistic temperament and the bent of the inventor and promoter formed a clashing discord.  [Gower did not want his wife on the stage and went so far as to burn some of her music and destroy some of her clothing.] The discord rent the nerves of the singer. It set the temper of the inventor and promoter out of tune. There was a rumor of continued differences, of a possible separation. But chance or fate strangely intervened.

Fred Gower was an amateur balloonist He had made several successful journeys in the upper airs. In one of these he had crossed the English Channel. Yet from the tour of the upper currents conceived and carried out at this time he never returned. The collapsed balloon was found floating in the channel.

But, as though the oracle of the restless pearl had spoken truly, triumph came soon after for the singer. She was permitted to sing at Bayreuth. She was the first of the American prima donnas to be permitted the honor. The Germans applauded her. With the stamp of German recognition upon her she went to England and sang at Covent Garden. Again success! She went to St. Petersburg and sang for the royal family. Among the million dollars worth of jewels is a bracelet presented her by the Czar. In New York, where she had been coldly received, a furore greeted her. In Boston fortune turned a full-faced smile upon her.

Still, according to the story of the restless pearl, homesick for its South Sea waters, there must be tears. They came. They followed closely upon her marriage to Zoltan Doehme, an Hungarian tenor, whom the critics appraised as “a man of moderate vocal ability, but of undoubted grace of person.” Again discord. Alienation, silence, the invocation of the law. By successive steps the pair descended from the heights of happiness.

Zoltan Doehme was a teacher as well as a singer. Geraldine Farrar was one of these who benefited by his instruction and criticism. When separation came she aligned herself with her friend, Mme. Nordica, rather than her master. Divorce followed upon eight years of the prima donna’s second marriage.

During this time of slow severance of the bonds that had been forged in love, Mme. Nordica gave her confidence to Frau Wagner’s shoulder. The widow of the German composer patted the proud head bowed upon her shoulder. “Tears.” said the widow of Wagner. “Lieber Himmel. Es ist immer dos selbe. You are like Wagner. You are a genius. He was a genius. And genius is always lonely, always dissatisfied. Their souls never rest”

There followed a period in which Mme. Nordica’s energies were focussed solely upon her art Fame followed her glorious voice, and artistic appreciation, but not always–indeed not often–peace.

Twice she severed her connection with the Metropolitan Opera House management She appeared under the direction of various managers in opera. She made long concert tours.

Five years ago she took a third husband. He was George W. Young, a banker, who had a short time previously been divorced. Nor had the courtship been a calm one. Again there were tears and unrest. The former Mrs. Young lent the element of turbulence.

After her third marriage the prima donna became interested in a method of reduction that was in vogue in France. She introduced it in America. Her own figure became girlish through the treatment. And perhaps her power of resistance was lessened.

Her last marriage would have seemed to be a haven from the turbulence of the great singer’s life. Her home crowned a hill at Ardsley on the Hudson, overlooking a wide valley and almost within sight of Harmon, where her dream, a Bayreuth of America, was beginning to become a realization. Often, standing on the veranda, her splendid eyes sweeping the soothing scene, she said: “I have come to the Peaceful Valley of my life.” It is pleasant to think of the diva at this time, to linger upon this tender phase of her turbulent existence.

Her assets were a husband to whom she was devoted and of whom she was intensely proud, a home that was a place of peace, fame that had spread round the civilized world, and the glittering mass of her million dollars worth of jewels.

Mme. Nordica’s jewels, according to careful appraisement of their value were:

1 three-strand pearl necklace of cream-colored pearls…. $150,000.

1 three-strand necklace of blueish pearls…. $100,000

1 long necklace of graduated emeralds, alternating with diamonds, with pear-shaped solitaire diamond pendant… $500,000

1 diamond necklace of graduated stones… $125.000

Earrings to match each necklace…$10,000

Bracelets and rings, chiefly set with diamonds, pearls and emeralds. $110,000

Odd pieces and uncut stones, including a curious deeply yellow pearl… $5,000.

But behold, according to the story that comes from far away Batavia, the influence of the “restless pearl.” Restless itself, it begot restlessness in its possessor. Not content with her triumphs, Mme. Nordica conceived the plan of a round-the-world tour. She would girdle the world with song, she said, then spend the remainder of her years in her peaceful valley.

Seven months ago she began her world tour. Christmas she spent aboard the vessel Tasman. Three days later in a terrific storm the vessel went ashore in the Gulf of Papua– near an atoll where pearl fishers dived! When the prima donna was rescued her nerves of steel were broken. She wept as a babe that would not be comforted. Weakened by fright and exposure to the elements, she yielded first to nervous prostration, then to pneumonia, A Dutch physician combatted her desire to continue her journey.

“But I shall go mad if I wait here,” she cried, and against his protest sailed for Batavia. There, during three weeks she seemed to regain her lost strength. Her nerves of steel were returning. But a relapse occurred. On May tenth she died on a stormy night far from her peaceful valley.

When an inventory of her belongings was taken before the body started its long homeward journey. May 17, most of the million dollars worth of jewels were found. But the yellow pearl was missing.

Those who accompanied her and who had been, at her bedside at Thursday Island, remembered seeing it. It had lain on the stand beside her bed. Its rich color she said comforted and cheered her. It had been among her effects when she sailed for Batavia. But when the life force passed from the majestic Brunhilde, the yellow pearl vanished. Was it stolen by a pilfering servant? Had some unguessed power replaced it in its native waters?

Whatever it may be according to the Batavian legend the restless pearl is at last, like its owner, at rest.  Homesick, it had found its home.

The Austin [TX] American 14 June 1914: p. 24

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  It is a pity that Madame could not have simply dropped the petulant pearl overboard, recovered her health, and finished her world tour in peace.  Let this be a cautionary tale for those who would disregard knowledgeable jewellers’ warnings about unhappy pearls….

Despite the idyllic “peaceful valley” picture painted above, her marriage with her third husband, Mr George Young, seems to have been as unhappy as those with her first two spouses.  She pointedly mentioned a sum of $400,000 she had already given Young in the will disinheriting him, which she made shortly before her death.

Despite her lack of marital success, Mme. Nordica attracted jewels from admirers all over the globe, such as this diamond tiara, the gift of New York opera-goers.

madame nordica's american tiara 1896

Madame Nordica’s American Tiara

The diamond tiara that is to be presented to Madame Nordica on the opening of the brief spring season of opera is now on exhibition at Tiffany’s.

Although it is a particularly beautiful jewel, of exquisite workmanship, I fancy Madame Nordica will value it less than the roll of parchment that accompanies it, on which are inscribed the names of the people who have chosen this way of showing their appreciation and pride of the American woman who, through indomitable pluck and courage and the hardest kind of study, has made herself the greatest lyric artist on the stage of the world to-day.

As each subscription was limited to ten dollars, several hundred names appear on the artistically-illumined roll of parchment.

Mrs Astor’s name heads the list and is followed by the names of Mrs. Vanderbilt, Mrs. George Henry Warren, Mrs. Ogden Goelet, Mrs. Belmont, Mrs. Henry Sloane, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. George De Forrest, Mrs. Elisha Dyer, Mrs. Gambril, Mrs. Kernochan, Mrs.Havemeyer, James Otis, Mrs, Cooper Hewitt, Peter Marie, Mrs. Townsend Burden, Mrs. Orme Wilson, Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. Buchanan Winthop–in short, everybody who is known in the social and artistic world seemed so delighted to send their subscriptions that the office of treasurer of the fund, held by Mr. Otis, made that gentleman a very busy man.

The Illustrated American, Vol. 19 4 April 1896: p. 481

Given Mme. Nordica’s initial cool reception in New York, this little diamond tribute must have been most gratifying to the prima donna.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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