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Grace Moore: The Tennessee Nightingale October 28 2021

It is wonderful to live and sing. It is a great thing to feel that one is able to help other people with one's voice. I want to play in a new opera where the heroine does not die in the last scene or go mad. That is why I love Charpentier's Louise. The girl is alive when the curtain falls - and it is wonderful to be alive, isn't it! - Grace Moore, a few days before she died.

Grace Moore as Louise

Grace Moore as Louise in Charpentier's opera -her signature role)

On the evening of Saturday, January 25, 1947, American soprano Grace Moore sang to a sell-out audience of over 4000 people in Copenhagen, culminating in a standing ovation. The following day, she boarded a plane to Stockholm; cleared for takeoff, the KLM DC3 climbed to an altitude of around 150 feet, where it stalled and crashed to the ground, exploding on impact.

All 22 crew and passengers on board the aircraft - including Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden - were killed instantly in the plane crash. Moore was identified by personal effects in her luggage. She is buried in Chattanooga, where her parents had lived. Grace Moore's tragic end came at the end of a vivid life - one which was as rich and interesting as any of the movies she starred in.

Moore was born in Slabtown, Tennessee on December 5, 1898, Mary Willie Grace Moore was the daughter of Richard Lawson Moore, and Tessa Stokely, a member of a family of landowners. Her father had relocated from North Carolina to work for a local lumber company. The family relocated twice in her young life, first to Knoxville, and later to Jellico, a coal mining town. Family summers would often be spent in rural Tennessee, and Grace's early musical exposure and experiences were the folk fiddle-players she heard during festivals, and particularly during the harvest season.

 

A very young Grace Moore and her siblings

A very young Grace Moore and her siblings

 

In 1906, the eight-year-old Grace lost one of her younger brothers, an event that caused a crisis within her family. She became difficult, playing truant, stealing, fighting, and using foul language at home and school - evidence of the strong and sometimes confrontational personality she would display in adult life. Her rigidly Baptist father was opposed to frivolous behaviour of any kind, and a few years later she was made to apologise in front of the whole church congregation for breaking rules on dancing.

Prejudices against frivolous behaviour didn't extend to religion and race in the Moore family, however. Richard Lawson Moore was keen to prosper in business and made close ties with local community members from other racial and religious backgrounds. His efforts in building these bonds led to him being named an honorary Tennessee colonel.

 

Studies and Early Career

In 1916, Grace left home for the exclusive Ward Belmont College in Nashville, a boarding school that should have done much to further her education. She impressed the dean of the vocal department greatly, but Grace didn't study hard - she was undisciplined, disruptive, and foul-mouthed. She broke the rules to go to a dance at Vanderbilt University, and was sent back to Jellico as a result. The college couldn't put up with her behaviour, and she was expelled in 1917 (although 24 years later, she was warmly welcomed back, even establishing a scholarship there to support needy students).

Grace Moore in the 1920s

Grace Moore as Violetta Valéry during the 1920s

 Grace Moore decided to take her education and musical training into her own hands at that point. She applied to the Wilson-Greene School of Music in Washington D.C., taking care of all necessary arrangements herself. Her father had little choice but to give his blessing and give in to his strong-willed daughter. She experienced a high level of vocal training at the school, and also earned her first professional income singing in a local Baptist church - something her father couldn't object to.

The other major turning point in Grace's life in her first year in Washington was meeting Mary Garden. The Scottish soprano, famous as a role creator and muse of Massenet, was in the capital to give performances to benefit wounded Allied soldiers, and Grace resolved as a consequence to become an opera star, just like her idol.

Grace Moore Photograph

Her operatic debut came singing a single aria from Aida at the Washington National Theatre on February 20, 1919. The annual concert of the Wilson-Greene School, Moore left just a few months later, traveling to New York intending to start her stage career. Her father pursued her, keen for her to change her mind - however, her promise only to appear in "ladylike" performances persuaded him to allow her to carry on.

 

[Photo] A stunning Grace Moore during the peak of her international career, signed by her in 1938

 

Those "ladylike" performances included singing in a nightclub in New York City to pay for her vocal lessons with her then teacher. She had gained this job through appearing in a singing contest in Greenwich Village, and it was modestly paid at first until her success led to a permanent engagement and a substantial pay rise. Unfortunately, that success - performing on a shaky vocal technique, with very little rest and singing in a poorly ventilated, smoky nightclub - led to damage to her vocal cords. Thankfully, the advice of the doctor who took care of the stars of the Metropolitan Opera - P. Mario Marafioti - was something she took very seriously; complete silence for three months. She retreated to a friend's Canadian holiday home at St. Lawrence River, hoping that she would be able to sing again.

 

An excerpt of Grace Moore starring as Jenny Lind in the film "Lady's Morals" (1930)

 

 By the end of 1919, Grace Moore was singing once again, touring in an operetta - The Chocolate Soldier - and performing in a musical that sadly failed in its pre-Broadway previews. Her big break on Broadway came the following year, in the oddly named Jerome Kern musical, Hitchy-Koo, filling in for an indisposed colleague. She enjoyed a spell living the Broadway star lifestyle, particularly mixing with a set who made up the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel. During this period, she almost married sculptor George Biddle. However, a combination of ambition and unwillingness to settle down meant that the attachment failed to become permanent. 

 

Europe and Opera

Grace Moore spent 1922 in Paris, attempting to kickstart her operatic career. Her charm and glamour made her a hit with the social and artistic set, and she became friends with both Noel Coward and Cole Porter. She also renewed her acquaintance with opera singer Mary Garden, who gave the young singer huge encouragement.

Grace Moore as Tosca

Paris was expensive, however, and an invitation in 1923 from Irving Berlin to come back to New York City and appear in his Music Box Review was gratefully accepted.

 

[Photo] Grace Moore as Floria Tosca in Puccini's "Tosca"

 

This saw the first performances of Irving Berlin's song "What'll I Do", and also involved the stunt of wafting orange blossom scent through the theatre when Grace Moore sang "An Orange Grove in California". The reviews spoke of the "warmth and vitality" in her voice, and she was a huge hit. Unfortunately, her colleagues were less than happy with her lengthy curtain calls, leading to complaints that she was hogging the limelight.

Despite being a rising star on Broadway, Grace Moore was still intent on an operatic career and returned to Europe in 1925 for further classical study. Three years of hard work with a succession of European teachers prepared her musically and linguistically for an operatic career, and she made her debut as Mimi in La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera on February 7th 1928.

Grace Moore as Louise

She was obviously very nervous, and her performance was not perfect. However, the majority of reviews were kind, and again, the quality and warmth of her voice were praised. She was to sing Italian and French operas at the Metropolitan Opera for sixteen seasons, with roles including Tosca, Manon, and her favourite, Louise, which was also considered to have been her greatest role.

 

[Photo] Mrs. Moore shown as Louise in Charpentier's opera, a role she performed both in film and in the Opera House to great success.

 

Moore made her European debut with the same role at the Opera-Comique in Paris, and this time both critics and audience were enthusiastic about her.

However, for Grace Moore, opera wasn't enough. She wanted to be a star.

 

Radio and Film

A stint on NBC Radio's General Motors Hour brought her to wider fame throughout America prior to her trying her luck in Hollywood.

Grace Moore & Tullio Carminatti

Grace Moore and Tullio Carminati in "One Night of Love" (1934)

Moore's first screen test made her appear overweight and dumpy, and her contract with MGM was contingent upon her losing 15 pounds, and then maintaining her new weight - something she did with a diet of clear soup. 

Grace Moore Poster in Jenny Lind

Her first film was A Lady's Morals in 1930, a biopic on the life of the 19th-century operatic soprano, Jenny Lind. Her singing suffered from poor recording techniques, and it was a box office flop.

 

[Photo] Poster of "A Lady's Morals" (1930) starred by Grace Moore

 

Her second film (in the same year), New Moon, based on the Sigmund Romberg musical of the same name, fared no better. MGM terminated her contract and it seemed that her film career was at an end. Her only consolation was that other operatic stars were having an equal lack of success in crossing over onto the big screen.

 

 

Marriage and Success

Grace Moore took a break after New Moon, sailing to France in May 1931. She met her husband, Valentin Parera, a Spanish actor and singer, on the ship and married him only two months later on 15th July. The deputy mayor of Cannes officiated over what was a quiet civil wedding, but the guests included Hollywood royalty, including Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson.

Her Southern Baptist family were less than impressed with her choice of a Spanish Catholic as a husband.

Grace Moore and her husband

However, Parera proved an adept business manager, adjusting his own career to look after Grace's. Depression-era America meant that relying on a career at the Metropolitan Opera alone was not going to be practical, and Moore diversified into light opera, vaudeville, and radio performances instead.

 

[Photo] Grace Moore and her husband Valentin Parrera in their wedding

 

A further film break came in 1934; One Night of Love under the contract of Columbia Pictures showcased her in a variety of extracts from grand opera, and in addition to an Academy Award nomination for Moore, it made her a box office star. She noted "...[it] brought a new public into the opera houses" and "made all opera stars movie-minded".

The film was famous and successful. For contributing to "raising the standard of cinema entertainment", Moore was awarded a medal by the Society of Arts and Science.

1935 saw her regular NBC half-hour weekly show, a format including musical numbers and conversation with her audience regarding her life and work. Grace was now a star, earning a substantial salary from her radio appearances, and able to more or less set her own fee for concert appearances.

Grace Moore Autograph

She bought a house in Beverley Hills, had servants, and even met the Prince of Wales after her London debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She even had enough box office cachet for MGM to be obliged to insist on her equal billing with Maurice Chevalier in a film which sadly never came to pass - Chevalier was so offended, he left the project and Hollywood.

 

[Photo]  Grace Moore in one of her films

 

She was also honoured with the gold medal award of the Society of Arts and Sciences in 1935, and in 1936, King Christian X of Denmark awarded her the Ingenito et Arti. Becoming a life member of the Tennessee State Society of Washington D.C. in 1937, she was also awarded the Legion d'honneur in 1939.

She managed to court controversy in 1938 by curtseying to Wallis Simpson, by then the Duchess of Windsor in Cannes (Moore would habitually spend large periods out of the USA to "save money in income tax"), saying that she "would have been a royal duchess long ago if she had not been an American."

 

Grace Moore and Gustave Charpentier

Grace Moore and French composer Gustave Charpentier

 

More films followed, including the cinematic version of Gustave Charpentier's Louise. Coached by Charpentier himself, who participated by making cuts and changes, the film also starred Georges Thill and Andre Pernet. However, the threat of the outbreak of war raised the real possibility that the project might be abandoned completely.

Hitler was threatening to invade Czechoslovakia, and despite a warning from the US ambassador for all American citizens to return home with immediate effect, Moore chose to stay in France. She and her husband finally had to leave in August 1939. The ship she and Parera left on was very overcrowded, and sleeping accommodation was dotted throughout the ship. Two days after they set sail, Hitler invaded Poland, and war was declared.

 

War Years

The war years were personally difficult for Grace Moore. Her husband developed tuberculosis and was forced into a specialist hospital for a long stay. During the Spring of 1940, she started a long tour of the USA and Canada, immediately followed by a sponsored goodwill visit to Mexico.

Grace Moore in Role

The entire tour seemed blighted - the Canadian part included being stranded on a train during a severe blizzard, and her Mexican visit coincided with the country's worst earthquake in 25 years, even leading American newspapers to report that she had been killed.

 

[Photo] Mrs. Moore shown in role (1941)

 

The wilful and sometimes difficult nature - considered difficult even by the standards of opera stars - she had displayed as a child came to the fore once again; on a second goodwill tour of South America, she refused to appear at a party given in her honour. In addition, her personal life started to draw criticism.

Her husband was now an invalid, and Grace Moore became involved with several other men during her tours of the country, giving concerts entertaining American troops abroad. Her friend and colleague Rosa Ponselle had said about her in the previous decade "...she became an earthy woman who sampled love at every table - and rumour had it that the tables were numerous".

She had intended to write a cookery book, a collection inspired by her many years as both a keen amateur cook, and from her visits to a variety of restaurants on her travels. However, the cookery book turned into an autobiography, and You're Only Human Once was published in March 1944, becoming a bestseller.

Grace Moore Autograph Signed Program

Program for a recital of Grace Moore at The Roxy Theater, New York, on March 17th, 1943, signed by her on the front cover (click here to see it)

 

Final Years

Moore continued to tour after World War II came to an end, often still in support of Allied Forces, including the famous "Pacifique 45" Gala at the Paris Opera House in July 1945, given by the French for French war veterans and their families.

Grace Moore in 1946

However, her looks were fading, and she was no longer the slim, glamorous film star she had been. She appeared to have occasional cognitive difficulties, becoming disorientated on stage, forgetting her words, and even beginning to sing in the wrong key. Her vocal technique - always the subject of much discussion and criticism - started to collapse completely.

 

[Photo] Grace Moore in 1946, one of her last pictures

 

Her 1946 Mimi in the Lewisohn Stadium in New York was bad enough to bring not only critical reviews, but a cool audience response as well. She was back at the top of her powers for one final tour the following year, culminating in one final concert where all her former radiance from her peak returned.

The Scandinavian tour she had embarked upon had been arranged by two impresarios who joined her on the plane taking off from Kastrup Airport the following morning.

Grace Moore boarded a DC-3 airliner to leave for Sweden from Copenhagen. The aircraft stalled after takeoff, and observers on the ground noted that it rolled twice before falling to the ground, where it exploded on impact. The fireball was so intense, rescue crews could not get near the wreckage for over an hour.

Grace Moore singing "Lover come back to me" (1930)

Identified by an inscription on a gold bracelet - "Grace from Val" - which still apparently smelled of perfume, the Tennessee Nightingale died alongside her accompanist, Jean Loup Peltier, and the impresario Roland Fernand Malbec. Gerda Neumann, the Danish actress, died alongside her impresario husband Jens Dennow, Dennow's three-year-old nephew, and Hans Denning Thomsen, who had helped Dennow to arrange Moore's tour.

Her life story was made into a movie in 1953 - So This Is Love - with Kathryn Grayson playing Grace Moore. A collection of Moore´s papers is kept at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

 

 

Written by Zoe South - Edited by Nestor Masckauchan

 

SEE ALSO:

- Grace Moore Signed Program Roxy Theatre New York

- Grace Moore Autographs

- Grace Moore Signed Photographs

- Grace Moore Program Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires

- Grace Moore Signed Program Washington 1931

 

 

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