When Jenny Lind Conquered America

By Dewey, Donald | Scandinavian Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

When Jenny Lind Conquered America


Dewey, Donald, Scandinavian Review


The American appetite for foreign celebrities goes way back. Consider the fuss made over the Swedish Nightingale during her mid-19th century tour of the U.S. Countless products were named after her and she even became the only artist ever to appear on a United States banknote.

IMAGINE THE FIRST BEATLES VISIT TO AMERICA, the 45th farewell tour by the Rolling Stones, and a coast-to-coast swing by Cecilia Bartoli. . . . Well, scratch that last one. The fact is, we can't imagine a classical singer creating the kind of uproar today that Jenny Lind caused when she came to the United States in 1850. In contemporary terms, we're talking rock icon, movie star, and religious revivalist rolled into one. And even then, seeking a modern parallel, we would need a showman the size of P.T. Barnum to make it all work, and there aren't too many of them around these days, either.

Few stories from early American show business are as fascinating as the collaboration between the so-called Swedish Nightingale and the man who found a sucker being born every minute. What started off as a relatively simple promotional idea soon became entangled in erotic intrigues, business chicaneries, and bruised egos. A century-and-a-half after all the principals have faded from the scene, there are still products scattered around the marketplace attesting to the entertainment tornado Lind and Barnum blew up. The ultimate testimonial? Thousands of people who never heard of Jenny Lind have slept in her bed.

For somebody who was trumpeted as the ultimate symbol of Victorian Virtue, in fact, a great deal of Johanna Maria Lind's life (1820-1887) was taken up with real, aspiring, or fabled bedmates. Bouncing around from place to place wasn't novel to her, either. The illegitimate daughter of a father who spent the little money he earned as a lacemaker on drink and a mother who ran her own boarding school, she was sent to foster parents outside Stockholm at the age of four. A few years later, she returned to the capital, this time to live with the people who ran her grandmother's nursing home. Her first taste of show business was singing and dancing for the home's elderly ladies. It was also there where, according to legend, the coloratura was overheard serenading her cat by a ballerina's maid and, after being asked to repeat her performance for a non-feline audience, was whisked off to the Royal Theater School.

Usually described as plain or homely, Lind made that an afterthought for audiences when she uncurled a three-octave range that demonstrated unique breath control. After studies in Sweden and France, she made her professional debut in 1838 at the Stockholm Opera in the role of Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Frieschutz. That proved to be not only the start of her career, but of what rapidly became known around the continent as "Lindomania." In one capital after another, she became as much social news as artistic success. Rich locals vied with one another to escort her back and forth from performances and to dine with her. In Germany, at least one silk-hatted gallant was reported to have unhitched a coach's horses so he could be yoked for the task of taking the diva to the theater. The public frenzy was such in England that "Jenny Rage" prompted Queen Victoria to toss flowers on the stage after a performance.

BY MID-CENTURY, THOUGH, LIND HAD ALSO GONE THROUGH some changes-not all of them voluntary. Professionally, she decided there was more to be made giving recitals than appearing in operas, so she all but abandoned the latter. Personally, she broke famous hearts and had them break hers. In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen pursued her ardently for years, finally proposing marriage. When she turned him down, the fabulist retreated to his writing desk, triggering speculation whether Lind was the inspiration for "The Ugly Duckling," "The Nightingale," or both. The singer had her own heartaches with Felix Mendelssohn, with whom she made a lengthy tour of western Europe. …

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