CHAPTER III: OFF STAGE
NO ARTIST WITHIN MEMORY EVER KINDLED THE RAPPORT WITH HIS PUBLIC THAT CARUSO did. No barrier of footlights or anything else stood between them.
One Saturday night after an Aida the curtain calls were stretching
out longer than usual. After about the dozenth Caruso good-naturedly rubbed
his stomach as if to say, "I'm hungry now. Please go home and let
me have my supper." The fans roared their approval and the house lights
These informal communications were by no means confined to pantomime on
his part. More than once in the third act of L'Elisir d'Amore when
the audience demanded a repeat of "Un a fur tiva lagrima" he
would confide, "I can't; they won't let me." This was after Toscanini
had done his work and forever banished encores at the Metropolitan as he
had in Milan.
Nor was the direction all one-way. On the evening of December 19, 1919,
Caruso was again singing L'Elisir. He had given a brilliant performance,
exceptional even by his standards, and for a very good reason. For the
same reason the ovation was tremendous. There was not a soul in the big
auditorium who did not know his news that evening and rejoice with him.
Gloria had made her appearance the night before. "Viva pappa!"
the shouts rolled down galleries and loges alike.
No event in his life was allowed to go uncommented upon. While he was singing
in Cuba the summer of 1920 his house in Easthampton was robbed of jewelry
estimated in value by the news- papers at the time between $236,000 and
$500,000. No official statement was ever made as to the exact loss, and
although the papers never said it in so many words the notion was widespread
that it might have been an inside job. Caruso's only concern was the safety
of his wife and baby. "'Lots of jewels will come," he cabled.
His first date after he got back to New York was a recital at Ocean Grove.
Those ancient timbers reverberated more to Methodist hymns than to any
other harmonies, but the sprawling old tabernacle on the Jersey shore was
always hospitable to the greats of opera and concert, the camp- meeting
That August night Caruso was singing, as he often did in recital, Rodolfo's
"Narrative" from La Boheme. There is a phrase as he approaches
the climax in which the poet tells Mimi, ". . . your lovely eyes have
robbed me of all my jewels." When Caruso came to that line he could
not resist. Neither could the audience. Almost imperceptibly he shrugged
his shoulders, assumed a rueful expression and ever so slightly turned
his open palms to the public. The roof came down.
Caruso's only pupil was Ed McNamara, the singing cop from Paterson, New
Jersey. While he was still in uniform McNamara used to electioneer in saloons
for Senator William Hughes. On the nights he wasn't so engaged he would
go to the non-Hughes taverns and heckle the opposition. It was probably
senatorial influence or perhaps the equally weighty intercession of Madame
Schumann-Heink, who discovered McNamara at a sort of Jersey May festival,
that got him a hearing. Pressure or no pressure, you may be sure Caruso
would never have accepted him had he not thought the strapping young hopeful
had a good voice, which McNamara did--and big.
Mac finally gave up music--or, more accurately, music gave him up. Thereafter
he became a highly succcessful actor playing, of all things, cops. On stage,
as in real life, he never made an arrest. It was type-casting. His sergeant
in Paterson once complained that the only time McNamara's name ever appeared
on the station-house blotter was payday. No one who saw it will ever forget
that first act speakeasy in Strictly Dishonorable. "I thought,"
a bibulous judge rebuked him, "policemen never drank."
"It just seems like never," was Mac's sharp reply.
In the so-called "musical subjects" Mac was a bigger dud than
most singers, which is saying something. Once in a sight-reading lesson
with Buzzi-Peccia (Deems Taylor is authority for this one) the maestro
"Mr. McNamara," he warned, "that is a dotted eighth. You
will please to treat it as such."
"That," Mac blurted, "is one man's opinion!" Some idea
of the size of his voice may be gathered from the fact that Caruso constantly
insisted his pupil sing with less force. "Piano, piano,"
he would plead, "not so loud." Remembering the block-busters
Caruso used to release even on records, one wonders just what the McNamara
instrument was like that his mentor should want it soft-pedaled.
One day Caruso reversed himself. "Louder, louder!" he kept urging.
When the chandeliers were coming loose and the windows beginning to rattle,
Mac, somewhat mystified, asked, "Why, Mr. Caruso? I thought you told
me to hold back."
"I know," Caruso gleefully replied, "but Scotti's home today,"
pointing to the apartment below, "and he's sick."
Another time he counseled, "Mac, you go to the bathroom in the morning.
You push down. When you come to the high note, push up!" This
is about as close as Caruso ever got to codifying his vocal method.
"The social man in him was irresistible," Huneker said of Caruso.
"His company was a tonic for all ailments," Tetrazzini testified.
"A simplicity which sprang from innate kindness," is what Geraldine
The stories of his generosity are legion. His bounty was like Antony's.
There was no winter in it. An autumn indeed it was, that grew the more
"Even in his caricatures he shows the sweetness of his nature,"
Victor Herbert said at a dinner which the Lotus Club gave in Caruso's honor.
"He has never drawn me as fat as others have."
On a June afternoon just six months before she died I heard from Mrs. Caruso
herself some of the stories I had loved in her book and some that were
new to me. She was staying at the Pavilion Henri IV in St. Germain-en-Laye,
half an hour from Paris. Like her adored Rico she was making a brave fight
for life. No one will ever know whether or not she realized how ill she
was. The eyes were as blue as everybody had told me they would be, her
manner as direct and winning.
Through her kindness I found Martino Ceccanti, Caruso's old valet and friend,
in Florence. Together we journeyed up to the villa at Signa. We walked
through the gardens which were Caruso's pride, past the courts where Princess
Marie Jose later played tennis, the bocce court where Marshal Badoglio
often relaxed. As we left, Martino, gentleman's gentleman as ever was,
thanked the caretaker. "I know it would make him happy," he said,
"to see it so beautifully kept."
From boyhood, Caruso was a miracle of order. Throughout his career he kept
his own accounts and scrapbooks. Bruno Zirato, managing director of the
New York Philharmonic-Symphony, who served as his secretary, recalls an
entry in his personal ledger. "Expenses for my marriage"... $50.00.',
In all his career he never asked for a complimentary ticket. Earle R. Lewis,
former assistant manager of the Metropolitan, says the ticket bill for
his performances ran eight to nine thousand dollars a season. He handed
them out by the fistful to friends able as well as unable to pay their
own way. He was the grand seigneur.
Toward the end he gave up the handsome big tooled-leather scrapbooks which
were made especially for him and, instead, mounted his cuttings on big
leaves of heavy gray paper. The last clipping he pasted up was from the
Brooklyn Eagle of December 12,1920. It told of his appearance
at the Academy of Music the night before when he had begun to bleed at
the mouth. The audience was dismissed after the first act but not until
Caruso in full view of everyone had filled towel after towel with blood
in a superhuman effort to finish the performance.
He and Mrs. Caruso drove back to their apartment in the Vanderbilt Hotel,
never once mentioning the fearful events of the evening. It was a nightmare
to be forgotten as quickly as possible. He ordered supper as usual. It
might have been any of hundreds of nights after a performance, except that
it was early and he was not smoking.
That was a Saturday. He was scheduled to sing the following Monday. He
Such was his sense of responsibility to the management, the public and
himself. He was the most expensive artist of his time and the cheapest.
His record of cancellations was almost zero. And to the end he kept his
head in the face of such adulation as few champions in any field have ever