CHAPTER IV: THE LAST YEAR
ON AUGUST 3, 1920, IN A LETTER TO BRUNO ZIRATO, Caruso complained of "dolore in genere"-- "pain all over." He was
not long back from a month's engagement in Havana but there was no rest
for the weary. He embarked late September on a concert tour. There were
only twelve dates, but what an itinerary--Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, St.
Paul, Denver, Omaha, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Houston, two in Charlotte, and
Norfolk. Before he left he got in a recording session at Camden.
Always hypersensitive to criticism, he was upset by a trio of bad reviews
when the opera season opened. "If I sing as those critics say I do,"
he served notice, "it is time I appeared no more before the New York
public." Mr. Gatti was panic-stricken. Eventually Caruso was dissuaded.
There were six performances in the opera house, then the night of horror
in Brooklyn. Intercostal neuralgia, his physician diagnosed it. "Intercostal
neuralgia," Mrs. Caruso repeated it bitterly to me thirty-four years
later. "It became a kind of incantation."
Christmas Eve he sang La Juive. Bodanzky, the conductor, visited
his dressing room at intermission. Caruso was bolt upright in a chair,
weeping with pain. "If it's your throat," Bodanzky asked, "why
are you holding your side?" Too bad the doctors were not as scientific.
The celebration of Christmas went on as in years past -- the gold pieces
had to be put in the little coin boxes, hundreds of them, for everybody
at the Metropolitan -- until shortly after noon. A bloodcurdling scream
bent the air. Let the patient himself tell the story, a letter to his brother,
published here for the first time:
|THE VANDERBILT HOTEL
1 February 1921
From the convalescent bed.
From the day of Christmas until today I have suffered nothing but torture.
I will tell you what has happened.
For some time I have not been well partly because of pains in the right
flank which were bothering me a few weeks before Christmas, and partly
because of the profuse bleeding in my throat. This made me worry in spite
of seeing the doctor every day who told me it was nothing.
On Christmas Day, which I hoped to pass as a most beautiful feast because,
besides a big Christmas tree with presents for friends and children, my
wife had placed under the fireplace a Nativity with very large shepherds
which I have no idea where she found. Everything pointed to a splendid
Christmas. On the Eve I had sung La Juive and we dined afterwards,
but towards 12:30 I found myself in the dining room where I was giving
presents to the servants when I noted a pain I had never had . . . I arrived
in my bathroom. I began to wash my mouth, but that strange illness took
me again and then I decided to throw myself into hot water. I drew a tepid
bath and got in, but did not have the time to sit myself down when I doubled
over forward like a dry twig, screaming like a madman. Everyone from the
household came running and they pulled me out. They tried to make me stand
but I was bent over holding my left flank with my left hand and was letting
out howls like a wounded dog, so loud they heard me on the street from
the eighteenth floor and throughout the whole hotel. They made me sit on
a chaise lounge where I could stay only on the edge and always bent forward.
My doctor was called by telephone, and he was not at home. The doctor of
the hotel was found who, not knowing my illness and not knowing me, did
not hazard to give me anything, but it seems that he gave me a palliative
until my doctor arrived. If someone had not insisted upon calling another
doctor I would have been nice and cold in Brooklyn. Returning to my story,
my doctor arrived and said as he had said before that it was an intercostal
pain and therefore with a sedative it would pass.
Five days I was between life and death because of the stubbornness of that
good doctor. Finally after the second day, my wife, with the help of my
Italian friends, who took turns at being on hand, held various consultations.
The last doctor said, 'If this man is not operated on in twelve hours he
is gone.' Thought was then given to the surgeon. "He was found. He
had to have the consent of my wife to operate and when he had it he went
to work. It was a case of breaking two ribs because they came to the conclusion
that I had a purulent pleurisy and the fluid had begun to reach the heart.
What a mess. I screamed for five days, seated at the edge of my couch day
and night. Finally what I remember is this: sounds of instruments being
moved and jarred, and then as if they had placed the point of the knife
in the spleen, and then great shouts of 'Hurrah.' What happened was that
in making the incision to get to the ribs, the puss came out like an explosion
striking the doctor, everything, the whole room. There was no need to
cut the ribs which would have been painful and this indicates the speed
of my convalescence.
Do you know what pleurisy is? It is what we commonly call a pain in the
flank. But there are various kinds. Mine was the most disgusting because
for years I was carrying it around and it was the cause of all my troubles.
Now I feel fairly well. I eat like a wolf in order to gain weight because
I have lost many kilograms. And already I am beginning to walk about the
room staying four hours a day seated in the sun, when there is any, or
else in the sitting room playing with Gloria. The wound has reached its
last stages but it must be open for any eventuality. It will take another
month to close itself. The month of March, one half I will spend at the
seashore, and one half on the boat coming over there. This is the story
and I hope you are well and know that until a tooth falls out nothing serious
will have happened.
Tell Bettina that I thank her for her affectionate letter and that she
should share in this letter also.
Kisses to the children.
I embrace you and kiss you with affection.
I pray you to read this letter also to Maria, because I cannot answer or
write to all."
Caruso's brave mind and spirit were about two months ahead of his body's schedule. It had been necessary to remove a rib which he did not know about
until weeks later. In all, he had undergone six operations, only three
of which had been made known to the public at the time. There were circulars
daily, sometimes oftener, just as for royalty. He was not able to sail
for Italy until May 28. Mr. Gatti, departing earlier in the month, had
issued a windy statement: "Enrico Caruso will without any doubt again
take his glorious post at the Metropolitan."
Before he left, Caruso paid a visit to the opera house. Even off-season
the Metropolitan is a good-sized family. From all over they came running
as the news shot through the theater, "Mr. Caruso is here!" The
comptroller locked the safe and closed shop. The Fortieth Street stage
door was left unattended. The porters dropped their mops and brooms.
"How wonderful you look, Mr. Caruso!" was the exclamation on
all sides. The performance was going over perfectly because everybody wanted
so much to believe it--going over perfectly, that is, with everyone but
the central figure of the tragedy. He was not deceived. Neither apparently
was Gatti, who, twenty years later, confessed in his memoirs that the first
collapse in Brooklyn had filled him with grave forebodings. "At that
very moment," he said, "I had a fleeting premonition that Caruso
Annie Kempter was not fooled either. Annie was head of the cleaning women
and dared sound the only baleful note. What she beheld crushed her and
she couldn't hold it back.
"Mr. Caruso," she whispered, "I think you look terrible."
"Annie," Caruso replied quietly, "you are the only one who
tells me the truth."
With Mrs. Caruso and Gloria he sailed from Brooklyn on the Presidente
Wilson. There was a great turnout and general merrymaking on the pier.
The rooms the Carusos occupied at the Hotel Vittoria in Sorrento are pretty
much today as they were then except that the great gilt piano is gone.
Undeterred by the heavy blinds, the sunlight and salt air have faded the
ornate damask covering the walls. The overblown Louis XVI furniture is
Enrico swam every day, Gloria never far from his side. He found his way
through the Vittoria's gardens to the beautiful little town square. Everywhere
he was greeted like a king. He was gaining weight as his photographs show
and he was gorgeously tanned. But he foolishly insisted on making trips
to Capri and Pompeii.
On July 15, he felt the old pain in his side. It was July 28 before he
would consent to see the famous Bastianelli brothers, the best doctors
in Italy at the time. Their verdict was that a kidney must be removed.
The operation would be done at their clinic in Rome the next week. Two
days later Caruso sank into delirium. Mrs. Caruso called Giovanni and the
sad little party set forth, deciding to break the journey in Naples. They
checked into the Hotel Vesuvio. The end was swift and terrible, in indescribable
heat and pain. He began to scream again, those same dreadful cries of Christmas
Tuesday morning, August 2, Mrs. Caruso remembered hearing the clock strike
nine. In the next five minutes he spoke three times.
That was all.
I am often asked, "What did Caruso die of?" The letter to his
brother is a painfully accurate medical history. Several of the doctors
Mrs. Caruso never forgave, particularly him of the intercostal neuralgia
diagnosis. She also had some definite ideas about the Neapolitan practitioners
who couldn't be roused those awful first days of August or who, when finally
rounded up, were so overwhelmed by the celebrity of their patient as
to be completely ineffectual.
Mr. Gatti said, "He was truly a victim of his own wilfulness."
He might have said of his own fear of doctors. "He listened to the
conflicting advice of many physicians and even to charlatans. And then
it was too late."
Claudia Cassidy is perhaps nearest the truth when she writes, . . . in
his fierce striving to be more than his public expected he was his own
executioner And, again, he was "a warrior to whom every performance
was a battle against the supreme odds of his own previous triumphs..."
Always the tantalizing question raises itself, "What if he had lived?"
He was forty-eight and at the height of his powers. When asked at what
age the singing voice is best he once said, "For tenors I think between
thirty and forty-five." But a healthy Caruso could easily have gone
on another ten years at the top. "Indeed," Irving Kolodin speculates,
"with his power and endurance, he might have passed sixty still vocally
And what if he had survived the illness? One of his doctors told Mr. Gatti,
"Caruso will perhaps pull through, and he will keep his voice, for
the voice has nothing to do with pleurisy. But this man will never again
have the necessary breath with all these operations."
Caruso had his wife and baby to live for. More than once in his adorable
letters to his young wife he expressed a longing to retire. But the most
beloved singer of all time not singing? One remembers the entry William Butler
Yeats (1865-1939) made in his diary a few days after the death, at thirty-eight,
of John Millington Synge (1871-1909): "We pity the living and not such dead as he. He has gone upward out of his ailing body into the heroical fountains. We are parched by time."
Francis Robinson, 1957