“Grace’s only failing – if, indeed, she had one – was that she lived and breathed headlines, and was a master at creating them … Offstage, Grace was the foodstuff of a gossip columnist’s diet.
In newsprint she became an earthy woman who sampled love at every table – and rumor had it that the tables were numerous.” – Rosa Ponselle
Grace Moore (1898 – 1947) had to struggle to gain respect as an opera singer. That she had a beautiful voice there was no question, but she began her career singing in nightclubs and then in Broadway musical revues. And while it was true that Rosa Ponselle had also begun her career in the theater (singing with her sister in vaudeville) she at least had the imprimatur and sponsorship of the great Enrico Caruso.
They called her the “Tennessee Nightingale.” Her acting ability was limited and her voice was nor technically perfect, but she had a wonderful sound and understood how to bring meaning to what she sang. It didn’t hurt that she was also gorgeous. She specialized in French and Italian lyric soprano roles. Her most famous role was “Louise” but she excelled as Mimi in “La Boheme”, Gilda in “Rigoletto”, “Manon”, and as “Madama Butterfly.”
Mary Willie Grace Moore was born in the small town of Slabtown, Tennessee. Willie, as she was known then, was captain of her girl’s basketball team in high school and, coming from a religious upbringing, originally intended to be a Baptist missionary. She studied singing and music theory in college and convinced her family, who initially opposed a singing career for her, to send her to Washington, D.C. for further studies. There she came in contact with Alma Gluck and Mary Garden, both famous opera stars. At 17 she sang in a recital with Giovanni Martinelli, Caruso’s eventual successor at the Metropolitan Opera.
She auditioned (and failed) twice for the Metropolitan, but got a job singing in a Jerome Kern Broadway musical “Hitchy Koo” and used her earnings to finance a two year stay in Paris where she continued her studies. When she returned to America, she sang in two Irving Berlin Music Box revues in which she introduced a Berlin standard, “What’ll I Do?” and recorded a Berlin song (“Listening”) which became the number five best selling record in the country. She returned several times to Europe for further training and was finally heard in Milan by Giulio Gatti-Cazzaza, the director of the Metropolitan who signed her to make her Met debut in 1928 as Mimi in “La Boheme.”
She was not without flaws. Her love affairs with her male co-stars were so well known that a Metropolitan employee once felt compelled to state in an interview that “I am the only male member of the cast who has not spent the night with Miss Moore.” Whether he was boasting or complaining is uncertain. Also, perhaps as a heritage of her southern Tennessee upbringing, she once insisted that a clause be added to her vaudeville contract stating that “no colored act” would appear on the same bill with her. Rather than agree, management cancelled her appearance
In 1930 Hollywood called and she signed with MGM. The first, “A Lady’s Morals” in which she played legendary singer Jenny Lind, did poorly at the box office, in part because of the poor script and partly because the public was tiring of Hollywood musicals. In her next film, “New Moon”, she co-starred with her fellow Metropolitan Opera singer Lawrence Tibbett, but it was a clumsy adaptation of the Sigmund Romberg operetta and was not a success.
In 1931 she married the Spanish film actor, Valentín Parera (to whom by all accounts, she remained faithful until her death.) But the poor quality of her films (and the poor box office reception they received) depressed her and she sought solace in food. MGM dropped their now overweight diva.
Which was the best thing that could have happened to her because she promptly returned to Broadway (after dropping that extra weight) and starred in an operetta, “The Dubarry”, which became a smash hit. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures which at the time was still a very minor studio, saw her in “Dubarry” and liked her. In 1934 he poured his limited resources into a well written sophisticated musical with an fine score and excellent direction. The result was “One Night of Love” which was not only an artistic and financial success, but also made Grace Moore a major film star. Her record of “One Night of Love’ became a number one hit and she eventually made six more films for Columbia.
The film earned five Academy Award nominations, including one as Best Actress. She projected great charm and naturalness but it has to be said that her Carmen in “One Night of Love” may owe more to Ruby Keeler than Spanish gypsies.
Grace Moore’s last film was “Louise” in 1938, an adaptation of Charpentier’s opera for which she was coached by the composer himself.
Moore resumed her stage career in 1938, performed often on the radio, and gave concerts in Europe, returning to the Metropolitan for a short time, and touring for the USO during World War II. She was later awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for her efforts during the war. In early 1947 she sang a concert in Copenhagen, then boarded a flight to Stockholm, Sweden. The KLM DC3 plane crashed and exploded on takeoff and all aboard, including Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, were killed. In 1953, Warner Brothers released a highly innacurate film biography (“So This Is Love”) of Grace Moore starring Kathryn Grayson with the love interest played by, of all people, Merv Griffin. He survived the disaster, Grace Moore’s legend took a while longer to recover.