Contralto’s Love for Her Adopted Nation Was Absolute

Times Staff Writer

As buglers sound the solemn notes of taps and 21-gun salutes are fired, among those Americans who once sang patriotic tunes on Memorial Day was a San Diegan, the “world’s greatest contralto.” She was the mother of eight whose brother and four sons fought on opposite sides in World War I while she enthusiastically entertained U.S. troops.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who sang for queens and presidents, was a big woman with a big heart, an old-world woman who once said she would rather see a prize fight than a suffragists’ parade.

She was Czech by birth, German by musical training and American by choice. She came to the United States when she was 37. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, she found that her love for her new country clashed with her nostalgia for her old.

She made her choice swiftly, devoting her energies to promoting an American victory. Long before the USO existed, she crossed the country, entertaining troops, selling Liberty Bonds and appearing at Red Cross fundraisers.


She was already a musical legend. She sang for composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, recorded duets with Enrico Caruso, appeared on the New York Metropolitan Opera stage from 1899 to 1932, and became the world’s most beloved interpreter of “Silent Night.”

She was born in 1861 in Prague. Her Catholic father was in the Austrian army and her mother was an Italian singer. Her mother began teaching her to sing contralto arias from Italian operas when Ernestine was 9.

But her family was poor, and often hungry. She was 10 when the circus came to town, and she sang and cleaned cages for a meal. Her aristocratic father was scandalized and put a stop to it. But she was as hard-headed as he, and once, when he was away, she got a hunk of cheese for her pregnant mother by singing and dancing for a dour grocer.

She learned to play the piano over the crying of her youngest sibling, keeping count by tapping with one foot and using the other to rock the baby in a cradle. “No wonder I didn’t turn out a [Ignace] Paderewski,” she wrote in her biography “Schumann-Heink: The Last of the Titans.” (Paderewski, a composer, pianist and president of Poland, was Liberace’s idol.)

In 1876, at 15, she auditioned for the Vienna Court Opera. Buoyed by the confidence of her supporters, she sang her heart out, but failed to impress the director. He sneered that she was “impossible. Short, homely, undernourished, poverty-stricken. How can you expect her to succeed? My dear child,” he added with a wave of his hand, “you had better give up singing. Buy a sewing machine and go to work. You’ll never be an artist.”

She auditioned again, this time at the Dresden Royal Opera, where she was assigned small parts. But she was fired in 1882 -- not for artistic transgressions but for personal ones. She had married the opera house’s secretary, Ernst Heink. Neither realized that employees were forbidden to marry without permission. He too was fired.

Several years later, with his wife working only sporadically after giving birth to three children, Heink left her, in debt and pregnant with their fourth child. The sheriff repossessed her furniture, and she contemplated throwing herself and the children in front of a train, she said, until the sound of her daughter’s voice brought her to her senses.

At a benefit in Berlin, she channeled her own suffering into song and was hired to sing “Carmen.” She farmed her children out to her parents until she had earned enough money to support them.

Her poverty had made her humble. She never complained. Once, when she had just delivered a child, she played wet-nurse for a poor chorus girl who had no milk of her own for her newborn. She acted every part and sang every song, and when her occasional missed cues and off-pitch delivery angered conductors, she learned to read music.

In 1893, she married Paul Schumann, an actor, stage manager and widower with a young son. Together, they had three children.

Five years later, eight months pregnant with her last child, she made her Chicago debut, singing the role of Ortrud in Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin.” Her last was her only U.S.-born child; she named him George Washington. She later said that giving birth to each of her children “added a note to my range.”

Her range was three octaves, from low D to high B.

Crossing the Atlantic year after year, she shuttled between her children and the sound of applause, which nourished her soul.

Schumann-Heink once said that her “homely” looks enabled her to avoid temptations. Her girth was such that, appearing at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Shrine, the Hollywood Bowl, Coliseum and Greek Theater, she habitually knocked over music stands as she made her way to the front of the stage.

In 1899, when she sang for Queen Victoria -- a woman who had nine children and still reigned over an empire -- Edward, the Prince of Wales, angered her when he asked how she could have so many children and still find time to sing. Tight-lipped, she made no reply.

On New Year’s night 1904, she was singing in Washington, D.C., when President Theodore Roosevelt arrived to hear her sing. Just before she went on stage, she received word that her husband had died. Mustering her strength and professionalism, she sang “Home Sweet Home” and cried as she did. “Roosevelt was in the stage box,” she remembered, “and I saw that he cried too. Oh, I just loved him for that!”

The next year, she became an American citizen. It was practicality -- and a need for a stable home -- that led her to a desperate marriage with her manager and Chicago lawyer, George Rapp Jr., a dozen years younger than she was. She brought her children to the United States to join her, but after Rapp protested that she coddled and indulged them, she divorced him.

More money could be made here than in Europe and, in three years of touring, she sang in more than 230 operas and concerts. She was 47 when she returned to Germany in 1909 to sing the role of Klytemnestra, the guilt-ridden queen in Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.”

A year later she was back here, where she bought 500 acres in El Cajon’s Grossmont area in San Diego County and built Casa Ernestina. She kept a huge American flag flying there, as she did when she moved to Coronado.

When war broke out in 1914, her eldest son, August, was with her in San Diego. His wife and two children still lived in Germany, so he returned to Germany to join the navy and later was lost at sea.

When America entered the war in 1917, three of Schumann-Heink’s elder sons enlisted on the U.S. side. Their mother devoted her energies to the war effort, giving concerts for the Red Cross, opening her homes to servicemen and touring hospitals and army camps. It earned her the nickname “Mother of the A.E.F” (American Expeditionary Force).

After the war, she went to Germany to bring her daughter-in-law and grandchildren to America. She stopped in Paris, where, on Bastille Day in 1919, she watched soldiers march under the Arc de Triomphe. As the American troops passed by, she began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Schumann-Heink also never forgot how to gain public support; she insisted that her performances should be free or that admission prices should be kept low. She also entertained in socialites’ homes, including that of Los Angeles Philharmonic founder William Clark. Her annual Christmas Eve radio broadcast of “Silent Night” became a national tradition.

When she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1928 Republican National Convention, comedian Will Rogers said he wished she could have sung the keynote speech. (She irked her hosts by telling a reporter that she preferred the Democratic candidate, Al Smith, over the GOP’s Herbert Hoover.)

A 1931 Good Housekeeping magazine poll found that she was one of the nation’s dozen greatest living women.

A year before, when she sang at the dedication ceremonies for the memorial auditorium in Sacramento, she took a moment to chastise those who had protested the presence of Chinese and black children at the event. “It is up to the war mothers to teach their children the love of law and not make a difference between black or yellow or brown or white skins. You make war among yourselves through your children.”

She last sang at age 70, at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1932. But she never stopped speaking; the next year, she railed against the growing Nazi movement in Germany, reminding listeners that her mother was half-Jewish.

Fox studios persuaded her to make her film debut in “Here’s to Romance” in 1935, playing the small role of an old battle-ax German singing teacher. But MGM stole her from under Fox’s nose, signing her to a five-year contract. When the two studios began to squabble, Schumann-Heink was thrilled that they would fight over a 74-year-old woman.

“It is very comic,” she said, “this quarreling among the motion picture men who call me terrific, colossal and gigantic. I think I don’t like the gigantic very much.”

Her secret to a long life, she told a 1936 interviewer, was that she had never gone in for smoking or drinking. “Yah,” she added, “Yah, I did have to smoke one time -- when I sang in ‘Carmen.’ What a terrible feeling.”

She died that year of leukemia at her Hollywood home.

As the train carrying her coffin rolled through several towns on its way to San Diego, where she was buried, American Legion honor guards stood at attention to bid farewell to the “beloved mother” of the veterans of the Great War.