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Cultural Musings on Chatham-Kent
JEANNE GORDON – WALLACEBURG’S OPERATIC SUPERSTAR
Tuesday, March 29, 2011It is a long ways, metaphorically speaking, from Wallaceburg to New York but is even a further distance from church halls in Wallaceburg to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York!
Breathlesly described by critics as “a tall and handsome woman with a magnetic personality and a true contralto voice of extraordinary range and richness”, the girl from Wallaceburg, Ontario made the leap in fine style and in doing so made quite a name for herself at the famous Met for ten glorious years in the 1920s.
Daughter of John Gordon who was a leading member of the community, member of the federal parliament and friend to Wilfrid Laurier it was reported that the young Ruby ( that was her given name) sang on more than one occasion for the Prime Minister of Canada. Laurier as well as a any one else who heard the young girl sing marveled at her powerful voice and easy stage presence.
Like many young girls of her time (she was born in 1884) born into aspiring families possessing some wealth, young Ruby was required to take music lessons. She pursued her musical interests,( she had no idea that it would lead to a career) at Toronto’s Havergal College under the tutelage of her teacher Albert Hamm who was a respected English organist and choirmaster associated with Toronto and number of other towns in Ontario.
It not take Hamm long to realize that Gordon was not your ordinary precocious little rich girl struggling in vain to hold a tune. He saw the potential of her wonderful voice and was largely responsible for developing the young girl into a potential singer with an extraordinary voice. Although Hamm may have felt that Gordon had a bright future ahead of her in professional music circles, Ruby had different ideas.
Somehow and somewhere (who knows how these things ever happen) she met a Mr. Ralph K. Trix from Detroit, Michigan and at the age of twenty four fell madly in love. She moved to Detroit after they were married in 1908 but it was not long before the “honeymoon was over”. The man she thought she loved so much was no longer held in such esteem and the marriage was not exactly one made in heaven. Nevertheless , the faithful Gordon followed her husband to New York where he joined the navy in 1917.
It was while she was in New York that Ruby, now thirty three years old, happened to be heard, by the right people, singing opera excerpts at New York’s Rialto Theatre for a variety program. Blown away by the richness and texture of Gordon’s voice she was quickly referred to the Creatore Grand Opera Company in New York and she formally signed a contract with them in 1918.
After this came a contract with the Scotti Grand Opera company that, in rather short order, led to her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 22, 1919 as Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore. Although her career had until this time included singing for the family, at private parties arranged by her father and, on a few occasions, in Detroit the now thirty-five year old unknown Canadian was ready to assume her role as opera singer at one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world!
After her debut Ruby formally changed her name to “Jeanne” and was known as that for the rest of her life. The “new” Jeanne Gordon wasted little time getting involved in the operatic scene. She, in quick succession, built up a repertoire of some twenty-five roles in German, Italian, French and English.
It was reported by critics of the time that the strikingly beautiful singer that made a unforgettable impression on stage developed a “voice of exceptional range, from the lower contralto tones to the higher notes of dramatic soprano”. One of her most popular roles was that of Carmen that, according to reports of the time, never failed to elicit “a very enthusiastic audience response”.
Between 1920 and 1922 she made nine single-sided records for Colombia Records and another two for Victor Records.
Unfortunately the career that burned so brightly and so suddenly, burnt out almost as quickly. For ten years she dazzled the operatic world but by 1930 she had suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the Still-Hedreth Sanatorium in Macon, Missouri. She remained there until her death in 1952 from a massive heart attack. She was only sixty eight years old.
Ruby Jeanne Gordon still does live on in a variety of ways in Chatham-Kent. The Gordon Family of Wallaceburg continues to be a community-minded force, the theatre in Wallaceburg is named after her (The Jeanne Gordon Theatre) and then there is the spectacular house on the shore of Lake Erie a short distance west of Cedar Springs.
Built as a future retirement home ( c. 1925) by Jeanne Gordon she unfortunately had scant time to enjoy it. The Tudor Revival style is a very large and beautiful structure with spacious grounds and a spectacular view of Lake Erie. This gem in Chatham-Kent’s architectural offerings appears to many, driving along Hwy. #3, to be almost a mirage. It just seems to come out of nowhere and its scope and breath literally takes one’s breath away.
After a time the Dominion Glass Company ( Sydenham Glass Co.) purchased the home (c. 1947) and it was used for weddings, corporate function, a restaurant, as well as a bed and breakfast. About ten years later (c. 1957) the home was purchased by the Gold Family and its name changed to Gold Acres Estate.
Since that time the Gold Family has done a very admirable job of keeping this huge estate in good repair and honouring the memory of Jeanne Gordon.
David Mann ( of the famous Mann historians of Wallaceburg) has been diligently researching the history of Jeanne Gordon for a number of years and I fervently hope that he will, at a date in the near future, publish his long awaited book. I know that there would be a large number of people who would like to know much more about Wallaceburg’s operatic star than what I have written about in this article.
Ruby “Jeanne” Gordon – still another historic personality of Chatham-Kent that we all need to know more about, celebrate and treasure.
Jim and Lisa Gilbert are local, national and international award winning educators and historians.