Lawrence, Marjorie (1908–1979)
Lawrence, Marjorie (1908–1979)
Australian soprano who performed in a wheelchair after suffering the crippling effects of polio. Born Marjorie Florence Lawrence in Dean's Marsh, Victoria, Australia, on February 17, 1908; died on January 10, 1979, in Little Rock, Arkansas; daughter of William Lawrence and Elizabeth (Smith) Lawrence; studied with Cécile Gilly in Paris; married Thomas Michael King, on March 29, 1941.
Made debut at Monte Carlo (1932), Paris Opéra (1933–36), Metropolitan Opera (1935–49); was a professor of voice at Tulane University (1956–60) and became a director of the Southern Illinois University opera workshop (1960).
Born in 1908 in a country village, population 140, in Dean's Marsh, Australia, Marjorie Lawrence grew up surrounded by four brothers, one sister, and a profusion of sheep farmers. "I was an impossible child," she once noted. "I wanted to be a boy like my brothers." After early music study with the local parson, she was convinced by age 18 that she wanted a singing career, but her father said no. So she and her brother Cyril, who would become her manager, set out for Melbourne. While working as a seamstress for two years, Lawrence studied with Ivor Boustead. In 1929, she won a vocal competition sponsored by a Melbourne newspaper, prompting her father to consent to her study in Paris. Lawrence made her debut in Monte Carlo as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (1932), her Paris debut as Elsa in Lohengrin (1933), and her Metropolitan debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre (December 1935).
In personality, Marjorie Lawrence was a far cry from the stalwart Wagnerian personas she interpreted. "For heaven's sake, don't let me catch you calling me a prima donna or diva," she instructed the editors of Current Biography. "And I'm not Madame Lawrence, or anything like that. I'm just Marjorie. I don't have a favorite recipe for kugelhupf or spaghetti. I hate critics and crowded rooms and stuffy people and I just can't wait until I get out in the fresh air with a good horse or my bike. How I love my bike."
Marjorie Lawrence made steady progress in her opera career and was a particularly athletic soprano. She was one of the few actresses who could follow Richard Wagner's instructions for Götterdämmerung. On the evening of January 12, 1936, her Brünnhilde leapt on her horse Grane and galloped to Siegfried's funeral pyre at the end of the opera. "The audience was taken by storm," wrote Olin Downs in The New York Times. Up until then, sedentary prima donnas had "led ancient nags across the stage by a bridle or left them in charge of a stable groom," noted Current Biography. Her physical strength was an asset in Richard Strauss' Salomé, when her Dance of the Seven Veils produced a similar effect. Jerome Bohm reported in the New York Herald Tribune in 1938, "It was a remarkable feat for an actress who has not been trained as a dancer to have surmounted an all but insurmountable problem so convincingly and to have sung the tremendous closing scene so convincingly." Then, Lawrence contracted polio in 1941, at age 31. She would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Lawrence's determination to continue her career after being confined to a wheelchair was equally amazing, all the more so in an era of nonexistent access for the disabled and a prevailing attitude that those who were physically challenged should stay out of public view. Concert and opera managers were reluctant to hire her, fearing a decline in her vocal abilities. She overcame this reluctance, only to have some claim that she exploited her handicap. Many, however, were more charitable. Of her 1943 comeback, critic Noel Straus wrote: "The long rest she has had did its share in giving freshness to the voice which was never before as absolutely firm in its tones, nor employed with such depth of feeling." Edward O'Gormann added, "I don't believe Miss Lawrence's voice has ever sounded as rich and as powerful … as it did last night." Some accommodations were made for her disability and special productions of Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde under Sir Thomas Beecham's direction were given. Her last professional role was as Amneris in Aïda in 1947 at the Paris Opéra.
After she left the stage, Lawrence turned to teaching at Tulane and Southern Illinois University (SIU). At SIU, the Marjorie Lawrence Opera Theater was established in her honor. In 1949, she wrote Interrupted Melody: The Story of My Life, detailing her career, and a 1955 movie based on the book is still considered one of the best "biopics" ever filmed. An Oscar went to Sonia Levien and William Ludwig for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress to Eleanor Parker (whose voice was dubbed by Eileen Farrell ).
Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1980.
Lawrence, Marjorie. Interrupted Melody: The Story of My Life. NY: Appleton, 1949.
Interrupted Melody (105 min. film), starring Eleanor Parker, Glenn Ford, and Roger Moore, with a cameo by Eileen Farrell as a vocal student, script by William Ludwig and Sonya Levien, produced by MGM, 1955.