Swarthout, Gladys (1904–1969)

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Swarthout, Gladys (1904–1969)

American mezzo soprano. Born on December 25, 1904, in Deepwater, Missouri; died on July 7, 1969, in Florence, Italy; daughter of Frank Leslie Swarthout and Ruth (Wonser) Swarthout; graduated from Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago, doctorate in music, 1923; married Harry Richmond Kern, on March 22, 1925 (died October 20, 1931); married Frank M. Chapman, Jr., in 1932 (died 1966); no children.

Sang with Chicago Civic Opera Company, Ravinia Park Opera Company and Metropolitan Opera House; star of radio shows and movie musicals; wrote memoirs, Come Soon, Tomorrow (1945).

selected filmography:

Rose of the Rancho (1936); Give Us This Night (1936); Champagne Waltz (1937); To Have and to Hold (1937); Romance in the Dark (1938); Ambush (1939, only non-singing role).

Gladys Swarthout, born in 1904 in the Ozark mining town of Deepwater, Missouri, had an unusually large and mature voice as a child. While a 13-year-old student at Central High in Kansas City, she auditioned for and won the post of contralto soloist in a church choir by posing as a 19-year-old. Her poise as a teenaged singer was remarkable, and at her first recital she impressed a wealthy Kansas City family so much that they decided to finance her career.

By the time she received her doctorate in music in 1923 from the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Swarthout was an accomplished concert singer, having given recitals throughout the United States, often performing with her older sister Roma Swarthout . Gladys

made her operatic debut with the Chicago Civic Opera Company in the 1924–25 season, singing 22 roles in 50 performances, more than any other singer in the company. After a successful stint with the Ravinia Park Opera Company in Chicago in the late 1920s, Swarthout made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on November 15, 1929. She sang the part of La Cieca in La Gioconda, which would be one of her best-known roles. Swarthout quickly became one of the company's leading mezzo-sopranos, featured in the American premiere of Sadko and taking over many roles from the retiring Marion Telva . With a repertoire of over 25 operas, she excelled in Mignon and Carmen but was also celebrated for her performances in Norma, Peter Ibbetson and La Forza del Destino.

A chic, attractive woman, often featured on "best-dressed" lists, Swarthout spent much of the late 1930s in Hollywood as Paramount's answer to MGM's Jeanette MacDonald . The publicity attending her films brought Swarthout to a much larger audience, but her films were not huge hits, despite such co-stars as Fred Mac-Murray (in 1937's To Have and to Hold). She made her final film, Ambush, in 1939.

Swarthout's talents were better suited to radio, a branch of her career that also began in the 1930s. She appeared on such programs as the "Chase and Sanborn Hour," "Caravan," and "Ford Sunday Evening," and had her own mixed musical program on WEAF in New York City. Beginning in the late 1930s, critics named her "Number-One Female Singer of Classics" on the radio for five successive years. Radio helped Swarthout's fame spread. She published a book of memoirs, Come Soon, Tomorrow, in 1945. Her concerts and recordings were popular successes. But although she was pleasing to listen to and look at, some critics attacked her lack of intensity of feeling and expression, which was believed to limit her dramatic abilities on the opera stage.

Swarthout married Frank Chapman in 1932—the year after the death of her first husband Harry Richmond Kern—and he gave up his own career as a singer to act as her manager. In 1957, a year after undergoing heart surgery, Swarthout retired from the stage. She eventually moved with Chapman to a villa in Florence, Italy, where she died in 1969.


Ewen, David, ed. Living Musicians. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of … ? NY: Crown, 1967.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York

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