Thurber, Jeannette (1850–1946)

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Thurber, Jeannette (1850–1946)

American music patron. Born on January 29, 1850, in New York City; died on January 2, 1946, in Bronxville, New York; daughter of Henry Meyer(s) and Anne Maria Coffin (Price) Meyer(s); married Francis Beattie Thurber (a merchant and attorney), on September 15, 1869; children: Jeannette M., Marianna Blakeman, Francis Beattie.

Lobbied for the establishment of the American School of Opera (1885); oversaw the establishment of the National Conservatory of Music (1891).

Jeannette Thurber was born into a well-to-do family in New York City on January 29, 1850, the daughter of Henry and Anne Meyer (some records list the family name as Meyers). Her father, who had immigrated to New York City from Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1837, was independently wealthy. Tutored privately in Paris and New York, Thurber was also taught music by her father, an amateur violinist. At age 19, she married Francis Beattie Thurber, a prosperous grocery wholesaler and later a lawyer. The couple had three children. With the financial resources of her family and husband, Thurber became a benefactor and patron of American classical music institutions. She was particularly interested in fostering music education, and donated money to allow American students to study in Europe. She also provided the financial backing for the first Wagner festival held in the U.S. and for free concerts for young people.

By the early 1880s, her ambitions grew to include a national music conservatory program. Thurber hoped to imitate the music education system in Western Europe, with private and government-funded conservatories around the country. In 1885, she obtained a charter from the state of New York to found the first National Conservatory of Music, which opened in New York City as the American School of Opera in December 1885. She also established a sister organization, the traveling American Opera Company, designed to employ conservatory graduates while exposing the American public to opera. It performed first in 1886 under the direction of Theodore Thomas, but despite high artistic standards and Thurber's dedicated efforts the company was dissolved the following year after failing to turn a profit and losing its wealthy patrons.

Disappointed, Thurber turned her attention to promoting the School of Opera, now called simply the National Conservatory of Music. With low tuition fees and an open-admissions policy, the school expanded beyond opera training to a range of music subjects. In 1891, Congress passed a bill to incorporate it, making it the only school of music in the country with the authority to confer diplomas and honorary degrees. The following year Thurber's efforts to find a world-renowned composer to head the school resulted in the appointment of Antonin Dvorak, who served as director from 1892 to 1895. Exposed to American folk music and especially African-American songs by Conservatory students, Dvorak, with Thurber's encouragement, composed several works incorporating these sources, including his celebrated Symphony No. 9, From the New World.

Yet despite Thurber's efforts as president and the prestige of the school's faculty and directors, the Conservatory, like the Opera Company, failed to attract the American public and continually suffered financial difficulties. By the early 1920s, the Conservatory had for all practical purposes ceased to function; President Woodrow Wilson attempted to revitalize it in 1921 by allowing it to establish other regional branches, but that too failed. Thurber, though remaining associated with the Conservatory, gave her time to other organizations in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the YWCA, the Woman's Exchange, and the Woman's Art School of Cooper Union. She and Francis Thurber also founded the Onteora Club in the Catskill Mountains where they had a summer home. The National Conservatory of Music was officially closed in 1946, about the time of Thurber's death in Bronxville, New York, at age 95.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California