Shortly after we moved from Minneapolis to Nevada, I began hearing that a famous opera singer had been born here. Nobody could tell me which one or when, but it intrigued me. In America, a famous person could've been born in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but the nourishing aura of Possibility. About the same time, I learned that the great movie director John Huston (Anjelica's father) had been born here, too. But in his case, the facts were clear and available. He was, in fact, in the last decade of the last century, still breathing. My friend and colleague, Dr. Ann Allen, of Cottey's history department, had bought and was living in the house where he'd been born -- 404 South Adams. (And if I want to let my imagination run riot, I need only picture the claw-foot bathtub Ann sold us as the very one in which Huston's parents bathed their tiny infant!)
Anyway, I was content to stay ignorant of Nevada's opera singer. After all, how famous could he/she have been if no one in the town of his/her birth even knew his/her name?
A couple of years ago, Ginny gave me, for Christmas, the eight disks containing every page of The New Yorker Magazine (my favorite) since its first, in February 1925. I began by reading every word of every issue (that's why I'm now no farther along than March of 1928).
Somewhere in one of the issues of 1926, I came across an up-dating of the New York sports scene written by an unidentified soul whose wise-acrisms characterized the whole magazine in its "sophisticated" wise-ass infancy. "Music?" he asks, with a relevancy that puzzles me, "I happen to know too much about music to marvel convincedly [sic] at Marion Talley's voice."
Somehow the name, as it appeared on the page, shook something loose in my memory. Because I wasn't living in 1926, however, but had voluntarily dropped myself into the middle of a more-or-less alien decade, I could only guess at the writer's meaning, could only figure out the context by myself. On the face of it, it sounded as if the writer was slamming Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Talley's voice, in a weirdly convoluted way. But if he didn't bother to explain who this person was, didn't that strongly suggest that most readers already knew? Could it be that this person was universally known for the wretchedness of his/her voice? That didn't sound plausible. I needed help.
Which I hoped to get, maybe, from other sources.
And, sure enough, in the Monday, March 1, 1926, issue of the fairly new Time Magazine, I read the article "Debut" (in real prose, I noticed, when their readers still knew how to read, and didn't have to rely on graphs, figures, and severely dumbed-down little prose nuggets, as they do today)
"There came to Manhattan," the article began, "a special delegation from Kansas City, a delegation that included Mayor Beach and many substantial citizens. There were taxi-loads of flowers. There were 10,000 people beside themselves to get into the Metropolitan House. . . . And through it all, a person who did not seem to lose her head was the girl (Ah, so it was a girl!) with the voice that was creating all the excitement, the girl who had provided the daily press with one of the best human-interest stories of the year -- the new prima donna, 19-year-old Marion Nevada Talley." (Well, could anything speak as well of one's birthplace as knowing your parents named you after that place?)
I've found all sorts of helpful information on the Internet about this once-famous woman, who not only didn't fail at the Metropolitan Opera House after 4 years, as was strongly suggested in the late 1920's, but made some films and some opera recordings that hold up pretty well (thanks again to the Internet) to this day. I played some just last night.
I checked Cottey College's Ross Memorial Library to see if it holds a biography of Marion Nevada Talley (the Web site indicates there is one), but it doesn't. Tomorrow morning, I'll try Nevada's public library.
In any event, I seem to have discovered for myself something of a fascinating enigma, well worth the tracking down.