Shortly after my own article on Nevada-born Metropolitan Opera flash-in-the-pan Marion Talley ("Talley-Ho!") appeared here, Mr. Pat Brophy, my fellow-columnist, was kind enough to send me a copy of his own article, "Marion Talley, Nevada-Born Enigma," of May 11, 2006. Mr. Brophy is a lot more knowledgeable about this woman than I am, and I want to thank him for his kindness. From what little I've dug up, I do believe he's surely correct in calling her an "enigma."
First and foremost, to me, is the strange grip Miss Talley seemed to have on the imagination of the New Yorker Magazine writers -- I'd almost call it an "obsession." On Feb. 17, 1926, this 19-year-old girl, daughter of Charles Talley, a Missouri-Pacific telegrapher and his wife Helen (both late of South Cedar Street, Nevada), and accompanied, it would seem, by a supporting cast of hordes of cheering Nevadans, including the near-mythic Col. Harry C. Moore, took control of the Met stage and egged-on Marion to belt out the familiar quartet of Rigoletto.
In an age when the public wasn't so accustomed to seeing and hearing teenage performers as we are now (the term "teenage performers" would've been an oxymoron), Miss Talley's performance at the Met would, indeed, have been newsworthy, perhaps, I'll have to admit, in a grotesque and peculiar sense. But, then, the fact that prominent citizens in a tiny Missouri town could ante-up $50,000 for a private railroad car would astound most folks, too. When you play the facts out in your mind, it might just resemble one of those charmingly innocent Andy Hardy movies (starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) that weren't then even on the horizon.
Marion Talley's Metropolitan debut must've captured the public's admiration and amazement, to an extent nearly impossible today, with our collective audience numbed by media blitz.
Writers of the newly-founded (Feb. 15, 1925, to be exact, almost exactly one year before Talley's Met performance) The New Yorker Magazine, most notably its Colorado-born roughneck founder Harold Ross, early announced that his new magazine would be "not for the little old lady from Dubuque." By this he meant that his little journalistic blague (roughly 65 pages long and costing 15 cents per week) would be the very pinnacle of smart, urban sophistication. While doing all this, of course, his magazine would poke good, clean fun at small-town grotesqueries and absurdities (much the same as the satirical "Americana" section of H.L. Mencken's hugely popular monthly, The Smart Set, was doing). World War II sobered-up Ross's magazine: in its pages was published John Hersey's magnificent reportage from Hiroshima. While maintaining the best cartoons in the trade, the weekly never tried to return to its frivolous beginnings.
Maybe this helps account for the difference between the way Henry Luce's Time Magazine reported Miss Talley's debut, and the way Harold Ross's The New Yorker Magazine described the same event.
Time's report was respectful, if not all agog. The New Yorker's, by contrast, was downright sneering and thereby nasty: "Kansas City and New York joined hands," it wrote, "for the purpose of her [Talley's] debut.
The Kansas City influence dominated, and the affair was brought off in the best Kiwanis tradition" (surely a middle-fingered salute to Sinclair Lewis and Henry Lewis Mencken, both of whom ridiculed Rotary and the Rotary mentality remorselessly). "There was not even the amiable suavity of big-town bunk about it," the anonymous writer continued, in much the same vein. "It was all small-town bunk." Sinclair Lewis's best-seller, Main Street (1920) had prepared readers for a lengthy post-war assault on America's small towns, and his next novel, Babbitt, would not only continue the attack, but add a word to the American lexicon.
Journalists soon had Marion Tally pegged. She was a small-town gal. All bets were off.
So, it's small wonder that, given the pre-performance hype her publicists had arranged for her; given the attack of jitters all her hometown rooters, sitting out in front of her in the Met, must've stirred up in her; given her as-yet-largely untrained 19-year-old voice -- Marion Nevada Talley couldn't possibly have sounded as good that February night as she would in a few years. That last has got to be a plain truth.
And so, if anyone present at Marion Talley's debut performance at the Met felt compelled to hang her out to dry, he might've gone after some of the adults involved in planning for her career, instead. One Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink, for instance, who, instead of instructing Marion how to sing opera, should've recommended Charles and Helen take their teenage daughter home to Nevada to live out the rest of her childhood, then recommend she enroll in a good junior college for women, like Cottey College, right there in Nevada, her own home town., before surrendering her to the vicious shenanigans of the big-city theater crowd.
Between the lavish and lulling praise with which she was liberally showered from an early age, and the harsh and hurtful criticism leveled against her by many of The New Yorker's sharpshooters, there seem to have been a few critics who could see the young singer with pity, mild affection, and a degree of objectivity.
The anonymous writer of the NYer's "Musical Events" column, identified only by the initials R.A.S., wrote, "Miss Talley has a lovely voice, in its middle register, a natural sense of phrase, adequate musicianship, and an untutored and therefore unaffected manner on the stage. She seems to be miscast as a coloratura soprano, for her adventures in vocal embroidery were more tentative than effective." [Then comes the inevitable zinger.] "If she is entirely ready to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan, then we are prepared to write the history of Lithuania for The Encyclopedia Britannica."
R.A.S. concludes his evaluation of Marion Talley by writing, "We hope that her advisors won't try to accelerate her development by pushing her further into the publicity barrel. She has much to learn, and if she has time to learn it, she may become a great singer." Of all the crowing and squawking over this undeniably gifted 19-year-old, this last, in its calm reasonableness, is the one I'm most likely to accept as the truth.
It steers a middle course, which may not always be the most fruitful course to take, but in Marion Talley's particular case, it seems to be.
1926 was a turbulent year in America -- did you ever hear of a calm and relaxing year in 20th-century America? It was probably true that Kansas City's newspaper reporters and fledgling radio newscasters were not yet accustomed to assaulting their human prey to give interviews, following them on foot or in cars until they either submitted or ran off the road. And so, Marion Talley, after her 4-year Metropolitan Opera contract had expired, probably breathed an immense sigh of relief, sped out of New York City as fast as her new Stutz Bearcat would carry her, and, for all intents and purposes, entered a kind of benign twilight zone, where people would finally leave her in peace.
Maybe this 19-year-old knew a lot more than people gave her credit for.