Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gilding the Lily

For nearly thirty years, Lily Pons was the principal coloratura soprano at the Metropolitan Opera. Moreover, she transcended the rarified opera world to become a bona fide movie star, a radio fixture, a major concert draw, and an international symbol of glamour, charm and grace.

Born near the turn of the century in Draguignan, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France, Pons first studied piano as a child. Her formal voice training didn't begin until 1925; remarkably, she made her professional debut in 1928 in the difficult title role of Léo Delibes' Lakmé. Pons continued to build her reputation and repertoire, appearing at various provincial opera houses throughout France.

At the beginning of her opera career in France, circa 1928

Pons successfully auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1930, at the urging of her mentor, Giovanni Zenatello, who, in the twilight of his stellar singing career, offered guidance to upcoming talent. As it happened, the Met had recently lost their resident coloratura, and in an operatic twist on the classic Ruby Keeler "You're goin' out a nobody, kid, and comin' back a star!" riff, the unknown Pons was quickly put into that spot, making an unprecedented Met debut in January 1931. She became, literally, a star overnight; the acclaim was extraordinary, though not without dissenters -- notably, the New York Times felt she showed more promise than actual talent. The most oft-heard criticism throughout her career was of Pons' supposedly "small" voice; although what it lacked in volume, her admirers felt it made up in delicacy and overall strength: she could hold a high "D" for one minute.

Just before leaving for Hollywood, 1935

Now firmly ensconced as the Met's new star coloratura, it was only a matter of time before Pons was courted by Hollywood. The operetta musical was at the apex of its brief popularity, making a superstar out of MGM's Jeanette MacDonald, while Pons' fellow Metropolitan soprano, Grace Moore, earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for Columbia's One Night of Love (1934). Pons signed with RKO, and made three moderately successful films: I Dream Too Much (1935), That Girl from Paris (1936) and Hitting a New High (1937).

With Henry Fonda in I Dream Too Much (1935)

Making music with Jack Oakie, Lucille Ball and Frank Jenks in That Girl from Paris (1936)

Hitting a New High (1937) with John Howard

Although movie critics generally praised Pons' "bird-like charm" and, predictably, her singing talents, the films were rightly assessed as mere diversions, and Pons turned her attentions back to the Met and, in 1944-45, an ambitious concert tour. Canceling her fall and winter season in New York, Pons traveled overseas with the USO, performing for the troops in such far-flung places as North Africa, Burma, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf, often under grueling conditions. The tour continued through China, Belgium, France and Germany (in a performance delivered close to the front lines), then returned to America. Pons was accompanied on the tour by her second husband, the colorful conductor André Kostelanetz, with whom she shared a 20 year marriage -- and an even longer professional union. The secret to their deep-seated affection, even after divorce, perhaps can be found in a 1942 interview. "I love cra-zee hats," Madame Pons squealed, "and it is my luck that my husband is one of the few men who love cra-zee hats, too!"

Life with André: the bottom photo was taken at the Brazilian Pavillion of the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

In spite of what would total 300 performances on the Met stage, in some of the most famous roles in history, Pons seemed to have a refreshing lack of pomposity, as well as possessing a sly, Gallic sense of humor. In 1950, at benefit for the San Francisco Opera, Pons made a splashy appearance "in a sleazy, strapless, slit-skirted and low-cut black dress," doing a burlesque pantomime to a recording of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" by Carol Channing. "I forgot some of my routine," Pons gleefully recounted, "so I just added some extra bumps and grinds!"

Well into her own fifth decade, Pons reached a new level of fame in the 1950's, thanks to the new medium of television. True to her celebrity status, and her impish humor, the diva could be seen getting folksy with Tennessee Ernie Ford, trading jokes with Jimmy Durante, playing lookalikes with Imogene Coca, or warbling with Nat King Cole. She also, like nearly every other celebrity of the day, made a memorable appearance on What's My Line?

The dawn of the 1960's brought Pons' eventual fading from public view; with the fiery, publicity-driven Maria Callas dominating the headlines and gossip columns with her tempestuous private life, and thrilling listeners with her emotional, full-blooded approach to the coloratura, the charming, dainty Pons suddenly seemed quaintly old-fashioned. Her final performance at the Met was on December 14, 1960; after that, Pons made infrequent concert appearances until finally retiring. In one last burst of virtuosity, she emerged from that retirement to give one final concert on May 31, 1972, at New York's Philharmonic Hall. The event reunited Pons with André Kostelanetz, who conducted. The reception was rapturous, and Lily Pons enjoyed one final triumph. She died, on February 13, 1976, of pancreatic cancer in Dallas, Texas.

The overwhelming choice for our Mystery Guest was Marlene Dietrich, which no doubt would have made Lily Pons giggle with delight! And, in actuality, on more than one occasion, there was a very glancing resemblance.

We'll leave you, once more, with a recipe -- for Lily Pons' Pink Party Salad! Which is, basically, turkey salad dyed pink with pomegranate seeds. "It sounds frilly and feminine, but then, why do he-men in uniform fight for it?" trilled Madame Pons. Make it and find out for yourselves! As always, thanks for playing, darlings!

Lily Pons' Pink Party Salad

4 cups diced cooked turkey
2 cups chopped celery
Seeds from 2 large pomegranates
2 cups blanched shredded almonds
2 tablespoons cream
Salt to taste

Lightly toss turkey, celery, pomegranate seeds, and almonds together. Add cream, sufficient mayonnaise to moisten, and salt. Serve on lettuce leaves. Serves 12.


  1. Bravo! Splendidly done. And a complete surprise.

  2. and she was a stamp collector, too!

  3. Thank you for this!

    She did indeed have oddles and oddles of charm, and, at its best, there was a delightful bell-like "ping" to her voice that added a splendid, and appropriate, air of fragility to her characters.

    Sad to see so many of her roles now mauled into tatters the interest of conveying some alleged deep psychological drama. I'm so glad there are gobs of her broadcasts available on CD.

  4. ...and can you guess who dressed her in the 50s? Why, SCAASI of course!

  5. Well, that was a relief, knowing it wasn't Milton Berle
    after all.
    Lily Pons was as charming an actress as she was a singer. There's a delightful recording of Noel Coward's
    Conversation Piece circa 1950 in which she took the
    role of Melanie.
    Still~I think I'll take a pass on that Pink Party Salad.

  6. What an impeccable lady she was, and that DIVINE voice...I'm certainly a fan. Thank you for the gorgeous profile!

  7. Such a terrific post on her. You write so well , love all your words. Wish I could describe things this smartly. Thank you for always putting such effort into your posts and the great images. I saw her in the movie with Henry Fonda, I DREAM TO MUCH. She was so tiny a lady.
    And such a unique voice.

  8. Beautifully executed! And I have been a fan of her cold creme for years!

  9. Nice to see her drinkin our national beverage MATE ( mahteh)

  10. Oooh, I want to watch the men in uniform fight!

  11. As a child, I used to spend my summer holidays in Draguigan where Lily was born. Do I qualify for the "Most uninteresting comment" award ?

  12. Thank you again, darlings! And soyons-suave, that is not the most uninteresting comment, not by a long shot. In fact, I think I shall go around languidly remarking, "I used to spend my summer holidays in Draguigan," just because it sounds so glamorous.

  13. I knew NOTHING about her at all. Neat to review her life and career this way. Thanks!