Gladys Swarthout

Gladys Swarthout was born Christmas Day, December 25th, 1900. The year of birth was often reported as 1904, probably in an attempt to avoid revealing her true age. This blessed event occurred in the Ozark mining town of Deepwater, Missouri into a family full of musical talent. Her sister Roma became a singing teacher in New York and two second cousins held the positions of Deans of Music, Donald Swarthout at the University of Kansas and Max Swarthout at the University of California. Given what we currently know about her, she would be a 6th cousin three times removed of the web master.

She was the daughter of Frank L. Swarthout, who worked for many years as a Pullman conductor for the railroad. She lived in Deepwater for several years when a young girl. "At one time the business men of Deepwater seriously considered changing the name of the town to Swarthout, in honor of my daughter, Gladys, the metropolitan opera singer who was born in Deepwater," her father has been quoted. Although the plans for changing the name of the town did not materialize, it is an evidence of the high esteem and pride with which Deepwater regarded her most celebrated daughter. I have also heard that Gladys donated a set of stage curtains to the Deepwater High School, but haven't been able to find specific documentation.

While a young girl she suffered from a number of common illnesses, and one of them was evidently rheumatic fever, though it wasn't diagnosed as such until she was in her 50's. The disease left her with a heart condition, a damaged mitral valve.

The family moved to 921 Cherry Street in Kansas City were she attended grade and high school, meanwhile taking vocal lessons, for early in life her lovely voice gave great promise. Her start came through her own self-confidence. Her frustration with the lead singer in the church choir in Kansas City led her to put up her hair and apply for the position herself. She was quickly hired to the paying position, though she was only 13! She graduated from New Central High School in Kansas City. She made her radio debut there in 1927 for WDAF-AM.

Right - High School picture of Gladys from Musical America, January 1938

Mr. Swarthout made only a small salary in those days, but the family made every sacrifice so that both Gladys and Romah Lee might have musical training. Gladys Swarthout studied under one of the best teachers, but soon it was necessary for her to study under teachers with an even wider knowledge of voice. Her teacher sent her to the Clark Conservatory of Music at Chicago. The family had found it difficult to finance the music lessons. When the head of the Conservatory heard Gladys sing and envisioned the fame and success that would be hers if she continued, he secured work for her to help pay the expenses. Later, she was giving a recital and missed a high note, so she made her teacher start again and this time she hit the note absolutely clearly; as a result, a wealthy Kansas family financed her musical education. After a four year course at this Conservatory, Miss Swarthout was employed by the Vienna Opera Company at Highland Park, Chicago.

From there Gladys Swarthout followed her bright particular star through a diversified singer's existence, success following success wherever she appeared. At the age of eighteen she made her first appearance as a soloist with an orchestra, the occasion being a concert of the Detroit Symphony, which was then under the leadership of the late Ossip Gabrilowitsch. She attended the Metropolitan Junior College in Missouri.

At some point around this time she married Harry Kern of Chicago, an older man who was the general credit manager for the Hart-Schaffner & Marx Company, but she still retained her maiden name for her singing appearances.

Gladys was often helped by those around her. While studying at the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago, a group of friends formed a committee and arranged for an audition with the Chicago Civic Opera Company. Much to her surprise she ended up with a contract! And at the time she didn't know a single operatic role! By her debut a few months later, she had memorized 23 parts and participated in over half of the operas presented that season. She sang for the Ravinia Opera Company of Chicago for three seasons. In 1929, she made her debut with the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, where she was a participant for several decades.

Frank LaForge, the musical accompanist and arranger, had built a studio on his father-in-law's 2,700 acre summer estate at Loon Bay, the lake expansion of the Saint Croix River. Visitors in the 1920's included such operatic proteges such as Lily Pons and Gladys Swarthout, who where good friends. They not only honed their talents but enjoyed camping forays along the river.

Her husband, Harry, passed away in 1931.

Continue Gladys Biography - Part 2

This page was created by and Copyrighted by Mark Swarthout, 2005
The last update to the page was on January 21, 2016
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