Jenny (But not from the Block!)

by Susie Hodgson

Ever notice how often celebrities seem to “sell” their names to push a product? Like Martha Stewart linens… or Rachael Ray dog food. How about Bobby Flay cookware or even the Eddie Bauer edition of the Ford Bronco? (By the way, did you know there really WAS an Eddie Bauer? He invented the down parka and sold his company in 1968.) This phenomenon is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades. Just ask the master showman, P.T. Barnum (1810 – 1891).

Yes, P.T. started the Barnum & Bailey circus, but his greatest love was money. So it should be no surprise that it was Barnum who discovered a huge sensation of a singer in Europe and brought her over to tour the United States, resulting in today’s equivalent of millions of Barnum’s coveted dollars. The year was 1850 and the songstress was The Swedish Nightingale herself, Jenny Lind.

Jenny Lind was born in 1820. She was discovered as a youngster with a magical voice, premiering onstage at age 10. She had some mysterious “vocal crisis” at age 12 – something we’d probably now call stress. But she returned to singing in 1838, making a big hit starring as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischutz.” You’ve kind of got to think of opera as the hip hop of its day! Sadly, Jenny’s voice went out, but luckily, after intense training by noted singing teacher Manuel Garcia, she gained a much better singing technique that wouldn’t hurt her vocal chords.

After her recovery, famed composer Giacomo Meyerbeer had Jenny audition for the well-known Opera in Paris, but they rejected her. Evidently crushed by the slight and an apparent grudge-holder, Jenny refused to ever play at the Opera in Paris as long as she lived.

Jenny later toured Norway where she met a writer who was absolutely smitten with her. It was Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Ugly Duckling and other popular fairy tales. They say he also wrote Beneath the Pillar, The Angel, and The Nightingale in Jenny’s honor. She rebuffed him, leading him to vengefully pen The Snow Queen, where he said that she (meaning Jenny) had a heart of ice. It is also said that the Disney movie Frozen was based on The Snow Queen. (Who knew?!)

Meanwhile, Jenny made a splash in Berlin singing in an array of famous operas. She also befriended big-time composers such as Schumann, Berlioz, and (here’s the biggie) Felix Mendelssohn. Even if you think you don’t know Mendelssohn, trust me, you do! Ever been to a wedding? Then you’ve heard his Wedding March. Ever watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special? Remember how they all sang Hark! The Herald Angels Sing at the end? Mendelssohn wrote that music... plus a ton of operas, symphonies, chamber music pieces and more. He was prolific all right!

Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind became very close and there were always whispers about them. Mendelssohn died young (38) from a stroke brought on by working too much. Jenny herself could not bring herself to even hum a Mendelssohn tune for over a year, so devastated was she. Their affair was confirmed after her death when Mendelssohn’s many love letters were uncovered. (Just the fact that she saved them all those years says a lot!)

Now let’s circle back to P.T. Barnum. He’d heard of this singing sensation, Jenny Lind, and without even caring about music, booked her to tour the U.S. Before she even set sail, the Barnum hype began. He built her up so high that tickets were sold out before Lind even came close to our coast. Masses of people gathered and screamed. Remember Beatlemania? Also nothing new. Before John, Paul, George and Ringo, there was Jenny Lind and Lind Mania! The press went nuts. Barnum made a mint – but Jenny donated all her fees to charity. Barnum made sure to play THAT up, too. People who never gave a darn about music loved Jenny before hearing a note. As an aside, if you saw the 2017 film, The Greatest Showman, it is implied (well, more than implied!) that there was a love connection of sorts between Barnum and Lind. Not true. That was fiction – what we call a “plot point.”

Jenny became engaged to a tenor (Julius Gunther) in Sweden, but the couple broke up due to conflicting schedules. Then Jenny went to London where Queen Victoria attended all of Jenny’s performances. Queen Victoria even had the orchestra play Mendelssohn’s Wedding March when her daughter got married, starting a massive trend.

In 1851, Lind broke off her business relationship with Barnum – amicably they say. (Don’t they always?) She started managing her own career, still donating all her money. There was a big debate about slavery at the time and Lind did everything she could to stay out of it, which was NOT easy to do. Word was she professed support for BOTH sides. In her personal life, she soon became involved with a musician nine years her junior, Otto Goldschmidt. They married and later had three children. They settled to a life in England. Jenny still gave occasional concerts, then became a Professor of Singing and finally died at age 67, leaving her considerable wealth to charity, helping poor children.

But remember the beginning of this story? About celebrities having items named for them? It ain’t just Martha Stewart! Think Jenny Lind! Most was arranged by Marketeer Extraordinaire P.T. Barnum. This includes 33 streets, an island, many towns, a hospital, pubs, a psych ward (!), a cave, a college dorm, dozens of items of clothing, and even sausages, soaps, houses, and cigars!

But the most popular (even TODAY) is Jenny Lind furniture, mostly beds and cribs. So named after the look of a bed Jenny slept in while on tour in New York, Jenny Lind furniture is known for its “cottagey” spindled style. And guess what? We have a prominent piece of that furniture right in our own museum! Pretend it’s a scavenger hunt, so come in and look for it! And while you’re at it, why not support your city and become a member or docent (or both!) for our wonderful Historical Society!? We’re a fun bunch and would love to have you join us! You’ll see why everyone calls it Burbank’s hidden gem.

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site:

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