Dan Kurzman presents a terrifying, page-turning glimpse into the surreal world of San Francisco during the disaster, told through the impeccably researched stories of its survivors. From the city's demolished tenements and charred mansions to the merciless and little-known military dictatorship installed in the midst of the chaos, Disaster! brings to life this unparalleled event and its lingering effects.
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Caruso and the Odor of Roses
Enrico Caruso, widely acclaimed as the world's greatest tenor, had been so persuaded. He would play the role of Don Jose opposite Olive Fremstad, a famed Wagnerian soprano, in Bizet's Carmen at the Grand Opera House on this warm spring evening of April 17. In truth, he needed little persuasion. He had been scheduled to appear in Naples, Italy, at this time but canceled the trip from New York to his native land right after Mount Vesuvius had erupted, with fiery ashes raining down on nearby villages and threatening to blanket the city. In one village market, 250 people died when the roof collapsed from the weight of the ashes. And though Americans were sending thousands of dollars for relief, who wanted to be close enough to extinction to be eligible for relief? Better to accept an offer to go with a Metropolitan Opera troupe to San Francisco, where at least he would be safe. On the train there, he told his orchestra conductor:
"Maybe it was God's will after all that I should come this far."
Still, who knew what dangers lurked in the Wild West? The region was still primitive, he had heard, and was not even fully settled yet. Indeed, Oklahoma had just been admitted to the Union. And so he had purchased a pistol and fifty bullets before boarding the train'just in case. And while crossing the western plains, he spent his time learning how to load the gun and draw it with a flick of his wrist, in time to thwart any bandit or would-be assassin.
On arriving in the Bay Area, Caruso learned from reporters that Vesuvius had made good on its threat, killing over 1,200 people in a massiveeruption. He froze. If he had gone to his beloved Naples, the lava from Vesuvius might have caught him in the middle of an aria. Yes, God had chosen San Francisco.
Caruso moved into the thirty-year-old, world-famous Palace Hotel on Market Street between Second and Third Streets, a few blocks from the waterfront, where ships with red and green running lights rhythmically bobbed in the waves, as if affirming the city's placidly cheerful nature. Given the finest of the hotel's luxurious suites, once occupied by President Ulysses S. Grant, Caruso surveyed everything with a critical eye'the long, fringed green and gold draperies, the chairs upholstered in gold brocade, the great fireplace with carved marble mantel and gold-framed mirror, the furniture of California laurel, the native fir floor planking, and the carpeting from a prestigious New York firm, which had opened a San Francisco branch just to supply the hotel.
Not very elegant, he complained. But what could one expect in the Wild West?
The singer then directed his valet to unload his trunks, making sure his countless silk shirts, evening jackets, and pairs of Italian leather footwear were neatly put away. Was Caruso to wear a wrinkled shirt? He was in a sour mood, even when he learned the hotel was packed with guests, many of whom had come from distant places just to hear his voice. He was haunted by the thought of his narrow escape from Vesuvius. What if God had sent him to Naples?
On the evening of his performance, April 17, Caruso was still agitated, and not only by Vesuvius. He had an explosive confrontation with Madame Fremstad at rehearsal that afternoon in the Grand Opera House, which had been built in 1876 on Mission Street between Third and Fourth Streets and remained one of the few notable buildings to grace the largely shoddy south-of-Market district. Angered by the clumsiness of some of the locally hired stage hands, Fremstad had faltered in her aria. How, Caruso demanded, could he perform together with a woman who screeched her notes?
Get rid of the local workers! Fremstad cried. If Caruso were not paid so much, the company could afford to hire more professional labor.
Caruso was enraged. Yes, he was paid a record $1,350 a performance, but didn't he draw the crowd? Nobody would lose his job without Caruso's approval. Otherwise, he would not go onstage, and neither would Fremstad. Nor would he ever be in another opera with her again!
No one was fired.
The tenor had already been jolted earlier that day when he read the reviews of the previous night's performance of The Queen of Sheba, the company's first presentation, though he did not himself appear in it. The critics had relentlessly panned those who did, one of them calling it "the wrong opera [with] the wrong singers." Caruso felt his colleagues deserved the criticism, but he wondered if many in the full house who had come to hear him now would, in their cultural ignorance, show as little appreciation of his own artistry. And however great his voice, would they accept a pudgy, double-chinned man in the role of the dashing Don Jose? As if it were not enough that the two-hundred-pound Madame Fremstad would be playing the beautiful, passionate Carmen!
In any case, what could he expect from the progeny of the gold rush rabble, who lacked the sophistication of the more cultivated easterners? His distrust of this western audience was perhaps reflected in his nervous refusal to remove the pistol he hid under his stage attire. Actually, while the East was culturally more advanced, a large and vigorous middle class, nurtured by a golden past, had sprung up here, and the poorer class did not live in the squalor so prevalent in the East, being more willing to gamble on the future and to struggle up the ladder.
But the most important patrons of the opera, he knew, were members of a select, powerful community dominated by the millionaire heirs of crude, often ruthless gold rush pioneers, nouveau riche social lions who found opera a convenient cultural mechanism for appearing in public as people of substance as well as of wealth...Disaster!. Copyright © by Dan Kurzman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.