In 1914, all the the world, including her hometown of Farmington, Maine, strained its ears for any word that the voice of Lillian Nordica, once among the greatest sopranos in the world, would ever sing again. Newspapers around the world updated readers daily with reports from the island of Java for word of her fate as her life teetered on the brink.
Lillian Nordica’s story was as steeped in drama as any of the operas in which she starred.
Born in a tiny house in Farmington, Maine, Lillian was not even the best singer in her family. That title would go to her sister, Wilhemina. The family moved to Boston, when Lillian was eight years old, so her sister could receive singing lessons.
But Lillian’s life took the first of many tragic turns when her sister died of typhoid fever, and it was soon she who took singing lessons and turned heads with a soprano voice that would soon become one of the best of a generation.
After completing training at the New England Conservatory of Music, Liliian embarked on a singing career in Europe, touring with big band leader Patrick Gilmore. But she soon attracted attention from opera coaches in Italy, and her career transitioned to opera.
Her name transitioned, as well. She went from Lillie Norton, to Giglio Nordica and finally to just, La Nordica. She wowed heads of state with her performances.
Lillie Nordica’s marriages
In 1883 Lillian married Frederic Gower, her second cousin. With telephone technology sweeping the globe, Gower had improved upon Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone equipment in 1877, developing a wall-mounted phone.
The Gower-Bell Telephones were widely used in Europe, and they made Gower a small fortune. He swept Lillie off her feet with a marriage proposal and a check for $10,000.
But the marriage proved a disaster. Gower was a controlling bully. He put the brakes on Lillie’s singing career. In a fit of rage he, at one point, burned her music and gowns, insisting he had the right because he had paid for them.
Lillie filed for divorce, claiming Gower was abusive. He disputed the claim and a messy divorce seemed to be in the offing. Gower had developed an interest in early aviation, and embarked on a trip across the English channel in an experimental balloon. He died in a crash.
Gower’s death rendered the divorce case unnecessary. But Lillie soon discovered a sad secret about Frederic. He had run through his fortune, and was facing financial ruin. The situation with Gower’s finances raised questions about whether his death was a suicide, but it was never determined.
Reviving the Career of a Diva
Lillie set about reviving her singing career. Offers soon began pouring in for Lillie to take the lead role in Wagnerian operas, and she emerged as a leading soprano in Germany.
Lillie took another shot at romance. In 1896 she married Zoltan Doeme, a Hungarian tenor 10 years younger than she. The marriage was plagued by Doeme’s infidelity and expensive tastes. That marriage failed in 1904, and Lillie shocked her public announcing that Zoltan had threatened to kill her and himself.
The couple obtained a divorce in New York. She sued Doeme, challenging that he had mismanaged her money – some $300,000. When the marriage ended, she got $45,000 back and he received $20,000.
Zoeme made a stab at getting more money when he challenged the divorce. He argued he had only agreed to it under duress because Lillie had blocked his access to money. He lost and returned to Munich, where he made a living as a singing instructor.
Starring in Concert Halls
Nordica’s fame now allowed her to tour the world on the concert stage where she delighted audiences with popular songs as well as operatic arias. She had also, by this point, become a fashion plate with a wardrobe full of French gowns and jewels. In addition to singing, La Nordica now began a career as a spokeswoman for various products, including Coca-Cola, Steinway Pianos and Fisher bicycles.
Nordica also embarked on one last marriage in 1907 with George Washington Young, a London financier. But Young’s business touch turned sour, and he was soon relying on Nordica’s money to keep him afloat. The couple separated.
In 1914, La Nordica embarked on a tour of the South Pacific. Following a performance in Melbourne she rushed from the opera house to embark on a waiting ship, the Tasman. She had sent word to the captain, asking him to hold the boat for her. In a final bit of irony, her fame persuaded the captain to delay the ship so that La Nordica could reach the island of Java for her next concert.
The Tasman ran aground on a reef, and it was stranded for three days. Lillian suffered hypothermia and developed pneumonia. When she reached Java, she was hospitalized in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). Her health see-sawed between improvement and relapse, and the newspapers reported each development. In May of 1914, she died in Batavia of pneumonia.
Today, La Nordica is celebrated in Farmington, Maine, at a museum in her childhood home.
This story last updated in 2022.