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Florence Macbeth, ca. 1914

Florence Macbeth, ca. 1914
(Photo courtesy of the Blue Earth County Historical Society)

Florence Macbeth will make an “appearance” along with Maud and Delos Lovelace, Frances “Bick” Kenney, and Marjorie “Midge” Gerlach in the upcoming “A North Woods Nutcracker” ballet in Mankato on Sunday, November 24th.

Florence and Maud were contemporaries who grew up in the small town of Mankato. Both left to follow their dreams and both carried such fond childhood memories of their hometown that their request was to be buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Mankato.

Born in Mankato on January 21, 1891, she was the only child of Charles and Alice (Monfort) Macbeth; they lived at 326 South Broad Street. Her father was a partner in a meat market business on North Fourth Street.

Florence, or Flossie as she was called by her friends, attended the Union School on North Broad Street. At the age of three, she heard her first light opera, “The Fencing Master,” with Marie Tempest. From that day on she dreamed of being on stage. Her first music teacher was Mrs. Nettie Snyder. In a 1914 interview, Mrs. Snyder recalled, “I’ll never forget the first time I saw Flossie. Her father came to me, leading a little girl, and said: “Mrs. Snyder, here’s a little girl we think can sing. Won’t you listen to her?” “She had on a little plaid kilted skirt that came to her knees, for she was only 11 years old then. She sang, and she sang high F, I might add, as perfectly then as she sings it now.” Mrs. Nettie Snyder was a composite for the character of Mrs. Poppy in the Betsy-Tacy books.

Florence attended St. Mary’s Hall, a girls’ school in Faribault, from the age of thirteen until her graduation in 1909. She was planning to attend Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts before beginning her musical career. However, her plans changed when on a college visit in Wellesley, vocal coach Yeatman Griffith heard her sing and said “Let me have this voice—now!” Florence and her parents agreed and she went to Pittsburgh to study.

After two years of study, Mr. Griffith took her to Italy to study the language and customs of the country. She made her professional debut at The Hague in Holland in July 1912, with the Lamoreaux Orchestra of Paris. The young coloratura soprano thrilled the audience with her rendition of the Cavatina from The Barber of Seville. She soon became an international success, performing in many European cities, including Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna, as well as London with the London Symphony Orchestra at Queen’s Hall.

L-R: Flossie Macbeth, Eleanor Wood and Kathleen Hart, ca. 1896

L-R: Flossie Macbeth, Eleanor Wood and Kathleen Hart, ca. 1896

Florence wrote in an “I Remember Mankato” article for the Mankato Free Press in 1952: “The Hague was not my first public appearance. I have a picture of Eleanor Wood Lippert, Kathleen Hart Foster and myself, each done up in crinoline and spangles. As I recall this was a performance put on by Mother Pat (Mrs. H. A. Patterson) who did so much for music in Mankato. What roles the three of us played I cannot remember, but we look very elegant in our spangles.” Of course, Kathleen Hart Foster was Maud’s older sister who was depicted as the character of Julia Ray in the Betsy-Tacy books and Eleanor Wood Lippert was the character of Dorothy Drew.

Florence made her debut in America as the Prima Donna Coloratura soprano with the Chicago Opera Company. As busy as she was, she always found time to come back to her hometown of Mankato and sing with the Orpheus Club, Mrs. Patterson’s chorus and even the Elks Club Band. Newspaper headlines referred to her as “Mankato’s Song Bird” or “Minnesota’s Nightingale”.

In 1922 Florence married Captain Edward Whitwell of the Royal Air Force. A throat infection forced her to leave the stage for a year in the 1930s, and when she recovered the Chicago Opera had gone bankrupt. She sang with other opera companies including the St. Louis Opera. In 1936 she spent time in Mankato during her mother’s illness and funeral. Florence returned to New York to find her husband had suffered a stroke and needed constant care. They moved to California, where he died in 1942. The couple had no children.

Florence stayed in California and taught piano and voice. She met novelist, James M. Cain, a devoted fan and author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, at a tea party and they were married in October 1947. The couple later moved to Hyattsville, Maryland. Florence began having health problems that kept her homebound for nearly 15 years before her death on May 5, 1966. She is buried in the Macbeth family plot in Glenwood Cemetery in Mankato.

“It is all home, the place where I was born, where I dreamed dreams that came true, and where, when my time comes to pass, I shall come to sleep near dear ones and dear friends, and that is a serene comfort,” wrote Florence Macbeth in 1952.

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