Biography of Alma Gluck, Opera Star and Mother of Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
By Rachael O'Halloran
Note: Alma Gluck's recordings, shown in this article, were made prior to 1923 and therefore are in the public domain.
The Accomplished Alma Gluck
Coming To America
It is a story that we have come to hear often when a great talent is discovered. And by all accounts, operatic soprano concertist (pronounced CON-CHAIR-TIST) Alma Gluck was a great talent.
Although the screenshot of 1900 census shown below says she was born in 1882, Alma Gluck was born as Reba Feinsohn on May 11, 1884 in Jassy, Romania. She immigrated with her parents and siblings to the United States in 1889. She was the youngest of seven children; her sister Celia was the oldest by twenty years.
Celia Feinsohn left Romania at age 20, sailed to New York and worked the sweat shops on the Lower East Side trying to make enough money to bring her family over from Romania. She soon married and together with her husband, they were able to send passage money home to Romania much faster.
Her father, Leon Feinsohn died in Romania in 1886, when Reba was two years old. No cause of death was noted. He is listed in the 1900 census as the deceased father, who also goes by the name of Israel.
Reba didn't show much interest in opera at a young age, but she did take piano lessons from her mother, Zara, who also had a talent for singing but did not sing professionally. Her father had been a violinist and an opera buff, so perhaps some exposure in her formative years rubbed off a little bit. Early records show that Reba displayed some aptitude for the violin but mostly excelled at piano.
Alma Gluck, late 1920's
"Many seem surprised when I tell them that my vocal training did not begin until I was twenty years of age. It seems to me that it is a very great mistake for any girl to begin the serious study of singing before that age, as the feminine voice, in most instances, is hardly settled until then. Vocal study before that time is likely to be injurious, though some survive it in the hands of very careful and understanding teachers."
- Gutenberg E-book Great Singers on the Art of Singing by J F Cooke
1900 Census Record (erroneous birth year)
Alma Gluck & Efrem Zimbalist Sr circa 1920's
Record Keeping - Keeping Records
As much as we rely on records, there is still a bunch of misinformation out there, sometimes called creative license, a fabrication, and what my mother-in-law would call outright lies.
Looking up my own genealogy records through the official census databases, I found my birth year was incorrect, my name was spelled incorrectly, and I was grouped at a home address with names of people listed as parents and my siblings who, I can assure you, were total strangers to me.
Record keeping in the early years of this country's development was as good as the education and fastidiousness of the person doing the recording. If the respondent either did not know or gave ballpark dates, the census takers recorded the answers as such.
My maternal grandmother came to this country in 1890 as a one year old baby, my mother was born here in 1920. I can tell you the exact address where she was born and raised, and the names of her older siblings. Yet on the census forms, their names are conspicuously missing, or the names belong to our neighbor's kids or they were just totally incorrect.
It almost seemed like every ten years when it was census-taking time, it turned into a game of let's pull one over on the census-taker, especially if he was a stranger to the neighborhood. Often parents had some of the neighbor's children already in the house playing with their children so that their names would be included on the census form as being members of that one family.
My father, on the other hand, was born in the USA as were his parents and siblings. His grandparents came here from England in the 1810's and record keeping was sparse at that time.
Ellis Island was not opened until 1892 and before then, ships that docked in East Coast ports didn't require much information from their passengers, with little or no verification systems in place.
Whatever the passengers said is what was written down, and then, only if the person taking the information deemed it important enough to record. Handwritten reports and forms which are still salvageable often have handwriting that is illegible or too faded to decipher.
Consequently our ancestry records leave a lot to be desired for researchers who are trying to gain correct knowledge.
Alma Gets "Discovered"
The 1900 census records list Reba's occupation as a stenographer at a law firm, and the names of the members of her family and address of official residency. She met her insurance salesman husband, Bernard Glick, when he came in to see one of the law partners. Ten years later, the 1910 census records say he was a dentist. (see sidebar for census discrepancies)
The couple married on May 25, 1902 and a baby girl, Abigail Marcia Glick was born in June 1903. She grew up to become Marcia Davenport, a Hollywood screenwriter and a successful novelist of the 1932 acclaimed biography of "Mozart," a bestseller that has never been out of print. (published by University of Pittsburgh Press).
If it weren't for Reba's husband, Bernard Glick, who often invited work associates to their home for dinner, Reba might never have been discovered and become a star at the Metropolitan Opera.
One night in 1906, a guest who had a keen ear for opera, heard Reba singing while she readied dinner in the kitchen. He was so taken with her voice, he urged her to study with a vocal coach. When she and her husband told him there was no money for lessons, he arranged for Reba to study for three years with the famous vocal instructor, Arturo Buzzi-Peccia, at reduced fee.
By March 1909, Reba had become so accomplished that she signed a contract for a salary of $700 a week at the New York Metropolitan Opera, under new musical director Arturo Toscanini. Her salary was a huge sum by that day's standards (by any day's standards!).
In short order, her new managers wanted to change her name from Reba Feinsohn to something else ... to anything else! They all put their heads together and with Reba's input, they came up with the name Alma Gluck (a variation on her married name of Glick).
From March 29, 1909 onward, Reba Feinsohn Glick was forgotten and Alma Gluck would become famous.
Developing The Star's Bio
As was the acceptable practice of the day, whenever anyone was on the road to stardom or came to be in the public eye, the spin doctors would tinker with biographical and birthdate data to make the rising star appear more exciting and interesting to the adoring public. Reba Feinsohn Glick was no exception.
In addition to changing her name in 1909, they took great license with her education saying she graduated from the prestigious Hunter College as well as altering certain details of her married life to Bernard Glick, all of which have been repeated to the point where truth and fabrication have become one and the same.
Birth Name: Reba Feinsohn (also shown as Fiersohn)
Stage Name: Alma Gluck (name changed in 1909)
Birth Date: May 11, 1884, village of Jassy in Bucharest, Romania
Parents: Israel Feinsohn (Leon Fiersohn) -Died 1886, Mother: Zara Feinsohn (Anna Fiersohn) 1843-1916
Siblings: 7 in all, 4 surviving but with only a listing for one sister named Celia 1867 -?,
Marriages: 1) Bernard Glick married 1902-divorced 1912. Born 1870, Died June 29, 1948
2) Efrem Zimbalist Sr -married 6/14/1914 to 10/27/1938 her death; Born 1889, Died February 22, 1985, age 94,
- Abigail Marcia Glick Davenport, 6/9/1903-1/16/1996 age 93,
- Maria 7/1915-1981 age 66,
- Efrem Jr. 1918-2014 age 95
Occupation: Operatic Soprano
Best Known For: Opera singer, Mother of Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Record Holder for Best-selling Opera recordings of over 1 million sold
Died: October 27, 1938 - cirrhosis of the liver (non-alcoholic related).
Divorce and Remarriage
As luck would have it, when she was called upon to substitute for another singer, Alma Gluck made her first stage appearance in November 1909 at the very top of the heap - the New York Metropolitan Opera House. Even with short notice, she gave it her best and five performances later, she had given her managers enough to be confident about, so that she was hired by tenor Alessandro Bonci as his opening act for his tour of Cuba.
On her return to the USA, Alma was featured at the Metropolitan Opera's Sunday evening concerts and performed duets with select violinists and other string musicians from the orchestra, one of whom was violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr. A couple of biographies list their first meeting on a New York ferry but primarily he is listed as meeting her at the Met.
They soon fell in love. However, Alma was still married to Bernard Glick. She began divorce proceedings and after a very bitter battle, they were divorced in late 1912 with Alma retaining custody of their daughter Abigail Marcia.
After her divorce and with her voice now in fine form, Alma wanted to travel to Paris to study at the Louvre, with a stop over to study with famous opera teacher Marcella Sembrich in Switzerland. In January 1913, Alma began her international tour traveling with her manager who doubled as a nanny for her ten year old daughter, and with Efrem Zimbalist Sr. who accompanied her on violin.
Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and Alma Gluck became engaged in February 1913 in Kansas City, Missouri while still on tour. They were married on June 15, 1914 in London, England when Alma's international tour was nearing its end.
It was Efrem Sr.'s first marriage and Alma's second. She was six years older than he.
Efrem Sr. and Alma had two children: Maria, born in 1915 and Efrem Jr. born in 1918.
War broke out in Europe and they were forced to return home to New York. Alma performed a couple of recitals in Manhattan and New York through to the end of 1915.
Based on the success of the New York recitals, Alma decided she wanted to tour the US to give 80 to 100 concerts a year in mostly every state in the union and, when the war ended, in every country abroad.
It was a great undertaking that would have dire consequences.
Video Volume Alert!
The videos are presented here to show Alma Gluck's talent.
Now I have to say, even back in the years when I wasn't deaf, I was never an opera fan, nor do I know anything about the types of opera (liberetto, etc.). But Alma Gluck's first recording below is a very spirited a performance, as the occupants of my house were fast to tell me.
NOTE: Adjust the volume, especially if it is 1AM at your house and everyone is asleep already.
This is the first record Alma made in 1911 for the Victor Talking Machine Company, which later became RCA Victor. Each record was able to be played only on one side and was priced at $1.00 which was equivalent to a day and a half salary for the average blue collar worker.
Alma Gluck First Recording in 1911 - Very Spirited!
Alma Gluck in 1914
Alma Gluck's Record Sales
Alma Gluck became RCA's best selling opera recording artist of all time. Now, over 100 years later in 2014, she is relatively unknown except for aficionados.
Her recording "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" sold over 1 million records. Altogether, she made 174 recordings from 1910 until 1922.
Can you imagine making 174 records in 12 years?
It takes present day artists almost two months to crank out one album and, even at that, they only put a new one out every year or two. I think 174 was a tremendous effort.
Because of all the touring, by 1924, her voice was all but gone and she had semi-retired from singing in public. She continued to teach private lessons and occasionally performed at private soirees. As for the prestigious venue of the Metropolitan Opera House, her appearances were rare because her volume could not fill the theater as it once had.
This video has some nice family photos
Alma Gluck - 1920
1915 through 1929
Per her obituary notice, Alma had testified in a 1927 court case that her royalties from the years 1914 to 1919 were $800,000. It far surpassed her salary for all her concert appearances combined royalties which came to over $600,000 (valued in 1927 dollars).
Her title "Carry me Back to Old Virginny" became the first title to sell over one million records. Listening to records on the turntable was a national pastime that Americans loved.
The Zimbalist couple threw their efforts and money into the war effort, singing in army camps, donating funds to Red Cross, and selling Liberty Bonds.
Between traveling with two children and trying to tour during wartime to as many army camps as possible, Alma's stressed voice just couldn't hold out and now she had some physical ailments as well. She cut down the number of appearances but then decided to completely give up the concert life in early 1919. At that time, her daughter Maria was four years old, her son Efrem Jr. was nearly one year old, and Marcia was in college.
In 1920, her husband Efrem Sr. saw how much she missed her touring life and he talked her into doing another tour together for the year 1921. However, by the end of 1921, the intense singing schedule took its toll on her voice.
From 1920 to 1924, Alma cut a few more recording titles but none were released - per her instructions. The quality of her voice was gone, she was often physically ill, although there are no mentions as to what was medically wrong at that time.
Her last public recital was in 1924 at the Metropolitan Opera House, a place that would hold much sentiment for her husband and children long after she was gone. Besides New York, the family maintained a summer home in New Hartford, CT.
Alma and her husband were non-practicing Jews. After their two children were born, they embraced the Episcopal church where they and all their children were baptized. Alma would go on to record many spiritual hymns in those years.
Abigail Marcia was already 15 years old by the time Efrem Jr. was born in 1918. The couple's income could well afford to finance Abigail Marcia through Friends School in Philadelphia, the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Wellesley College and University of Grenoble.
Maria and Efrem Jr. attended Episcopal based boarding schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut. Efrem Jr. attended the prestigious Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts and later Yale University. Their religious efforts were not wasted; all their children came to embrace their faith. Years later, Efrem Jr. would become one of the founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).
In 1925, after her official retirement from singing and recording, Alma split time between their homes in Connecticut and New York, being a benefactor to other bright hopeful musicians and helping out with musical and community organizations.
She rarely traveled to see her husband in concert unless it was in New York. He often brought guests back to their home and it was one of the reasons why Alma wanted her son Efrem Jr. to attend boarding schools, fearing the exposure to so many different kinds of people was a bad influence.
Alma longed for a career she could no longer perform and spent many days listening to records on her turntable.
In 1928 when Efrem Sr.'s international traveling slowed down, he took a music teaching position at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, PA, a short train ride from their homes in New York and Connecticut. The school became the foundation for educating many virtuoso musicians and operatic talent and was to play an important part in Efrem Jr.'s future as well.
In 1929, Alma made a last benefit radio broadcast from New York's Metropolitan Opera House. She never sang in public again.
Alma & Efrem Sr. - This was #6 on the 1918 Music Charts
Excerpt From The Book - Great Singers on the Art of Singing: Alma Gluck - About Teaching
"The first kind of a repertoire that the student should acquire is a repertoire of solfeggios. I am a great believer in the solfeggio. Using that for a basis, one is assured of acquiring facility and musical accuracy.
The experienced listener can tell at once the voice that has had such training. Always remember that musicianship carries one much further than a good natural voice. The voice, even more than the hands, needs a kind of exhaustive technical drill.
This is because in this training you are really building the instrument itself. In the piano, one has the instrument complete before he begins; but in the case of the voice, the instrument has to be developed and sometimes made by study. When the pupil is practicing, tones grow in volume, richness and fluency." --Alma Gluck
From 1930 To Her Death
The 1930 New York City census shows that "Efrem Sr and Alma Zimbalist" resided at 237 East 49th Street in Manhattan. This would be Alma's last residence.
Alma was gravely ill with liver disease, although no one but the immediate family was aware of it.
In 1934, when Efrem Jr. was 16, he was fortunate enough that his parents could well afford Yale University. He was expelled on two separate enrollments, the draw of being a playboy and running up expenses for dashing clothes more important than the curriculum.
- Efrem Jr. said in his book "My Dinner of Herbs" that he attended a year at Yale University and got kicked out; a year in the Soviet Union and didn't like being so far from home; then returned to the US, repeated his freshman year at Yale University and was kicked out again. He expressed that it was a great sadness that his mother never lived to see any of his success and that he regretted she died knowing he was a screwup.
When Efrem Jr was 18, his musical training gained him a position at his father's place of employment, The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But it was short lived and for the next few years, he let music remain a notation on his resume as he pursued acting.
In April 1938, knowing her mother was very ill, Maria Zimbalist at age 23 was married in the Zimbalist home to the heir of the second richest fortune in the world, Ogden Goelet, on April 19, 1938.
Six months after Maria's wedding, Alma Gluck died on October 27, 1938 at age 54 of liver failure due to cirrhosis of the liver. She was buried in the family plot at Town Hill Cemetery in New Hartford, Litchfield County, Connecticut near the family's summer home.
Because Maria's new husband had to financially rely on his miserly real estate mogul father for support, it was not a happy marriage. The couple divorced in 1941.
Maria Zimbalist Goelet married again, this time to Reno, NV real estate entrepreneur Henry F Bennett in Philadelphia on October 12, 1942. After an extended traveling honeymoon, they made their home in Reno.
Solo Alma Gluck
Alma Gluck's Recordings
- Alma Gluck, Soprano 1922 –last album
Listen for free to Alma Gluck – Soprano 1884 - 1922 (Hippolyte Et Aricie: Rossignols Amoureux, Tsar's Bride: Liuba's Aria (Ger.) and more). 17 tracks (52:19).
- Prima Voce: Alma Gluck, 22 tracks
Listen for free to Alma Gluck – Prima Voce: 22 tracks (76:35).
- Alma Gluck – 1911 thru 1918, 48 tracks
Alma Gluck – Opera Classics 1911-1918 (L'Heure Exquise, Sylvelin and more). 48 tracks (150:19).
- The Project Gutenberg eBook of Great Singers on the Art of Singing, by James Francis Cooke.
Excellent ebook of The Metropolitan Opera and Great Singers on the Art of Singing, by James Francis Cooke. Free to copy and reproduce!
- iTunes - Music - Carry Me Back to Old Virginny - Single by Alma Gluck
Preview songs from Alma Gluck on the iTunes Store. Preview, buy, and download Carry Me Back to Old Virginny - Single for $0.99.
Even in death, the media was waxing poetic about how Alma Gluck met Efrem Zimbalist Sr., about their storybook life, even remarking about her income by citing a 1927 court case. This is a New York newspaper quote from her 1938 obituary:
"New York, Oct 27. - (AP) - Alma Gluck, opera favorite of yesteryear who retired at the height of a brilliant career to devote herself to her husband and children, died today after a long illness. She was the wife of Efrem Zimbalist, the shy violinist whose tap on her arm on a Jersey-bound ferry one night started a friendship that resulted in their marriage....
Millions who have never seen the interior of the Metropolitan Opera House knew and loved Alma Gluck's voice, which reached homes throughout the world on phonograph records. A million reproductions were made of a single recording of "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny."
Royalties from records amounted to more than she ever received from concerts and opera engagements. She testified in a court action in 1927 that she received $800,000 in royalties from the Victor Talking Machine Co., from 1914 to 1919 and $345,000 from other engagements."
Any dollars quoted are early 1927's dollars, however her salary in any year would be considered a wealthy sum.
In my research, I couldn't find evidence of any 1927 court action. So much time has passed with so many hands stirring the pot, it is hard to discern truth over fabrication. One thing is for certain: she had a remarkable career.
An audio of Alma's 1915 "Old Black Joe" is available on her Wikipedia page.
The Zimbalist Family
Efrem Zimbalist Sr Remarried
In 1943, five years after Alma's death, Efrem Zimbalist Sr. married his employer and the founder of The Curtis Institute of Music, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. She was the daughter of Curtis Publishing mogul, Cyrus Curtis and Louisa Knapp Curtis, founder of the Ladies Home Journal. Not only did Mary Louise come from a very wealthy family, she married wealthy husbands.
When her mother, Louisa Knapp Curtis, stepped down as editor of The Ladies Home Journal in 1890, Edward W Bok was hired as editor. Mary Louise had worked as a staff columnist since age 13. When she turned 19 years old, she and Bok were married in 1896. They had two sons, one of whom became a Philadelphia Judge.
Mary Louise's mother died in 1910, leaving her a nice inheritance. When Edward W Bok retired from the magazine in 1919, the couple split their time between Philadelphia and Lake Wales, Florida where he built Bok Tower Gardens, which is still a famous area attraction. The Boks were married for 34 years until his death in 1930.
In 1924, Mary Louise founded the Curtis Institute of Music named in honor of her father's great love of music. She threw herself into making the school a success. She hired Efrem Zimbalist Jr in 1928 as her new musical director. When Edward W Bok died in 1930, she inherited over $10 million. When her father died in 1933, she inherited another $20 million.
Efrem Zimbalist Sr. was getting royalties from Alma Gluck's RCA recordings plus her estate was worth almost $8 million which he shared with his stepdaughter and his two children. He continued to work at the Curtis Institute of Music and in 1943 he married Mary Louise, a marriage which would last for 27 years.
He dedicated his life to his music and the training of young musicians at the school. She dedicated the rest of her life to the school and to the magazine, creating an endowment for each that would continue long after her death in 1970 at the age of 94.
Efrem Sr's daughter, Maria Zimbalist Bennett had no children and she died in 1981. His stepdaughter, Marcia Davenport had two children. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. had three children, two who survived to adulthood.
When Efrem Zimbalist Sr died in 1985, he left an estate of over $20 million to be distributed to Marcia Davenport and her two children, and Efrem Jr and his two children. Marcia Davenport died in 1996, leaving two daughters and an estate worth over $2 million plus royalties from her book "Mozart" which they will collect for 70 years after her death when the copyright expires.
Efrem Jr. died on May 2, 2014, leaving a son, Efrem Zimbalist III (nicknamed Chip - he's a magazine executive) and a daughter, Stephanie (an actress of Remington Steele fame). There was no mention as to what Efrem Jr.'s estate was worth, but with Efrem Sr and Alma Gluck's estates being split among the grandchildren, it can only mean they will be comfortable for years to come.
It is interesting to me to see how families start, evolve and conclude.
I hope you enjoyed this Spotlight on Alma Gluck.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran