Grace Moore (December 5, 1898 – January 26, 1947) was an American operatic soprano and actress in musical theatre and film. She was nicknamed the “Tennessee Nightingale.” Her films helped to popularize opera by bringing it to a larger audience.
Moore was born Mary Willie Grace Moore to Richard Lawson Moore and Tessa Jane (née Stokely) Moore in the community of Slabtown (now considered part of Del Rio) in Cocke County, Tennessee.
By the time she was two years old, her family had relocated to Knoxville, a move Moore later described as traumatic, as she found urban life distasteful at the time. After several years in Knoxville, the family again relocated to Jellico, Tennessee, where Moore spent her adolescence.
After high school in Jellico, she studied briefly at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville before moving to Washington, D.C. and New York City to continue her musical training and begin her career. Her first paying job as a singer was at the Black Cat Cafe in Greenwich Village.
Grace Moore’s first Broadway appearance was in 1920 in the musical Hitchy-Koo, by Jerome Kern. In 1922 and 1923 she appeared in the second and third of Irving Berlin’s series of four Music Box Revues. In the 1923 edition she and John Steel introduced Berlin’s song “What’ll I Do”. When Moore sang “An Orange Grove in California”, orange blossom perfume was wafted through the theater.
In 1932 she appeared on Broadway in the short-lived operetta The DuBarry by Karl Millöcker.
After training in France, Moore made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on February 7, 1928, singing the role of Mimì in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. She debuted at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on September 29, 1928 in the same role, which she also performed in a Royal Command Performance at Covent Garden in London on June 6, 1935.
During her sixteen seasons with the Metropolitan Opera, she sang in several Italian and French operas as well as the title roles in Tosca, Manon, and Louise. Louise was her favorite opera and is widely considered to have been her greatest role.
In the 1930s and 1940s she gave concert performances throughout the United States and Europe, performing a repertoire of operatic selections and other songs in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. During World War II she was active in the USO, entertaining American troops abroad. In 1945 she portrayed Mimi to Nino Martini’s Rodolfo for the inaugural performance of the San Antonio Grand Opera Festival.
Attracted to Hollywood in the early years of talking pictures, Moore’s first screen role was as Jenny Lind in the 1930 film A Lady’s Morals, produced for MGM by Irving Thalberg and directed by Sidney Franklin. Later that same year she starred with the Metropolitan Opera singer Lawrence Tibbett in New Moon, also produced by MGM, the first screen version of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta The New Moon.
After a hiatus of several years, Moore returned to Hollywood under contract to Columbia Pictures, for whom she made six films. In the 1934 film One Night of Love, her first film for Columbia, she portrayed a small-town girl who aspires to sing opera. For that role she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1935.
By this time, she was so popular that MGM was able to insist on equal billing for Moore in a projected film with Maurice Chevalier, who had always enjoyed solo star billing up till then. Chevalier felt so deeply about this blow to his status that he quit Hollywood and the film was never made.
A memorable highlight of When You’re in Love (1937) was a comic scene in which Moore donned flannel shirt and trousers and joined a 5-man band for a flamboyant rendition of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”, complete with gestures and “hi-de-ho’s”, but with the lyrics slightly altered to conform with Hollywood sensibilities.
Also, she performed the popular Madama Butterfly duet “Vogliatemi bene” with American tenor Frank Forest in the 1937 film I’ll Take Romance.
The last film that Moore made was Louise (1939), an abridged version of Gustave Charpentier’s opera of the same name, with spoken dialog in place of some of the original opera’s music. The composer participated in the production, authorizing the cuts and changes to the libretto, coaching Moore, and advising director Abel Gance. This production also featured two renowned French singers: dramatic tenor Georges Thill and basse cantante André Pernet.
She was widely criticized in December 1938 when she curtsied to the Duchess of Windsor, in Cannes. Upon her return to the United States after six months and ten days in Europe (“to save money in income tax”), Moore defended her curtsey, saying:
She would have been a royal duchess long ago if she had not been an American. After all, she gave happiness and the courage of his convictions to one man, which is more than most women can do. She deserves a curtsy for that alone.
According to Joe Laurie, Jr., vaudeville performer and historian, Grace Moore would not perform on vaudeville bills that had black performers.
Moore married Valentín Parera, a Spanish movie actor, in Cannes, on July 15, 1931. They had no children. During the 1930s they maintained homes in Hollywood, Cannes, and Connecticut.
Moore published an autobiography, You’re Only Human Once, in 1944.
Grace Moore died in a plane crash near Copenhagen’s airport on January 26, 1947, at the age of 48. Among the other plane crash victims was Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, who was at the time second in line to the Swedish throne and who was the father of the present King of Sweden, King Carl XVI Gustaf. Moore is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga.
Moore’s life story was made into a movie, So This Is Love (1953), starring North Carolina-born singer Kathryn Grayson. A collection of Moore’s papers is housed at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.