John Shearer: In Search Of Grace Moore Reminders

Monday, March 7, 2016 - by John Shearer

Grace Moore left a big mark on the world of opera and movies in the first half of the 20th century, but tangible reminders of this woman with numerous Chattanooga connections seem much more subtle these days.
 
Various recordings and original materials related to her contributions to the fine arts have largely been preserved, but one has to look a little harder to find other mementoes of this woman nicknamed the “Tennessee Nightingale.”
 
However, a few are still there.
One is the former Connecticut farmhouse where this aunt of former Lovemans executives John Moore and the late Jim Moore Jr. lived for a number of years.
 
And her clothes, shoes, medals and other items from public appearances are at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville after years of being at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville.
 
Having written about Ms. Moore several times over the years due to my interest in famous people with connections to Chattanooga, I saw her shoes and clothing in person when I did a story on them in 2006. A now-deceased McClung staff member, Elaine Evans, had kindly taken me into the large storage and archival room, and we spent a few minutes looking in drawers and cabinets at Ms. Moore’s belongings. In figurative contrast to her high soprano voice, the room was in the lowest part of the building.
 
I was surprised to learn somewhat later that the items were removed from there within a couple of years. After they were mostly in storage except for a few occasions, including when some of the items were in display when her movie, “One Night of Love,” was shown at the Tivoli Theatre in the 1970s, they were moved to Nashville in 2008.
 
Jefferson Chapman, the director of the McClung Museum, said the decision to transfer the collection to Nashville was due to two reasons, including that the McClung facility does not have a conservator or curator of textile-related items.
 
“We felt that for the good of the collection, the State Museum would be the best repository,” he said. “Second, we have been assessing our collections in light of our mission as a university museum and felt that the State Museum was a more appropriate venue for this important Tennessee person.”
 
Candace Adelson, senior curator of fashion and textiles for the Tennessee State Museum, said that none of the transferred items have yet been displayed at the Deaderick Street facility in Nashville, but that plans to do so are in the works.
 
“Some of them will definitely be among the exhibits planned for the Tennessee State Museum’s new facility on Nashville’s Bicentennial Mall, which is slated to open in fall 2018,” she said.
 
Miss Moore was certainly considered a state treasure. Born in 1898 to Richard and Tessa Jane Stokely Moore in Cocke County, Tenn., she later lived in Knoxville and Jellico, Tenn., before enrolling at what is now Belmont University in Nashville. She made her Broadway debut in 1920 and was known for introducing the famous Irving Berlin song, “What’ll I do.”
 
She made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1928. She was also a popular film actress, and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for the 1934 movie, “One Night of Love.”
 
Her parents had moved to Chattanooga permanently during her adult years and lived at two homes at 1661 and 1637 Hillcrest Road in Riverview just above hole No. 2 at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club.
 
She occasionally visited Chattanooga. Sometimes it was to sing and other times it was just for pleasure or family matters, but the visits apparently always included her dispensing a little charm. I found one old newspaper article from 1939 when she was visiting her ill mother. She was with her pianist at the time, due to being on tour, and amicably told a Chattanooga Times reporter she shared a cab with that she also planned to enjoy a meal at the Lookout Mountain home of her sister, Mrs. Thomas Mahan, during her visit.
 
Despite her storybook life, it had a tragic end in January 1947 following a plane crash in Copenhagen, Denmark. She was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery following a service at the now-razed First Baptist Church on Georgia Avenue in Chattanooga.
 
After her death, her items were originally given to the Museum of the City of New York, but in 1949 were transferred to UT by her brother, James Moore Sr. They were originally stored at Hoskins Library at UT until the McClung Museum opened in the 1960s.
 
Some of the paper-based and discography items are still in the Special Collections department based in UT’s Hodges Library. Dr. Adelson added that she believes the Metropolitan Opera in New York also still has a few of Miss Moore’s items, and that the New York Public Library also has some of her home movies.
 
For a number of years, beginning in 1937, her main home and refuge where some of these movies might have been shot was “Far Away Meadows.” It was a historic saltbox-style farmhouse in the Newtown/Sandy Hook area of Connecticut that she more than doubled in size. Included in the expansion were a guest house, modern kitchen, game room, an artesian well-fed swimming pool, and, of course, a music room.
 
In her 1944 autobiography, “You’re Only Human Once,” Miss Moore wrote that she loved the Connecticut home place. “I have owned many houses, but this is our real home,” she said.
 
According to a historical publication passed along by the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, Miss Moore conducted a Grace Moore School of Singing at the home in the summers of 1940 and ’41, and held a meeting and tea for the Newtown Orchestral Society in 1940.
 
Miss Moore and her Spanish-born husband, Valentin Parera, who lived until 1986, took immaculate care of the home and expansive acreage during her life. However, it later became somewhat rundown during subsequent decades under other owners.
 
According to an article on the home found online, it was later owned by screenplay writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and part of the 1949 Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy film, “Adam’s Rib,” written by the couple, was filmed there.
 
It later had a couple of other owners, but after it was sold in 1972, it began to fall into disrepair, the article said. One owner was from New York City and attempted to use it as a weekend house, but that became difficult.
 
Nature also played havoc on the historic residence when a giant maple tree fell on it in the late 1980s and damaged it. The home later went into foreclosure.
 
Elin Hayes said she and her late husband bought the home at 7 Bradley Lane in 1993, and it was in bad shape.
 
“The bank owned it for 3½ years, and it had been neglected many more years than that,” she said. “During Grace’s tenure, it was a more than 340-acre gentleman’s farm, but was pared down to just the main house on two acres, although eventually we acquired an adjoining two-acre parcel.”
 
Ms. Hayes said her husband was the one who fell in love with it initially, and that they had no idea all the work that needed to be done. But it became an all-consuming project. “We did as much as we could ourselves, but also hired professionals for the larger projects, such as replacing the sills, the furnace, the cedar roof, etc.,” she said.
 
They were proud of the work and said the home – which is about seven miles away from where the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in 2012 -- looked as good as it did after Miss Moore finished the work.
 
Ms. Hayes jokingly added that they actually did not know who Miss Moore was until a local resident mentioned to them the connection to the home.  That began their education of Miss Moore, she said.
 
The local paper later did a newspaper article on them, the restoration and the home’s connection to the star, and a number of people began contacting them. “We met former owners, their children, a man whose grandfather worked on the house for Grace, fans from near and far, and even Grace’s former secretary,” she said.
 
But the most interesting person they met, she said, was former Chattanoogan Marian Powers, who was the widow of Jim Moore Sr. and the mother of Charlie Moore, the late Jim Moore Jr. and the late 1958 Girls Preparatory School May queen Grace Moore.
 
“Marian was such an interesting woman,” she said. “She was so pleased with our restoration of the house and she cried upon seeing it after all those years. She eventually gifted us Grace’s grand piano, a 1928 Bechstein.”
 
Other items owned by Miss Moore also found their way back to Far Away Meadows from many sources.
 
Ms. Hayes added that they also welcomed every visitor and every query regarding Miss Moore, and that they became like caretakers of her home and her legend.
 
Ms. Hayes sold the home in 2012, but she still holds on to the precious memories of this very accomplished entertainer of yesteryear.
 
“She was so incredibly famous during her lifetime, it’s a shame more people don’t know her name today,” she said.
            
Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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