John Shearer: Relatives Of Singer Grace Moore Possess Memories And Memorabilia

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Noted actress and operatic singer Grace Moore enjoyed much fame until her sudden death in 1947, and her stories are still quite familiar to her extended family descendants from the Chattanooga area.

 

One is “Mems” Moore Bicking. Ms. Bicking grew up as the daughter of Grace Moore’s youngest brother, Richard Moore Jr., and vividly recalls all the stories he and her mother, Nancy Kitchen Moore, told her. 

 

“My mother and father went to a lot of her concerts in Europe,” she recalled.

“And they would go to a lot of her concerts at the Metropolitan Opera” (in New York).

 

Some of her European concerts and performances were before kings and queens, old accounts say.

 

Ms. Bicking, whose nickname came from the first letters of her full maiden name, Marian Emily Moore, said she inherited a lot of items related to Ms. Moore over the years. That has included furniture, scrapbook materials, a 1935 portrait of Grace, records, and letters of correspondence with family members.

 

Some items have been given away or sold over the years, and she passed a scrapbook or two down to her cousin, Ricky Moore, a grandson of another of Grace Moore’s brothers, James L. Moore.

 

Born in the late 19th century -- apparently a little earlier than she claimed in official biographies -- Grace Moore quickly showed a gift for singing at a young age, and this became clear as the family ran dry good stores in such towns as Del Rio near Newport, Tennessee, and Jellico on the Tennessee-Kentucky line. They had also lived in Knoxville for a period before moving to Jellico.

 

Ms. Moore went to what is now Belmont University to pursue a music career as a teenager and follow in the footsteps of idol Mary Garden, whom she met at a fairly young age. She then spent some time in Washington, D.C., and then took part in some Broadway productions in New York beginning in the early 1920s. Among her acquaintances were such people as composers and musicians Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.

 

She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1928. The daughter of Col. Richard and Tessa Jane Stokely Moore (from the Stokely canning company family) became an accomplished operatic singer touring throughout Europe and was in a number of movies as the Great Depression began. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the 1934 movie, “One Night of Love.” 

 

She had married a Spanish actor, Valentin Parera, in 1931, and they lived in Hollywood, Cannes (France) and Connecticut before her untimely death in a plane crash in Copenhagen, Denmark, while only in her late 40s. They had no children.

 

She was apparently determined to be a success and was also determined to keep everything as perfect as possible after reaching the top. At least those were the stories Ms. Bicking said she heard growing up.

 

“She was quite a character,” said Ms. Bicking, who has relocated to Birmingham from Chattanooga. “She really wanted to be a singer. The family didn’t want that, but she did it anyway. She left home and was determined to do that.”

 

And after she became famous, she literally became a little bit of a prima donna, Ms. Bicking recalled with a laugh.

 

“When she did a concert, she expected a lot,” she said. “Everything had to be exactly right, or she would not do it.”

 

Her sourced Wikipedia entry lists one or two other idiosyncrasies, but she was still considered gracious around her fans and appreciative of her success as an accomplished woman entertainer when plenty of glass ceilings still existed.

 

Ms. Bicking said her aunt did have plenty of admirable qualities. “She was a sweet and good woman and hard-working and nice,” she said.

 

Ms. Bicking said her father – Ms. Moore’s brother -- had an adequate singing voice, but nothing like Ms. Moore’s professional one, so they are not sure where the talent came from. Ms. Moore had apparently honed her skills early on in the Baptist church in Jellico, Ms. BIcking said. Ms. Bicking’s father and her uncle, Jim, did get to share a little in the glamor by going to Hollywood one time and enjoying small parts in one of her movies, she recalled.

 

Ms. Moore used to also visit her parents and siblings in Chattanooga after becoming famous. 

Other siblings included another brother, Martin Moore, who lived his adult years in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and a sister, Mrs. Thomas A. Mahan, who lived in Chattanooga.

 

Her parents had moved to Chattanooga to head the Lovemans department store and lived in two different Riverview houses above the No. 2 hole at Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. Her siblings, meanwhile, settled on Lookout Mountain.

 

Of the two scrapbooks owned and shared by Chattanooga investment adviser Ricky Moore, one talks of relaxing family visits she made to Chattanooga, some of which drew crowds of onlookers at the train station. She was apparently gracious with her time while here. 

            

She is also photographed on one of the visits in the early 1940s with her baby niece by the same name. The younger Grace Moore was Ricky Moore’s aunt and went on to be the Girls Preparatory School May queen in 1958 as a popular and well-liked student before being tragically killed in a 1960 car crash by Chapel Hill, N.C.

 

Ms. Moore apparently never gave any formal singing performances in Chattanooga, but she gave about three in Knoxville, including one at the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Memorial Auditorium in late November 1937. It was in front of 4,000 people and was said to be the largest Knoxville audience ever to see a concert up until that time.

 

The newspaper story about it is in the scrapbooks, and it also talks of her also visiting at that time the Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) fraternity house on Cumberland Avenue, where brothers James and Richard were members while attending UT.

 

Also in the scrapbook that was evidently dedicated to friend Helen Huff with Ms. Moore’s signature are promotional photos, articles about her and her career, and even a promotional poster for the 1937 movie, “I’ll Take Romance.” The latter starred her, decorated actor Melvyn Douglas and Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” 

 

Some pictures of her home in the Newtown, Connecticut, area are also shown. At the time of her death, noted American Clare Booth Luce – who later became an ambassador and at the time was the wife of Time-Life publisher Henry Luce -- was temporarily living in the home. 

 

This scrapbook also features photos of her funeral in Chattanooga nearly a month after her fiery Crash in Copenhagen, Denmark. Included is a not-often-seen shot of the inside of First Baptist Church, the funeral motorcade driving down Georgia Avenue, and the large throng of people at Forest Hills Cemetery, which might have been the largest crowd ever for a burial in Chattanooga.

 

Conducting the funeral at the church was First Baptist pastor Dr. John Huff, while Grace Moore protegee Dorothy Kirsten sang “Ava Maria.” Pallbearers included Congressman and future Democratic vice-presidential candidate Estes Kefauver and William Brock Jr., father of the late Sen. Bill Brock. 

 

A funeral at the large Riverside Church in Manhattan, and conducted by famous minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, had earlier been held.

 

The other scrapbook is full of stories from a number of different newspapers about the news of her death. One is from the New York Times, which had the news near the top of the front page. At least one article in one of the scrapbooks mentions that she and her husband had also narrowly avoided injury when they were involved in the tragic December 1943 railroad crash in Lumberton, N.C., that killed 79. 

 

On the Saturday of the Grace Moore funeral in Chattanooga -- Feb. 22, 1947 -- Lovemans was closed out of respect and due to the fact Richard Jr. was president and James Moore was vice president.

 

The Moore family in Chattanooga continued to be involved in running Lovemans until its merger with Proffitt’s in 1988.

 

And Ms. Moore’s name also continued to be remembered.

 

In the late 1970s, after the Tivoli started showing old movies, manager Clyde Hawkins held a showing of “One Night of Love.” Ms. Bicking remembered that the mayor, Pat Rose, proclaimed Grace Moore Day in Chattanooga, and Ms. Bicking’s father and Ms. Moore’s sister, Emily Wright, attended along with Ms. Bicking and her siblings, Richard Moore, John Moore and Stokely Moore.

 

Ms. Bicking has occasionally crossed paths with some of her aunt’s fans, too. She said some people from Germany used to come regularly to Chattanooga and put flowers on her grave at Forest Hills Cemetery.

 

“I met them once and took them to lunch,” she said. “They just adored her.”

 

Ms. Bicking considers herself an admiring relative of the famous singer and actress of yesteryear as well.

 

“She was an interesting person,” she said.

            

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 


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