For me, the most powerful moment in the movie The Greatest Showman is when the curtain rises on Jenny Lind and the “Swedish Nightingale” belts out “Never Enough” with joyful ferocity, while P. T. Barnum, who hadn’t before heard her sing, watches from the wings, simply amazed. His expression is what I think gobsmacked looks like.
(I have to include here, that the “Never Enough” performance was a team effort. Rebecca Ferguson, the actress who portrayed Lind didn’t actually sing “Never Enough” for the film. Instead, the words of the song were dubbed over by Loren Allred.)
But that name . . . Jenny Lind. Where had I heard it before? Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Something to do with the NBA? No, that’s Jeremy Lin. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind. It wasn’t that I was familiar with her as a singer, even though no less than the German composer Felix Mendelssohn said of Lind, “She is as great an artist as ever lived; and the greatest I have known.” It wasn’t that I’d heard of how she took Europe by storm and sang for Queen Victoria. No, that wasn’t it, either.
And then as I looked into her story, I realized what it was: the Jenny Lind bed—with it’s turned spindles and simple design. I’ve never owned one and can’t say for sure that I’ve seen one in person. I just remember hearing about Jenny Lind furniture, which is only one example from the cottage industry of items using her name to take advantage of Lind-sanity, including Jenny Lind soup, dolls, melons, bread, tobacco, and even a locomotive.
Lind certainly became a global phenomenon, helped in no small part by Barnum. So before I continue on with her story, it will help to backfill a little with the beginnings of Mr. Barnum’s career. (It’s not quite the same as what’s portrayed in the film.)
Well before being labeled “The Greatest Showman,” Barnum began his entertainment career in 1835, at the age of 25, and would have been hard pressed to call himself a good person, much less a great one. As detailed by Becky Little in Biography, Barnum’s first money-making show exploited a blind, ill, enslaved black woman named Joice Heth. Billing her as the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington and “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World,” Barnum had entered into an agreement with an R. W. Lindsay of Kentucky, who “bargained, sold, transferred and delivered” her for the purpose of “possession” and “exhibition” for 12 months (the handwritten contract is shown at The Lost Museum Archive). Lind was actually no more than 80 years old, a fact that was revealed through an autopsy after her death, for which Barnum charged admission.
Several years later, Barnum’s exhibition, as described in the Charlotte Courier, included a platypus, an orangutan, a glass blower, automatons, and a combination ventriloquist and magician. But the main attraction was “the most wonderful curiosity in the world,” the “Feejee mermaid,” which turned out to be the torso of a monkey sewn on to the tail of a fish.
As Barnum’s fame grew and ticket sales rose, he was still seen not as a serious entertainer but as a huckster, and he looked for a way to gain respectability. Enter, in 1950, Jenny Lind.
Lind was born in 1820 to an unmarried schoolteacher in Stockholm, Sweden. Her singing talent was discovered when she was nine and she began performing at the age of ten. Before meeting Barnum, the soprano had already become a hit in Europe with her unmatched abilities, but she’d also retired, at the young age of 29. Four years before stepping away from the stage, Lind had spoken with her friend Harriet Grote about her dissatisfaction with performing. As recorded by Henry Scott Holland in Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851, Grote writes,
I manifested some surprise at hearing her speak of her profession with such dislike. She went on to say that it was the Theatre, and the sort of entourage it involved, that was distasteful to her: that at the Opera she was liable to be continually intruded upon by curious idlers and exposed to many indescribable ennuis: that the combined fatigue of acting and singing was exhausting: that the exposure to cold coulisses, after exertions on the stage in a heated atmosphere, was trying to the chest: the labour of rehearsals, tiresome to a degree: and that, altogether, she longed for the time to arrive when she would be rich enough to do without the Theatre—adding, “My wants are few—my tastes simple—a small income would content me.” She would sing occasionally, she said, both for charity and for her friends, as well as for the undying love she felt for the musical Art; but not act, if she could help it.
While Lind planned to be content to “sing occasionally” for charity and friends, it was her devotion to charity that brought her out of retirement. She saw in the American tour that Barnum offered her an opportunity to make money to provide for others. And in the end, she was greatly successful in that, giving 133 performances in the US—93 with Barnum and 40 independently—and earning an amount that is said to be the equivalent of more than $10 million today (Barnum’s profits were even greater). She gave the vast bulk of this money away to causes such as hospitals, churches, scholarships for poor college students, and pension funds, keeping for herself, writes Holland, only enough money to purchase a cottage in the mountains to serve as her home.
Barnum was eager to showcase not only Lind’s talents but her virtue, as well. As he writes in his autobiography, Barnum’s pre-tour promotion included the following in New York papers:
Perhaps I may not make any money by this enterprise; but I assure you that if I knew I should not make a farthing profit, I would ratify the engagement, so anxious am I that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity, and goodness personified.
And according to The Literary World, at the end of Lind’s first concert in the US, Barnum gave her the title “that Angel” and made sure the audience knew that the proceeds from the evening would go to the fire department.
In the film The Greatest Showman, Lind is smitten by Barnum and tries to manipulate him with a kiss in front of reporters. In real life, though, there is no reason to think that she had such feelings for him and would certainly not have treated him in that way. Neither did she fall in love with Mendelssohn or the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, even though both of them have been reported to have fallen in love with her. It is thought that Andersen used her as the inspiration for his story “The Nightingale.” Of her, he writes,
With the perfect feeling of a brother I prize her; I feel myself happy that I know and understand such a soul. May God send her peace, that quiet happiness which she desires for herself! Through Jenny Lind did I first know the holiness of art; through her did I first learn that one must forget one’s self in the service of the Supreme. No books, no men have worked on me as a poet in a better or more ennobling manner than Jenny Lind. . . .
Lind eventually married the German composer Otto Goldschmidt, with whom she lived until her death in 1887.
With the tour of Jenny Lind, Barnum gained at least some of the respect in the entertainment world that he had hoped for, and he found respect in other realms as well, earning election to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1865. By the time the Civil War ended, Barnum’s views on racial equality had evolved, and in a speech he gave to the legislature in support of voting rights for African-Americans, he said,
Let the educated free negro feel that he is a man; let him be trained in New England churches, schools and workshops; let him support himself, pay his taxes, and cast his vote, like other men, and he will put to everlasting shame the champions of modern democracy, by the overwhelming evidence he will give in his own person of the great Scripture truth, that “God has made of one blood all the nations of men.” A human soul, “that God has created and Christ died for,” is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit; and amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to color or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.
I will not say that all of Barnum’s opinions, and vocabulary, in his speech would play well today (read the above quotation in context to see what I mean), but he had come a long way from his mistreatment of Joice Heth. Just as Barnum had used his promotional skills to help Lind raise money for charity, maybe, by her example of grace and benevolence, Lind played a part in reforming his views about humanity.
That is the kind of legacy that is much more important than a furniture style—or even a locomotive.
(Becky Little, “‘The Greatest Showman’ Sidesteps P.T. Barnum’s Most Controversial Act, Biography, December 22, 2017; “Joice Heth Contract,” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions; “The Feejee Mermaid,” The Museum of Hoaxes; Henry Scott Holland, Jenny Lind the Artist, 1820-1851 : A Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind Goldschmidt, Her Art-Life and Dramatic Career, from Original Documents, Letters, MS. Diaries, &c., Collected by Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, Scribner, 1893; Phineas Tayler Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum: Written by Himself, Redfield, 1855; Evert Augustus Duyckinck and George Long Duyckinck, eds., “Illustrations of Humbug,” The Literary World, September 17, 1853; Hans Christian Andersen, The Story of My Life and In Sweden, Routledge, 1852; “P. T. Barnum’s Speech on Negro Suffrage, May 26, 1865 (excerpts)” The Lost Museum, American Social History Productions)