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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

The Other Mrs. Mackay

One of the most visited topics in our discussions at the Local History Collection is the Mackay Family of Harbor Hill. While much attention has been given to the social activities and philanthropic contributions of Clarence H. Mackay’s first wife, Katherine Duer Mackay, she was not the only woman to hold the “Mrs. Mackay” title. After his divorce from Katherine in 1914, Clarence attended a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera House where he was struck by the voice of Anna Case, a talented young soprano. They would eventually meet and engage in a 17-year courtship that culminated in matrimony after Katherine’s death in 1930.

Born October 29, 1887, Case spent the early part of her life in South Branch, New Jersey where she assisted her father, the village blacksmith, at his shop. At age 15, she became the organist and choir director at the Neshanic Dutch Reformed Church. A local voice teacher recognized her talent and brought her to New York to study with the renowned mezzo-soprano Augusta Öhrström-Renard. Despite her lack of European training, Case made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1909.

Under contract at the Met, Case gained further attention in 1913 with the role of “Feodor” in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. She began to garner enough attention in the press to employ a service to gather her clippings from newspapers and industry magazines. Two scrapbooks full of such clippings were donated to The Local History Collection in 1995 as part of the Hechler Family Collection and serve as a major source of research on Case’s lively career.

Known for her association with the Thomas Edison Tone Tests, Anna Case performed throughout her multi-decade career at top venues both in the United States and abroad. She also appeared in films and was frequently featured in print editorials. Original music composed by Case was published as early as 1917 with the patriotic anthem “Our America” and the jaunty "Metropolitan Rag". Her public image greatly embraced her American heritage. At the Met, she was famously the first American, stateside-trained soprano to hold a contract with the iconic opera house.

As a recording artist, Case began making records produced by Edison in 1912. She was identified by the press as “Edison’s Favorite Singer” and co-marketed the inventor’s newest sound recording technologies.

Her scrapbooks reference this working relationship through numerous ads for the New Edison Phonograph and Diamond Disc records featuring her endorsement, as well as notices for Edison-sponsored Tone Test recitals. The most famous of these performances occurred on March 10th, 1920 at Carnegie Hall and was attended by 2500 people. The point of the tests were to show that the phonograph could fully recreate the sound of a singer’s voice, making the recordings indistinguishable from real performances. While it is not certain whether ticketing was conducted solely by invitation, the scrapbooks contains this document from Edison Laboratories, as well as a program for the event:

In a 1972 interview, Case would admit that she trained herself to sound like the recording:

I remember I stood right beside the machine. The audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me. The machine played and I sang with it. Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. And sometimes I would stop singing and let the machine play, and I’d come in again. Well, it seemed to make a tremendous success.

After her retirement from the Met Opera in 1920, Case traveled and performed all over the country as well as to international destinations in Europe. Tracing the trajectory of her career from ingenue soprano to world-famous recitalist and concert singer, her scrapbooks depict a vibrant persona with both modern sensibility and old-world sophistication.

It appears that during the time she was active, essentially the mid-1910s throughout the 1920s, entertainers were gradually becoming more respected and the “brainless” image of singers was being overturned. Case’s collaborative efforts with Edison also boosted her legitimacy as she became associated with the modernity of early 20th-century scientific innovation. Many of the recordings made by Case for Edison Records are available online including her famous rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and other standout examples such as Handel’s Angels Ever Bright and Fair. Her post-Edison recordings for Columbia Records include My Pretty Jane, a song which is referenced by James Joyce in the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses by its alternative title Bloom on the Rye. Another fine example, and one of Case’s last before her retirement and marriage to Clarence Mackay, is her 1930 recording of Haydn’s My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair.

Throughout her career, Case made occasional on-screen appearances including a part in the 1926 “soundies”

short La Fiesta which can be viewed on Youtube. The film features the dancing of Eduardo Cansino, whose dark-haired daughter Margarita Cansino would rise to prominence in the Golden Age of Hollywood as the redheaded Rita Hayworth.

The Anna Case scrapbooks end abruptly in 1931, which marks the beginning of her marriage to Clarence H. Mackay. The Local History Collection will be presenting a virtual program about Mrs. Anna Case Mackay on March 27th, 2021 at 2PM via Zoom that delves further into her relationship with Clarence and their life in Roslyn.

An abridged version of this article is available in The Bryant Library March/April Newsletter.


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