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The Official Newsletter of the University of Louisville Libraries
Vol. 6, No. 9 October, 1991
"The Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk beings to fall" ~Hegel
The Owl asked George McWhorter, Rare Books Department, if he would agree to being featured as this month's lead story. In response, George generously submitted the following autobiographical sketch. We hope our readers enjoy it as much as we have.
~The Editor of The Owl
"To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born . . ." (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield) . . . in Washington, D.C., on the 10th day of May, singular in no wise save for the fact of its being Sunday, "Mother's Day," and the first anniversary of my parents' wedding day.
The church beckons: Having sung (I am told) for almost a year before I spoke my first word, it had become an established opinion that I should become a professional singer. Being allowed no opinions of my own, I was therefore entered as a boy-treble in the choir of the National Cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul, with a small scholarship to St. Alban's Episcopal School for Boys, a private institution patterned after the English form system.
By now a "veteran" of the Columbia Light Opera Company (which performed Gilbert & Sullivan operettas at the foot of the Washington Monument), and armed with a somewhat dubious vocal technique (gained from an equally dubious vocal teacher whom I discovered in the yellow pages of the Telephone Directory), I won a voice scholarship to a college in Florida, given by the National Society of Arts and Letters. The college was conveniently located in the middle of an orange grove, which made early morning classes easier to bear if one didn't mind sticky fingers. But music there was a bust. The school of music was a two-story affair on the outskirts of the campus, with four practice rooms in the basement, the floors of which were generally under two inches of water. (The teachers were under several feet of it, judging from the sounds they made.) So, I switched over to the English Department, wrote a long narrative poem on the conversation of Saul on the road to Damascus (since it was a denominational college), installed a chapter of the Sigma Tau Delta honorary English fraternity, taught English to foreign students, and graduated in 3 years with honors and sticky fingers.
Having borrowed $25 from a friend (who had been impressed with my recitation of the first book of Paradise Lost) I managed to take a bus to New York City with enough capital left over to register at an employment agency and eat for approximately three days. The agency sent me as an "expert" typist to the California Fruit Grower's Exchange, 99 Hudson Street . . . undoubtedly as a result of a sticky finger syndrome which accompanied me on the bus. Encouraged by the receipt of a regular salary, I enrolled at night school, Columbia University, in the Graduate English Department.
|This idyll lasted only six months, however, before I received a letter from Uncle Sam, inviting me to consent to a pre-induction examination. I not only passed the physical (showing no signs of venereal disease or tuberculosis) but the Officer's Candidate School (OCS) examination as well (it having been over before I quite realized what it was for), with the result that I entered the army under contract for Officer's School at the end of 16 weeks at boot camp. Destiny intervened, however, while I was entertaining the troops at the Radio Station at Fort Dix, N.J. The Colonel in command of the hospital convinced me that I should serve the Army (and myself) far more ably as a staff member of the Armed Forces Radio Service. Gleefully I renounced OCS as an Infantry Lieutenant, and spent my two year enlistment as a disc-jockey, newscaster and staff vocalist, with the rank of Corporal.|
|This role proved fortuitous. I was able to continue my vocal studies at the Curtis Institute of Music with Richard Bonelli (the Metropolitan Opera's leading baritone), hold down a church and synagogue job, and concertise all over the Eastern Seaboard, while still in the army. It was a "bully" two years, and I left the service in December of 1953 with a Distinguished Service Citation for entertainment of hospitalized servicemen and women.|
The City of Brotherly Love: Whence I moved to continue my vocal studies. For employment I became a drafts man for the Insurance Company of North America, drafting scale models of properties to be insured by the company. Unfortunately my music teacher, Richard Bonelli, retired to Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Meanwhile, I was in danger of being sacked because of the drolleries with which I decorated the margins of my drafting plans. Instead I entered a well-known school of music in 1954, armed with the GI Bill, and determined to fill in the gaps in a musical education which had been touch and go over ten years.
Two scholarships and many operas later, I was graduated with a definite talent for waiting tables and singing for tips at the Town & Country Restaurant where I was obliged to work. The voice teachers were still mostly under water, only their credentials were more impressive. The Wagnerian baritone with whom I studied was convinced that I could learn to sing high notes better by holding up the piano while singing. After lifting every piano in the school which was not nailed down, I was advised by a violinist (with perfect pitch) that my high "G" was, in reality, an "F-sharp" and that I should do well to discover another approach to my art. I did, by getting out of school and into the professional world, where experience taught her vital lessons. I sang with major orchestras and oratorio societies, in summer stock musicals, and in an endless succession of churches and synagogues. I regained almost a full octave of range that had been lost. I sang in French and German, and got a thorough grounding theory and musicology. My crowning achievement was to sing "Quia fecit mihi magna" from the Bach Magnificat at a rehearsal in the school theater, during which a 12-foot square section of the ceiling came crashing down with a mighty roar and flattened several rows of seats.
Having sung in New York with two rather remarkable singers from Ann Arbor, I had decided to take a Master's degree in Voice from Michigan, on the theory that some of the kinks could be removed. I no longer had sticky fingers, but (as one Russian coach, Dona Paula Novikova, had put it to me) I sang with far more artistry than technique. And so, at Michigan, I trained with another leading Metropolitan Opera Baritone, this one more practical than the others. I worked at the Undergraduate Library in the Reserved Books section and the Audio Room, and sang in all the operas and Musket musicals.
|At the end of '59 I won a scholarship from the U.S. Government for
study abroad (The Harriet Hale Woolly Scholarship, which I discovered in
a UNESCO Bulletin in the Library) and augmented it with a Fulbright grant
to Paris. September of that year saw me in Paris as a pupil of Pierre Bernac
and the incomparable Nadia Boulanger. (Several of her letters to me were
given to the Manuscript Collection of the Department of Rare Books at Michigan
Boulanger honored me by choosing me as soloist in the Paris premiere of Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum (she adored Stravinsky and Picasso). I was prepared to study another year at Fountainebleau when I received a cable from a hot-shot agent in New York, offering me a job, so I made tracks for America. The agent turned out to be a phony, and the job non-existent, but it was too late to go back, so I stayed where I was for the next nine years.
I began with pushing a dress-rack through the garment district of Manhattan for the Lerner Shops, Inc. No one cared that I had three degrees and could sing in seven languages! It was not the same New York that had employed me as a typist on Hudson Street in 1951. Most of the singers worked through Olson's temporary employment service until they could get enough money to join the unions for the performing arts, get some kind of theatrical job, and earn Unemployment Compensation in their field of endeavor. But there were always theater folks who could help out, and I graduated from the garment district to Radio City Music Hall in the first six months. I had star billing but couldn't get an agent to go near the place.
|So I graduated to the New York City Center Opera for six seasons,
then on to the New York Pro Musica, the American Shakespeare Festival,
Town Hall and Carnegie Hall recitals, NBC-TV, etc., until 1968 when Dame
Fortune bestowed one of her back handed thrusts with a partially paralysed
vocal chord, caused from gout. The specialists gave me two years to mend.
Back to Ann Arbor I came, with the idea of renewing my acquaintance with scholarship and academia for two years, and possibly taking a doctorate in voice when the scars healed. I found immediate employment at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections there, fell in love with rare books and added new dimension to my life. By and by the voice returned, and there were concerts in Ann Arbor. But Rare Books were in my blood, and the need to sing could be satisfied as an avocation.
I started my employment at the University of Louisville in July of 1972. I have been extremely fortunate to have been offered my own curatorship here.
The high spots of my Louisville life include making my debut with
the Kentucky Opera Association in Janacek's Jenufa in February, 1973, followed
by six other leading roles in Tosca, La Boheme, Il Tabarro, Carmina Burana
and Il Campanello. Also important to me were the publication of several
books, the first being The Seafarer, a modern rhymed verse translation
of an Anglo-Saxon Elegy from the Exeter Book, which was published by the
King Library Press at the University of Kentucky under the direction of
Carolyn Hammer, the Rare Book Librarian in 1975.
|The second book was not published until 1987, being a complete concordance to the published writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs entitled Burroughs Dictionary (University Press of America). The third book was a collection of edited memoirs entitled Remembering Barry Bingham (privately printed, 1990) and the fourth book was a pictorial bibliographic catalog of the Burroughs Memorial Collection at the University of Louisville, to be published jointly by Greenwood Press and House of Greystoke in 1991. A TV play entitled Sun Rising was also written, produced and directed by me to commemorate the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was presented on Channel 15. Later, I arranged it into 15-minute segments for distribution to high schools throughout Kentucky, with a brief introduction by Dr. Ingwersen, Superintendent of Schools, Jefferson County.|
My library Science degree has gathered up many loose ends of past training in a remarkable way. Nothing is lost, only added to in Rare Books Librarianship -- it is vastly creative. Boulanger always said: "Everything with love; otherwise, not worth to do it."
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