Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lawrence, Marjorie Florence (1907–1979)

by Helga M. Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Marjorie Florence Lawrence (1907-1979), by unknown photographer

Marjorie Florence Lawrence (1907-1979), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an13384104

Marjorie Florence Lawrence (1907-1979), dramatic soprano, was born on 17 February 1907 at Dean's Marsh, near Winchelsea, Victoria, fifth of six children of William Lawrence, butcher and fiddler, and his wife Elizabeth, née Smith, church organist, who died when Marjorie was 2. Reared by her paternal grandmother until she too died, Marjorie was educated at local schools; from the age of 10 she was a regular soloist. Her musical tastes were refined by the local Anglican parson and gramophone records of Nellie Melba and Clara Butt. At 18, despite her father's opposition, she left for Melbourne with her brother Cyril in search of work, paying Ivor Boustead to train her voice—she never had to unlearn anything he taught. Forced home by impecuniousness, she failed to gain a place in the Ballarat South Street competitions, but at Geelong in 1928 won the Sun Aria contest.

John Brownlee advised Marjorie to study in Paris. Experiencing financial hardship, she boarded with a French family to acquire the language and manners, and learned her craft from Cécile Gilly who extended the upper range of her voice. In January 1932 Lawrence made her début as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at Monte Carlo; it was acclaimed by critics as comparable with those of Chaliapin and Caruso. Elbowed out of a contract in Paris by a jealous soprano, she sang a season at Lille; then, steering clear of intrigues, she sang Ortrud for the Paris Opera from 25 February 1933 followed by a number of dramatic leads over four seasons. Now the company's leading dramatic soprano, she privately entertained celebrities like Honegger and James Joyce.

Her triumph in New York (18 December 1935) introduced six seasons with the Metropolitan Opera at home and on tour (with her brother Cyril her manager), mostly in Wagnerian leads. Her physical grace enchanted audiences. She herself danced Salome's erotic dance, and as Brunnhilde she scored another first by riding a horse on stage into the immolation flames of Götterdämmerung.

Marjorie Lawrence visited Australia in 1939, 1944, 1951, 1966 and 1976; she kept a promise in 1939 to perform first at Winchelsea, which honoured her with an escort of one hundred horsemen. More popular in Melbourne than in Sydney, she quarrelled briefly with the Australian Broadcasting Commission over its cringe to foreign performers. Her repertoire now ran to some twenty-five major roles in four languages. Neville Cardus wrote of the 'unselfconscious pathos' and 'intimate poetry' in her performances, of the 'superb range' of her powerful voice, 'rich in vocal splendour' throughout. Her timbre had a certain exciting wildness, first noted and accepted by Gilly. A disciplined and versatile musician, Lawrence prescribed an 'iron constitution, calm and an ordered life' to aspiring singers. Despite her huge collection of Parisian gowns and hats (her passion—one had a brim of a half-map of Australia), she disdained the temperamental hauteur of prima donnas and met people with informal warmth.

A sudden attack of poliomyelitis in 1941 left her almost completely paralysed in both legs. Married on 29 March 1941 at City Hall, New York, to Thomas King, osteopath and Christian Scientist, she used the Sister Kenny treatment to provide a slow, laborious method to use her legs partially. Other helpful factors, she said, were her husband's support, her faith in God and her Australian upbringing. Her first public reappearance in 1942 was followed by her New York Venus in a chair (when Sir Thomas Beecham called her 'the greatest living dramatic soprano'), her reclining Isolde at Montreal, and Amneris at Cincinnati carried off stage on a palanquin. By 1947 she sang Elektra upright on a wheeling platform designed by her husband. A film in 1955, which she criticized as untrue to her life, was based on her humorous, candid autobiography, Interrupted Melody (New York, 1949). She was not engaged to sing the lead herself.

Lawrence made extensive tours to entertain troops in Australia (1944), occupied Europe (1945, 1948) and Vietnam (1966), sang at Buckingham Palace and the White House, and continued to perform until 1952, after which she taught at Tulane, Southern Illinois, and Arkansas universities. In summer she ran opera workshops and sponsored children's opera at her home Harmony Range, Hot Springs, Arkansas. Grateful students established the Marjorie Lawrence Lincoln Endowment Fund for handicapped people attending performances of 'the Met' at the Lincoln Center, New York.

Marjorie Lawrence died of heart failure on 13 January 1979 at St Vincent's Hospital, Little Rock, Arkansas, and was buried in Greenwood cemetery. For her work in France she had received the cross of the Légion d'honneur (1946); she was also appointed C.B.E. in 1976.

Select Bibliography

  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • People (Sydney), 14 Feb 1951
  • Opera Australia, Mar 1979
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 16 Apr 1928, 17 June 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1928, 14 June 1941, 12 June 1976 (green guide), 15 Jan 1979
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 July 1937, 17 June 1939, 16 Jan 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June, 31 July, 1, 2, 3 Aug 1939, 15 Sept 1944, 1 Aug 1954, 20 May 1977
  • Australian, 16 June 1976
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 18 Jan 1979
  • biography file (National Library of Australia) .

Citation details

Helga M. Griffin, 'Lawrence, Marjorie Florence (1907–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawrence-marjorie-florence-7115/text12273, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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