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AS DESCRIBED in the recent HBO documentary “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper,” one of Gloria’s three husbands was conductor Leopold Stokowski, noted for his recordings of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Disney’s Fantasia and other musical feats. Conversely, Gloria was one of his three wives. Indeed, despite her seemingly irrepressible lifestyle, she was likely the least irrepressible of the trio.
Stokowski’s origins are not without mystery. A birth certificate identifies April 18, 1882, as the date of his birth in Marylebone, London. On the other hand, famed musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky cites another authority writing, “The Maestro himself told me he was born in Pomerania, Germany, in 1889.”
This birthday fudge, not to say other rumors, may have been influenced by Stokowski’s first marriage. In 1905, Leopold was recruited to the post of organist at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City, where he soon met leading American musical personalities of the era. Among them was a popular concert pianist named Olga Samaroff, in time to be wife number one.
Like others in this tale, Olga was larger than life. In 1905, she was the first woman to produce her own Carnegie Hall debut. Born Lucy Mary Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, she took the Samaroff moniker to enhance her career and downplay her American origins.
Olga was also instrumental in Leopold’s career. Though it wasn’t called this at the time, networking on her part led to Leopold’s appointment as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which launched his international career.
Later, Stokowski gained a reputation, undeserved, for being something of a phony. One canard spread was that his name was really Lionel Stokes, the Stokowski adopted to enhance a musical career and mask his humble London origins. (Sound familiar?)
In fact, the family’s Stokowski name was a Polandized variant of Stokauskas, a Lithuanian surname. You go, Lietuva!
Leopold and Olga were married in 1911. This was his first nuptial, her second following a brief marriage to Russian engineer Boris Loutzky while in Europe where she studied music.
The Stokowskis had a daughter, Sonya, born in 1921. The couple divorced in 1923, owing, it’s said, to Leopold’s infidelities. Wikipedia says Olga took refuge with friends, among them George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Parker and Cary Grant. In 1924, Olga was invited to join the faculty at the newly formed Julliard School.
Some refuge. What’s more, there’s evidence that the photo in Olga’s Wikipedia entry isn’t of her, but of Stokowski’s second wife.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was three years before Leopold remarried. And when he did, Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson was quite a catch.
Evangeline was daughter of Robert Wood Johnson, one of the three brothers who founded the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical conglomerate. Evangeline served as a lieutenant in New York City’s Red Cross Ambulance Corps, with decoration by President Woodrow Wilson for her World War I service.
In the early 1920s, Evangeline learned how to fly and put her aviation skills to good use in what The New York Times described as “A One-Woman War” against the city government of Palm Beach, Florida.
New bathing suits for women were of an “abbreviated” variety, and the city outlawed this style. Evangeline had a batch of protesting handbills printed up and she distributed them while flying over the city’s beaches.
Evangeline and Leopold were married in January 1926. She was 28 and shared her April 18th birthday with him. He claimed to be 38 at the time; he was actually 43.
An uncontested divorce was granted on December 2, 1937, possibly related to Stokowski’s Isle of Capri touristic activities with Greta Garbo. Less than two months later, Evangeline became a princess, wife of Prince Alexis Zalstem-Zalessky. In Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal, and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty, Jerry Oppenheimer describes the prince as “of dubious royal lineage… better known in certain circles as basically a charming gigolo.”
Nevertheless, love had its way. It wasn’t until 27 years later, in 1965, that the prince’s fatal heart attack left Evangeline a widow. Then it was another decade before she married Charles Merrill in 1975, whom Oppenheimer describes as looking “half her age, and almost was.” The Merrills lived in Dublin, where they produced The Arts in Ireland quarterly.
Merrill died in 2010 at age 75; Evangeline predeceased him in 1990, age 93.
Her New York Times obituary cites Evangeline Johnson Merrill’s life contributions. She was a chairwoman of the speaker’s bureau of the League of Nations. In 1943, Evangeline was made a Fellow in Perpetuity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was a patroness of several other museums, including the Peabody Museum of Yale University. Evangeline’s image (which helped me in suggesting Wikipedia’s misidentified photo) comes from the Peabody Museum website describing her donated collection of Japanese Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) porcelain dolls.
Gloria Vanderbilt was Leopold’s third wife, 1945 until their 1955 divorce.
Say one thing for Stokowski: Not the most constant of husbands, he was sure lucky in love. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016