My Famous Grandmother Was An Opera Star, Pianist, Actress, & Artist
More than one hundred years ago she was a famous celebrity known as Marguerite Namara. She was my father's mother and an opera sensation when she became the youngest prima donna ever to sing the role of Marguerite in Faust at the age of 19.
She was an accomplished pianist who accompanied herself at concerts, and an artist, having studied under French impressionist Claude Monet. Monet loved her music and often had a piano brought to his Paris studio so Namara could sing to him (see photo).
She was a silent screen star in the movie classic Stolen Moments, and her leading man was Rudolph Valentino appearing in his first movie role. That movie recently aired on Turner Classic Movies and it was featured again at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. with a special introduction by my daughter Vicki, Namara's Great Granddaughter. The title sequence below was digitized from the original nitrate movie film. In 1920, Namara starred in another movie classic: Gipsy Blood also known as Carmen (Preview below).
She was born as Marguerite Evelyn Cecilia Banks in Cleveland, Ohio, to a wealthy family with New England ties (she was descended on her father's side from Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullens and was a great-grandniece of Union General Nathaniel Prentice Banks, Governor of Massachusetts and Speaker of the House). Born in 1888, she passed away in 1974 at her home in Marbella Spain. We (Sigrid, Vicki, Fred, and I) were there earlier that year to visit her.
View Namara's Photo Gallery
November 19, 1888 Cleveland, Ohio - November 3, 1974 Marbella, Spain
An amazingly varied singer and actress whose career included Broadway musicals, opera, film roles, vocal recitals, radio and dramatic acting, Marguerite Evelyn Cecilia Banks was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 19, 1888, the only daughter of William A. Banks and Margaret McNamara Banks. Her mother had been a well-known and popular amateur singer in her native Ohio. In 1894, Marguerite’s father relocated his business, the Wholesale Food Company of Catawba Island, Lake Erie, to Southern California, where, along with his brothers, he set up the California Fruit Trust. Marguerite was six years old when she and her family, including her younger brothers Stafford and Raymond, moved into large frame house near Kenwood and West Adams streets south of downtown Los Angeles.
descendant on her father’s side from Mayflower passengers John Alden and
Priscilla Mullins, Marguerite’s mother’s family emigrated from Ireland
to the United States in the 1840s and 50s during the Potato Famine.
VOICE FIRST NOTICED
Marguerite attended St. Vincent’s Academy and Girls’ Collegiate High School, where she was an active member of the drama and art clubs, and had her pen and ink sketches exhibited locally. She studied French and Italian.
A 1907 newspaper article describing Marguerite’s coming out party praised her musical ability: “Miss Banks has a soprano voice of range and sweetness, but her most notable gift by far consists in her ability to capture the airy strains that flit across her mind, and to weave them into compositions.”
DEBUT IN ITALY
“Miss Marguerite Banks, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.A. Banks, who formerly resided in Cleveland, but who are at present living in Los Angeles, made her debut in Genoa, Italy recently as Marguerite in Faust, singing under the name of Marguerite Namara. Miss Banks went to Italy little more than a year ago. Her teacher there at the Milan Conservatory has been the well known Sebastiano Breda, and she will sing in her present Genoa engagement until September 10, principal roles in Faust, La Boheme, Tosca, Cavaleria Rusticana, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata.”
Long-limbed, willowy, fiery, and blue-eyed, Marguerite Namara possessed not only a magnificent voice, but a unique, transfixing beauty. In an age when most operatic sopranos resembled stuffed sofas, she was a creature who could enhance a Ziegfeld staircase. All this was not lost on Henry Russell. He wasted no time in rolling out his casting couch. But he hadn’t reckoned with Marguerite Namara’s third and most striking trait: her fierce independence. Proud of her genius and protective of her honor, and not about to have either compromised, she not only rebuffed Henry Russell’s advances; she paid him the supreme insult of marrying his assistant manager, Frederick H. Toye. Russell fired both soprano and manager in mid-season, but it mattered little to either. Frederick Henry Toye became not only Marguerite’s husband but her manager, and would continue in the latter capacity until he died.
Married on January 10, 1910 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Marguerite began appearing under the name Madame Namara-Toye, and, later, under the name Marguerite Namara. She chose the exotic sounding stage name Namara as a tribute to her mother’s maiden name of McNamara. Later in life, friends, family, and acquaintances would refer to her simply as Namara.
During this same time, Namara began training with the legendary Jean de Reszke and Manuel de Falla. In the France and Italy of the these early years, she moved in the same circles as the composer, Debussy; the poet-dramatist-political leader D’Annunzio, and the dramatic actress for whom he wrote, Eleanora Duse; the sculptor, Rodin; and many of the political figures of the time.
Within a year, my grandparents embarked for Paris, leaving their baby in the care of his maternal grandmother. He was to follow afterward. A June, 1914 Los Angeles Times article stated:
A 6,000 mile journey to join his mother in Paris for his first birthday is the record-breaking trip to be made by young Frederick Namara Toye, son of Madame Namara-Toye, Metropolitan prima donna, formerly Marguerite Banks of Los Angeles. “Come at once,” read the cablegram from Paris, received today by Mrs. W.A. Banks of Hollywood, grandmother of the eleven month old traveler-to-be. So Frederick Namara Toye, aged eleven months, will start on Wednesday to join his famous mother in the French capital where she is coaching with Madame Melba. He will be accompanied by his grandmother and a nurse. Young Toye is probably the youngest globetrotter in the state. He will go direct to the beautiful palace on the Seine where his mother and father are the guests of Isadora Duncan, the classic dancer. Mr. Toye Senior, formerly manager of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, is now manager of Miss Duncan’s famous new Temple of the Dance, where she is a fashionable Parisienne.
With the advent of war in Europe, Namara spent her time as a pupil of the famous diva Madame Nellie Melba. She also consoled her friend Isadora, who had tragically lost her own two children in a drowning accident in the Seine in 1913. When the family could safely cross the Atlantic again for New York, in December, 1915, they traveled in a ship without lights, because of the threat of German U-boats.
MOMENTS” AND FRIENDSHIP WITH VALENTINO
WITH OPERA COMIQUE, PARIS
PAINTING LESSONS FROM MONET
Namara would often sing for him, both in Paris and at his estate in Giverny. “He was a real sauvage,” she laughed. “He would order a grand piano sent and would make the men who brought it wait outside until I was through singing, then take it away again. He wouldn't trust it to the fingers of his grandchildren.”
IN EUROPE IN THE ROARING TWENTIES
a 1926 letter, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: