Catherine “Kate” Coleman was the ladies’ maid for the “The Diamond Horseshoe” at the original Metropolitan Opera House, a massive yellow brick building on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets. In 1888 she was a 30-year-old widow with two young sons, when she was hired for the position. Years later in December 1919, she was interviewed by the New York Sun because she had never missed a day of work. That incredible record translated to 5,859 days on the job where, in addition to her duties, she heard more than 20,000 hours of music.
The idea for the Metropolitan Opera House found form when William K. Vanderbilt’s offer of $30,000 to purchase a box at the prestigious Academy of Music was refused. The 18 boxes at the Academy on Fourteenth Street remained in the grip of old New York families, and the Vanderbilts were considered arriviste. Edith Wharton referred to the Academy’s exclusivity, in The Age of Innocence: “Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient and thus keeping out the ‘new people’.” The “new people” took their money and their opera business elsewhere. In the spring of 1880 “three Vanderbilts, two Roosevelts, Iselins, Goelets, Astors, Morgans and others” subscribed $800,000 and built their own opera house.
The founding financiers selected J. Cleveland Cady as the architect, settled on a site on Broadway, and saw their building completed in March 1883. The final cost edged over $1.7 million (more than $50 million in today’s currency). Opening night was October 22, 1883, the same night as the traditional opening at The Academy’s season, and another equally social event – the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. Society matrons, conflicted about which to attend, should have followed the itinerary of one of its leading hostesses, Mrs. Paran Stevens, who evening scheduled arrivals and departures in order to be seen at all three.
Management postponed the curtain for more than 30 minutes on opening night to accommodate the stream of broughams and landaus arriving with swarms of guests. Gaslights burned in each of the 122 boxes and created a “brilliant ring of flame” on the massive chandelier, although its illumination paled in comparison to the magnificent jewels displayed on the women attending. The New York Tribune referred to the lyre-shaped parterre of boxes “Diamond Horseshoe” because of sparkling radiance of the women’s jewelry under the lights.
Each evening on the Diamond Horseshow, Kate Coleman stationed herself in the middle of the parterre and waited for the ladies and their escorts to arrive. She followed each woman into the salon area of her respective box and helped her remove her wrap. This small salon area was separated from the box by a curtain and served as a cloakroom and a place to receive guests. On occasion, J. Pierpont Morgan, she recalled napped in his anteroom.
Greeting so many women as they came in was not too difficult, as they seldom arrived at the same time. However, because Kate stayed “until the lights were out” she also had to stay to help each woman back on with their wraps at the end of the evening. This proved a much more difficult task for her to accomplish, especially when patrons left en masse to attend a dinner event or a ball, which was often the case in the Social season.
In August 1892, a fire destroyed the interior of the opera house. It was quickly rebuilt but the number of opera boxes available for ownership was reduced to dramatically to only 35, all on the Diamond Horseshoe. Some of the original investors, including William Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and E.H. Harriman withdrew their investment after the fire and did not return to the Met.
Ownership of the majority of these coveted boxes was divided between Vanderbilts – Cornelius II, his brother William K., Cornelius III, and various Vanderbilt in-laws – and J.P. Morgan and his business associates. The balance was sold to former patrons of the Academy of Music – Perry Belmont, W. Bayard Cutting, A.T. Van Nest, the heirs of John Jacob Astor and more impressively, The Mrs. Astor.
Irving Kolodin wrote in his history of the Metropolitan, “For the generation that lived between 1883 and 1913, the winters’ social life revolved about the Opera as never before or since.” Elizabeth Drexel Lehr recalled in her memoir, “ My mother … regarded the Opera purely as a social function and never failed to occupy her box …. Every box in the ‘Diamond Horseshoe’ would present the spectacle of two women superbly gowned and bejeweled sitting in the front row, while four men grouped themselves behind.”
Intermissions provided patrons with the opportunity to socialize. For young men on the threshold of their careers, the intermissions were golden opportunities to move among, and be introduced to, the giants of business and finance. Since the eligible daughters of society matrons were presented at the opera, introductions during intermissions often led to courtships and marriage.
Even Caroline Astor was not above “marketing “ the next generation of Astors by appearing often with them at the opera. Harvey O’Connor, an Astor biographer, wrote, “Unfeeling people said Mrs. Astor was intent only on a vulgar display of wealth as she sat, bejeweled, in the Diamond Horseshoe. They forgot she was a mother, that she had four daughters and a son, plain of face and mind, who must be married off into the rank suitable to their exalted station in the American aristocracy.”
During her tenure at the Metropolitan, Kate Coleman saw generations of the same families. In the Sun interview, she recalled fondly, “… I take a great deal of pleasure in seeing debutantes, come here and remembering when their mothers were debutantes. That’s happened three or four times already, and it is certainly a great season for them this year. [Pointing to a nearby box,] – In that box there are four pretty girls as I ever saw. A year or two ago they used to come to the matinees in short dresses with their hair down. Their dresses are long now but their hair’s up …. I saw their mothers too as schoolgirls at the matinees.”
Kate admitted to lingering in the back of the boxes, in her early years, to hear the music. She remembered hearing Amalie Materna, Marcella Sembrich, Lilli Lehmann, Emma Calve and of course, Caruso. She also heard Toscanini and Puccini conduct. Toward the end of her career, she admitted that “the zest “ for the music had left her a bit and that there were days when she was so busy she was unsure which opera was being performed.
Of the scores of special events at the Metropolitan, Kate remarked, “I couldn’t forget ’em because we were all drawn into the flurry.” The day after the opening of the 1919 season, Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, attended a gala at the opera house in his honor. Upon arrival, the Prince was escorted by Otto Kahn and Clarence MacKay to J.P. Morgan’s box, # 35, the direct center of the Horseshoe. Sharing the box with the Prince was Viscount Gray, Assistant Secretary of War William Philips and Admiral Halsey. They were joined later in the evening by General John J. Pershing, Mrs. Grover Whalen and Mrs. Rodman Wanamaker.
However the stand-out event for Kate, and perhaps one of the most spectacular non-music events, was the visit by Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of the German Kaiser, on February 25,1902.
Stanford White had been commissioned to transform the Met for the occasion. The walls of the five center boxes were removed to create a viewing chamber suited for royalty. It was canopied with red velvet and white satin and accented by dozens of American Beauty roses.
Another seven boxes were opened to create a large reception area for the Prince and his entourage, dignitaries and guests. According to Kate, there were “hundreds of flowers.” Almost every inch of the walls, pillars, balcony and box fronts were festooned with wreaths and swags of Southern smilax. The program for the evening was printed on silk, and Stanford White even created an outline of the royal yacht in electric lights on the roof of the opera house. Kate quoted the cost of the decorations at $90,000 (several million in today’s currency), and said the evening was “the most elegant thing I had ever seen”.
In the same New York Sun interview, Kate refused to speak the about the wealthy patrons she served, despite repeated requests from the reporter. In fact, she said she dreaded being quoted in the press and appearing to betray the trust of the patrons by relating stories or incidents that would be sensationalized. The anonymous reporter wrote of her, “… this superior attendant really shuddered at the thought of innocent publicity.” Although Kate had unlimited access to the boxes and conversations of the some of the oldest and most prestigious families in the city, if not the country, she staunchly protected their right to privacy.
The Sun reporter managed to coax two stories from her and maintained the anonymity of individuals: “I remember when a lady from the West … dropped a diamond ornament when she took off her cloak and missed it right away. There was three or four gentlemen in the party and went down on the floor and bumped into each other trying to find it and the lady saying all the time ’Don’t inconvenience yourselves, it’s no matter.’ and yet she kept right back and wouldn’t go in … [and] Caruso was singing so beautiful. She wanted that diamond and hunted for it herself after the gentlemen had given up. Nobody found it until after the party had gone. [It was found] in a crack near the door and under the red carpet. They telephoned her that night that it had been found.”
“Then one night, as I was taking off a lady’s cloak her pearl necklace slipped down somewhere and there was an outcry. I stood like this [with arms folded] and let them look, for I did not care for some of the words she said in the excitement. Then I took down her wrap where she had seen me hang it and shook it good right before her eyes and the string dropped down on the floor as nicely as possible.”
Kate Coleman continued to work after the 1919 interview. It is not known when, if ever, she asked for a sick day. No record exists, either, of when she helped the last lady with her cloak on the last evening of her last day at the Metropolitan. She left the city and retired to her son’s home on Long Island and died at 72 in 1930 after suffering with severe arthritis for many years.
This small-framed widow, who emigrated from a farm in Ireland at the age of 13, witnessed some of the world’s greatest performances, conductors, and musicians. She had been present at Enrico Caruso’s New York premiere performance as well as galas for royalty. For decades she greeted the captains of industry and finance and attended Society matrons and their daughters. Her name is not found in any history of the Metropolitan Opera, but her quiet dedication to the ladies of the parterre provided an important ingredient to the distinguished allure of this legendary house of the grand opera.