The image has now become iconic. A dignified woman stands facing a daunting array of microphones. Behind her sits the enormous marble figure of Lincoln; his gaze seemingly fixed upon her as she sings before a vast crowd of 75,000 listeners gathered at the nation’s capital on Easter Sunday, 1939. In the succeeding years, the events leading up to this image have become the stuff of American legend, and the featured singer has achieved a status usually reserved only for saints. Most remarkably, both the story and singer’s prestige are not the result of mythologization but are solely the result of a candid presentation of facts. Simply stated, Marian Anderson is an American heroine in the purest sense. Therefore, it is unquestionably a source of pride that Bethel can claim one small connection to her story.
On Saturday, July 24, 1943, America and its allies were deeply engaged in the long and bloody process of turning the tide against the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific. The day witnessed the start of the war’s most extensive aerial assault yet staged. The United States and Great Britain’s combined forces began bombing raids on Hamburg, Germany, which would result in the obliteration of much of the city as well as the deaths of an estimated 50,000 German civilians by the week’s end.
On that same day, nearly 4,000 miles away in a town of just over 4,000 residents, a couple was quietly exchanging their vows in a brown-shingled, non-denominational chapel. Only a handful of family members and the officiating minister were present. The ceremony lasted less than a half-hour and attracted no outside attention. It would be another four months before the world would learn that on this warm summer afternoon, a small New England town had been host to the wedding of an American legend.
Miss Marian Anderson and her fiancé, Orpheus Fisher, had contacted the Bethel Methodist Church pastor, the Reverend Jack Grenfell, just two weeks earlier to ask if he might perform their marriage service. They asked that the wedding be performed in the Methodist parsonage rather than at the adjoining church to avoid attention. The prospective bride and groom were fearful that the press might swarm the proceedings and then attempt to tag along on the ensuing honeymoon as well. The Rev. Grenfell, being a man of discretion, agreed to the couple’s wishes and kept their impending wedding under wraps. He did, however, share the news with his wife, Clarine. Through her account, which she kept secret for forty years, we know the principal facts of Miss Anderson’s wedding. In 1983, Clarine Coffin Grenfell produced a book of prose and verse entitled “Women My Husband Married,” recounting her many adventures associated with being a minister’s wife. The portion of the work devoted to Mariann Anderson’s wedding was entitled The ‘Inside’ Story and provides an almost comedic account of how her best-laid plans for Anderson’s wedding sadly went awry.
Before sharing the details regarding the wedding day itself, perhaps it is best to provide some background on the event’s primary participants.
Orpheus Hodge Fisher was born on July 11, 1900, in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Fisher attended the Central Friends Seminary in Philadelphia until ninth grade when he transferred to Wilmington Central High School in Delaware, where his family had relocated. He first met Marian Anderson in 1915 when he was fifteen, and she was eighteen years of age, and even though there appeared to be mutual interest, the two drifted apart. Fisher began to pursue his dream of becoming an architect early and found a place among a small group of African-American architects in Philadelphia. Throughout the 1920s, he was connected with architectural projects in Philadelphia, Nova Scotia, Canada, and eventually New York City. His activity there included work on the building of Rockefeller Center and projects for the New York City Board of Education as well as the 1939 New York World’s Fair Corporation. In 1924 he married Ida Gould. The couple separated after only a short time and were eventually divorced in 1940. Fisher and Anderson rekindled their friendship in 1935 after he attended one of her performances at Carnegie Hall. Her busy concert schedule and the fact that he was not yet divorced made the developing relationship difficult. He took on renovating her Philadelphia home while also looking for a country house the two could share once his divorce was finalized. His search would result in purchasing a Victorian home and 100 acres of farmland located on Joe’s Hill Road, in the Mill Plain section of Danbury, CT. In March of 1943, to help with the war effort, Fisher temporarily gave up his work as an architect and took a position as a draftsman with Danbury’s Barden Corporation. Following their marriage that same year, he and his wife devoted themselves to developing the property they had christened, Marianna Farm. In time, he would design and build a more modern house and a rehearsal studio on the property while also managing a real estate company in partnership with his wife. The couple traveled extensively due to Miss Anderson’s many concerts and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
Marian Anderson’s life began on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, John Anderson, was a railroad transport worker, and her mother, Anna, had formerly been a teacher in Virginia. Marian was the oldest of three girls. Her father died when she was 12, and her family went to live with her paternal grandparents. Her mother took work cleaning, doing laundry, and scrubbing floors. Marian first began singing in the junior choir of Philadelphia’s Union Baptist Church at six. She was made part of the church’s senior choir at the age of thirteen. Anderson attended William Penn High school and later transferred to South Philadelphia High after her musical interests became more serious. Upon graduation, she applied for admission to the Philadelphia Music Academy but was rejected due to her race. She was told by a woman working at the admissions department, “We don’t take colored.”
Anderson did not allow this initial disappointment to discourage her from pursuing a career as a professional singer. She studied privately and in 1925 won a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. 1928 saw her begin singing on limited tours and giving her first concert at Carnegie Hall. The following year she won a Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Berlin. During the first half of the 1930s, Anderson performed in England, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and Russia. In Salzburg, Austria, she defied a Nazi ban placed on blacks performing in concert halls. It was at one of her Salzburg performances that conductor Arturo Toscanini told her, “Yours is a voice that is heard once in a century.” From that point forward, Anderson was often referred to as “The Great Contralto''. (A contralto is defined as a woman who possesses the lowest range of singing voice.) After her return from Europe, Anderson spent the next four years touring America to great acclaim. In performance, she often sang with her eyes closed, a habit that gave the impression that she was not merely singing but offering up a prayer. Her voice revealed a soul of unfathomable depth. She produced tones that were capable of producing both sadness and exhilaration. Works by the great composers such as Handel, Bach, Schumann, and Sibelius took on new life in her renditions. Many pieces required her to sing in German, Italian, and French. Moving spirituals like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word,” “Deep River,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “Go Down, Moses” all became part of her repertoire and were mastered with equal ability. She was described as regal, majestic, dignified, and inspiring. A film documentary stated, “No one who has been to an Anderson concert can forget her compelling presence from the second she appears on stage and the complete command of the audience that comes to her without any conscious effort to achieve it.”
Yet, when scheduled to perform at Princeton, New Jersey, in 1937, she was denied a hotel room because of her race. In response, Princeton Professor Albert Einstein invited her to stay at his home. The two would remain friends until his death in 1955.
A Landmark Performance
In early 1939, Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok attempted to reserve Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall for a performance planned for April 9, 1939. Hurok was told that the hall, which was owned by The Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), was only available to white performers. When word of the denial was made known, it sparked a huge public outcry. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the D.A.R., resigned in protest. Roosevelt then contacted Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, about the possibility of having Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial on the very same date that had been planned for the Constitution Hall concert. With the help of Hurok, Roosevelt, Ickes, and the N.A.A.C.P., the way was cleared for the Easter Sunday concert that saw Anderson, accompanied by the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen, perform before an integrated audience of approximately 75,000. Millions more listened on their radios. Secretary Ickes’ introduction pronounced that, “Genius draws no color line.” Displaying no outward sign of bitterness or anger despite the preceding controversy, Anderson stood nobly atop the Lincoln Memorial’s highest step and began the program by singing the words, “My country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, To thee we sing.” These were lyrics that possessed the power to both proclaim and shame simultaneously. The concert and the notoriety it attracted transformed Anderson’s reputation and her career. Regardless of the myriad of achievements that would follow, this one event crystalized the image of her that is now permanently enshrined in the memory of the American public.
In late 1942, with America at war, Anderson was approached by the D.A.R. to appear in a concert for Chinese war relief at the very location denied to her three years before. Anderson agreed only to perform if she was allowed to sing before an integrated audience. Despite initial hesitancy on the part of the D.A.R., negotiations resulted in an agreement that met Miss Anderson’s terms. On January 7, 1943, the concert took place before a capacity crowd of nearly 4,000 audience members, including First Lady Roosevelt, Secretary Ickes, several cabinet members, two Supreme Court Justices, and the Chinese ambassador. The proceeds raised from the concert equaled the modern equivalent of close to $90,000. Anderson would again perform at Constitution Hall in 1953 and 1956 and began her farewell concert tour there in 1964. When the singer was asked to provide her views on the initial snub by the D.A.R. for a 1991 PBS documentary, she bore no malice towards those who had prevented her from performing in 1939. She said, “I can tell you this about it. I never, or hardly ever talk about it because I think it was an unfortunate time for the people who were involved in it. And I think in this case, there’s nothing to be gotten from discussing it at this point. It’s over and done with. I say done with, but it’s over, in any case. And I think it’s like beating a dead horse.” One can add magnanimity to the great contralto’s long list of admirable traits.
A Year of Peaks and Valleys
The year 1943 was one that presented Marian Anderson with contradictory messages. In addition to the vindication signified by her appearance at Constitution Hall, she performed earlier the very same day for the unveiling of a mural at the United States Department of the Interior Building that depicted her Lincoln Memorial performance. In contrast to these two triumphs, Anderson experienced another episode that revealed just how far America still had to travel on the road to racial equality. Franz Rupp, a refugee from Hitler’s Nazi tyranny who served as Anderson’s piano accompanist for a quarter of a century, would later recall an incident that occurred during a train trip the pair made to Birmingham, Alabama that year. "The train was loaded with German prisoners of war," Rupp said. "Miss Anderson was not allowed to go into the dining car to get a meal, so I got her a sandwich. The car was filled with the Germans. This wonderful woman and singer could not go in. And those Germans could. I was so bitter I could barely speak. But she was never bitter. She took my hand and said, 'Don't be so bothered and upset, it will change.' "
In Anderson’s private life, the year’s foremost positive change would be the start of a marriage that would last for the next 42 years.
When the Rev. Jack Grenfell received word from Marian Anderson that she and Orpheus Fisher wished to be married in the Bethel Methodist Church’s parsonage (then located just to the left of the church at 145 Greenwood Avenue), he swore his wife Clarine to secrecy. She did not entirely keep her vow, as she would require help to prepare the place she called “a four-storyed Victorian monstrosity” for such illustrious guests. Mrs. Grenfell quietly enlisted her best friend, Julie Hibbard, who lived a short distance away at 129 Greenwood Avenue. The old Methodist Parsonage had been built in 1894 and had seen few significant improvements in the ensuing half-century. Making it presentable would be quite an undertaking, and Clarine Grenfell and Julie Hibbard would have only two weeks in which to do it.
In her account of the brief time leading up to the day of the Anderson-Fisher wedding, Clarine Grenfell relates how the two women took on the herculean task of making at least a small portion of the antiquated parsonage appear warm and inviting. Their combined efforts resulted in new paint, wallpaper, curtains, drapes, cornices, slipcovers, floral arrangements, and even the braiding of a small oval rug for the matrimonial couple to stand upon as they pledged their troth. Despite the fact that all this was being done in secret, during wartime rationing, and while Grenfell was three months pregnant with her second child, the women accomplished their task in record time.
To prevent any word of the wedding from leaking out, Anderson and Fisher would not follow the customary procedure of picking up their marriage license at the town clerk’s office before the wedding ceremony. If they had, the purpose of their appearance would have been immediately surmised and undoubtedly provide the press with a day’s head start in covering the wedding of a bonafide celebrity. (In 1943, the Bethel Town Hall was located at what was then 116 Greenwood Avenue in a building that is today home to Bethel Gym & Fitness Studio and private apartments.) Instead, the couple would quietly obtain the required legal document at the home of Town Clerk Leonard L. Bailey at 45 Greenwood Avenue at 10 PM the night before the religious service. This phase of their secret plan was executed without a hitch.
All seemed to be going smoothly for a wedding set to begin at 2:30 PM the next day. Then, everything came crashing down. Approximately an hour before the scheduled start of the event, the parsonage phone rang. Corrine Grenfell recalled the circumstances in the following manner.
“Rev was talking as I rushed in. ‘Yes, yes … it goes on most of the day, or at least till everything’s sold … No, of course, you don’t … I understand. I’ll do my best to find a place … I’m sorry.’ He glanced at me. ‘My - wife is going to be very disappointed … Yes, I’ll call you’.”
One crucial element had been overlooked amidst the frantic drive to refurbish the parsonage. A bake sale had been scheduled for the same day on the church’s front lawn, right next door. The intended bride and groom had just previewed the area and saw it packed with people, all vying for the cakes, pies, and homemade bread being sold as part of a fundraising drive and, as a result, were naturally frightened off. They hoped that Rev. Grenfell might be able to secure a different location on short notice. He promised them he would do his best. The Reverend was true to his word and gained permission to use the Elmwood Chapel on the Newtown Road (Rt. 302). The only problem was that he would first need to drive seven miles to pick up the key from the chapel’s trustee in Danbury, then seven miles to return home. He would also require his wife’s help in tidying up the new location since the chapel had not been used in over a month. Crestfallen that all of the previous two weeks of hard work would now be for naught, Clarine Grenfell nevertheless remained undaunted. She eagerly joined the new effort to ensure that Marian Anderson and Orpheus Fisher would still have their wedding day after all. The Grenfells retrieved the key, drove five miles east beyond their home, and began cleaning the chapel the best they could despite not locating either dust cloths or a broom. In weighing the possibility of borrowing a broom from a chapel neighbor, the couple suddenly realized a new possible threat to carrying out the clandestine wedding. The woman who lived directly across from the chapel was Gladys Miller, The Bridgeport Post reporter for Bethel. Mrs. Grenfell described her as having “the nose of a beagle and the eyes of a hawk.” The couple knew they would have to quickly concoct some scheme to distract this newswoman for the entirety of the wedding proceedings, or else all hope of secrecy would surely be lost. After a frenzied effort to clear away cobwebs and dispense with dead flowers, the Reverend informed his wife that they would have to immediately depart if he hoped to retrieve the items he needed from home before returning once more to the chapel. As the couple sped back to the center of Bethel, the two discussed possible ways to keep the inquisitive neighboring columnist in the dark.
Rev. Grenfell quickly showered while his wife placed a copy of the wedding ritual, the marriage certificate, and his robe in his briefcase so that the bake sale crowd might not catch sight of these items as he left his home. He informed Clarine that as part of the newly revised scheme, she should watch for the wedding couple’s car that would slow as it reached the parsonage. The driveby would provide the signal that it was time for the minister to leave for the service. In her account of the day’s events, Mrs. Grenfell recalled: “A black sedan slowed down in front of the parsonage. Rev ran down the steps, opened the car door. I caught a glimpse of dark hair, the gleam of satin, a wisp of white veiling … the car was gone. On the church lawn, the ladies were busily marking down the last of their wares to bargain prices. I locked the front door, looked at my watch, went to sit by the phone …”
In the premier cloak-and-dagger phase of the operation, Mrs. Grenfell was to call columnist Gladys Miller precisely eight minutes after the minister had left the house and try to keep her talking until he returned. (Clarine Grenfell knew that Gladys Miller had but one telephone located in the kitchen at the rear of her home, thus eliminating any chance of her looking out her front window.) Mrs. Grenfell followed her instructions to a “T” and was still on the phone when her husband returned forty minutes after she had started the call. Upon his arrival, she quickly rang off and began to pepper her husband with questions about the service.
“How was it?”
“The way she wanted it, I think - simple, and sincere, and sacred …”
“She didn’t mind the place? … half clean? … no flowers?”
“Her bouquet was beautiful, dear, and I’ve been trying to tell you - marriage doesn’t have much to do with - with paint or wallpaper or slipcovers. It’s an inside thing. She said the Chapel reminded her of the little church where she started Sunday School.”
Despite all of their trials and tribulations, the Grenfells had ultimately succeeded in their assigned mission. They had pulled off the wedding of an international celebrity without detection by the outside world. Its site may have been different from the one that Mrs. Grenfell had painstakingly prepared, but the bride seemed pleased, and that was all that mattered.
Four months later, on the night of Friday, November 19, 1943, the Bethel Methodist Parsonage phone began to ring. The Bethel wedding story had been broken to the Philadelphia press by Marian Anderson’s sister, Alyse. Now reporters from nearly every major newspaper across the country were calling to ask for confirmation and details from Rev. Grenfell. Their inquiries were met with the response of “No comment” from Mrs. Grenfell. Her husband approved of her approach.
“Say nothing. Let Miss Anderson tell her own story.”
Only after the singer had publicly acknowledged the marriage did Grenfell confirm it. But the specifics were kept confidential for another four decades.
Anderson’s Later Years in Danbury
Even before their marriage, Orpheus Fisher sought to find a home where he and his famous wife could settle. In 1940 the couple purchased a home and 100-acre farm on Joe’s Hill Road in Danbury. Eventually, the couple sold 50 of the 100 acres that made up Marianna Farm and built a new home and rehearsal studio on the remaining acreage. The singer and the architect would share a life that saw Fisher pursue his interests in architecture, real estate, dogs, and horses. At the same time, Anderson continued her singing career while also engaging in vegetable gardening, sewing, upholstery, photography, and cooking. Her last concert tour ended in 1965. She remained active in civic affairs, made numerous public appearances, and consistently aided various charitable causes. Orpheus Fisher died at Danbury Hospital on March 26, 1986, at 85, following an extended illness. His memorial service took place at Danbury’s New Hope Baptist Church, a building he had designed. In 1992 Anderson went to live with her nephew, the conductor James DePriest, in Portland, Oregon. On April 8, 1993, she died at the age of 96, just one day before her Lincoln Memorial concert’s fifty-fourth anniversary. Following her death, Marianna Farm was sold, and developers created a housing subdivision on the land. Anderson’s rehearsal studio was saved from destruction by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and subsequently relocated to the Main Street site of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society.
During her life, Marian Anderson was denied educational opportunities, performance venues, and even basic public accommodations. By the time her life was through, what could not be denied was her greatness.__________________________________________________________________________
A Life of Accomplishments
Marian Anderson’s record of accomplishments, honors, and awards in the years following her Lincoln Memorial concert is remarkable. What follows is only a partial list.
1939: Performed at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor
Roosevelt, King George VI, and Queen Mary of Great Britain
1939: Awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal for “the highest or noblest achievement by a
living American Negro during the preceding year or years.”
1955: Became the first African American singer to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera
1957: Performed at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower
1957: Traveled 35,000 miles and gave 24 concerts throughout the South Pacific and Asia,
serving as a goodwill ambassador for the United States
1957: Elected Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1958: Appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee
1958: Officially designated a delegate to the United Nations
1961: Performed at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy
1963: Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom
1963: Performed at the civil rights March on Washington
1973: Elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame
1977: Received the United Nations Peace Prize
1977: Received the Congressional Gold Medal
1978: Received the Kennedy Center Honors
1980: Received the United States Treasury Department gold commemorative medal
1981: Received the George Peabody Award, honoring individuals making exceptional
contributions to music in America
1984: Received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York
1984: Received the N.A.A.C.P. Hall of Fame Award
1986: Received the National Medal of Arts
1991: Received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
2005: The U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp bearing her image
2011: Anderson’s home in Philadelphia was added to the National Register of Historic Places
Voice of Freedom, a new documentary on Marian Anderson’s life from American Experience will premiere on February 15, 2021, at 9 PM ET on PBS. ____________________________________________________________________________
Special thanks are extended to both Town Clerk Lisa Bergh and Assistant Town Clerk Eileen Jelinski for their assistance in obtaining a copy of the marriage certificate of Marian Anderson and Orpheus Fisher.
A sincere thank you is also extended to James H. Wild III for the generous gift of a signed copy of Women My Husband Married by Clarine Coffin Grenfell, which served as a primary source for this article.
Co-Conspirators in a Covert Operation
The Reporter Who Might Have Scooped the Story
Gladys Brownlee Tilk Miller was born on September 13, 1908, in Danbury, CT. She and her husband Ernest E. Miller lived in a home located at the southwest corner of Rockwell Road and Route 302, directly west of the Elmwood Chapel. Gladys Miller served as the Bethel reporter for The Bridgeport Post during the 1940s. She died in New Milford, CT, on May 29, 1989. In her 1983 account of Anderson’s wedding, Clarine Coffin Grenfell identified the reporter who lived nearby as Gladys Merrill, rather than Gladys Miller. This may have been a thinly-disguised attempt to hide her true identity as Miller was still living at the time of publication. The reporter’s first name may also have been cleverly matched with the last name of another Rockwell Road resident named Vera Merrill.
Watch the YouTube video:
Watch a brief home movie of Marian Anderson on her wedding day (Home Movie # 1)