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Two Mrs. Tabors and The Silver King
In March of 1935, Baby Doe Tabor was found frozen to death in her one-room shack, among her diaries, twelve thousand scribbled notes, and seventeen precious scrapbooksmany in code. In 1956, the year that Babys simple code was cracked, The Ballad of Baby Doe, by composer Douglas Moore, was first presented.
The Ballad of Baby Doeis chock full of the real names, dates and places that made a legend of Americas Old Westdrawn from the pages of history, colored by secrets revealed in Babys records. In the opera, librettist John LaTouche coaxes poetry from historical fact. But be assuredthese things really happened. The operas miners, saloon girls and cronies accurately catalogue Horace Tabors shenanigans, the bitter complaints of his first wife, Augusta, the scandals of his second wife, Baby Doe. Soprano Adelina Patti, who so enthralls the ladies in Act I, was only one of many luminaries who appeared at Leadvilles Tabor Opera House. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryans grandiloquent "Cross of Gold" speech of 1896 made him famous. On stage, Latouche turns even political oration into a dramatic tour de force. And in Moores folksy melody and period harmonies, history reaches the heart.
Both Augusta Pierce Tabor and Elizabeth "Baby" McCourt Doe Tabor were pretty, principled, courageous women, from solidly middle-class families. Horace Tabor fell in love with just those qualitiesin both women. In Act I, Augusta acknowledges that shes become "harsh and stingy," and in Act II, Scene iv, we hear Babys mother call Augusta "a mean old termagant (19th century English for a quarrelsome, furious, scolding woman)." But she hadnt always been that.
Twenty years before the opera begins, Augusta had been the boss daughter, lovely and clever. Horace had been her swaina stonecutter in her fathers employ, ambitious and affable. Newlywed in 1857, theyd ridden the train from Maine to St. Louisthe end of the linepushing west by riverboat, homesteading with Free Soilers in Kansas Territorys anti-slavery colonies. To stay the howling Kansas wind, Augusta papered their rude log walls with the New York Tribune, " putting the newspapers right side up, that I might read them at my leisure " There, the first Tabor child, Maxcy, was born. Augusta often spent days alone with her infant son, listening for wolves, "border ruffians," or desperate Cheyenne, reading and rereading the Tribunes old newsthe political caterwauling, Horace Greeleys trenchant editorials. Then, in 1859, the Tabors joined the gold rush to Pikes Peak.
A brutal tramp across six hundred miles of unsettled wilderness with a wagonload of bare necessities, a yoke of oxen, a couple of cows, and a baby will toughen the spirit and callous the hand. For eighteen years, the Tabors criss-crossed the Mosquito Range, intermittently panning and sluicing. Horace was no different than a hundred thousand unlucky greenhorns gulled by easy "blossom rock"except that hed married the indomitable Augusta. Together they settled into a seasonal life following the camps that chased the big strikes, selling services and supplies, running a post office, weighing the ore, wintering in a boomtown below. They were partners, known from Oro City to Leadville as "sturdy merchants," honest and generous. By the late 1870s, when Colorado gold veins had begun to pinch out and business slowed, the Tabors had raised and educated their son Maxcy, and thanks to Augustas industry and relentless thrift, they had amassed about $40,000.
Now fifty, Horace had retired his bonanza fantasy, instead enjoying it vicariously through ragtag hangers-on. Sometimes hed even provide the food and other necessary supplies for their pitiful mountain forays. And thats how, against all odds, Horace Tabor struck paydirt. One April Sunday in 1878, two woebegone old-timers took $64.75 worth of supplies and a whiskey jug from Tabors shelves, in return for a one-third stake in what turned out to be the richest lode of silver in the gulch. By years end that unwitting investment had made Tabor a millionaire twice over. He discovered he hadnt lost his appetite for a bonanza after all.
And Baby Doe was about to arrive in Leadville. Like Augusta, Lizzie McCourt Doe was more than she first appeared. As a budding beauty in Wisconsin, she had aspired to the theater. Shed won a boys-only ice skating championship. Shed tended her fathers prominent clothing business. But Lizzie would always be "shanty Irish" to Protestant blue-bloods. So in 1877, when Oshkosh society wag Harvey Doe, Jr. proposed to Lizzie, all the McCourts graciously accepted their upward mobility. The grooms father, senior partner of the Sierra Madre Investment Corporation, made a propitious wedding gift of one of his silver mines in Central City, Colorado. Though it would take some hard work to develop the mine, Harvey and his dew-kissed bride seemed headed for the good life.
But Harvey was an idler and a tippler. His mine never producednot until Lizzie herself devised an auxiliary shaft. Lizzie donned coveralls and shoveled alongside day-wage miners, igniting a spirit that Harvey couldnt. In town, respectable eyebrows raised, but "Cousin Jack" (the Cornishmen who sang lusty harmony in the mines) bestowed upon Lizzie the name by which she would be favored in frontier legend"Baby."
Of course, Baby Doe was no stranger to scandal. It wasnt only her mother, Mama McCourt, who often said that " [her] beauty deserved to find a man so rich so powerful, that he could give [her] anything like a princess in olden days...(Act I, iv)" For one, there was Jake Sandelowsky, Central Citys handsome haberdasher. Harvey had already begun to find everything about his wife difficultespecially her moxie. When he abandoned Baby for a bottleat least twiceJake was there. When Baby bore a stillborn son, some said he looked a lot like Jake. Baby divorced Harvey with foresight and courage that was ahead of her time, but she miscalculated the stigma that would attach to her. A beautiful divorcée in 1880 stood on a social rung below actressjust above prostitute. When Jake invited her to Leadville, Baby seized her opportunity to leave Central City behind.
Horace Tabors midlife scandals were incidental, by comparison. He was merely oafish and uncouth. In sheer pleasure at being rich, Horace threw money around. He loved to be called "Silver King." He paraded his Highland Guards down Main Street, in full Royal Stewart regalia, sporrans swinging. Horace longed to give Augusta everything her heart desired, but she desired so little. He wanted to establish her in an opulent Denver mansion. Mortified, Augusta moved into the servants quarters. Horace was making money faster than he could spend it, and there was nobody to enjoy it with him. Nobody to buy white lace gloves for. Then he met Baby Doe.
Untrammeled, Tabors exuberance exploded. He became by turns Leadvilles mayor, banker, newspaper publisher, postmaster, Colorado State Legislator, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. Senator pro tem. He fell completely in love with Baby Doe. He rid himself of Augusta in an illegal secret divorce, ensconcing his paramour as wife, with ermine, emeralds, and two weddingsone in Washington, D.C., attended by President Arthur. Their palatial home occupied an entire Denver block, with a hundred live peacocks, and five enameled carriages, each with a color-coordinated team of horses, and four liveried coachmen. These Tabors squandered twelve million dollars in ten years.
Denver society mocked them as the "Tabor Circus." The Denver Tribune fulminated, "Tabor is an utter disgrace to the State .Essentially a vulgarian of doubtful antecedents, he strove to buy his way into political position .He is a social and political outcast in all senses of the word."
Baby had envisioned something quite different. But she loved Horace. As she explains in Act I, "...I needed help, and he was kind to me " Together they had two daughters, Lillie and Rose (called "Silver Dollar"), who grew up in the limelight of celebrities and presidents. When the silver crash of 1893 made Horace a poor man and an outcast, even faster than hed become rich, Baby sold her finery. When Horace, at 67, resorted to hauling slag for $3 a day, Baby importuned old politicos to appoint Horace Denvers postmaster. When he died in 1899, Horace was not bitter. Baby was at his side for a sleepless week, and she heard his urgent last words: "Hang onto the Matchless!"
Baby was still famously beautiful in 1899. Nevertheless, for thirty-five lonely years she made the Matchless Mine her life. Desperately poor, she worked it herself, alongside her daughters. When Lillie deserted her, in teenaged bewilderment and shame, Baby and Silver Dollar moved into the mines supply shack. When Silver eventually left to pursue journalism in Denver, Baby found solace in her pinebough shrine to the Virginand in her Ouija board. Then in 1925, word came that Babys beloved Silver had been scalded to death by her own teapot, in a flophouse on Chicagos South Side. "Drink and Dope Blamed For Death of Once Wealthy Daughter of Senator," blared the Chicago Herald-Examiner. Baby slipped increasingly into delusion.
Augusta had died in California in 1895wealthy, having shrewdly invested her divorce settlement. By the time of her death in 1935, most of Baby Does valuables had long since been sold. There remained only a Tiffany teaset, a diamond and sapphire ring, the ermine collar and cuffsjust a tokenof her regal opera coat. Tabors preposterous watch-fob was there. Twenty-odd trunks, boxes, and bundles were filled with the vestiges of legend. Among them were 250 love letters from Horace. And Augusta Tabors calling card.
© 2003, New York City Opera and K. E. WATT. All rights reserved.
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