Jessie Bartlett Davis

Jessie Bartlett Davis Biography

Jessie Bartlett Davis (ca. 1859-1861 – May 14, 1905) was an American operatic singer and actress from Morris, Illinois, who was billed as "America's Representative Contralto".

Opera and acting

She was born Jessie Fremont Bartlett, one of ten children of farmer and country schoolmaster Elias Lyman Bartlett (b. 1821) and his wife Rachael Ann Conklin Bartlett (b. 1826). After Jessie and her older sister Arabelle "Belle" (1855"74) had become known as singers locally, they were approached by traveling managers and began touring along the West Coast of the United States. Belle died shortly after a tour was arranged. Another sister, Josephine Bartlett Perry (1859"1910) also performed in theater, in the Chicago Ideal Opera Company.

Bartlett moved to Chicago and went on a one-season tour with Caroline Richings. She studied voice in Chicago, singing in the choir of the Church of the Messiah, and her manager next convinced her to join the Chicago Church Choir Company.

In 1879, Bartlett made her debut in the opera H.M.S. Pinafore, in the role of Buttercup, in a troop managed by Col. Jack H. Haverly. The troop was managed on the road by Haverly employee, Will J. Davis, who Bartlett married in 1880.She spent several years with a number of opera companies before joining the new Boston Ideal Opera. She remained with this troupe until 1901, serving as its prima donna.

Her most famous role was as Alan a-Dale in the 1890 opera Robin Hood by Reginald De Koven and Clement Scott, in which she introduced Oh Promise Me. She starred in other grand operas, including Les Huguenots, Martha, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Il trovatore and Dinorah.She performed with Adelina Patti in Faust while in the James Henry Mapleson Opera company, and toured for one season in Europe.

On March 16, 1897, she opened on Broadway in The Serenade, playing Dolores, and in 1898 recorded Don Jose of Sevilla, a duet from The Serenade, with W. H. MacDonald. From October 19 to November 28, 1903, she appeared again on Broadway in a revival of Edward Jakobowski's operetta Erminie.

She appeared briefly in vaudeville, where she reportedly earned $1,000 per week.


Jessie Bartlett Davis released the parlor songs collection It's Just Because I Love You So in 1900. The collection reflects the Gay Nineties attitude of the 1890s Victorian era. She helped Carrie Jacobs-Bond launch her songwriting career by volunteering to pay for the cost to publish Seven Songs: as Unpretentious as the Wild Rose, which included the classic wedding song "I Love You Truly."

She was also an author and wrote Only a Chorus Girl, other stories, and a number of poems.

Personal life

In 1880 she married William James Davis, a Chicago theatrical manager, who worked for the Frohman/Klaw/Erlanger theater syndicate and managed Chicago's Iroquois Theatre at the time of the 1903 fire. The Davis' had one son that survived infancy, William J. Davis Jr., who as an adult worked with his father in Chicago theater management. The couple had a home on Grand Avenue in Chicago and a summer home in Crown Point, Indiana, Ellendale, where they raised trotting horses, collies and fox terriers. Author and poet Eugene Field was a particular friend and wrote several newspaper columns featuring Jessie and Will. Other friends of the Davis' included playwright George Ade, newspaper cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, detective William A. Pinkerton and Civil War hero, Orville T. Chamberlain.

Jessie died unexpectedly of Bright's disease. She is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

At the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Fine Arts Building included in its list of exhibits "Bust of Mrs. Jessie Bartlett Davis (Marble) (Lent by Mr. Davis, Chicago)", by Aloys Loeher.

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