Caruso’s “ ’ell of a place.”

“’ell of a place! ’ell of a place! I never come back!” muttered Italian tenor Enrico Caruso on that fateful April 18 morning. He never did return.

That is one of the most popular stories of the quake and fire. It has been embellished with accounts of Caruso testing his vocal chords from a hotel window, and of his roaming the streets wearing a fur coat over his pajamas. His appearance the previous evening in Bizet’s opera Carmen is regarded as one of the city’s most glamorous theatrical occasions. In an article published in The Sketch of London, he attempted to dispel the rumors of his “so-called adventures.”

The ruins of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake and fire, from Telegraph Hill 
and looking south toward Market Street.  The burned out shell of the Fairmont Hotel, 
which was due to open at the time, can be seen on the right.

You ask me to say what I saw and what I did during the terrible days which witnessed the destruction of San Francisco? Well, there have been many accounts of my so-called adventures published in the American papers, and most of them have not been quite correct. Some of the papers said that I was terribly frightened, that I went half crazy with fear, that I dragged my valise out of the hotel into the square and sat upon it and wept; but all this is untrue. I was frightened, as many others were, but I did not lose my head. I was stopping at the [Palace] Hotel, where many of my fellow-artists were staying, and very comfortable I was. I had a room on the fifth floor, and on Tuesday evening, the night before the great catastrophe, I went to bed feeling very contented. I had sung in “Carmen” that night, and the opera had gone with fine éclat. We were all pleased, and, as I said before, I went to bed that night feeling happy and contented.

But what an awakening! You must know that I am not a very heavy sleeper—I always wake early, and when I feel restless I get up and go for a walk. So on the Wednesday morning early I wake up about 5 o'clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming that I am crossing the water on my way to my beautiful country. And so I take no notice for the moment, and then, as the rocking continues, I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children.

I remain speechless, thinking I am in some dreadful nightmare, and for something like forty seconds I stand there, while the buildings fall and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea. And during that forty seconds I think of forty thousand different things. All that I have ever done in my life passes before me, and I remember trivial things and important things. I think of my first appearance in grand opera, and I feel nervous as to my reception, and again I think I am going through last night's “Carmen.”

And then I gather my faculties together and call for my valet. He comes rushing in quite cool, and, without any tremor in his voice, says: “It is nothing.” But all the same he advises me to dress quickly and go into the open, lest the hotel fall and crush us to powder. By this time the plaster on the ceiling has fallen in a great shower, covering the bed and the carpet and the furniture, and I, too, begin to think it is time to “get busy.” My valet gives me some clothes; I know not what the garments are but I get into a pair of trousers and into a coat and draw some socks on and my shoes, and every now and again the room trembles, so that I jump and feel very nervous. I do not deny that I feel nervous, for I still think the building will fall to the ground and crush us. And all the time we hear the sound of crashing masonry and the cries of frightened people.

Then we run down the stairs and into the street, and my valet, brave fellow that he is, goes back and bundles all my things into trunks and drags them down six flights of stairs and out into the open one by one.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker’s book, Three Fearful Days: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 earthquake & fire (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1998).

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