Mana-Zucca, despite her exotic name, was not Italian, Hungarian or German — nothing European. She was, she told me, “Brooklyn Jewish. I was born Augusta Zuckerman, and everybody called me Mamie.” She shucked that name early in her professional career. She had juggled, “Zuckerman… Man Zucker...” Then it came! “Mana-Zucca.” Voila! A name the music world would know and respect as a concert pianist, Viennese operetta singer, and composer, until she died in 1981 at age 94.
Within five minutes of walking in the door at her Miami home, Mana had me singing her big hit, “I Love Life.” She assumed I knew the song.
Didn’t everybody know “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “I Love Life”?
Three days later we performed two full programs of Mana-Zucca songs for the Hadassah on Miami Beach.
Being in the Navy at that time, every morning at 5 I was out in the Gulf Stream on a destroyer escort. We were practicing sinking German submarines, while sun-worshippers crowded Miami Beach as though World War II was a soap opera one could tune out any time on a radio dial.
Mana-Zucca was the greatest accompanist I ever knew.
Her hands could barely span an octave, but those hands — before she was twelve — had played the Beethoven “Emperor” Piano Concerto in Carnegie Hall. Her teachers included Leopold Godowsky and composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who had taught Jan Sibelius.
Mana was stupendous at the piano. Singing with her was like singing with a great orchestra. Having been a singer, she understood and loved them.
There was only one hitch. She would never accompany singers except in songs she composed!
A few weeks later, Mana dedicated her newest song to me. She gave me a sheet music copy published by Congress Music Publications, which she owned. My name was on the cover.
The song, “Thy Will Be Done,” is a dramatic number with a very sentimental religious text. With little enthusiasm for the musical niveau of the song, I sang it with her all over Miami.
Mana was a great trouper who could “put over” a musical piece regardless of its artistic merits. “Even if it’s crap, you gotta believe in it 100 percent while you’re performing it,” she said. “Singers are singing actors. Louis, a singer may have the voice of a god, but if he doesn’t move people, what’s the point of his singing at all?” How right she was!
A few weeks after my meeting Mana in Miami, my Navy orders came through, and my shipboard duties took me far from Miami and any thoughts of singing.
In January 1946, I took off my Navy uniform, and never put it on again except to sing Lt. Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” — a role I first sang in 1949, in Hartford, opposite Dorothy Kirsten, the Met’s great “Cio-Cio-San.”
The glamorous movie star and opera singer Grace Moore, heard me sing at a party in Atlanta in April 1946 and took me to New York to get me started on a singing career.
In New York, my friendship with Mana-Zucca flourished again. Mana and her husband Irwin Cassell lived half the year in their sumptuous apartment at 140 W. 57th St., two doors from Carnegie Hall. Mana’s living room faced 57th Street and was two stories tall. Against one wall, face-to-face, were two Steinway “D” pianos. This was a room meant for music.
Mana and Irwin frequently gave Sunday afternoon cocktail parties, which were replete with singers and their wives, husbands, lovers and managers. After everyone had told everyone else how great his or her own last performance had been, how the critics had raved, how lucrative contracts were piled a foot deep on his or her agent’s desk — someone would sing. Mana would simply materialize at the piano, and a thunderous chord would introduce one of her songs.
I recall bringing Grace Moore to Mana’s one Sunday. No one needed to tell anyone who Grace Moore was. Before long, Mana enticed Grace with precious little urging, to sing “I Love Life.”
Among other singers at Mana-Zucca’s parties were such stars as Zinka Milanov, Kurt Baum, Leonard Warren, Ramon Vinay, Eugene Conley, Bidu Sayao, Eleanor Steber, Richard Tucker, Helen Traubel, Blanche Thebom, Robert Weede, Gladys Swarthout, and Igor Gorin.
Mana asked neophyte me to sing “Thy Will Be Done” to all the famous and successful who had “arrived” where I longed to be. My singing was received with warm applause by the women. I noticed, however, that the other tenors present did not seem quite so enthusiastic. Mana told me, “When other tenors start being nice to you, look out — you’re on your last legs. Even the greatest tenors get nervous when they hear a guy over 5-feet-6 with a good voice!”
Mana once asked me to meet her and Irwin for lunch in the Russian Tea Room, next door to Carnegie Hall. When I entered the restaurant, I spied Mana and Irwin in a booth with a handsome man. After Mana and I had kissed and hugged, she introduced me to John Loder. He looked familiar.
Mana mentioned that he was an English movie actor. “Louis, you’ll have to get up soon to let John’s wife sit between you and him, if you don’t mind.” A few minutes later, I didn’t mind at all making room next to me for Hedy Lamarr.