As the Metropolitan Opera Guild prepares to celebrate its diamond anniversary with a star-studded gala luncheon at New York’s Waldorf=Astoria on December 7, it is time to reflect on the Guild’s illustrious founder. Eleanor Robson Belmont (1878-1979) was one of the most remarkable and influential figures of her day, and her pioneering approach to fundraising helped save the Metropolitan Opera from closure during the Depression. Today, the Guild remains vital in supporting the Met and cultivating wider public interest in opera. From her birth in northern England to a career as a Broadway leading lady, marriage to one of the wealthiest men in the world, and revolutionizing of arts fundraising, Belmont led a colorful, one-of-a-kind life. She made a tremendous difference for the causes she believed in, and she did so decades before women were taken seriously in the business world.
Belmont’s success in arts fundraising and management owed little to her beginnings. Born into a theatrical family in Wigan, Lancashire in 1878, she moved to America at the age of seven so that her mother could pursue an acting career. When young Eleanor left school, she too went on the stage, working in stock companies from Honolulu to Milwaukee before making her New York debut in 1900. Her London debut came four years later, and it was there that she caught the attention of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the play Major Barbara for her (although, being committed to another production, she was unable to take on the title role). Her career as a leading Broadway actress lasted ten years, ending with her retirement in 1910, when she married August Belmont, Jr. – an American banker best-remembered for financing and building New York’s first subway system, as well as Belmont Park racetrack and the Cape Cod Canal.
Eleanor Belmont adapted to her new life with ease, mingling with some of the most exciting luminaries of the day (these would come to include Houdini, Charles Lindbergh, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and – like many women in her new social sphere – entering into charity work. Her enterprise, level of commitment, and flair for leadership, however, went far beyond the norm. When the First World War broke out, she became one of the top fundraisers for the American Red Cross and made frequent trips to Europe as a Red Cross inspector, even when the journey was considered most dangerous.
Nor did August Belmont’s death in 1924 diminish his widow’s efforts. Before the war, the couple had been regular patrons of the Metropolitan Opera, and during the Depression Eleanor was instrumental in raising the funds necessary to save the Met from financial ruin. She concentrated on soliciting small donations, an approach previously unknown within the arts, and succeeded in raising $300,000. As a result, she was grudgingly admitted to the company’s formerly all-male Board of Directors, where her further fundraising efforts soon saw her admitted to the Board’s Executive Committee. In 1935, when the Met’s financial position once again became critical, she returned to the still-groundbreaking practice of raising “small gifts from large numbers,” and thus, at her proposal, the Metropolitan Opera Guild was born. By means of entreaties on the radio by herself and others, the Guild signed on 2,239 members in its first year. As Belmont would put it, “democratization of the opera had begun.”