When I spoke with my cousin Ellen Kleinfeld last week, she asked me whether I knew that there had been an opera singer in the family. I said that I had not yet run across any family members who were opera singers. She thought the cousin’s name was Sylvia, but wasn’t sure. I told her that I would keep researching and would let her know if I found anyone that might fit that description. I was skeptical of the claim that we had a singing star in the family, knowing how family myths can grow beyond the basic facts, but I figured I’d keep my eyes open for anyone who might be this musical “Sylvia.”
Well, it did not take long to find her, and it was not because I was looking for her specifically. The fourth child of Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen after Augusta, Myer, and Jacob was Fannie Cohen. As written earlier, Fannie married Alfred Selinger, the assumed relative of Julius Selinger, who had married her older sister Augusta. Fannie and Alfred had one child, a daughter Selma. Selma was the mysterious singer my cousin Ellen had heard about as Sylvia.
Selma, who was born in 1894, was already performing as a singer at a Fourth of July celebration in Washington, DC, by 1905, when she was only eleven years old, and she is mentioned as a singer in numerous articles in the Washington area newspapers over the next 20 years.
On September 14, 1912, Selma married William Danforth, who was an actor who worked under the stage name Billy L. Wilson, according to his passport application. Three years later they had a daughter Mildred, but the marriage did not last. An article from the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader on April 10, 1917, told of a trip that Billy L. Wilson was making to Australia with his vaudeville partner, Joe F. Willard. The article said that Billy and Joe had been on B.F. Keith‘s vaudeville circuit in the eastern and southern parts of the US. (This is the same B.F. Keith who had married Ethel Chase, the sister-in-law of Ruth Cohen Chase, Selma’s first cousin, in 1913, six months before he died. Ethel Chase later married Ruth and Selma’s other cousin, Jerome Selinger. Perhaps Selma met Billy also through Ruth’s connection to B.F. Keith, or maybe Billy introduced Ethel to B.F. Keith.)
Apparently being on the road was not good for the marriage between Selma and Billy, and by 1920, they were divorced. She and Mildred were living with her parents, Fannie and Alfred. Alfred was working as a tailor, and Selma gave her occupation as a stenographer for a concert business. Throughout this time, however, Selma had continued to perform. I could only find one photograph of Selma, however, despite all the news coverage, and it is not a very clear photo.
Selma Selinger New York Times 1919
On June 6, 1920, Selma sang at an event where a young man named Earl I. Klein was also performing and at later events he performed as her accompanist. Earl also had been a musician since an early age, performing as a pianist and a violinist at numerous events since 1907, when he was thirteen. He had attended the Columbia Conservatory of Music. What may have started as a professional relationship turned romantic, and on July 15, 1921, Selma married Earl Klein, and the two continued to perform together for some time thereafter. Selma also sang on some radio broadcasts in the early 1920s.
Unfortunately, I could not find any coverage of Selma and Earl’s careers after 1922. By 1930, however, it seemed that both may have ended their musical careers. On the 1930 census, Earl’s occupation is listed as the manager of a taxi company, and Selma has no occupation listed. In 1940, Earl was selling insurance, and Selma again had no occupation listed. Selma’s parents, Fannie and Alfred Selinger, were living with them, as was Selma’s daughter Mildred. (Fannie and Alfred must have also had a place in St. Petersburg, Florida, as they are listed in the city directories for that city in 1924 and 1934.)
Selma lost her mother, Fannie Cohen Selinger, on August 21, 1940, and her father Alfred Selinger died seven years later on October 11, 1947. Her husband Earl died of a heart attack on June 9, 1957. Earl was buried in Washington Hebrew Cemetery where Selma’s parents Fannie and Alfred are buried as well as her grandparents Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen.
(Photos courtesy of Ira Todd Cohen and Jane and Scott Cohen)
Sometime thereafter Selma remarried a man named Theodore C. Lewis. Selma died on January 2, 1973, in Silver Spring, Maryland. The Washington Post published the obituary below, describing some of the highlights of her musical career.
The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:
Interestingly, Selma was not buried where her long time husband Earl is buried, and I still have not found where she is buried, though I am checking with the cemetery where her third husband is buried, Fort Lincoln.
UPDATE: I just got confirmation that Selma is buried next to her third husband, Theodore Lewis, at Fort Lincoln cemetery. Poor Earl–buried with the Cohen family, his in-laws, while his wife is buried elsewhere.
Selma’s daughter Mildred married a musician, Maurice or Maury Hall. They lived in Las Vegas and then in North Hollywood, California.
Thus, one family “myth” has been validated. Although Selma did not sing in a traditional opera setting, she was a professional soprano who sang both popular and classical musical works. In the days before radio and recordings were widespread, hiring musicians for entertainment was much more common. I can visualize these society gatherings and charitable and patriotic events where my cousin Selma sang to the delight of her audience, sometimes accompanied by her husband Earl.
I leave you with two links to click on to hear two songs that Selma sang (not, however, sung by her in these recordings). Although Selma sang everything from “Madame Butterfly” to Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabeas” to Kol Nidre at these performances, I particularly enjoyed searching for these two songs that were popular during World War I, as they reminded me of a time many, many years ago I sat with my father and a family friend as they discussed World War I songs. I was probably about thirteen and could not for the life of me figure out why these two men were talking about (and singing) songs written before they were born. As Mel Brooks said in The 2000 Year Old Man, we mock the things we are to be.
Cover of The 2000 Year Old Man
Roses of Picardy
Keep the Home Fires Burning
 For example, for some early performances, see The Washington Evening Star, July 3, 1905, p. 3; “Dr. Simon Guest of Honor, Washington Evening Star, June 2, 1908, p. 9; “Eastern Star Entertainments,” April 15, 1909, Washington Evening Star, p. 15; Washington Evening Star, May 9, 1909, p. 65; “Have Lively Debate,” Washington Evening Star, April 6, 1910, p. 2; “Casino,” Washington Evening Star, April 9, 1913.
 See “Jewish Women Hear their New Protégé,” Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24 (as Selma Selinger Danforth); “Grotto Will Entertain,” Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24; “Arab Patrol Host to 1,500 Guests,” Washington Evening Star, April 29, 1916, p. 9; Washington Evening Star, December 9, 1917, p. 54 (‘…Miss Selma Selinger sang several patriotic solos which were so well received that she had to respond with several encores.”); “Liberty Loan Boosted at Patriotic Rally,” Washington Evening Star, April 7, 1918, p. 20.1 This is just a sampling; there were also mentions in the Washington Herald and the Washington Post.
 See Washington Evening Star, June 6, 1920, p. 53; “Florida Society,” Washington Evening Star, January 9, 1921, p. 25; Washington Evening Star, November 5, 1922, p. 63.
 Washington Evening Star, July 5, 1908, p. 26. Also, numerous other articles about Earl Klein’s performances can be found by searching genealogybank.com for Earl Klein in the District of Columbia.