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Note: This is a rescued copy of a site that was hosted on an abandoned Comcast page. It has not been revised for many years, despite the large amount of new information available about the life and work of Elsie Houston. It is here as an artifact rather than a comprehensive source of information. 

 If you're new to this page, I suggest you read through the original (2004) Annotations first (it's arranged in a kind of a narrative) and then read through the Annotations of Annotations (for more complete and accurate information).

2004 Annotations

I was listening in my car  to a CD of recorded opera singers from the 1930s and 40s titled, A Record of Singing. A few tracks in, amid conventional soprano interpretations of notable opera pieces, a stunningly weird song--pounding  rhythmic piano and a swooping, shrieking voice. "What the hell?" I thought. I noted the track number.  Five minutes later the back window of my Subaru wagon shattered.

When I got home I looked up the track in the CD booklet. It was a Villa Lobos song (14 Serestas No. 8: Cancão do Carreiro) recorded by Elsie Houston and Pablo Miguel (piano) in 1941.  A short biography noted that she had been born in Brazil, educated in Europe, and that she had committed suicide in New York in 1943 at the age of 40. Quoting from her obituary in the New York Times, the biography reported that she was known for singing folk songs of the "voodoo variety."

I spent the next two years in an on and off research spell. Who was this woman and why had she taken her life? Fragment by fragment I pieced together her story, but finally, hindered by my lack of Portuguese, I was unable to put together more than a collection of suggestive fragments.  These I collected and printed in a booklet, published in an edition of 20. I scattered the booklets around--libraries, coffee shops, friends.  

You may have come to this site because you have found one of these booklets. I thought her story, even fragmentarily, ought to be told more widely. And I wanted to make sure that the sources of my fragments were properly credited. Thus, this site and this annotated booklet. 

Image Source: New York Times, February 21, 1943:20.

2006 Annotation of Annotations

Two years of on and off research have turned into five. Many of the things I said in the annotation section have proven to be either factually wrong or incomplete. In the interest of accuracy (as this seems to be the only comprehensive source of information about Elsie Houston on the web), I am adding annotations to the original annotations.

A couple of general things to start with. Over the last few years, I've become less interested in Elsie Houston's death than I have in her life and have pretty much abandoned the "mystery" of her suicide. Depression is a sufficient explanation.

I now own the 1954 Victor album, Elsie Houston Sings Brazilian Songs. It is an absolute gem of an album and it is a pity that it has been out of print for over 50 years. While the other tracks do not reach the level of drama of "Cancão" (her version of Jayme Ovalle's "Berimbau" comes close) they firmly establish the truth of her critical appraisers during her New York period. Utterly charming. I can understand why patrons would return again and again to see her nightclub shows.

There is also a recent Brazilian publication, ELSIE HOUSTON : A FEMINILIDADE DO CANTO, that includes a CD with songs from her 1930 Brazilian 78s. Thanks to Zé Carlos Cipriano for sharing some of the tracks via his Sovaco de Cobra blog.)

Finally, although I am a professional academic, I am neither a historian nor an expert on most of the subjects I discuss below. Please take my comments in that spirit.At some point I will compile a more formal record with full citations.


The story begins at the end, with Elsie Houston's obituary.

While her death is listed as an "apparent" suicide, the details ("empty vial that had contained sleeping tablets," "two notes written in French," "fully clothed except for her shoes") make it doubtful that Detective William Chaplain of the East Fifty-first Street station ever gave it much more thought. 

Two suicide notes: one to a "friend" (Marcel Courbon--about whom the internet, at least,  is silent) and another to her sister ("Maria" Pedrosa--who will become important later in this story). 

The notes hold an untold secret. She is "terribly upset." She pleads, "Please don't let any one know about this." The police report refrains from saying what "this" is, a gesture of respect, or perhaps they don't know (or care). Is it disrespectful to try to uncover the reason now? 

Note the archaic use of specific addresses as identifiers. I plan to make a pilgrimage to 431 Park Avenue and leave a booklet at a nearby coffee shop.

Image Source: New York Times, February 21, 1943:20.

Annotation of Annotations.

Interviews with Elsie Houston in the 1940s reveal that French, not Portuguese, was her primary home language. She explains that this is because her husband is French. Her "husband" was Marcel Courbon, a Belgian Baron.

Other newspapers were more forthcoming about the contents of the suicide notes. It appears she had financial problems and audiences were no longer receptive to her voodoo act. There was gossip that she had tried to kill herself a week earlier, but was stopped by friends. The sensationalist Sunday supplement, American Weekly, ran a long story blaming her death on a voodoo curse.

Further investigation in the New York Times reveals that Houston had first leased the place at 431 Park Ave (between E. 55th and E. 56th St.) in July 1941. For the previous two years she had been living at 107 E. 63rd St. (corner of Park Ave).


In late 1930s and early 1940s New York, Elsie Houston was best known for her "voodoo" act, though she also had a glowing reputation in classical music circles. It was the height of the cabaret era in Manhattan and also the musical milieu that produced bebop. (I want to misinterpret Thelonious Monk's famous reference to "zombie music," imagining Art Blakey or Max Roach grooving to the candomble drums instead of the soundtrack to some monster movie).

Her cabaret act was "something to see," according to the reporter from Time Magazine, viewing a special performance at the Museum of Modern Art. Lit by a circle of candles, "slapping a tom-tom," "crooning incantations," she "wailed like a woman possessed." Her "metallic soprano," capable of "birdlike highs" and "animallike" noises. Was there anything like her then or even now? Yoko Ono? Diamanda Galas?

Image sources: New York Times, February 21, 1943:20; Time Magazine, October 28, 1940: 55; James Gavin (1991) Intimate nights: The golden age of New York cabaret. New York, NY: Grove Weidenfeld.

Annotation of Annotations

Elsie Houston developed her act in French nightclubs during the 1930s. When she came to New York, she first performed at Le Ruban Bleu and later became a featured performer at the Rainbow Room. By the early 1940s, she was primarily a concert singer but continued to make nightclub appearances. Shortly before her death, the New York Times reported that she had been booked for an engagement at the Monte Carlo. This engagement, it seems, was unsuccessful.

Le Ruban Bleu was a tiny cabaret room run by a French emigre catering to the social and artistic elite of New York. The Rainbow Room was/is an expensive supper club. Both settings put her in contact with some of the more interesting performers of the day, including Mabel Mercer and Lotte Lenya, and the dancers Jack Cole and Charles Weidman (who later wrote a dance piece in her memory).

She was a featured performer in a 1942 one-reeler titled, Carnival in Brazil.

My comments about Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galas above seem ill-informed now. A better comparison is probably someone like Cathy Berberian, a brilliant interpreter of songs with some technical limitations but a real will to experiment.


A glimpse of Elsie Houston's nightclub act, complete with candles and "elegant but austere" dress. 

Carl Van Vechten, the photographer, was a gay white man most famous for documenting the Harlem Renaissance, corresponding with Langston Hughes, and writing a novel with an unfortunate title. Houston may very well have been part of his circle. I don't know.

Image Source:  Carl Van Vechten, Portrait Photographs of Celebrities, November 4, 1940.

2006 Annotation of Annotations

Van Vechten's "circle" was huge. Houston was good friends with Paul and Jane Bowles and thus tapped into the same prewar/WWII New York apartment-based social scene that included Van Vechten.

There are four Van Vechten photos of Elsie Houston easily discovered on the web. I included three of them in the booklet. There are also portraits of her by the painter, Candido Portinari, and the photographer, Man Ray.









Elsie Houston was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1902, the daughter of a dentist. She was not descended from Sam Houston (though some misunderstood), but was the descendent of confederados, southern plantation owners that had come to Brazil after the Civil War to reproduce ante-bellum society (slavery was permitted in Brazil until the late 1880s). American-Brazilians still live in "Americana," outside of Sao Paulo, celebrating their ethnic identities by giving their children "American" names.

I don't know the rest of her ancestry; some commentators call her mulatto, which seems right.  I've tagged an appropriate passage from Patricia Galvão's novel, Industrial Park.  I don't know if her mixed ancestry caused any trouble for her in New York. At the very least, she was perceived as an exotic presence--a kind of "jungle bird."

I'm interested in the complexity of her identity. An "American ethnic" in Brazil, fascinated by native Brazilian folk culture (particularly the syncretic religions of displaced African slaves), of mixed racial heritage herself, educated in Europe--she  wrote a suicide note to her Brazilian sister in French--and then a displaced French-speaking mulatta Brazilian in the cosmopolitan New York of the WWII era performing Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies to audiences for whom she was probably simply an exotic novelty act. 

Image sources: Time Magazine October 28, 1940:55, Patrícia Galvão (1993, translation). Industrial Park: A proletarian novel. Translation by Elizabeth and K. David Jackson.

Annotation of Annotations

Elsie's father was James Frank Houston, a very prominent Rio dentist. He was not part of the first wave of confederados; he had come to Brazil from Tennessee in 1891 for a short-term appointment and ended up staying for the rest of his life. Elsie Houston's claim to be great-great-great granddaughter of Sam Houston's grandfather does not necessarily agree with the Houston geneology at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. (There is a listing for a James P. Houston in the appropriate generation, a possible typo for James F. Houston, but there are discrepancies with other accounts that make this identification uncertain). What is clear is that her father was from the Houston clan of Virginia and Tennessee and she was probably a distant relative of Sam Houston.

Elsie Houston's mother, Arinda Galdo, was a native of Rio de Janeiro, and had Portuguese roots in the Madeira Islands.

Elsie Houston had two sisters, Celina and Mary. Celina was married to a doctor, Nelson Velloso Borges, and Mary was married to the scholar and Trotskyist, Mario Pedrosa. Nelson would eventually become the patriarch of the Houston household.

(Thanks, emailer!)


In fact, these kind of complex identity issues are a common part of Brazilian literary self-understandings. Elsie Houston was close to Mário de Andrade, whose important surrealist novel, Macunaíma, is excerpted here. de Andrade, of famously mixed racial heritage himself, thematized race in the book (for example, the hero starts out black and becomes white in the course of the story). Macunaíma is a great work of the imagination, a furious Rabelaisian tour through native Brazilian culture and 1920s-style economic globalization. I am surprised it hasn't received a more serious English-language translation (I was tempted to excerpt the passage here in its original Portuguese). 

The passage is from the "Macumba" chapter, a wild comic reimagining of a candomble ritual, that nevertheless, helps to provide a context for Elsie Houston's cabaret act--Exu and Ogun, candlelight, the "spanking" of the drum, and the shocking "piercing cry" (minus the "overpainted Polish whore," of course).

I was interested to see that Houston's interest in possession rituals extended beyond the Brazilian context to another branch of the Yoruban diaspora--Haitian Voudoun.   Note that only the black Haitians wore "native costumes." There were limits to her identification with the exotic, it seems. 

Mário de Andrade and Elsie Houston collaborated on folk song projects during the 1920s. Houston would go on to publish two scholarly works on Brazilian folksongs and folk performance.

Image sources: Mário de Andrade (1984, translation). Macunaíma. London: Quartet; New York Times May 29, 1941:14.

2006 Annotation of Annotations.

"Exotic" is a word that was used repeatedly to describe Elsie Houston during her days in New York. Indeed, one 1942 advertisement for a performance at Gimbel Brothers department store calls her the "most glamorous, exotic singing star in all New York." Commentators frequently noted the darkness, even "swarthiness" of her skin. While Houston was very interested in black culture and often criticized the musical scene in the US for not making more use of black contributions, it is clear she did not publicly identify herself as "black." This is natural, given the immensely complex vocabulary of race in Brazil (compared to the "one drop" standard in the US). Nevertheless there is a slightly patronizing/romanticizing tone in her discussion of "Negroes," typical of many anti-racists (including Van Vechten) at the time.

Houston and her husband Benjamin Péret were frequent guests at macumba ceremonies during their brief stay together in Brazil (1929-1931). Houston, in at least one interview, admits more interest in American blues and spirituals (and Tennessee mountain music) than in modern classical music.

The composer Luciano Gallet was another important influence on Elsie Houston's interest in Brazilian folklore. 


Elsie Houston figured in the Brazilian literary/art/music scene during a critical time in its history. It was an era of tremendous creative energy ushered in by "Modern Art Week" in 1922.  In addition to Mario de Andrade and Patricia Galvão (AKA Pagu), Houston knew other key members of this movement, including: the composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (she was a soloist at his Paris concert debut), the painters Flavio de Carvalho,  Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral, and the self-appointed leader of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade. de Andrade (second from right) was married to Tarsila do Amaral (third from right) and had an affair with, and eventually married, Pagu (far left).

Oswald de Andrade (not directly related to Mario, rather a close friend-turned-enemy) wrote the "Cannibalist Manifesto," a text that is routinely cited in post-colonial studies today. While positioning Brazil on the side of the "uncivilized" cannibal, de Andrade suggests that through its "ingestion" of European religion and culture, Brazil has emerged with a culture of its own, perhaps superior to its more "pure" influences. This was a position that appealed to some figures among the European artistic avant garde. To André Breton, for example, the supposed resistance of the indigenous Brazilian to regular work (expressed in Macunaima's signature line, "Ai que preguicia") was a positive quality to be emulated. 

Elsie Houston had trained as an opera singer in Germany during her teens (her teacher was the famed Wagnerian soprano, Lilli Lehmann). She returned to Europe in the 1920s with her fellow Brazilian modernists, joining the surrealists in Paris and participating in their games. She would also find love there (which I will discuss momentarily). 

Image sources: internet (photo); my own handwritten notes, probably from Robert Stam's Tropical Multiculturalism;  Penelope Rosemont (1998, editor).Surrealist women: An international anthology. Austin: University of Texas Press.

NOTE: Daniella Thompson kindly points out that the photo is not from a voyage to Paris, but is in fact, a fragment from a larger photo of people "welcoming Benjamin Péret at the Central do Brasil railway station in Rio de Janeiro. The date given is 18 July 1929." Thanks, Daniella.

Annotation of Annotations

The relationship between Brazilian and European surrealism was more conflicted than I initially recognized. Péret was embraced by Oswald de Andrade but was kept at arm's length, even rejected, by Mario de Andrade and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Péret's notorious surrealist "intransigence" no doubt contributed to the tension, as did the feeling that Oswald de Andrade was selling out a uniquely Brazilian national project. Oswald and Pagu (and Flavio de Carvalho) would later stay with the Houston-Pérets in Paris. The fact that there were personal tensions between Oswald and Mario probably didn't help either. (Oswald, it seems, joined Andre Breton in exhibiting a peculiar surrealist fear of homosexuality).

I have more complete information now about Elsie Houston's musical education. Elsie apparently accompanied her sister Celina and Celina's husband (who was finishing up his medical education) to Germany, and studied with Lilli Lehmann (a prized but notoriously tough voice teacher) for just under a year. She then studied with another famed soprano, Ninon Vallin, first in Argentina and then in Paris.

Houston's relationship with Heitor Villa Lobos began in her teens. In one interview she depicts a particularly close relationship with Villa Lobos's first wife, Luciliz Guimaraes. Houston was definitely a soloist at Villa Lobos's 1927 Paris concerts. I have read conflicting reports whether she was there during his official debut in 1924. Villa Lobos dedicated several songs to her, including "Desejo" from the Serestas and his suite of songs, Canções tipicas brasileiras.


You can see the "cannibalist" position in Elsie Houston's public statements about American versus Brazilian music. What makes Brazilian music more "progressive" is the fact that it is "awake to every kind of influence," including the "real Negro music." 

"Cannibalism" and the Brazilian modernism of the 1920s would be a powerful influence on the Tropicalia movement spearheaded by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in the 1960s, a similarly explosive creative movement. It should be noted, though, that a self-identification with the "primitive" carried ideological baggage. As is well-known, the European avant garde was fascinated with "primitive" art, routinely appropriating its forms in its work. It offered Europeans an alternative to the hated social constraints of "civilization," but did so by romanticizing the exotic. Some analysts have indicated a similar romanticization of young women among the surrealists. 

Now I can tell the love story.

Image sources: New York Times, February 12, 1942;  my own handwritten notes, probably from Robert Stam's Tropical Multiculturalism; Carl Van Vechten, Portrait Photographs of Celebrities, November 4, 1940; Janet A. Kaplan (1988). Unexpected journeys: The art and life of Remedios Varo. New York: Abbeville Press.

Annotation of Annotations

I should have emphasized even more strongly the role of "the muse" and the "one love" in Surrealism.





Elsie Houston's relationship with the surrealist poet, Benjamin Péret, was a secret relationship in some ways.  Houston refused to name her husband in an interview with Time Magazine in 1940 ("he was anti-Nazi and still in Paris") and Péret apparently didn't talk about her in his later years. And I have failed to find any account where either of them publically speaks in any detail about the other. No dedicated poems, no dedicated songs.  I am staking a lot in this story on the two of them being deeply in love. Péret loved her enough to move from France to Brazil in the 1920s. Houston loved him enough to tolerate the suggestion that their son be named "Deserter." (I don't know where "Geyser" came from). And there they are in the "Voyage to Paris" Train Station photo!

Things ended badly, however. In the year their son was born, they were expelled from Brazil. They were Communists in a political climate turned suddenly dangerous for Communists. I don't know what happened to them in the years immediately following the expulsion. There is record of them living in Paris in 1934 (entertaining Flavio de Carvalho and Pagu) but beyond that I have no information.

Image sources: Time Magazine October 28, 1940:55New York Times, February 21, 1943:20; J.H. Matthews (1975). Benjamin Péret. Boston: Twayne Publishers; Mark Polizzotti (1995). Revolution of the mind: The life of André Breton. New York: Farar, Strauss, & Giroux. 

NOTE: Daniella Thompson points to a German source that has Péret living in Paris in 1932, working for various newspapers. She also points to a reference to an intriguing collection of Péret's work that includes correspondence with Elsie and Geyser.

2006 Annotation of Annotations

Ah, my need to tell a love story... In fact, there is at least one poem by Péret dedicated to his wife ("Mille Fois"/"A Thousand Times" in 1934'sDe derrière les fagots [From the Hidden Storehouse]). And the move to Brazil was apparently quite welcome by Péret, who wrote and researched extensively while he was there.

Elsie Houston in 1930 was essentially a Brazilian pop star, recording both a variety of sambas, cocos, and modinhas and the occasional American hit (including, appropriately enough, if you know the lyrics, Cole Porter's "You do something to me.") I've compiled a discography of her releases during this period. She was also a noted concert singer.

An emailer writes that Péret deliberately suggested "revolutionary" names for their son, including "Satan" and suggests that Nelson might have intervened to prevent this. Geyser did not accompany the Houston-Perets to France but remained in the care of his grandmother. For a short period he boarded in the US but after his mother's death he returned to the Houston household in Brazil. He is listed on the roster of an American high school in Rio during the 1940s.

I should have been more specific about the Houston-Péret communist affiliation--they were Trotskyists. Elsie's brother-in-law, Mario Pedrosa, was probably the leading Brazilian Trotskyist at the time. This would get the whole family in trouble with the Vargas regime, though it seems that Péret's writing in support of Brazil's lower classes was what ultimately got him kicked out.


Benajmin Péret, though not as well known as some in the surrealist movement, is generally considered the "surrealist's surrealist." He was perhaps André Breton's most loyal friend and a hard-nosed surrealist ideologue. He was known for publicly provoking authority figures, particularly priests. (That's Péret in the photo insulting a priest).  He was also beloved by many figures in the Parisian art world, including Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel (who reported that Péret's poetry made them end up on the floor "killing themselves laughing.") Péret didn't write poetry as much as practice automatic writing that resulted in strange juxtapositions (see a translation of one of his more noted poems). Péret reportedly believed that automatic writing, like primitive religious ceremonies, put one in touch with mystical human experience better than more traditional poetry or organized religion (which in its monopolization of the mystical deserved to be abhorred). In his later years he would return to Brazil to be reacquainted with his son (who had, ironically, become a prominent military figure) and live among the people of the Amazon. 

Not everyone loved him. He alienated many in the French Resistance, for example, by his refusal to put the needs of the movement ahead of his own. 

In 1936, Péret left France to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, he became "involved in a love story" with a "young person." I don't know what Elsie Houston was doing during this time. The political climate had become milder in Brazil in the late 1930s so it is possible she had returned by that point. It is worthwhile to remember, however, that in 1940 she was still refering to her marriage with Péret (if not mentioning him by name). 

Image sources: Brassai (2002). Conversations with Picasso.University of Chicago Press; Mark Polizzotti (1995). Revolution of the mind: The life of André Breton. New York: Farar, Strauss, & Giroux; Janet A. Kaplan (1988). Unexpected journeys: The art and life of Remedios Varo. New York: Abbeville Press.

Annotation of Annotations

Before his stay in Brazil, Péret was apparently a rather peripheral figure in surrealist circles. It was after his return to Paris that he joined the inner circle, at Breton's side. He was not only ideologically intransigent, he could also resort to violence in support of it (apparently the poet, Rene Char, gave him quite a beating at one point).

Péret, like Breton, was also ideologically anti-family. That is, he believed that the family structure was essentially constrictive. This, coupled with depression-era poverty, cannot have helped his relationship with his wife. His estrangement from Elsie Houston may have happened as early as 1933 (she would return briefly to Brazil). It is clear that they were already separated by 1936. Paul Bowles, who visited Elsie Houston in France, suggests that she regreted the split. Because this was before the age of divorce, Péret could not legally marry Varo until after Houston's death. 

The critical quote on the opposite page is by the artist, Georges Hugnet. Breton would make fun of Péret's pretense of being a soldier, claiming that he spent his time in the Spanish Civil War petting a cat.

During the 1930s Elsie Houston was both a concert artists and a Parisian nightclub singer, working "for shekels," according to Virgil Thomson. Apparently the impresario, Aurelian Lugne-Poe, helped to get her established. She would later move to the hill-top village of Eze near the Riviera.

An emailer, who has talked with one of Geyser's children (he had three, one of whom lives in the US), contradicts the story of Geyser's military status--apparently Geyser (he preferred "Gey") trained as a pilot in Miami in order to avoid military service. He then had a career as a pilot for a commercial airline.


By the late 1930s, Elsie Houston had moved to New York. It is unclear exactly what prompted the move. It may have had an "official" dimension. It was the era of the "good neighbor policy" between the U.S. and Latin America. (Lacking a European market during WWII, the U.S. tried to forge stronger relations with its "neighbors" to the south.) Was Elsie Houston a paid agent to promote better relations between the U.S. and Brazil? I don't know. What is clear is that she was one of Brazil's leading "cultural ambassadors" and was provided with airtime to educate Americans about Brazilian folksongs. 

By all accounts, she was a brilliant singer, particularly skilled in the interpretation of songs. Review after review in the New York Times during this era has little but praise for her performances. She was also an active supporter of young Latin American composers, performing early pieces by composers such as Jayme Ovalle and Camargo Guarnieri.

Image Sources: New York Times, February 12, 1942; New York Times, January 26, 1941; Olin Downes, New York Times, March 29, 1941; New York Times, October 24, 1940; New York Times, February 2, 1941.

2006 Annotation of Annotations.

The dates of her New York period are clear. She arrived in October 1937. Her first concert appearance was in November 1937 (at a tribute for conductor Pierre Monteux). She would return to Brazil (to visit Pagu in prison) in 1939. She was apparently recruited to New York by the manager of Le Ruban Bleu.

Her exact relationship with the "Good Neighbor Policy" is something I am still trying to pin down. There were a number of separate (and sometimes competing) agencies involved. We know, for example, that Carmen Miranda and especially Olga Coelho were agents of the Vargas regime. Elsie Houston's relations with the Vargas regime, however, were likely strained, not only because it had jailed her friends and family, but because the Brazilian elite did not necessarily approve of her voodoo act. Houston seemed closest to the Pan American Union (now the OAS) in Washington DC. Mario Pedrosa was employed there and she gave several concerts under the banner of the organization.

I've compiled a long chronology of Elsie Houston's appearances in New York based on listings in the New York Times. 


Indeed, there seems to be more continuity between the diseuse and the candomble performer than it first appears. Her art is "powerful," "projecting" listeners into a "different world." At the same time, her approach to voodoo songs is formal and unemotional. There is nothing to fear from voodoo songs, they can be performed in public, so long as the performance is good (proper gestures, facial expressions, and setting).  One wonders if Péret was disappointed when his exotic Brazilian muse turned out to be an academic. 

Elsie Houston's place in Brazilian cultural history seems secure, though it is her early work that gets the most notice. While I understood that she was THE Brazilian soprano during her era, I was unable to find any real extended accounts of her work in the Portuguese collections of my local libraries. I imagine such things are easier to find in Brazil.

Now, the note of sadness.

Image sources: New York Times, February 2, 1941; New York Times, February 12, 1942Brasil A/Z : enciclopédia alfabética em um único volume.(1988). São Paulo, Brasil : Editora Universo.

Annotation of Annotations.

While Elsie Houston is not a well known figure in the US anymore, she has not been entirely forgotten. She was a direct influence on the singers Jennie Tourel (who would record the Serestas), Cathy Berberian, who worked at the Liberty Music Shop (which released two 78s by Elsie Houston), and Phyllis Curtin. An emailer, who was a student of Beverley Peck Johnson (Renee Fleming's voice teacher), notes that she was a big fan.

It also appears that until recently Elsie Houston had been largely forgotten in Brazil too. In addition to the 2003 CD/Publication mentioned at the start, she also figures in a museum devoted to Afro-Brazilian history in São Paulo.



I found much written about Mário de Andrade in the Portuguese language sections of my local libraries.  I even found a book full of his correspondence. No mention of Elsie Houston. But in a note of his to Carlos Drummond de Andrade, regreting the end of his friendship with Oswald de Andrade, a clue--a mention of how much he enjoys spending time with Mario Pedrosa and his wife Mary Houston. 

Mario Pedrosa was an acclaimed art critic and a Communist (Trotskyite) leader. Mary was Elsie's sister. Thus the curious reference in the obituary to "Maria Pedrosa" living at 1869 Mintwood Place in Washington. What a well-known Trotskyite and his wife were doing living in the heart of Washington DC during World War II is not known, but it is curious that Benjamin Péret was not allowed entry because of his politics while Mario/Maria lived quite freely.

Two separate fragments refer to Péret and Houston as either "recently divorced" or "estranged." And it would seem that Elsie Houston would have to have known about Péret's "young love," the Spanish/Mexican painter Remedios Varo, given the appeals of family and friends to get Péret and Varo admitted to the U.S.  André Breton was living in New York at the time; surely he must have connected periodically with Elsie Houston. Nevertheless, Péret and Varo didn't marry until Houston had died, and there's still that curious reference to her "anti-Nazi" husband in the 1940 Time Magazine profile... Could this be why she was "terribly upset?"

And then, what about Alberto Besouchet, the man assassinated by Stalinist agents during the Spanish Civil War for being a Trotskyite (Péret himself had been a Stalinist target) and for his "suspect" relationship with the "adventuress," Elsie Houston? Did she find out about this? Could this be why she was "terribly upset?" And what does that word mean, "adventuress?" Is there a whole level of intrigue left missing in this story?

I imagine the suicide as staged by a Stalinist assassin (the mysterious Marcel Courbon?), the letter to Maria Pedrosa intended for the sole purpose of revealing Mario Pedrosa's Washington hideout to local assassins via a New York Times obituary. 

Actually, I don't know what to think. 

Image Sources: Newsweek, March 16, 1942 (photo); Mário de Andrade (1988). A lição do amigo : cartas de Mário de Andrade a Carlos Drummond de Andrade.Rio de Janiero : Editora Record; Patricia Albers. (1999). Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti. Clarkson N. PorterJ.H. Matthews (1975). Benjamin Péret. Boston: Twayne PublishersJanet A. Kaplan (1988). Unexpected journeys: The art and life of Remedios Varo. New York: Abbeville Press.

2006 Annotation of Annotations.

Mario Pedrosa figures much more centrally in this story than I had initially realized. His work with the Trotskyists both in Brazil and internationally is widely documented, as are his run-ins with Brazilian authorities. At one point he even managed to get his whole family, including his mother-in-law, Arinda, jailed, when authorities found a shed full of pro-Trotsky literature on the Houston property.

Stalinist assassin fantasies aside, it is apparent that the divide among the Communists caused problems for both Péret (during the Spanish Civil War, he would eventually join up with an anarchist group) and Houston (the New York performing arts scene was largely populated with Stalinists).

I still don't know why Elsie Houston would be labeled an "adventuress," unless that simply refers to a woman who has convictions and takes action on her own...

As mentioned earlier, Marcel Courbon was a Belgian Baron, and her lover, and probably not a Stalinist assassin.


An account in a book on the New York cabaret scene points to her general melancholia and a specific "romance gone sour." Every night, playing in a stuffy cabaret space, a serious ethnological performance squeezed in between ventriloquists and pop singers. What kind of life was this? And the soured romance could easily still mean Péret. So I end it with another excerpt fromMacunaima's Macumba scene. It was horrifying. And it hurts.

OK. Mystery solved? She hated her life in New York and was despondent about the end of her relationship with Péret? And what if she hadn't found out about his affair until 1943, and had been desperately hoping and waiting for the U.S to let him in? Only to find out? 

As with Detective William Chaplain, case closed? No. Because after I finished putting this booklet together I stumbled upon a whole new possibility...

Image sources: James Gavin (1991) Intimate nights: The golden age of New York cabaret. New York, NY: Grove Weidenfeld.Mário de Andrade (1984, translation). Macunaíma. London: Quartet 

2006 Annotation of Annotations.

I think I am being a bit overdramatic here. I suspect she did resent the fact that she was forced to work at nightclubs, even as she had gained some respect on the concert stage. The Rainbow Room closed after the US entry into WWII, so she was denied the prestige of that space. Paula Laurence, the source of the quote on the opposite page, suggests that her voodoo act was no longer as popular as it had been. And other figures, particularly Olga Coelho, had emerged to compete with her on the Brazilian folk-musical ambassadress turf. Things had gotten more difficult again.

When I wrote the original annotations, I suspected that it was the Péret-Houston relationship that Laurence is referring to. In fact, it was her relationship with Marcel Courbon that had soured. Gossip has her and Courbon quarreling soon before her suicide.

But regardless, the actual triggers are probably less important than the tendency toward depression.


A reference to a late 1980s  film, directed by Norma Bengell, Eternamente Pagu:

 Could it be I was on the wrong track all along? That the secret "this" was the "love that cannot be named?" That there was no despondency over Péret, that "this" is what ended their relationship?

But then,

Image Source: David William Foster (1999). Gender and Society in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema. University of Texas Press.

2006 Annotation of Annotations.

Probably not. And I think this particular question is closed to my satisfaction.

And thank you for your interest. This began as a little idiosyncratic obsessive art project and has become an important side project for me. I hope this is a jumping off point for people who want to do some serious research. (Those who do are advised to obtain a copy of ELSIE HOUSTON : A FEMINILIDADE DO CANTO, which can be found in the US via interlibrary loan. It tells a much fuller story (provided the reader knows Portuguese)).

Please email me at gullcity@gmail.com with any comments or corrections you might have. I have also posted information, as I have found it, at my blog.