The Unsinkable Jane Froman


In the 1930s showman and lyricist Billy Rose (the same Billy Rose who was Fanny Brice’s third husband) was asked to name the top 10 female vocalist of that time.  “Jane Froman and nine others,” he responded.

Froman, who was born and raised in Missouri, had a beautiful voice that was trained for the opera stage by her mother who was a voice and piano teacher.  Jane, however, had other ideas.  She liked popular music and decided to concentrate on that instead of opera.  Because of her gorgeous voice she quickly became a popular singer on stage and, more importantly, on radio.  She also moved along quickly because of her friendship and later marriage to Don Ross – a fellow performer who was more successful at running her career than running his own.

Yankee Clipper

Froman loved to perform for our troops and they adored her.  During World War II she performed at many military bases in the United States, and in 1943 she put her career on hold in order to make a USO tour in Europe.  She and the other USO members made the trip across the Atlantic on the Yankee Clipper, one of a fleet of huge flying boats (actually Boeing 314s) that took off and landed on the water.  They were fortunate to make the trip without being spotted by German aircraft.

On February 22, 1943 they neared their first destination, Lisbon, Portugal, and the passengers were told to take their seats in preparation for their landing in the Tagus River.  When Jane got to her seat she found that Tamara Drasin, another USO member, had inadvertently taken her seat.  When Tamara realized her mistake she offered to move, but Jane told her not to bother.  Jane sat in Tamara’s seat instead of the one assigned to her.  As the plane prepared to land the pilot banked to the left, and the wing tip hit the water.  The plane crashed in the water and flipped over.

Jane, a good swimmer, was thrown into the icy water but found that her legs and her right arm were useless.  Luckily one of the plane’s officers, John Burn, though injured was able to find some debris from the crash to support himself and Jane until they were rescued.  While they waited, they talked casually as though they were at a party.  In those few minutes they formed a close bond.

In the hospital Jane learned that her right arm was fractured, some ribs were broken, the bones in her right leg were badly crushed, and her left leg was almost completely severed below the knee.  The doctors were most concerned about her right leg, and their looks told her that they were strongly considering amputation.  She begged them not to cut off her leg, and insisted on going through the three hour operation without an anesthetic for fear that if she was unconscious they would remove her right leg.  She came through the surgery with both legs intact, but her life would never be the same.

When she asked about casualties she was told that Tamara Drasin, the woman who had taken her seat, had died in the crash.  Jane was devastated.

As she and the others recuperated, the affection between her and John Burn deepened.  It didn’t matter that she was thirty-five and he was twenty-four.  She was extremely loyal to her husband, and she and John knew that their friendship would have to remain just that and nothing more.  When Don Ross got to Lisbon he sensed that there was something between his wife and Burn, but nothing was said about the matter.

Jane returned to the United States on May 2, 1943, and endured the second of 25 or so operations on her right leg.  Each time it was operated on, Jane would plead for the doctors to tell her if they were going to amputate it.  They said they would tell her, but, nevertheless, each time she awoke, she was terrified that they had amputated her leg.  The doctor who did the numerous bone grafts was well-known, and Don insisted that Jane continue to use him despite the fact that the grafts didn’t “take.”  Jane wanted to switch doctors, but Don, who was sort of a Svengali figure in her life, refused to allow it.

For the rest of her life she would have operation after operation.  She would also become addicted to the drugs she took for the terrible, unending pain, and would suffer from severe depression.  But all of that did not stop  Jane Froman.  She finally recovered sufficiently to perform, and to her delight her voice was as beautiful as ever, and the audiences loved and respected her even more than they did before her accident.  For a period of time she had to sing while sitting, and when she could finally stand, Don had a rolling prop built so that she could stand still while the prop was moved around the stage.

Eventually she and Don realized that their marriage was over.  When they divorced, she and John Burns married.  That marriage ended many years later, and after a few years she married for the third and final time.

With a Song

In the early 1950s Hollywood took note of this courageous woman and she received numerous offers to have a movie musical made of her life – a so-called “biopic.”  She eventually decided to let Twentieth-Century Fox make the movie in part because she hoped they would include the story of her fight against addiction and depression as a motivation to others who were fighting similar problems.  But the movie code of that era did not condone talking about addiction and mental illness on the screen in that context.  Be that as it may, the resulting movie, With a Song in My Heart, is a wonderful testament to the tenacity of a woman who refused to give up.  And Susan Hayward was excellent as Jane Froman.  Best of all, Jane did the singing while Hayward lip-synched the words.

Two clips from With a Song in My Heart will give you an idea of just how beautiful and versatile Jane Froman’s voice was.  The first clip features a duet between Froman and Richard Allan singing her theme song “With a Song in My Heart.”  You can hear the voice training that Froman had in this number.

The second clip shows Froman singing a medley for a bunch of soldiers.  The songs are quite diverse, but Froman handles them all without effort.  The enormous rapport between Froman and her audience is also depicted accurately.

With a Song in My Heart is still available for purchase, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) features it periodically.  The soundtrack is also available.

Say It With Music

When the movie came out in 1952 Froman became popular for a while among teenage women.  A group of them in New York City formed a fan club and became friends with her – perhaps surrogates for the children she never had.  One of them, Barbara Seuling, would grow up to be an author of children’s books.  She also wrote a well-done biography of her hero.  The book, Say It with Music: The Life and Legacy of Jane Froman, is still available, and is worth reading if you want to find out more about the unsinkable Jane Froman.

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