Every Friday during Black History Month, author Christopher A. Brooks has shared a post about legendary African American tenor Roland Hayes. This is the final installment of his four-part series.
"Bring me a queen!" This was Fannie Hayes’s admonition to Roland (and her other sons). "If you marry a white girl, boy, bring me a queen. Otherwise, stay in your own race." Fannie’s most famous son didn't heed his mother’s advice.
On October 11, 1923, the evening of his Prague debut, Roland Hayes walked out of his hotel bathroom and was shocked to find the regal six foot striking beauty, Countess Bertha Katharina Nadine Colloredo-Mansfeld (born Kolowrat-Krakovsky) standing in the middle of his room unannounced. The only thing he could muster was “Oh, excuse me, I haven't quite finished dressing.” Unfazed, the stately beauty whose Hapsburg ancestry dated back hundreds of years, charmingly introduced herself and said, “The Countess Hoyos has most kindly made it possible for me to meet you. My friends and I are delighted when we can come to know the visiting artists. It helps us to enter into their art.” This began a forty-five year relationship between the two which was passionate, secretive, turbulent, transcendent, yet because of the times, ultimately doomed. Roland met the Countess literally weeks after his mother Fannie’s death and without question, she filled a void in the vulnerable tenor’s life. Months after having met Countess Bertha, Roland Hayes wrote a letter to Alaine Locke (who was teaching at Howard University). In part Hayes wrote:
Dear boy, my life is so beautiful and satisfying
now that my cup of joy remains perpetually
at a state of overflow. I never expected to
have been so happy in this life as the success
of my work (which is my meat and drink) has
brought me. My darling Mother passed on to
bring all of this to me and I recognize her indi-
viduality and her great Love in it all.
The full letter makes it clear that it was the Countess who was responsible for his “perpetual state of overflow.”
By the time Roland arrived back in Prague in April 1924, he and the Countess had been exchanging increasingly passionate letters in which the tenor surrendered his natural guardedness and confessed his total delight in her friendship. On April 29, as his train pushed across Central Europe, the tenor started a stream-of-consciousness letter to her; he poured out his swelling emotions, finishing the correspondence several days later when he seemed satisfied that he had left no doubt in her mind that the experience of working with her had fundamentally transformed him as an artist—and as a man.
29th Morning Budapest April 29th 1924
What a great revelation! And you, my revealer of
wonders, have caused a great illumination in my
Heaven sky. I see endless reaches, and as I
behold all the matchless beauty I am overcome
with its all enveloping sweetness.
How we have advanced since the 18th.
Does it not sometimes awaken astonishment in
you as it does in myself, when you can see with
clear eyes this advancement that has taken on
such enormous dimensions and which also has
rung in so much else of sheer beauty and loveli-
While rambling and poetically incoherent, the excerpt from Hayes’s letter made his emotions plain. Nearing forty years old, these were hardly the written utterances of an infatuated school boy. In the remaining fifty-two years of his life, Roland never declared himself in writing to anyone, or even came close to doing so as he did here. The vulnerability and sheer delight that he expressed in this early note provides more than a glimpse into his soul and into the spirit of the man and the artist that Countess Bertha was fast creating. With complete abandon, he refers to Bertha as “my divine,” “my strength,” “my comfort,” and makes other unambiguous declarations such as “And you, my revealer of wonders, have caused a great illumination in my Heaven sky” and “I can never be without you and your presence . . .” In his autobiography Angel Mo’, Hayes credits his success to the nameless Countess Bertha, the mother of four sons with her husband Count Hieronymus Colloredo-Mansfeld. “To this lady . . . I owe the real beginning of my intellectual life and my musical maturity.”
As if there was little question, Roland and Countess Bertha consummated their relationship in Spain in 1924. The idea of an African American man having a child with a married woman of the old European aristocracy at that time was daunting to say the least.i The implications for his carefully crafted career which was nearing its peak were obvious. Yet, he felt helpless to deny her wish to blend the black and white races, to say nothing of his own desire. Some months later in 1925, Bertha informed Count Hieronymus that she had conceived Roland’s child. He was obviously furious, but agreed to build a chalet for her near the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. He continued to support her with a generous monthly stipend. The two never divorced, and for the sake of family often appeared in public as husband and wife.
Roland and the Countess’s daughter, Maria Dolores Franzyska Kolowrat-Krakowsky, soon to be known as “Maya,” was born at 2:00 a.m. on February 12, 1926 in a private clinic in Basel, Switzerland. Roland was in Boston awaiting the news. His response to Bertha’s telegram announcing their daughter’s birth was more resigned than paternal. “Truth is supreme, am going on in silence and solitude.” On more than one occasion, Roland wanted to “adopt” his daughter and raise her in the United States as a foreign born child, but the Countess would not have it.
By the mid-1930's, the relationship between Roland and the Countess had soured, but they remained in regular contact. Maya maintained contact with her father mostly through letters and an occasional visit. When the singer performed in Paris, Countess Bertha and their daughter always attended. In 1937, after Roland had married his cousin, Alzada, and had a daughter with her, the Hayes family traveled to Europe where the singer was concertizing. Alzada and her daughter Afrika attended his concert in Paris. Also attending the recital was Countess Bertha and his other daughter Maya.
Hayes’s oldest daughter Maya eventually became the mother of six children including her oldest twin sons, Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff (now well-known personalities in France). The twins met their celebrated grandfather only once when they were five years old in Paris in the mid-1950s. Although their interaction with him was brief, they recalled the meeting quite vividly more than fifty years later.
Throughout their lives, they witnessed, first-hand, their mother’s grief over her absent father, Roland Hayes. Of all the players in the “Roland and the Countess” drama, Maya, without question, suffered the most. The implications of this relationship continue to develop in 2015, more than ninety years after it was started.
Christopher A. Brooks is Professor of Anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is author (with Robert Sims) of Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor.
i Kolowrat, Confessions, p. 151. The Countess recalled when interviewed about this, “An affair would have been easier to hide,” but Bertha saw herself as “a one-man woman and could not be with one man for breakfast and another for tea.”