Courtesy State Historical Society
By Nicole Heisick
An Example of Courage (1907-1980)
A nationally known performer from University City, Ellen “Jane” Froman overcame many obstacles, such as stuttering and a debilitating plane crash, to become one of the most beloved entertainers of her time. Throughout her 30-year career, the singer/actress performed on stage, radio, and television. She earned three separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not only was Froman a noted entertainer, she used her life’s struggles as inspiration for charitable endeavors, working with the Missouri Mental Health Association as well as establishing the Jane Froman Music Camp for young entertainers.
Froman was born on November 10, 1907, in University City. Shortly after her parents’ separation, she developed a stutter that followed her throughout her life, except when she sang.
In 1919, Froman and her mother moved to Columbia, where her mother, a former pianist, taught music at Christian College (now Columbia College) and then at Stephens College. Jane graduated from Christian College and spent a short time studying at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism before moving to Ohio to study voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music from 1928 to 1930. Froman began singing on the radio and doing commercials at the WLW radio studios.
It was there she met Don Ross, a staff singer and former vaudeville performer who became her manager and later her husband. The couple moved to New York City in 1933, and Froman’s career took off. She went to Hollywood several times throughout the ’30s to fi lm movies such as Stars Over Broadway and Radio City Revels, but her inability to overcome her stutter made her acting career short-lived. Her singing, however, was always in high demand. She spent the decade singing on the radio, in nightclubs, and on Broadway. She was voted the nation’s top female performer in 1937 and again in 1939.
In 1943, tragedy struck. One of the first performers to volunteer to entertain troops overseas, Froman was on her way to her first United Service Organizations show in Europe when the flight she was on crashed into the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal.
One of only 15 survivors on the flight of 38 passengers, Froman sustained many injuries, including a large gash below her knee that nearly severed her left leg, a severe fracture of her right leg, broken ribs, and multiple fractures to her right arm. Although still on crutches, Froman returned to Europe in 1945 to entertain troops. She spent three months performing for 30,000 servicemen.
Froman returned to New York City where she continued to perform despite undergoing frequent surgeries. Her success had driven a wedge between Froman and Ross, and one month after their divorce in February
1948, Froman married John Burn, the pilot who was in the same accident and who had saved her life. The new couple struggled as Froman dealt with her injuries and the pressure to perform, and they divorced in 1955. She was also treated for depression, and her care ultimately served as inspiration for her work with the Missouri Mental Health Association.
Froman kept singing and making television appearances until she retired from show business and returned home to Columbia in 1961. There she became reacquainted with a former college friend, Rowland H. Smith, and the two married in 1962.
Throughout her career, Froman was involved in charity work, and her retirement from show business gave her a chance to dedicate more time to the cause. She worked with Easter Seals and the Missouri Mental Health Association, and she sang in a 1969 Christmas program at Arrow Rock benefiting the Jane Froman Music Camp, a project started to help young people develop their musical talent. Froman died April 22, 1980. Froman demonstrated having courage and dedication is more important than any obstacle. Her courage in the face of her disability serves as a model for others not to be afraid or ashamed, but rather be who they are and show that they are not going to let their disabilities define them.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.