With an all-star cast, gravity defying stunts and show stopping musical numbers, The Greatest Showman is making waves this awards season.
Based on the life of famed show businessman P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, the film also stars Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity and Rebecca Ferguson as the songstress Jenny Lind. The Greatest Showman is up for three Golden Globes this Sunday. Here’s the incredible true story behind the film.
Launching a Circus
Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P. T. Barnum, is best remembered for the famous traveling circus depicted in The Greatest Showman, but Barnum spent much of his life delving into other ventures like newspapers, housing, literature and Connecticut politics. Barnum first started in show business with the Barnum American Museum, which became popular among the masses for showcasing peculiar attractions like the “Feejee Mermaid” and “General Tom Thumb.”
The Barnum American Museum burned down in 1868 and a few years later he came up with the idea to corral his acts and put them on the road for a traveling show in 1871. The new show kept feature players from his original museum, like Tom Thumb, but added other notable acts like The Bearded Lady and the show’s main attraction, singer Jenny Lind.
A Controversial Past
The movie glosses over most of the controversial details of Barnum’s past, but it’s impossible to ignore the troubling facts from his real life. For example, Barnum got his start in show business when he purchased an elderly slave named Joice Heth who he passed off as the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington and worked until her death.
In addition to his horrific treatment of Heth, Barnum also made several other unethical decisions such as first exhibiting his bearded lady when she was only an infant, traveling the U.S. to make money by denouncing alcohol and, while in politics, passing legislation in Connecticut that banned all forms of contraception.
His Partner in Life
At 19, Barnum wed 21-year-old Charity Hallett in 1829. The pair was married for 44 years and together had four daughters. Barnum once recalled the day he married Hallett as the day he “became the husband of one of the best women in the world.” However, Barnum was obsessed with his entrepreneurial ventures and largely left the child-rearing and home responsibilities on the shoulders of his wife, who was herself dealing with a chronic illness and the unexpected death of their fourth daughter.
The Swedish Nightingale
Coming from humble beginnings, Jenny Lind rose to prominence overseas and became a European opera star, earning herself an adoring fan base and the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale.” Lind attempted to leave show business behind when she was 28, but Barnum lured her to join his circus promising an exuberant of amount of compensation: $1,000 per night for up to 150 nights of performances, all expenses included and assistants. Barnum put all of his eggs in one basket by going all in on Lind, and was forced to sell almost everything he had.
Lind was a relative unknown to the American public so to back up his huge investment, Barnum did what he did best and promoted the arrival of Lind to a masterful degree. His promotions paid off and Lind’s first performance was met with universal admiration. The New York Tribune described her inaugural American event simply: “Jenny Lind’s first concert is over; and all doubts are at an end. She is the greatest singer we have ever heard.”
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Despite the red-hot success of the business deal between Barnum and Lind, there were no romantic sparks between the pair. Many incarnations of the story of P.T. Barnum and his traveling circus hint at a romantic infatuation or relationship between the pair, however their relationship was all business.
Lind was not charmed by Barnum’s country lifestyle, which featured a pet cow that roamed around out front of his Connecticut home. On top of the low level of attraction, and the fact that Barnum was married, the showman was way too focused on his various business ventures to be distracted by a potential relationship with Lind.
The Greatest Showman is now playing in the theaters. The Golden Globe Awards, hosted by Seth Meyers, air Sunday, January 7, on NBC at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PST.