Breaking: Woman leaves $45 million to her local opera

Breaking: Woman leaves $45 million to her local opera


norman lebrecht

February 06, 2020

Opera Theater of St. Louis has announced its largest-ever single gift – a $45 million bequest from former board member Phyllis Brissenden.

Mrs Brissenden, who died in December aged 86, was a supporter of Opera Theatre of St. Louis from its opening season in 1976. She is reckoned to have given $2.5 million in her lifetime, saving the rest for her Will.

News of the bequest was announced in the last hour.

It is one of the largest donations, if not the largest, ever made to any opera house in the US.

Nobody’s saying ho she came by some much money. Her father, Obed Lewis Herndon, owned a dry-goods store in Springfield. She was married for eight years to Walter Brissenden, a division commercial manager with the Bell Telehone Co. He died in 1986. They had no heirs.


  • Straussian says:

    Brava! Bravissima

  • anon says:

    Oh that’ll put Opera St. Louis on the map.

    • anon says:

      $45 million is about one quarter of the annual budget of a major opera house with a full year season. The Santa Fe Opera, for example, spends about $20 million just for its two months in the summer. The Met budget is over 300 million per year. The Paris Opera spends $200 million.

      OTH, in the impoverished operatic landscape of American, the sum will allow St. Louis to stand out in the USA–a mouse among gnats.

      • John Rook says:

        Whatever the maths and OTSL’s outgoings, $45m will certainly help.

        • Sashimi says:

          That’s OK guys, you would hardly find someone more negative and sour than ANON on this page. Seems like the entire world of classical music is at fault for his/hers failures.

          • anon says:

            Nothing to do with the USA having fewer opera performances per capita than every European country, and the devastating effect that has on our opera world and singers. Now put your head back in the sand.

          • Jack says:

            You might take a message from all the thumbs-down ratings your comments seem to earn.

          • anon says:

            Indeed, the need to speak important truths to a country in denial.

    • Money Helps. says:

      Opera Theater of Saint Louis has been “on the map” for a long time.

  • Michael in Missouri says:

    As someone who lives nearby, I can report this is VERY exciting news for opera lovers in St Louis and the surrounding region!

  • Rob says:

    Money talks.

  • Willymh says:

    Ohhhhh… do you think it came from some nefarious source or is that just a bit of pot stirring?

    • Tiredofitall says:

      It came from a very lovely woman whom I admired greatly. You ass.

      • Willymh says:

        Please read both sentences. I was actually comment on the rather snide “Nobody’s saying ho(w) she came by some much money.” which was an unnecessary sentence in the post. In no way was I casting any aspersions on the lady – I happen to think it an incredibly generous and loving gesture.

      • fflambeau says:

        Lovely, perhaps; likely a criminal, also perhaps. Please explain how a “dry goods owner” amasses such a fortune.

  • MacroV says:

    Fantastic. Assuming it goes to the endowment and they take a typical 5% draw, that’s $2.25 million a year that can support or increase the budget.

  • Neil Thompson Shade says:

    Someone once asked Albert Einstein what the most amazing physical phenomenon he witnessed. ‘Compound interest’ was the reply.

  • fflambeau says:

    “Nobody’s saying how she came by so much money. Her father, Obed Lewis Herndon, owned a dry-goods store in Springfield.”

    She and her fellows likely paid little in taxes, underreported their income, and did all sorts of criminal acts. Dry-goods store operators generally don’t make and bank millions.

    Didn’t one novelist say something like, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Here, there were likely many.

  • fflambeau says:

    Her husband was Walter F. Brissenden. How he amassed a fortune is unclear.

    From what I’ve been able to piece together on the Internet, he was born in Chicago on 23 April 1902 and died in Springfield, Illinois on 13 October 1986 aged 84.

    This obituary indicates nothing much of a money making background: he graduated from the University of Alabama, and worked for a newspaper in New Orleans. Then, in 1929 he started work with Illinois Bell (telephone company) and arrived in Springfield in 1953 only as a Division Commercial Manager (not a top management job). He retired in 1967.

    Now, it could be that he inherited money but if so why then go to the University of Alabama (not a rich son’s point of entry like Princeton, Northwestern, Yale, etc.), work in a low paying area (journalism) and then only achieve mid-management level success? That’s a hard road to hoe to make so much money that his wife could give away millions upon millions of dollars.

    Now, it could be that the money came from his wife (which seems unlikely since she was his 2nd wife). Stories indicate that someone owned a “dry goods store” (which means textiles and things not usually sold in grocery stores or hardware stores).

    This is not an area where huge fortunes were amassed either since the profit margin was low. I have known people from the Roebuck family (Sears Roebuck) and they had this kind of money but they had a huge store in Chicago that sold globally and sold pretty much everything. I have also known country managers of the Bell Company who never had this kind of money.

    So the question is, where did this money come from?


  • fflambeau says:

    More research on this fortune (and the mysterious ways it seems to have been amassed).

    Obed Lewis, her father, was not the person who started the dry goods store in Evanston, Illinois. That was her grandfather, Richard Fleetwood Herndon who was born in Kentucky and died at the age of 67.

    A “dry goods store” usually is meant to sell textiles and things not sold in grocery or hardware stores. This is the first instance of anyone I know amassing a huge fortune in this area because the profit margin on sales is low. Further, he had 3 sons and a daughter plus a wife surviving so any money made would have been divided many ways.

    The question is: where did all that money come from?


  • Neil Thompson Shade says:

    Here in Baltimore, one of the city’s scions, Johns Hopkins, started out as an owner of a dry-goods store and made a good living at it, along with investments in other industries, and became rich in the process.

    I do not understand the fascination and fantasy speculation of how probable illegal gains may have contributed to Mrs Brissenden’s fortunes which she is so generously shared with an arts organization she loved.

    • fflambeau says:

      Well, Neil, Johns Hopkins has a record that can be reviewed. This family has none. Hopkins made money other than through a dry-goods store (clothing); his family had a grocery store (that’s different as I previously noted). Plus, he made money through a farm, Hopkins & Sons (wholesalers), and MOSTLY through a railroad, the B&O. All of this is recorded; for this family nothing is available.

      In fact, it is really unclear how anyone could legally amass so much money. My own suspicion (not founded on any facts) is that the Grandpa from Kentucky made his money illegally in moonshine.

      Money coming from illegal sources, unclear sources is not good for anyone. It is a way of spreading corruption and money laundering. It is a kind of “blood money”.