When Stephanie “Steffy” Goldner (1896–1962) joined the New York Philharmonic in 1922, she became the Orchestra’s first woman member. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna, one of four siblings who all studied music, she began taking harp lessons at age eight, studying with Vicki Baum, harpist and internationally known author. Within half a year Steffy was admitted to the Vienna Academy of Music, where she studied for four years before embarking on her professional career.
In her early years, Goldner was in demand as a solo harpist in Vienna. By age 16, she was performing chamber concerts with her sisters — pianist Julia and violinist Gertrude — and giving frequent concert tours in Germany and England, including with the Philharmonisches Orchester Nürnberg (now Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg) and the Vienna Philharmonic.
In 1921, when she was 25, Goldner came to New York to support her widowed mother. She became the first woman to hold a position with the Capitol Theatre Orchestra, the resident ensemble of the prominent Broadway silent-movie house. While there, she met her future husband, Eugene Ormandy — a violinist and soon-to-be prodigy conductor — whom she married on August 8, 1922, in New York.
Soon after, Goldner was offered a position in the New York Philharmonic as one of the youngest members. She remained in the Philharmonic for ten years, performing under Music Directors Willem Mengelberg and Arturo Toscanini and embarking on the Orchestra’s first international tour, to Europe in 1930, in addition to nine tours of the United States. Apart from her orchestral appearances, Goldner was frequently heard on the WEAF radio in solo performances and accompanying her husband.
In 1931 Ormandy’s conducting career took off when he stepped in as a last-minute substitute for Arturo Toscanini at The Philadelphia Orchestra, leading to his appointment as principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra that same year. Goldner resigned her New York Philharmonic position in order to move to Minneapolis with Ormandy in 1932. Four years later, the couple relocated to Philadelphia when Ormandy was hired at The Philadelphia Orchestra, beginning what would become one of the longest music director tenures of any major ensemble. Goldner sat in the hall for rehearsals and concerts, providing comments on balance and repertoire choices, and even supplying a dry shirt and orange juice at intermission.
Goldner and Ormandy frequently visited Europe in the 1930s, traveling for Ormandy’s conducting engagements and visiting family in Hungary and Germany. Ormandy now had ample financial and social resources from his posts in Minneapolis and Philadelphia, so in 1937, just before the Anschluss, the couple made arrangements to bring Goldner’s extended Jewish family from Austria to the United States. Ormandy set up a safe house in Strobl, on Lake Wolfgang in the Salzburg region, where family and friends resided while Ormandy secured travel documents and affidavits. Upon emigrating to the United States, Goldner’s family — including her mother, siblings, niece, and nephew — resided with the couple in a rented home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Goldner and Ormandy delighted in their niece and nephew, Doris and Steve — even paying for their school tuition and upbringing. Two years later, the whole family moved into the Ormandy home in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. There the Maestro hosted many guests from the music world, and Goldner served as a charming hostess, famous for her Viennese pastries. Many home movies exist from these years, documenting a seemingly happy life surrounding the Goldner family in Europe and the United States. However, the couple’s relationship was strained by the death of their two children in infancy, as well as his increasingly prominent career. In 1946 the couple separated, then divorced the following year.
It becomes difficult to track Goldner after she parted from her famous husband. We know that in 1948 she purchased a large Victorian house in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where she lived with her siblings, nephew, and niece. She returned to New York City in 1952 and began performing again, though sporadically, including in the pit orchestra of Broadway musicals such as the premiere of My Fair Lady and Plain and Fancy. An original cast recording of My Fair Lady exists on which she is prominently featured in the beginning of the second act. However, she never returned to a full professional career. Stephanie Goldner died in 1962 from pancreatic cancer at the California home of her older sister, Julia.
After Stephanie Goldner left the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra would not engage another woman for another 25 years.
Stephanie Goldner’s story has never been told before. Rather than turn to books and the like, this summary of her life has been culled from original materials, including from the New York Philharmonic Archives: memorabilia from the 1930 Europe tour, press clippings, personnel records, and printed programs. Also invaluable were correspondence, programs, and an oral history available in a collection donated to the Philharmonic by Doris Balant, Stephanie Goldner’s niece. Other sources include The Eugene Ormandy Papers, Herman Goldner, and Stephanie Goldner Collections at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.