Beverly Sills 1929-2007
That grounded charm is precisely what made the Brooklyn-born Sills, who died July 2 at 78 of lung cancer—though she wasn't a smoker—the diva next door. She was nicknamed Bubbles because of the saliva bubble on her mouth at birth, but it just as easily could have described her ebullient personality: Asked about her glowing reception at Milan's La Scala opera house in 1969, Sills famously quipped, "It's probably because Italians like big women, big bosoms and big backsides."
Folks in the U.S. liked her, too. Sills appeared on The Carol Burnett Show, The Muppet Show and guest-hosted The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, bringing opera to pop culture. Still, says her friend Barbara Walters, "her public life was glorious, but her private life was marked by tragedy."
Indeed, both of Sills's children with her husband, journalist Peter Greenough, who died last year, were born with severe disabilities—her daughter Meredith, 47, is deaf; her son Peter Jr., 46, was institutionalized at age 6 and considered mentally retarded ("They knew nothing about autism then," she wrote years later). After retiring from the stage in 1980, Sills worked closely with the March of Dimes to improve infant health. "If she gave a recital, she would always end softly, with kind of a lullaby almost, as if her children were listening to her," recalls composer Stanley Silverman. "As she once told her vocal coach, 'I want to sing so high that my daughter can hear it.'"