July 19, 1868– Florence Foster Jenkins:
“Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
I admire anyone who, by sure force of will, can remake themselves into something fabulous. Jenkins was a 20th Century American socialite and lover of music who identified as an opera singer, a coloratura soprano to be exact. Somehow, she became a major sensation.
Jenkins grew up in a wealthy Pennsylvania banking family. When her father refused to support her dream of becoming a singer with the funds for lessons, she eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins in 1885. The next year, after learning that she had contracted syphilis from her philandering husband, she left him never spoke of him again.
Her considerable fame came not from her musical talent, but rather its opposite. Her astonishingly terrible singing and clueless inability to find the right pitch was the stuff of legend. She practiced diligently in order to lovingly massacre her way through arias by Mozart, Verdi and Strauss.
At first, Jenkins only performed in private at Manhattan women’s clubs or in her own organization, The Verdi Club, which existed solely to bring flowers to members who were ill.
After years of giving her little recitals, she became in such demand that she went on to sell-out a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Her musicales raised millions of dollars for her charities, performing for polite society snickering, jaws clenched, suppressing laughter as they showered her with applause.
Jenkins still has the moniker: “The Worst Opera Singer In The World”. But, the most amazing thing of all, she was oblivious. She presented herself as a truly great artiste, and she remained convinced of that greatness with the help of her Manager/Boyfriend, a British actor improbably named St. Clair Bayfield. She loved what she did and she was convinced that she was bringing great pleasure to her adoring audiences, which, in her very special way, she was.
She had been a child piano prodigy, but sadly, Jenkins’s singing problems are now partially attributed to her suffering from Syphilis, which caused a progressive deterioration of her nervous system. The horribleness of the disease was compounded by side effects from doses of Mercury and Arsenic, the only treatment available for Syphilis at the time. No effective treatment existed until the use of Penicillin in the 1940s, too late for Jenkins.
Her extraordinary life story has grabbed the attention of many writers, directors and musicians. Works based on Jenkins’s life include the plays Souvenir by Stephen Temperley which ran on Broadway in 2005; and Glorious! by Peter Quilter, which opened the same year in London’s West End and was nominated for an Olivier Award. There is also Marguerite (2015) a French-language film and a new biography Florence Foster Jenkins: The Diva of Din by Darryl W. Bullock.
Last summer the film Florence Foster Jenkins opened to enthusiastic reviews, with critics praising the screenplay, acting and the warm tone of the film. It stars Meryl Streep with Hugh Grant as Bayfield and Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon. It was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress for Streep (her 20th nomination) and Best Costume Design, four BAFTA Awards nominations, and four Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture. The biopic was directed by Stephen Frears, who gave us The Queen (2006), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) , and Dangerous Liaisons (1988). As you know, Streep can really sing. You can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to sing slightly off-key. Frears:
“I loved the script I’d been sent, and I then listened to the real Florence Foster Jenkins on YouTube. She was ridiculous and touching.”
Streep describes Jenkins:
“She was aspirational and terrible, moving and amusing. She was not just bad, she was bad with heart.”
For me, Jenkins fame comes from much more than her being perhaps the ultimate example of the ‘it’s so bad, it’s good’ phenomenon. She was camp, for certain, but her fans went to see and hear her, not to make fun, but because they were won over by her charm and the ecstatic joy she got from performing. Jenkins loved music and wanted other people to love it too. She was totally sincere, and she was a good person. It has been written that she never uttered a bad word about anyone. Audiences genuinely liked her. There is an important lesson there for our own era. You just have to love people with an absolute, authentic passion for the music.
Jenkins’ life story resonates for anyone who’s ever worked hard at doing something they truly love; who has ever tried simply, by sheer force of will, to become something, anything, regardless of their level of talent. You know… something special, like being a daily columnist on a fabulous website.
Of course, it helped that Jenkins was wealthy, but that’s not everything. She loved the art of singing, and she was never in it for the fame. Audiences laughed at her crazy costumes, sometimes appearing in wings and tinsel, and that dreadful singing; but they gave in to the fun of it all.
She counted among her many fans, Noël Coward, Tallulah Bankhead and the renowned Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Cole Porter was a big fan and wrote a special song for her. In a 1968 New York Magazine interview, Barbra Streisand named Jenkins and Ray Charles as her most admired fellow performers.
David Bowie wrote:
“She would change costume as many as three times during the course of a recital… punctuating the cadences of the song by tossing tiny red roses from a basket, then the basket itself, in her enthusiasm, followed the roses into the laps of her delighted fans. Be afraid, be very afraid.”
Bowie stated that her recordings changed his life:
“Florence’s audience was usually split between people who genuinely cared for her and forgave her eccentricities, people who came to laugh and others who treated the whole thing like some sort of perverted, absurd cabaret. Most of her performances were given to forgiving audiences, friends, other clubwomen, musicians she patronized and so on. People came to have fun but not to be spiteful. The Carnegie Hall show was her only proper public performance, and happened at a time (1944, in the midst of war) when people were desperate for a laugh and a distraction from the horrors of real life.”
Jenkins was 76-years -old when she finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944. Her conductor was André Kostelanetz who composed a special song for Jenkins to sing that night. The evening was a triumph, but since it was her first “public” appearance, critics could not be barred from being in the audience. Their scathing, sarcastic reviews devastated Jenkins. She had a heart attack two days later. A month after that, she took that final bow.
I think Jenkins would have loved that she is so inspiring. She desired to create art. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it. She was single-minded in her quest and utterly determined to perform her songs. And here we are in the 21st century, celebrating her birthday, while she is being portrayed on film by the greatest actor of our age. People are still listening to her and talking about her more than 70 years after she left this pretty spinning blue orb.