Florence Foster Jenkins

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Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins.jpg
Background information
Birth name Narcissa Florence Foster
Born (1868-07-19)July 19, 1868
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Died November 26, 1944(1944-11-26) (aged 76)
Manhattan, New York City
Genres Outsider, Opera
Occupation(s) Singer, teacher, pianist
Years active 1912–1944

Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano, who was known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone; her aberrant pronunciation; and her generally poor singing ability.

Personal life[edit]

Born Narcissa Florence Foster in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Mary Jane (née Hoagland 1851–1930) and Charles Dorrance Foster (1836–1909).[1][2]She had one sibling, a sister named Lillian that died at age 8 in 1883. She dropped her first name and went by her middle name, Florence, during her formative years. Her father was a lawyer, and his family was wealthy and owned land near Back Mountain, Pennsylvania.[3][4] Jenkins received piano lessons as a child and, after becoming a child prodigy pianist, performed all over the state of Pennsylvania, appearing in Sängerfests and even at the White House during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes.[1] Upon graduating from high school, she expressed a desire to go abroad to study music, but her wealthy father refused to pay the bill, so she retaliated and eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins (1852–1917) and they moved to Philadelphia. They were married around 1885.[2] Shortly after their marriage, Jenkins contracted syphilis from her husband and Dr. Jenkins was never mentioned again. It is not known whether they obtained a divorce or separated, but she kept his family name of Jenkins as her own.[1] Jenkins earned a living in Philadelphia as a piano teacher, but after suffering an arm injury, she had no means to support herself and lived in near poverty. She was very close to her mother, Mary, who came to Foster's rescue and the two eventually moved to New York City around 1900. It is then that she decided to become a singer.[1] In 1909, she met a British Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield (later her manager) and they later legalized the relationship in a common-law marriage that would last the rest of her life.[5]

When her father died in 1909,[2] Jenkins inherited sufficient funds to begin her long-delayed career in music.[6] She took voice lessons and became involved in the musical social circles of New York City, where she founded and funded her own club, The Verdi Club. She became a member of dozens of womens' clubs – literary, historical, etc. and she became Director of Music for many of these, as well as their producer of tableaux-vivants. The most well known photograph of Jenkins shows her wearing angelic wings. This costume was designed for a tableau-vivant she produced, based on the painting Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration by Howard Chandler Christy. It was also said that in every group of tableaux-vivants that she produced for the clubs, she would always be the main character in the final tableau of the group.[1] She began giving recitals in 1912, when she was in her early 40s.[6] Her mother Mary died in New York City, at the Park Central Hotel in 1930, after which Jenkins inherited additional resources to continue her singing career.[7]

Career[edit]

From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch or rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign languages, is also noteworthy. In actuality, the ravages of syphilis had slowly, over time, made its way to her brain and auditory and central nervous system. Then, even worse, for the rest of her life she suffered severe side effects caused by the era's poisonous mercury and/or arsenic treatments. There was no known cure for the disease until the discovery of penicillin.[1] In spite of the vocal and musical inaccuracies of her performances, she became popular for the amusement she unknowingly provided. Critics sometimes described her performances, mostly at small salons or recital halls, in an "intentionally ambiguous" way that may have served to pique public curiosity, e.g., "Her singing at its finest suggests the untrammeled swoop of some great bird."[8] Her audiences were by invitation only and no critics ever reviewed her performances in the legitimate press. There were, however, articles in musical publications, such as The Musical Courier, which were most likely written by her friends or herself.[1]

Because of her inability to hear combined with her life-long need to perform which began when she was seven,[1] Jenkins was firmly convinced of her talent. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the abundant audience laughter during her performances as "hoodlums ... planted by her rivals." She was aware of her critics, but never let them stand in her way: "People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."[9]

Jenkins singing "Der Hölle Rache" from Mozart's The Magic Flute

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Her recitals featured a mixture of the standard operatic repertoire by Mozart, Verdi, and Johann Strauss (all well beyond her technical ability); lieder by Brahms; Valverde's "Clavelitos" ("Little Carnations" – a favorite encore), and songs composed by herself or accompanist Cosmé McMoon.

Jenkins often wore elaborate costumes that she designed for herself, sometimes appearing in wings and tinsel, and, for "Clavelitos", throwing flowers into the audience from a basket (apparently on one occasion, she hurled the basket as well) while fluttering a fan and sporting more flowers in her hair. After at least one "Clavelitos" performance the audience demanded that she sing it again, compelling McMoon to collect the flowers from the audience prior to repeating the number.[10]

Once, while riding in a taxi, it collided with another car and Jenkins let out a scream. She then discovered that she could sing "a higher F than ever before", and sent the cab driver a box of expensive cigars.[11]

In spite of public demand, Jenkins restricted her rare performances to clubs and the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where she would give a recital annually in October. Attendance was limited to her loyal clubwomen and a select few others; she handled distribution of the coveted tickets herself, carefully excluding professional critics. At the age of 76 she finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, October 25, 1944. Tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance and numerous celebrities attended, such as dancer and actress Marge Champion, song writer Cole Porter, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, actress Kitty Carlisle and soprano Lily Pons with her husband, conductor André Kostelanetz (who composed a song for Jenkins to sing that night). Since this was her first "public" appearance, newspaper critics could not be prevented from attending. Their scathing, sarcastic reviews devastated Jenkins, according to McMoon.[1]

Two days following the Carnegie Hall concert, while shopping at G. Schirmer's Music Store, Jenkins suffered a heart attack.[1] She died a month later on November 26, 1944 at the age of 76 at her residence, the Hotel Seymour, in Manhattan.[2]

Recordings[edit]

The only professional audio recordings of Jenkins consist of nine selections on five 78-rpm records (Melotone Recording Studio, New York City; 1941–1944). These include four coloratura arias from operas by Mozart, Delibes, Johann Strauss II, and Félicien David; the remaining selections are five art songs, two of them written for Jenkins by her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. The material has been reissued in various combinations on three CDs:

  • The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven of Her Rivals (Homophone Records) contains only one of the selections, Valse Caressante, but includes an interview with McMoon.
  • The Glory (????) of the Human Voice (RCA Victor) includes eight of the selections and features Jenkins on the cover in one of her many recital costumes, "Angel of Inspiration".
  • Murder on the High C's (Naxos Records) contains all nine selections, but lacks the McMoon interview.

In popular culture[edit]

In 1999 a one-woman play about Jenkins, Goddess of Song by South African playwright Charles J. Fourie, was staged at the Coffee Lounge in Cape Town. In 2001 Viva La Diva by Chris Ballance had a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.[12] Another play Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, opened on Broadway in November 2005 starring Judy Kaye.[13] Kaye commented that "It's hard work to sing badly well. You could sing badly badly for a while, but you'll hurt yourself if you do it for long."[14] A fourth play about Jenkins, Glorious! by Peter Quilter, opened the same year in England starring Maureen Lipman.[15] It has since been translated and performed in more than 20 countries.[16]

The self-titled 2009 album of Boston-based indie folk band The Everyday Visuals contains a cut entitled "Florence Foster Jenkins" which references her Carnegie Hall performance and other aspects of her life.[17] A hidden track called "Encore for Florence" concludes folk singer Mary Hampton's debut album My Mother's Children.

Jenkins was the subject of the "Not My Job" segment of NPR's radio program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on October 25, 2009. Anchorman Brian Williams, the show's special guest, was asked a series of trivia questions about Jenkins, whom he nicknamed "Flo Fo". The broadcast took place in Carnegie Hall.[18]

In 2008, Donald Collup, in collaboration with Gregor Benko, produced a comprehensive documentary about Jenkins entitled "Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own", telling her complete life story.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Donald Collup and Gregor Benko: Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, DVD, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d Otto, Julie Helen. "Ancestry of Florence Foster Jenkins". William Addams Reitwiesner Genealogical Services. 
  3. ^ Opera singer's family owned land accessed 3/28/2015
  4. ^ Foster biography accessed 3/28/2015
  5. ^ Peters, Brooks, "Florence, The Nightingale?,"[dead link] June 15, 2006 (also appeared, but in slightly different format, in Opera News magazine)[page needed]
  6. ^ a b MacIntyre, F. Gwynplaine (June 23, 2004). "Happy in her work". Daily News (New York). Archived from the original on August 10, 2004. Retrieved December 23, 2008. 
  7. ^ Foster family tree] accessed 3/28/2015
  8. ^ Felton, Bruce (1980) "That's Entertainment? 6 Perfectly Wretched Performers", pp. 162–163 in The Book of Lists #2, edited by Irving Wallace, et al., London: Elm Tree Books, ISBN 0241104335
  9. ^ The Worst Singer in the World
  10. ^ Theatrum Anatomicum by Pablo Helguera, p. 40 (2009) ISBN 1-934978-16-7.
  11. ^ Carnegie Hall, the first one hundred years by Richard Schickel and Michael Walsh, p. 173 (1987) ISBN 0-8109-0773-9.
  12. ^ "Singing sensation Florence Foster Jenkins". CBC. August 8, 2008. Retrieved January 28, 2010. [dead link]
  13. ^ Elysa Gardner (November 10, 2005). "'Souvenir' squeals with diva delight". USA Today. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  14. ^ Green, Jesse (2004), "Singing Badly Well", The New York Times, December 5, 2004, p. AR6
  15. ^ "Maureen Lipman on soprano Florence Foster Jenkins". The Guardian (London). November 3, 2005. Retrieved January 23, 2011. 
  16. ^ Charles Spencer (November 4, 2005). "The triumph of a comforting illusion". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  17. ^ Jonathan Perry (May 12, 2009). "Visuals: from high notes to heavy subjects". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  18. ^ "NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Plays 'Not My Job'". NPR. October 24, 2009. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 

External links[edit]