Florence Foster Jenkins
|Florence Foster Jenkins|
July 19, 1868|
|Died||November 26, 1944
Manhattan, New York City
|Occupation(s)||Singer, teacher, pianist|
Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American 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.
Born Nascina Florence Foster in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Charles Dorrance Foster and Mary Jane Hoagland, Jenkins received piano lessons as a child and performed all over the state of Pennsylvania, appearing in "Sänger-fests" and even at the White House. Upon graduating from high school, she expressed a desire to go abroad to study piano. Her wealthy father refused to pay the bill, so she retaliated and eloped to Philadelphia with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, a physician. The two were married from 1885 until 1902. 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. After her divorce, Jenkins earned a living in Philadelphia as a teacher and pianist. After suffering an arm injury, she had no means to make a living and began living in near poverty. Her mother came to her rescue and the two moved to New York City around 1900. It is then that she decided to become a singer. In 1908 she began living with the stage actor St. Clair Bayfield (later her manager), a relationship that would last the rest of her life.
When her father died in 1909 Jenkins inherited sufficient funds to begin her long-delayed singing career. She took voice lessons and became involved in the musical social circles of Philadelphia and, later, New York City, where she founded and funded the Verdi Club. She became a member of dozens of womens' clubs - literary, historical, etc. She became Director of Music for many of these, as well as their producer of tableaux-vivants. The most well know 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 the character in the final tableau of the group. She began giving recitals in 1912. Her mother's death in 1928 gave her additional resources to pursue her singing career.
From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. In actuality, the ravages of syphilis had slowly, over time, made its way to her brain and auditory nerve system. Then, to make it even worse, the treatment of the era (not cure) for the rest of her life was the equally poisonous mercury. Nonetheless, she became popular for the amusement she 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." 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.
Because of her inability to hear combined with her life-long need to perform which began when she was seven, Jenkins apparently was firmly convinced of her greatness. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the abundant audience laughter during her performances as "professional jealousy." She was aware of her critical people, 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."
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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, who reportedly made faces at Jenkins behind her back to get laughs.
Jenkins often wore elaborate costumes that she designed 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 each performance of this song, her audience often demanded that she sing it again. McMoon would then collect the flowers from the audience in order to perform the song again.
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.
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. 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). Since this was her first "public" appearance, the newspaper critics were allowed to attend and she received horrible and sarcastic reviews. This totally devastated her. The next Monday, she was shopping at G. Shirmer's Music Store and suffered a heart attack. Jenkins died a month later at her residence, the Hotel Seymour in Manhattan.
The only professional audio recordings of Jenkins consist of nine selections on five 78-rpm shellac records (Melotone Recording Studio, New York City; made between 1941 and 1944). These include four coloratura arias from operas by Mozart, Delibes, Johann Strauss II, and Félicien David; and five art songs, two of them written for Jenkins by her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Four of the selections—Queen of the Night Aria, Biassy, Adele's Laughing Song, and Like A Bird—were issued in the UK on an HMV EP (7EB 6022) in 1956, and reissued by RCA (RCX 157) in 1959.
The material has been reissued in various combinations and has been available to the public ever since.
- 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.
- A Florence Foster Jenkins Recital (RCA Victor) was first issued as a 10-inch acetate, then later as a 12-inch LP entitled The Glory (????) of the Human Voice (RCA Victor) includes eight of the selections and features Jenkins on the cover in one of her many homemade 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
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. Another play based on Jenkins's life, Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, opened on Broadway in November 2005 starring Judy Kaye. 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." A fourth play about Jenkins, Glorious! by Peter Quilter, opened the same year in England starring Maureen Lipman. It has since been translated and performed in more than 20 countries.
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. 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.
- Donald Collup and Gregor Benko: Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, DVD, 2008.
- Otto, Julie Helen. "Ancestry of Florence Foster Jenkins". William Addams Reitwiesner Genealogical Services.
- Peters, Brooks, "Florence, The Nightingale?,"[dead link] June 15, 2006 (also appeared, but in slightly different format, in Opera News magazine)[page needed]
- 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.
- 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
- The Worst Singer in the World
- Theatrum Anatomicum by Pablo Helguera, p. 40 (2009) ISBN 1-934978-16-7.
- Carnegie Hall, the first one hundred years by Richard Schickel and Michael Walsh, p. 173 (1987) ISBN 0-8109-0773-9.
- "Singing sensation Florence Foster Jenkins". CBC. August 8, 2008. Retrieved January 28, 2010.[dead link]
- Elysa Gardner (November 10, 2005). "'Souvenir' squeals with diva delight". USA Today. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- Green, Jesse (2004), "Singing Badly Well", The New York Times, December 5, 2004, p. AR6
- "Maureen Lipman on soprano Florence Foster Jenkins". The Guardian (London). November 3, 2005. Retrieved January 23, 2011.
- Charles Spencer (November 4, 2005). "The triumph of a comforting illusion". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- Jonathan Perry (May 12, 2009). "Visuals: from high notes to heavy subjects". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- "NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Plays 'Not My Job'". NPR. October 24, 2009. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- Florence Foster Jenkins at Find a Grave
- Florence Foster Jenkins ephemera, a scrapbook kept for Jenkins and her husband, Bayfield, in the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
- Liner-notes from the RCA CD, photos, and an article on Jenkins by Daniel Dixon
- "Playing the diva of din", The Guardian
- Interview with Mr. Cosmé McMoon about Jenkins, May 26, 1991
- "Tra-la-laughable, but loving it" about the play Glorious!, The Sydney Morning Herald (October 4, 2007)
- 5 People Who Failed Their Way to Fame And Fortune – #2. Florence Foster Jenkins