Florence Foster Jenkins

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For the 2016 film biography, see Florence Foster Jenkins (film).
Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins.jpg
Born Narcissa Florence Foster
(1868-07-19)July 19, 1868
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Died November 26, 1944(1944-11-26) (aged 76)
Manhattan, New York City
Occupation Amateur singer, socialite
Years active 1912–44
Spouse(s) Frank Thornton Jenkins (1885–1902?, separated 1886)
Partner(s) St. Clair Bayfield (1909–44; her death)

Florence Foster Jenkins (born Narcissa Florence Foster; July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American socialite and amateur soprano who was known and mocked for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability. The historian Stephen Pile ranked her "the world's worst opera singer". "No one, before or since," he wrote, "has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation."[1]

Despite (or perhaps because of) her technical incompetence, she became a prominent musical cult figure in New York City during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Cole Porter, Gian Carlo Menotti, Lily Pons, Sir Thomas Beecham, and other celebrities were fans.[2][3] Enrico Caruso is said to have "regarded her with affection and respect".[4] The poet William Meredith wrote that what Jenkins provided " ... was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end.”[5]

Personal life and early career[edit]

Narcissa Florence Foster was born July 19, 1868, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Charles Dorrance Foster (1836–1909), an attorney and scion of a wealthy land-owning Pennsylvania family,[6][7] and Mary Jane Hoagland Foster (1851–1930).[8] Her one sibling, a younger sister named Lillian, died at the age of 8 in 1883.[9][10]

Foster said she first became aware of her lifelong passion for public performance when she was seven years old.[11] A talented pianist, she performed in her youth at society functions as “Little Miss Foster”,[5] and gave a recital at the White House during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes.[11] After graduating from high school, she expressed a desire to study music in Europe. When her father refused to grant his permission, or the necessary funds, she eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins (1852–1917) to Philadelphia, where they married in 1885.[10] The following year, after learning that she had contracted syphilis from her husband, she terminated their relationship and reportedly never spoke of him again. Years later, Florence asserted that a divorce decree had been granted on March 24, 1902, although no documentation of that proceeding has ever surfaced.[12] She retained the Jenkins surname for the remainder of her life.

After an arm injury ended her career aspirations as a pianist, Jenkins gave piano lessons in Philadelphia to support herself; but around 1900, she moved with her mother to New York City.[11] In 1909, Jenkins met a British Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield, and they began a vaguely defined cohabitation relationship that continued the rest of her life.[13] Upon her father's death later that year,[10] Jenkins became the beneficiary of a sizable trust, and resolved to resume her musical career as a singer, with Bayfield as her manager.[14] She began taking voice lessons and immersed herself in wealthy New York City society, joining dozens of social clubs. As the "chairman of music" for many of these organizations, she began producing lavish tableaux vivants—popular diversions in upper-crust social circles of that era.[5] In each of these productions, Jenkins would invariably cast herself as the main character in the final tableau, wearing an elaborate costume of her own design.[11] In a widely republished photograph, Jenkins poses in a costume, complete with angelic wings, from her tableau inspired by Howard Chandler Christy's painting Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration.[15]

Jenkins began giving private vocal recitals in 1912, when she was in her early forties.[14] In 1917, she became founder and "President Soprano Hostess" of her own social organization, the Verdi Club,[6][16] dedicated to "fostering a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English". Its membership quickly swelled to over 400; honorary members included Enrico Caruso.[5] When Jenkins's mother died in 1930, additional financial resources became available for the expansion and promotion of her singing career.[17]

Vocal Career[edit]

According to published reviews and other contemporary accounts, Jenkins's acknowledged proficiency at the piano did not translate well to her singing. She is described as having great difficulty with such basic vocal skills as pitch, rhythm, and sustaining notes and phrases.[18] In recordings, her accompanist Cosmé McMoon can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her constant tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes,[19] but there was little he could do to conceal her inaccurate intonation. She was consistently flat, and sometimes deviated from the proper pitch by as much as a semitone. Her diction was similarly substandard, particularly with foreign-language lyrics. The difficult operatic solos that she chose to perform—all well beyond her technical ability and vocal range—served only to emphasize these deficiencies; and, paradoxically, to enhance her popularity.[18] The opera impresario Ira Siff, who dubbed her "the anti-Callas", said, "Jenkins was exquisitely bad, so bad that it added up to quite a good evening of theater ... She would stray from the original music, and do insightful and instinctual things with her voice, but in a terribly distorted way. There was no end to the horribleness ... They say Cole Porter had to bang his cane into his foot in order not to laugh out loud when she sang. She was that bad."[13] Nevertheless, Porter rarely missed a recital.[20] "There's no way to even pedagogically discuss it," said vocal instructor Bill Schuman. "It's amazing that she's even attempting to sing that music."[21]

The question of whether "Lady Florence"—as she liked to be called, and often signed her autographs[13]—was in on the joke, or honestly believed she had vocal talent, remains a matter of debate. On the one hand, she compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and seemed oblivious to the abundant audience laughter during her performances.[22] Her loyal friends endeavored to disguise the laughter with cheers and applause; and they often described her technique to curious inquirers in "intentionally ambiguous" terms—for example, "her singing at its finest suggests the untrammeled swoop of some great bird"—which served only to intensify public curiosity.[23] "I would say that she maybe didn't know [how badly she sang]," said mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. "We can't hear ourselves as others hear us." Nerve damage due to syphilis and its treatment (see below) may have physically compromised her hearing as well.[21]

On the other, Jenkins refused to open her performances to the general public, and was clearly aware of her detractors. "People may say I can't sing," she once remarked to a friend, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."[5] "There's no way she could not have known," said Schuman. "No one is that unaware ... she loved the audience reaction and she loved singing. But she knew."[21] Jenkins dismissed her original accompanist, Edwin McArthur, after catching him giving her audience "a knowing smile" during a performance.[24] She went to great lengths to control access to her rare recitals, which took place at her apartment, in small clubs, and once each October in the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Attendance, by personal invitation only, was restricted to her loyal clubwomen and a select few others. Jenkins handled distribution of the coveted tickets herself, carefully excluding strangers, particularly music critics. Favorable articles and bland reviews, published in specialty music publications such as The Musical Courier, were most likely written by her friends, or herself.[11] Despite her careful efforts to insulate her singing from public exposure, a preponderance of contemporaneous opinion favored the view that Jenkins's self-delusion was genuine. "Florence didn't think she was pulling anyone's leg," said opera historian Albert Innaurato. "She was compos mentis, not a lunatic. She was a very proper, complex individual."[13]

Her recitals featured arias from the standard operatic repertoire by Mozart, Verdi, and Johann Strauss; lieder by Brahms; Valverde's "Clavelitos" ("Little Carnations"), a favorite encore; and songs composed by herself and McMoon.[5] As in her tableaux, she complemented her performances with elaborate costumes of her own design, often involving wings, tinsel, and flowers. During "Clavelitos", she would throw flowers into the audience from a basket (on one occasion, she hurled the basket as well) while fluttering a fan.[25] After one "Clavelitos" performance, the audience cheered so loudly that Jenkins asked the audience to return the flowers; she replaced them in her basket and performed the song again.[22]

Florence Foster Jenkins program.jpg

Once, when a taxi in which she was riding collided with another car, Jenkins let out a high-pitched scream. Upon arriving home, she went immediately to her piano and confirmed (at least to herself) that the note she had screamed was the fabled "F above high C"—a pitch she had never before been able to reach. Overjoyed, she refused to press charges against either involved party, and even sent the taxi driver a box of expensive cigars.[26][13] McMoon said neither he "nor anyone else" ever heard her actually sing a high F, however.[20]

At the age of 76, Jenkins finally yielded to public demand and booked Carnegie Hall for a general-admission performance on October 25, 1944.[18] Tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance; the demand was such that an estimated 2,000 people were turned away at the door.[20] Numerous celebrities attended, including Porter, Marge Champion, Gian Carlo Menotti, Kitty Carlisle and Lily Pons with her husband, Andre Kostelanetz, who composed a song for the recital. McMoon later recalled an "especially noteworthy" moment: "[When she sang] 'If my silhouette does not convince you yet/My figure surely will' [from Adele's aria in Die Fledermaus], she put her hands righteously to her hips and went into a circular dance that was the most ludicrous thing I have ever seen. And created a pandemonium in the place. One famous actress had to be carried out of her box because she became so hysterical."[22]

Since ticket distribution was out of Jenkins's control for the first time, mockers, scoffers, and critics could no longer be kept at bay. The following morning's newspapers were filled with scathing, sarcastic reviews that devastated Jenkins, according to Bayfield.[11] "[Mrs. Jenkins] has a great voice," wrote the New York Sun critic. "In fact, she can sing everything except notes ... Much of her singing was hopelessly lacking in a semblance of pitch, but the further a note was from its proper elevation the more the audience laughed and applauded." The New York Post was even less charitable: "Lady Florence ... indulged last night in one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen."[22]

Five days after the concert, Jenkins suffered a heart attack while shopping at G. Schirmer's music store, and died a month later on November 26, 1944, at her Manhattan residence, the Hotel Seymour.[10][16] She was buried next to her father in the family crypt in Pennsylvania.[22]

Possible influence of ongoing medical problems[edit]

In retrospect, Jenkins's performance difficulties were possibly attributable to the effects of syphilis which, in the era before antibiotics, caused progressive deterioration of the central nervous system.[27] Nerve damage due to the disease may have been compounded by toxic side effects—such as hearing loss—from mercury and arsenic, the prevailing syphilis remedies of the time.[28]

Recordings[edit]

Audio[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), produced by Jenkins herself, at her own expense.[2] These include four coloratura arias from operas by Mozart, Delibes, Johann Strauss II, and Félicien David, and five art songs, two written for Jenkins by her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Eight of the selections were released by RCA Victor on a 10-inch LP in 1954, and reissued on a 12-inch LP in 1962. The material has since been reissued in various combinations on three CDs:

  • The Glory (????) of the Human Voice (Sony Classical, ASIN B01KAW1AVK, 1992), a reissue of the 1962 Victor recording with the same eight selections, plus a photo of Jenkins in her "Angel of Inspiration" recital costume.
  • Florence Foster Jenkins & Friends: Murder on the High Cs (Naxos Records, ASIN B0000AE7AO, 2003) contains all nine selections.
  • The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven of Her Rivals (Homophone Records, ASIN B00067Z2Q4, 2004) includes only one Foster song, Valse Caressante, but includes a brief interview with McMoon.

Film[edit]

Jenkins commissioned the filming of her performances at the Verdi Club's signature annual event, the "Ball of the Silver Skylarks", which took place each October at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.[29] While there is ample evidence, in Verdi Club programs and elsewhere, that the performances were filmed,[30] the films themselves were thought lost until prints from the 1934 through 1939 and 1941 events were discovered in 2009.[31] Jenkins historian Donald Collup has announced plans to feature excerpts from the black and white and color silent movies in an upcoming documentary.[32]

In popular culture[edit]

Jenkins has been the inspiration for five stage productions:

"Florence Foster Jenkins", a track on the 2009 self-titled album by the indie folk band Everyday Visuals, is "a salute to artists who stubbornly strive against long odds".[39]

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.[40]

The biographical documentary Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own was released in 2007.[27]

The 2015 French feature film Marguerite was loosely inspired by Jenkins's life and career.[41]

Florence Foster Jenkins, a British bio-pic starring Meryl Streep in the title role, premiered in London on April 12, 2016,[42][43] and in New York on August 12, 2016.[44]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Pile, S. Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures. Faber & Faber (2011), p. 115. ISBN 0571277284
  2. ^ a b Florence Foster Jenkins at American National Biograph Online, retrieved October 18, 2016.
  3. ^ Celebrity fan club: the stars who loved the world's worst singer. The Telegraph, retrieved September 20, 2016.
  4. ^ Florence Foster Jenkins at maxbass.com, retrieved November 21, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f The Worst Singer in the World. psmag.com, retrieved August 11, 2016.
  6. ^ a b "Music. Dreamer". Time magazine. November 19, 1934. Retrieved 2016-08-15. 
  7. ^ Opera singer's family owned land citizensvoice.com, retrieved March 28, 2015.
  8. ^ Foster biography at anb.org, accessed March 28, 2015.
  9. ^ Oxford Reference: Jenkins, Florence Foster (née Foster, Nascina Florence) accessed January 30, 2016.
  10. ^ a b c d Otto, Julie Helen. "Ancestry of Florence Foster Jenkins". William Addams Reitwiesner Genealogical Services. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Collup, D: Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own. DVD, Video Artists Int'l (2007). ASIN B000V3L1MC
  12. ^ Martin, Nicholas; Rees, Jasper. Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer. St. Martin's Griffin (2016), pp. 28–30. ISBN 1250115957
  13. ^ a b c d e Peters, Brooks, "Florence, The Nightingale?," June 15, 2006 (also appeared, but in slightly different format, in Opera News magazine)[page needed] Archived March 16, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ a b MacIntyre, F. Gwynplaine (June 23, 2004). "Happy in her work". Daily News. Archived from the original on August 10, 2004. Retrieved December 23, 2008. 
  15. ^ "Florence Foster Jenkins: An Appreciation". Loyola University New Orleans Special Collections and Archives Online. Melotone Recording Studio. 1946. Retrieved 2016-09-19. 
  16. ^ a b "Mrs. Florence F. Jenkins. Founder of Verdi Club. Gave Recital Here on Oct. 25". New York Times. November 27, 1944. 
  17. ^ Foster family tree, wargs.com; accessed March 28, 2015.
  18. ^ a b c "Florence F. Jenkins in Recital". New York Times. October 26, 1944.  (behind paid subscription wall)
  19. ^ Piano ma non solo, Jean-Pierre Thiollet, Anagramme Ed., 2012, pp. 140–41; ISBN 978 2 35035 333 3.
  20. ^ a b c How the world’s worst singer made a career as a musician. New York Post (July 30, 2016), retrieved August 15, 2016.
  21. ^ a b c Huizenga, T. Killing Me Sharply With Her Song: The Improbable Story Of Florence Foster Jenkins. NPR.org (August 10, 2016), retrieved October 25, 2016.
  22. ^ a b c d e Queen of the Night. NPR.org (August 1, 2014), retrieved August 15, 2016.
  23. ^ Felton, Bruce (1980) "That's Entertainment? 6 Perfectly Wretched Performers", pp. 162–63, in The Book of Lists #2, edited by Irving Wallace, et al., London: Elm Tree Books, ISBN 0241104335.
  24. ^ Martin & Rees (2016), p. 38.
  25. ^ Theatrum Anatomicum by Pablo Helguera, p. 40 (2009); ISBN 1-934978-16-7.
  26. ^ Martin & Rees (2016), p. 44.
  27. ^ a b "Review: Florence Foster Jenkins – (A) World of Her Own" by Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone
  28. ^ Martin & Rees (2016), p. 28.
  29. ^ Historic Films Stock Footage Archive (2016-10-19), THE REAL FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS - THE LOST FILMS, retrieved 2016-10-30 
  30. ^ Collup, Donald. "Orchids, Tiaras, Minks, Ermines and Top Hats: My recent revelations about Florence Foster Jenkins". collup.com. Retrieved October 30, 2016. 
  31. ^ Collup, Donald (January 2016). "Discovering a Survival". collup.com. Retrieved October 30, 2016. 
  32. ^ donaldcollup (2016-10-26), Silent Revelations: The Films Of Florence Foster Jenkins, retrieved 2016-10-30 
  33. ^ "Singing sensation Florence Foster Jenkins". CBC. August 8, 2008. Retrieved January 28, 2010. [dead link]
  34. ^ Elysa Gardner (November 10, 2005). "'Souvenir' squeals with diva delight". USA Today. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  35. ^ Green, Jesse (2004), "Singing Badly Well", The New York Times, December 5, 2004, p. AR6.
  36. ^ Quilter, Peter (2005). Glorious. London and New York: Bloomsbury Metheum Press. ISBN 978-0413775405. 
  37. ^ "Maureen Lipman on soprano Florence Foster Jenkins". The Guardian. London. November 3, 2005. Retrieved January 23, 2011. 
  38. ^ Charles Spencer (November 4, 2005). "The triumph of a comforting illusion". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  39. ^ Jonathan Perry (May 12, 2009). "Visuals: from high notes to heavy subjects". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  40. ^ "NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Plays 'Not My Job'". NPR. October 24, 2009. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  41. ^ "'Marguerite': Venice Review". 
  42. ^ "Florence Foster Jenkins London premiere April 12". simplystreep.com. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  43. ^ "London premiere of Florence Foster Jenkins". starwatchbyline.com. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  44. ^ 'Florence Foster Jenkins' Screenwriter, Co-Stars Praise Meryl Streep's Dedication, Commitment. Hollywood Reporter (August 10, 2016), retrieved September 19, 2016.

External links[edit]