How the world's worst opera singer finally hit her last wrong notes
As Meryl Streep portrays an heiress who sang in public despite no talent, Paul Whittington looks at the real life of Florence Jenkins
This year, not one but two films are being released celebrating the extraordinary life of an infamous American 'artiste'. Last month, a French drama called Marguerite opened here, telling the story of a lonely, wealthy woman who is convinced she's a great opera singer.
The film was inspired by the life of New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who is also the model for a forthcoming comic drama starring Meryl Streep.
In Florence Foster Jenkins, which opens here on May 6, Streep gives one of her grandest and most voluminous performances playing Jenkins, a fruity and fulsome woman of a certain age who's grown famous for operatic soirées in which a select audience is treated to her stirring renditions of classic arias by Brahms, Verdi and Mozart. The reason her audiences are so carefully selected is because poor old Florence hasn't a note in her head.
Whether she's aware of her shortcomings is very much open to question, and her illusion is zealously guarded by her chancy but loving partner St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a hammy English actor who shields her from the painful and tuneless reality. But his job becomes a whole lot harder when Florence is persuaded to perform for a packed house at Carnegie Hall.
Directed by Stephen Frears, the film misses no opportunity to draw humour from the absurdity of this situation. At one point, when Jenkins is making an ill-advised studio recording, a kindly technician asks if she would like to do another take. She stares at him uncomprehendingly and says: "I don't see why - that sounded perfect to me."
But there's real pathos and tenderness behind the laughter, and mixed emotions when it comes to the woman herself. In one way, she's a tragic figure, deluded, slightly unhinged and pathetically needy. But she's also lovable, and her quixotic pursuit of artistic excellence is strangely admirable. As one character puts it in Frears' film, "the lady is a lesson in courage, and that's why we love her".
For those brave enough, archive recordings of the real Florence Foster Jenkins exist: in fact, there's one on YouTube. Expect your dog to hide shivering behind the sofa as Jenkins cheerfully murders the 'Queen of the Night' aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, strangling high notes and gasping for air as she lurches through the song. And it's interesting that she tended to choose the toughest pieces - 'Queen of the Night' has sorely tested some of the greatest sopranos there've been.
If this suggests a grand delusion, the truth may have been more complex.
During her career, Jenkins was aware of the laughter that often punctuated applause at her concerts, but seems to have been able to compartmentalise criticisms and retain the illusion of operatic greatness. And she was defiant when directly confronted by the possibility of musical incompetence. "People may say I can't sing," she once said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing." Sing she did, and nobody was ever going to be able to stop her.
She was born Nascina Florence Foster in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on July 19, 1868. Her father was a very successful lawyer and banker, and Florence was raised in some opulence. She was drawn at an early age to music and performing, and showed promise as a pianist. She played at concerts across Pennsylvania and even, once, in the White House, but when she got the chance to study in Europe, her father refused to foot the bill.
After leaving school, Florence flew the coop, and eloped to Philadelphia with a character called Dr Frank Jenkins. They married in 1885, but shortly thereafter the poor girl contracted syphilis: she left him, but kept his name. For a time, she earned a living teaching piano, but that meagre income dried up after she injured her arm.
Her fortunes were revived in dramatic fashion after she moved to New York in the early 1900s. First of all, she met St Clair Bayfield, a dashing English actor who tenderly indulged her singing ambitions. Then, in 1909, her father died, and Florence inherited enough money to start taking regular voice lessons.
These, it has to be said, did not go well. She had no pitch, her exasperated teachers informed her, no rhythm, and hardly enough puff to sustain a note. What she had in spades, however, was an indomitable resolve, and by 1912, at the age of 44, she'd launched her professional singing career.
Florence began giving annual recitals in the foyer of New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, but was no fool. All entrants were carefully vetted to ensure they were authentic 'music lovers'. No riff raff - or critics - were entertained.
Her shows were quite something: Florence designed her own elaborate costumes, including a fetching tulle and tinsel concoction with golden wings called 'the angel of inspiration', which she wore while suspended from pulleys like some stranded, flightless bird. She and Bayfield enlisted an accomplice, pianist and arranger called Cosmé McMoon, who learnt to adapt his playing to his employer's eccentric singing style. Sometimes, Florence would throw carnations into the audience during her closing song: if she got an encore, poor Cosmé would be sent out to pick up the flowers so they could be gaily flung again. After her mother died in 1928, Florence gained control of a considerable fortune, and began expanding her concerts to Rhode Island, Boston and Washington DC.
She developed quite a following, and while some came to laugh and mock, others seemed genuinely taken by Jenkins, and the chaotic madness of her performances.
Critics were still barred, and those asked to describe her concerts did so euphemistically. Her singing technique was "intentionally ambiguous", and at its best "suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird".
She had some heavyweight fans, including Cole Porter, Sir Thomas Beecham, Enrico Caruso and Lily Pons. Whether their enthusiasm was ironic or actual we will never know, but there must have been something primal and compelling about witnessing the 'diva of din' in her pomp. She marched on to every stage as though she was Maria Callas, and saw loving admirers where there were sneers.
The truth will out, however, and Florence finally bit off more than she could chew when she agreed to sing for an audience of 2,000 at Carnegie Hall.
By this stage, she was something of a local legend in New York: the concert sold out quickly, and tickets began changing hands for 10 times their actual price. A public concert meant she'd finally be exposed to the critics, who duly let her have it.
William Meredith, a distinguished poet who occasionally acted as opera critic for the Hudson Review, put it best.
"What she provided," he wrote, "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."
If Meredith's criticisms were sensitively couched and comparatively benign, others were cruder, and must surely have hurt.
Did the great Jenkins doubt herself at the last? We cannot know, though it may be no coincidence that she suffered a fatal heart attack just a month after the Carnegie Hall concert. She was 76.
Most of the competent and even good opera singers of her time are long forgotten, but Jenkins' splendid ineptness has guaranteed her immortality.
Ask any opera lover who the best singer of all time was and you'll start an argument, but ask for the worst and Florence Foster Jenkins' name generally tops the list.
But as the great lady herself might say, what do they know? And perhaps the fact that Jenkins ignored all good advice and every single obstacle to live her singing dream is the most admirable thing about her.