The life of Florence Foster Jenkins marked a century of opera, even inspiring two films, on both sides of the Atlantic just a few months apart. I personally loved Stephen Frears’ version, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Walowitz).
A story that makes you laugh and that also makes you move, but above all a story that is… true. Yes, because Mrs. Foster Jenkins, an American “socialite”, was a legend in flesh and blood, who died on November 26, 1944.
That’s why today we tell you about her life full of social events and successes in the world of music as a soprano despite the total lack of singing skills. Kardashian sisters now who do you think you are?
The beginning of Florence
Today’s protagonist was born in Pennsylvania to Charles Dorrance Foster and Mary Jane Hoagland on July 19, 1868.
Ever since she can speak and read, Florence Foster Jenkins only dreams of one thing, becoming an opera singer. Nothing about her stops her, not even her parents who refuse to finance her music studies abroad.
Thus, the young Narcissa Florence Foster closes her suitcases before slamming the door of the family home, and escapes to Philadelphia on the arm of Frank Thornton Jenkins, her future husband. Unfortunately, the latter, unfaithful, transmits syphilis to her.
The arsenic used at the time to treat the sexually transmitted infection then caused the elegant woman to lose her hair, who eventually divorced in 1902. Like a feline, Florence Foster Jenkins fell back on her feet. She moved to the city of possibilities called New York where she got a small job as a piano teacher.
However, her biggest obstacle to her career as an opera singer was that Ms. Foster Jenkins was unable to nail a single note. This did not prevent her from starting her personal legend, that of one of the most original singers in the world.
Miracle: in 1909 Florence Foster Jenkins inherited the immense fortune of her deceased father. A golden opportunity to finance his shaky career as an opera singer. But Florence has never had the shadow of a doubt about her singing skills.
As a matter of fact, Florence Foster Jenkins then offered singing lessons. From 1912 she also started giving recitals. Surprise! Spectators are amazed, not by her melodious voice, but by her confidence and her good humor on stage despite the destruction of the greatest opera classics.
A true showgirl, Ms. Jenkins doesn’t skimp on the means to dress in the most sophisticated costumes, often designed by herself. Her audience, amused and curious about her, adores her for her “non-academic” talent. And Florence Foster Jenkins herself is very happy to be confronted with the most famous sopranos, such as Frieda Hempel or Luisa Tetrazzini.
To manage her glory, the diva surrounds herself with a manager, St. Clair Bayfield and a pianist, Cosme McMoon. With St Clair Bayfield, Jenkins began a chaste relationship. He was younger than her, but the relationship nevertheless lasted 36 years.
The rise and fall of Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence led a prosperous social life, actively practiced philanthropy and founded a club of music lovers, The Verdi Circle. In fact, only Miss Jenkins’ scrupulously elected privilege could attend her rare performances which took place in her favorite places, such as the Ritz-Carlton in New York.
In 1943 she was the victim of a car accident in a taxi which allowed her to sing a higher F. The funny thing is that Florence dropped the charges against the taxi company, instead sending them a box of cigars as a thank you for this singing gift.
At 76, Florence Foster Jenkins reached the pinnacle of her career when she finally performed at Carnegie Hall. Here is the opera singer out of her comfort zone in front of an audience of soldiers who have emerged from the war, celebrities such as Cole Porter, Kitty Carlisle, Marge Champion and, above all, journalists.
This is Florence Foster Jenkins’ first public appearance. Tickets sell out weeks in advance, with no control over who buys them. Inevitably, neither the singer’s show nor the usual efforts of her pianist to compensate for her rhythmic errors manage to deceive this unprecedented audience. Critics are harsh, Florence Foster Jenkins is upset. Two days after the concert, she suffered a heart attack while shopping at the G. Schirmer music store, the latest proof of her perseverance and her self-esteem.
A month later, on November 26, 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins died at the age of 76 in her suite at the Seymour Hotel in Manhattan.
Florence Foster Jenkins in films
The life of Florence Foster Jenkins and her work, completely atypical, as we said at the beginning, have interested two directors and have gathered the talent of the most convincing actresses. Xavier Giannoli entrusted the role to Catherine Frot, while Stephen Frears appealed to the great Meryl Streep.
Titled “Marguerite”, Giannoli’s feature film is vaguely inspired by the life of Jenkins. The director sets the scenes of the film in the Paris of the 1920s and aims to show how, thanks to her luck, this woman manages to establish herself on the stages, without anyone ever daring to dissuade her.
British director Stephen Frears offers instead a film more adhering to the singer’s biography and, as usual, he appeals to the biggest stars. The award-winning Meryl Streep therefore plays the singer while Hugh Grant is her manager.
Unlike his heroine, Stephen Frears perfectly masters tempo and rhythm. He delicately recreates 1940s New York, suffused with a champagne light worthy of Woody Allen. Also, he hits a pinch of crazy visual gags: for example, the tub full of that potato salad that Florence has filled her guests with makes you giggle!
He deals with the supporting actors between Kathleen, the woman in the shadow patient but not too much and above all the pianist Cosmé McMoon (extraordinary Simon Helberg), shy little guy, repressed homosexual, who giggles, panics, adores his generous boss and corrects her rhythmic errors.
What does Florence Foster Jenkins leave us?
On the official page of the Carnegie Hall archives, Gino Francesconi, director of the relevant museum, writes :
Among the archival materials we are most often asked for is a concert program from a vocal recital. The vocalist in question is not Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, or Geraldine Farrar. Instead, it is a singer by the name of Florence Foster Jenkins.
For a singer to succeed, she needs a combination of talent, charisma, and interpretive quality. In addition, by definition, she needs to be able to sing! Florence Foster Jenkins had none of these attributes: In fact, she was considered one of the worst singers of all time. She was independently wealthy and performed at the Waldorf Astoria and other venues throughout New York City. It became a “thing to do”: You had to go listen to Florence Foster Jenkins screw up every song she attempted to sing.
She was having a great time, and her audiences were having a great time; her friends kept telling her, “You need to make your Carnegie Hall debut.” On October 25, 1944, she did; the event sold out within two hours. People came from all over the country. She walked onstage in ridiculous costumes that she’d made herself. She threw roses out into the auditorium; her assistants then went out and collected them, and she threw them again. The audience would not let her go home—they cheered and clapped endlessly”
But we do not leave you with these words, but with those of Florence Foster Jenkins herself, which perfectly summarize her spirit and her vitality. Virtue of her that earned her to appear, with the recording at Carnegie Hall, among the 25 favorite records of David Bowie.
People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I haven’t sung