Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins
- Genres: Classical
BiographyIn her time, Florence Foster Jenkins was a unique novelty in the history of music, an operatic coloratura who had all of the requisite charms and trappings worthy of a diva, minus the voice. Married to a wealthy industrialist and well entrenched in upper-crust New York society by 1912, "Madame" Jenkins obtained a divorce that year. The resulting settlement was handsome enough to set Jenkins up in style and to pursue her extensive charitable interests. She had already been studying voice for some time, and her charity fundraisers included such gala events as "The Ball of the Silver Skylarks," involving special costumes made at her request, and usually culminating in a sample of her singing. Jenkins' voice was high, scrawny, and seemed to have a mind of its own, warbling its way through difficult coloratura arias with the grace and control of an upright piano plunging down through a spiral staircase. Well-heeled society types would attend Jenkins' recitals and patiently endure her auditory assault, along with enjoying a well-concealed chuckle or two at her expense. Jenkins' annual gala would remain a popular fixture in New York society for decades.
In 1938, Jenkins made her only recordings at the Melotone studio in New York, which were pressed up and sold privately. On this occasion, and most others by this time, Jenkins employed the services of accompanist Cosme McMoon, a flamboyant and eccentric character well known in New York's underground gay community. McMoon proved an excellent foil for Jenkins, waiting for her entrances at key points in arias and writing special material to best show off her vocal "assets." At age 76, Jenkins finally achieved her lifelong dream of performing at Carnegie Hall's Recital Hall on October 25, 1944, but this may have backfired, as rumor has it that afterward she discovered what her audiences really thought about her music-making. Jenkins collapsed and died a month later in Schirmer's Music Store, her last words allegedly being "It must've been the creamed chicken."
Rumors about Jenkins' highly eccentric behavior are legion, and it is hard to know now which ones are true. The only way one could obtain a ticket to her high-priced galas was to buy one from Jenkins in person. Jenkins is said to have ordered flowers to be delivered to her concerts, and genuinely forgot that she'd done so, thinking the celebratory bouquet was from her admirers. She also once paid, according to legend, a handsome gift to a New York taxicab driver, as after she was knocked down by him in the street she could "sing a higher F than ever before." Although known only to her immediate social circle during her lifetime, the legend of Florence Foster Jenkins has grown since her passing, and two different musical shows about her life debuted in late 2005. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis, Rovi
Florence Foster Jenkins
|Florence Foster Jenkins|
July 19, 1868|
|Died||November 26, 1944
Manhattan, New York City
|Occupations||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, tone, aberrant pronunciation of libretti, and overall poor singing ability.
Born Narcissa Florence Foster in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Charles Dorrance Foster and Mary Jane Hoagland, Jenkins received music lessons as a child, and expressed a desire to go abroad to study opera. Her wealthy father refused to pay the bill, so she eloped to Philadelphia with Frank Thornton Jenkins, a physician. The two were married from 1885 until 1902. After her divorce Jenkins earned a living in Philadelphia as a teacher and pianist. 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 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. Nonetheless, she became popular for the amusement she provided. Critics often described her work in a backhanded way that may have served to pique public curiosity.
Despite her patent lack of ability, 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 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."
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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 McMoon would collect the flowers from the auditorium in readiness for redistribution during the next show.
After a taxicab crash in 1943 she 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 a few favorite venues and one annual recital at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in New York City. 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 October 25, 1944. Tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance. 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 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
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 appropriately took place in Carnegie Hall.
- Otto, Julie Helen. "Ancestry of Florence Foster Jenkins". William Addams Reitwiesner Genealogical Services. http://www.wargs.com/other/jenkins.html.
- 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. Archived from the original on August 10, 2004. http://web.archive.org/web/20040810074703/http://www.nydailynews.com/city_life/big_town/v-bigtown_archive/story/205301p-177226c.html. Retrieved December 23, 2008.
- 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. http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/entertainment/010807_florence.html. Retrieved January 28, 2010.[dead link]
- Elysa Gardner (November 10, 2005). "'Souvenir' squeals with diva delight". USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/life/theater/reviews/2005-11-10-souvenir_x.htm. 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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/nov/03/theatre3. Retrieved January 23, 2011.
- Charles Spencer (November 4, 2005). "The triumph of a comforting illusion". The Daily Telegraph (London). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/drama/3647675/The-triumph-of-a-comforting-illusion.html. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- Jonathan Perry (May 12, 2009). "Visuals: from high notes to heavy subjects". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2009/05/12/visuals_from_high_notes_to_heavy_subjects/. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- "NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Plays 'Not My Job'". NPR. October 24, 2009. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114075281. 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
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