Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hearing is Believing

by Connie Cortright

Last week my husband and I went to see a movie that came out last year called "Florence Foster Jenkins" about the career of a singer in the 1920s-1940s. This woman's story is very unique in that her claim to fame was her lack of talent.

Florence Jenkins longed to be a performer from the age of seven when she would play piano to entertain people under the name of "Little Miss Foster". In 1885, she married Frank Jenkins, who gave her syphilis after their wedding. She struggled with this disease for the rest of her life. At that time, the known "cure" for syphilis was arsenic (which might have affected her singing voice). She never recovered fully from this dreadful disease.

In 1909 she married St. Clair Bayfield who became her manager for her singing career. With the help of her father's trust, she used her wealth to become a benefactress for the arts in New York City, in particular musical performances at the Verdi Club.

In 1912, she started private vocal lessons to improve her singing skills. Because of her wealth, the people around her praised her singing ability just to keep her happy. She loved operatic music and, in private musical recitals, would insist on performing technically challenging music that was beyond her ability. By 1917, she performed on stage at the Verdi Club to an audience that had been hand-picked by "Lady Florence" herself.

Before long, Lady Florence became known for her terrible singing ability. "She is described as having great difficulty with such basic vocal skills as pitch, rhythm, and sustaining notes and phrases." Her accompanist Cosme McMoon had to adjust his tempo and rhythms just to accommodate her mistakes.  Her bad singing combined with her flamboyant costumes brought the audience back to see her again and again.

Her friends and hand-picked audience would cheer and applaud to disguise the laughter so as to have her continue to sing the pieces. "Jenkins was exquisitely bad, so bad that it added up to quite a good evening of theater." Cole Porter was one of her attendees during the 30s and 40s. "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." But Mr. Porter never missed a recital. Click on the link to hear for yourself: You Tube - Florence Foster Jenkins (she made recordings of her voice and sold record albums)

Her manager husband and McMoon encouraged her singing and avoided telling her the truth about her ability so as not to hurt her feelings. The public heard about this singing "diva" and demanded a concert open to the general public. On October 25, 1944, Jenkins finally sang at Carnegie Hall for general-public admission. The concert was sold out with 2000 people waiting at the door. However, now that the public finally heard her bad singing, the newspapers gave truthful reviews that panned her performance and in one case calling it "one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen." Five days after hearing the uncensored truth about her voice, Jenkins suffered a heart attack and died within a month.

No one was quite sure if she knew the truth about her audiences or not. She once told her friend, "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

This story is portrayed in a very amusing and interesting way by Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins". I highly recommend seeing it just to hear Streep's portrayal of Lady Florence's terrible voice. She did a great job of singing off-key.

Information taken from Wikipedia: Florence Foster Jenkins

2 comments:

  1. Could she really have been so clueless? By protecting her, her friends made her a mockery.

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    1. Well said. Yet she drew crowds - maybe silently mocking her! It's hard to believe, but it's all true.

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