That voice! “Words can’t describe how terrible it was,” wrote violinist Mozelle Bennet Sawyer, after playing violin obbligato at a singing lesson of Florence Foster Jenkins. You can hear it for yourself on YouTube. Tone quality, pitch, rhythm, diction —– none of these elements of music have anything to do with what this self-proclaimed diva produced. One critic is quoted as having correctly observed that “most of her notes were promissory.”
But whether it was Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria, Delibes’ “Bell Song,” or a simple ballad composed for her by her long-suffering but very accomplished accompanist Cosmo McMoon, the indomitable Jenkins inevitably sang to sold-out houses, and, although most of her concerts were self-sponsored, they brought in large amounts of money from her adoring audiences. With her flamboyant outfits and over-the-top persona, she defined “camp” long before the word acquired its modern-day meaning.
A month before her death in November 1944, at the age of 76, Jenkins sang her first and only concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall, to a capacity audience that included, among others, composer Cole Porter, soprano Lily Pons and actress Tallulah Bankhead. Had she lived today, this charismatic figure could well have vied with the 90-year-old woman who earned a golden buzzer for her striptease act on “America’s Got Talent.”
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She has been the subject of Stephen Temperley’s 2004 off-Broadway play “Souvenir” (which played in Pittsburgh in 2014), and Peter Quilter’s “Glorious” (a hit in London’s West End in 2005). But these will surely be overshadowed when Meryl Streep takes on the title role of “Florence Foster Jenkins” in Stephen Frear’s film, opening Aug. 12 in South Florida.
Darryl W. Bullock, the author of “The World’s Worst Records,” has taken on Jenkins for his latest work in the world’s worst genre, and the new book is indeed a howl. It is also a carefully researched, lucid account of this singular woman’s life and thoughts. Bullock skims over the question of whether the singer was deluding herself, or whether she knew how bad she was, took the money and laughed all the way to the bank. He mentions this in his introduction, adding that “those who knew her … were adamant the she was absolutely sincere … and that this dizzy diva was innocently unaware of her distinct lack of talent.” Sawyer says, “She heard the laughter, but she only thought she was bringing happiness to her audiences, and she laughed with them.”
Later, however, the author quotes biographer Gregor Benko’s assertion that, “the fiction that Jenkins was a batty but lovable old lady was created by Francis Robinson (an assistant manager at the Met) at the time RCA Victor issued the first LP release of her recordings (because) … not many would have wanted to read a liner note about how awful Jenkins was as a person.” Most fictional accounts, however, have emphasized the performer’s sympathetic side, as does Bullock, for the most part.
Bullock leaves no question as to Jenkins’ avaricious side. She left her home when her wealthy father refused to subsidize her musical aspirations to marry an affluent older physician, Francis Thornton Jenkins, who did provide the financial means, but soon deserted her. Curiously, when her father (who may have disinherited her) died, his will had disappeared from the safe in his office, so his considerable estate went to Florence and her mother. Now a wealthy heiress on her own in New York, she took up with a much younger British actor, St. Clair Bayfield, who stayed with her for the rest of her life but also took up with a younger woman. Even more curiously, when Florence died, her will was also nowhere to be found, so Bayfield never received any of the fortune he had helped his common-law wife amass.
Bullock’s book is an entertaining, easy read, a timely plug for the upcoming movie. Florence Foster Jenkins gets the last laugh, when she says, most cogently, “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
Robert Croan reviewed this book for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.