Florence Foster Jenkins: who was she?

In 2016 Meryl Streep brought the very dubious talents of history’s most wayward soprano to the cinema. But who, asks Nick Forton, was the real Florence Foster Jenkins?

Florence Foster Jenkins

Who was Florence Foster Jenkins?

Few singers continue to enchant the public beyond the age of 70. Fewer still make recordings in their eighth decade. Only one has made their Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 76. That singer – I use the term loosely – was the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins.

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It was not the beauty of her voice that sold out Carnegie Hall weeks in advance, for Jenkins was no Pons or Ponselle gracing the great opera stages of the world. Her repertoire encompassed Mozart, Delibes, Johann Strauss II, Brahms and lighter fare, but she sang it with an insurmountable handicap: she was tone deaf. The unique allure of her voice made Florence the Queen of the Quarter Tone, the Diva of Din. As the title of one compilation of her recordings has it, Jenkins’s voice committed ‘Murder on the High Cs’.

When was Florence Foster Jenkins born?

Accounts of her life are unreliable. To put the record straight, so to speak, she was born Narcissa Florence Foster in 1868 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer, Charles Dorrance Foster. ‘Called,’ she said, ‘by the vocation of music as a child,’ Florence (she dropped Narcissa early on) was a child prodigy pianist who, it is said, even played at the White House in front of President Hayes.

Who did Florence Foster Jenkins marry?

Having graduated from high school, she expressed a desire to study music abroad. Her father was disinclined to encourage or finance this ambition. In retaliation, Florence eloped with Dr Frank Thornton Jenkins, a Philadelphia physician who was 16 years her senior, and married him in 1885.

Did Florence Foster Jenkins have syphilis?

The relationship foundered after she contracted syphilis from him. It may well be that her inability to pitch notes was further exacerbated by the treatment of the disease (‘one night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury’) causing progressive deterioration of her central nervous system.

The couple separated. Whether or not they ever officially divorced is uncertain (they were still officially married in 1906 and the good doctor survived until 1917) but she kept the Jenkins name. Left unprovided for by her husband and cut off from the support of her wealthy father, Florence was left struggling to survive, especially after she suffered an arm injury which curtailed her activities as a piano teacher and ended her dream of becoming a concert pianist. But every cloud… Eventually her mother came to the rescue. Florence set her sights on New York and the two ensconced themselves in a Manhattan apartment on West 67th Street.

In 1909, her father died, leaving her enough money to at last pursue her ambition of becoming a singer. She threw herself into the social and cultural life of New York, serving as president of the American League of Pen Women and becoming the musical director of the Euterpe Club and its yearly tableaux vivants.

When did Florence Foster Jenkins meet St Clair Bayfield?

It was at the Club that same year that she met a British stage actor named St Clair Bayfield. Born John St Clair Roberts in Cheltenham in 1875, his great-grandfather had been Lord Chief Justice of England and his maternal grandfather Governor General of India. Bayfield, who made well over 40 appearances on Broadway over the next few decades, became Florence’s second (common-law) husband and unofficial manager for the next 36 years. They do not seem to have lived together but were utterly devoted nonetheless. She paid for his cramped apartment in West 37th Street while she lived in luxury in various New York hotels.

When did Florence Foster Jenkins start singing and performing?

Ignoring the fact that she could not hold a tune and had little sense of rhythm, in 1912 Mme Jenkins gave the first of a series of annual recitals in the foyer of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. Yet it was not until her mother died in 1928 (some sources say 1930), when she inherited a vast fortune, that things really took off. As well as the Euterpe Club’s events she founded The Verdi Club and sponsored its annual ‘Ball of the Silver Skylarks’. These gave full rein to her flair for costume design, her most famous creation being the ‘Angel of Inspiration’ involving tinsel, tulle and a huge pair of golden wings, ideal for a matronly stage entrance as one weaved one’s way through the potted plants to the curve of the grand piano; there was also an elaborate lace gown with a huge fan of ostrich plumes all delicately back-lit in mauve; and a Spanish outfit complete with shawl, jewelled comb, matador’s hat and rose tucked behind the ear à la Carmen. There was always plenty to look at – and a variety of wigs: in later life she was completely bald.

But of course it was primarily for the music that her audiences flocked to her concerts, strictly limited to appearances once a year in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington DC, Boston and Saratoga Springs, New York. Songwriter Cole Porter never missed a Jenkins performance and, apparently, even wrote a song for her. At every concert could be heard the sounds of smothered hysteria as members of the audience fought for breath, handkerchiefs and ties stuffed into mouths, tears of joy streaming down cheeks. The barely suppressed snorting and giggling emanated from hoodlums, planted there, Mme assured herself, by jealous rivals. ‘People may say I can’t sing,’ she said, ‘but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’

There were occasional mishaps. More than once, for example, she would hit a note bang in the middle. During her 1941 New York recital, one of the wings of ‘The Angel’ came adrift during (appropriately) her rendition of Like a Bird, so that when the imperturbable diva continually tried to shrug the wing back into position, she gave the impression of having a severe muscular twitch. At the close of the number, the wing fell off.

At first, her accompanist was Edwin McArthur (1908-87) until he was fired by Jenkins for guffawing in the middle of a number. From the mid-1930s until her death, her accompanist was the wonderfully-named Cosmé McMoon (1901-80). A brief tribute must be paid to this gallant man, born Cosmé McMunn in Mapimí, Mexico. To catch so expertly each nuance, each subtle rubato, each fresh phrasing that the singer flung at him more or less unexpectedly is the mark of a fine musician. He was rewarded after each recital by a gold medal, pinned to his chest by the singer herself. It was the least she could do. It was rumoured that McMoon ran a gay escort service in his spare time. Not so. He worked part time as a clerk in a bath house located above a bodybuilder gym.

Are there any recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins singing?

The discs Jenkins and McMoon bequeathed to posterity were made at the Melotone Recording Studio at 25 Central Park West, New York, between 1941 and ’44. The nine sides include two songs written by McMoon for Jenkins (Serenata Mexicana and Valse caressante) and her incomparable version of the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The latter was made during her first visit to Melotone by way of a test, but having listened to the result, Mme Jenkins declared to the astonished director that this first and only attempt was excellent and virtually beyond improvement. It was sold to her friends at $2.50 a copy and quickly became a collectors’ item.

Melotone issued a brochure in response to numerous enquiries about her recordings: ‘Madame Jenkins’s visits to the studio were a distinct and radical departure from the customary routines of the many artists for whom Melotone has recorded. Rehearsals, the niceties of volume and pitch, considerations of acoustics – all were thrust aside by her with ease and authority. The technicians never ceased to be amazed at her capacity for circumventing the numerous problems and difficulties peculiar to recording. She simply sang; the disc recorded.’

After a crash in a taxi in 1943, Florence found she could sing ‘a higher F than ever before’. Instead of suing the taxi company, she sent the driver a box of Havana cigars. Maybe it was this addition to her vocal range that encouraged her to take over Carnegie Hall on 25 October 1944. Word got round. 3,000 people paid $2 each to hear the cult soprano at the peak of her powers. Ticket touts were getting $20 a ticket. 2,000 were turned away. The stage was, in the words of one observer, ‘filled with flowers till it resembled an expensive mortuary’. Her programme included Bishop’s Love has eyes and Lo, hear
the gentle lark
as well as arias by Gluck, Mozart and Puccini, three songs ‘sung in Russian in costume’ and two by Rachmaninov, sadly never recorded by her. Among those present were Cole Porter, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, singer Kitty Carlisle, soprano Lily Pons and her husband André Kostelanetz who composed Interlude for her, one of the numbers Jenkins sang that night.

Newsweek’s review from 6 November 1944 stated, ‘Howls of laughter drowned Mme Jenkins’s celestial efforts. Where stifled chuckles and occasional outbursts had once sufficed at the Ritz, unabashed roars were the order of the evening at Carnegie.’ During one of her favourite encores, Clavelitos (Little Carnations ) by Quinito Valverde, she would throw flowers into the audience. On this occasion, one of the carnations in her trug stuck to her fingers as she attempted to throw it mid-aria, appearing to one critic, ‘as if she were trying to frantically divest herself of some flypaper.’ The concert grossed about $6,000.

When did Florence Foster Jenkins die?

This was her first public appearance – all the others had been by invitation only – and thus the first time that newspaper critics had attended. It was also her last. The reviews, according to McMoon, devastated her. Two days later, Jenkins suffered a heart attack. Exactly a month and a day after her Carnegie Hall sell-out, she died in the Hotel Seymour, her Manhattan home. She left no will. When her faithful St Clair Bayfield filed a petition as administrator of the estate, 15 cousins contested the action. The jewellery and $100,000 in cash that she left were gobbled up in the subsequent legal battle. Bayfield subsequently married a piano teacher, Kathleen Weatherley, and died in New York at the age of 91 in 1967.

One question remains. It is always asked when Florence Foster Jenkins’s name crops up: did she know she was so awful? Or did she really believe it when she compared herself favourably to Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini? Personally, I think it was the latter – a case of magisterial self-delusion. And for that we must all be truly grateful.  

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You can buy ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’, DVD starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, on Amazon