The singer Florence Foster Jenkins inspired my first concert and is one of my heroines. Here is an introduction to a woman who truly lived a life she loved!
The Story of
In the fall of 1944, it was announced that Florence Foster Jenkins was to lift her voice in song from the hallowed stage of Carnegie Hall in New York. Immediately the world of music was seized by a rare excitement. The concert was sold out for weeks in advance, with tickets scalped for as much as $20 apiece.
Madame Jenkins' recital was the incredible climax of a bizarre career. For Madame Jenkins' shortcomings as an artiste were nothing short of awesome. A dumpy coloratura soprano, her voice was not even mediocre — it was preposterous! She clucked and squawked, trumpeted and quavered. She couldn't carry a tune. Her sense of rhythm was uncertain. In the treacherous upper registers, her voice often vanished into thin air, leaving an audience with its ear cocked for notes with which she might just as well have never taxed her throat. One critic dolefully described her as "the first lady of the sliding scale" . . .
Audiences laughed at her — laughed until the tears rolled down their cheeks, laughed until they stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle the mirth — but she was never dismayed. Even when a song was punctured by rowdy applause (her listeners sometimes responded to a piercing clinker with whoops of "Bravo! Bravo!") the diva simply smiled and bowed . . .
However meagerly endowed she may have been in voice, Madame Jenkins was a truly remarkable woman. She was born Florence Foster, the daughter of a starchy Pennsylvanian banker. As was customary for young girls of her station, she was given music lessons. At 17, she announced her wish to go abroad and take up music as a profession. But Father Foster . . . declined to foot the bills . . .
In 1909, Father Foster passed away. He had relented, it turned out, and left Madame Jenkins a comfortable estate. With that, her career began in earnest.
In 1912, at her own expense, Madame staged her maiden concert . . . Soon she had gathered about her a devoutly loyal cluster of tone-deaf clubwomen. Madame had stupendous energy. She founded, supported and presided over the Verdi Club. In addition she belonged to and frequently arranged musical benefits for many other women's organisations. In staging these affairs, Madame Jenkins proved herself a shrewd executive and a canny promoter. Most of her productions made money, perhaps because she herself was usually billed as the feature attraction . . .
When Madame had attracted the notice of a few astonished critics, she decided that the time had come to set up headquarters in New York. It was here that, year by year and recital by recital, her single-minded zeal was rewarded. She became a celebrity, then a legend. Madame performed in New York at least two times a year at Sherry's on Park Avenue, and once a year she gave a private concert at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel - an event to which only a select assortment of friends, admirers, colleagues and critics were invited. These appearances, one newspaper declared, were "awaited with more than the customary gusto." Upwards of 800 cheering people were crushed into the brocaded ballroom. Gatecrashers had to be herded away by the police. To Madame Jenkins, a song recital was more than a matter of music. Simply to produce what she called "pure and radiant tones" was not enough. So her audience . . . were given beauty of atmosphere as well.
In order to call forth an even deeper response to her offerings, she made it a habit to appear in costume. One of her favourite selections, "Angel of Inspiration," brought her before the audience in tulle and tinsel. In another of her most popular renditions, a Latin number called "Clavelitos," she rigged herself up in a vivid Spanish shawl and put a large red flower in her hair. Archly fluttering an enormous fan, she marked the rhythmic cadences of the song by strewing handful after handful of rosebuds among the audience. Once she got so worked up that she tossed not only blooms, but the basket in which they were carried, into the crowd. This caused a sensation. When her delighted listeners roared for an encore, she had an assistant hurry out front and gather up the blossoms. Then she repeated the whole routine.
No bravura was too difficult for Madame to challenge. Her programs regularly included some of the most strenuous and exacting vocal works in the musical library. In addition to Mozart and Verdi and Rachmaninoff, however, there were less demanding selections from the pen of her steadfast accompanist, Cosme McMoon, and occasionally even an air composed by herself. One of her most frequently repeated numbers was a song by Brahms, subtitled on her gilt programs: "O singer, if thou canst not dream, leave this song unsung." At the conclusion of a concert, "flushed and happy, surrounded with flowers," she often delivered a little speech in which she invited members of the audience to write and tell her which songs they had enjoyed most. "It may not be important to you," she would say, "but it is very important to me."
As her reputation mounted, it was inevitable that Madame Jenkins should be asked to record. This she did, incomparably. And in her four immortal recordings, she adopted a highly individual approach. "Rehearsals, the niceties of pitch and volume, considerations of acoustics, all," wrote an official of the recording company, "were thrust aside by her with ease and authority. She simply sang and the disc recorded." More often than not, she would pronounce the first rough test of a song to be "excellent — virtually beyond improvement" and order all copies to be made from such primitive pressings.
Only once was her confidence observed to falter. On that occasion she told a friend, "Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing" . . .
For years her admirers urged Madame Jenkins to make an appearance at Carnegie Hall. In 1944 she was 76 and there might not be many chances left. So the momentous arrangements were made. And on October 25th, the concert took place, with 2,000 bitterly disappointed customers turned away. It was, of course, a thundering commercial success. As always, Madame's singing was an irresistible burlesque. She costumed herself as the "Angel of Inspiration" and, complete to the abandoned tossing of rosebuds, offered the stylish gathering her rendition of "Clavelitos." Unable to contain itself, the audience clutched at its sides in agonies of mirth. The critics simply winced.
The next morning's reviews were dutifully severe. They reported, for instance, that "she was undaunted by . . . the composer's intent," that "her singing was hopelessly lacking in semblance of pitch," and that "only Mrs. Jenkins has perfected the art of giving added zest by improvising quarter tones, either above or below the original notes." Yet, on the whole, the accounts were remarkably gentle. Most of the critics discreetly refrained from any elaboration of the diva's most grievous defects. "Everybody," one reviewer volunteered, "had a pleasant evening." Wrote another: "Her attitude was at all times that of a singer who performed her task to the best of her ability." Another discerned "a certain poignancy in her delivery." Robert Bager of the New York World-Telegram observed: "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are. And her happiness was communicated as if by magic to her listeners . . . who were stimulated to the point of audible cheering, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing."
It was a typical reaction. Though most people viewed Madame Jenkins as an amusing oddity, their mirth was very often mingled with respect. For there was a quaint nobility about this woman that quelled derision and softened ridicule. She was tireless. She was genuine. And she was indomitable. Neither she nor the vision to which she clung could be squelched. More than anything else, it was this that moved the sympathy and stirred the understanding of her listeners. She became the comic symbol of the longing for grace and beauty that is in some way shared by everyone who is clumsy and shy and ill-favoured. In the end, after all the laughter, Madame Jenkins was more than a joke. She was also an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage.
That concert was her last public appearance. The effort and excitement was too much and she fell ill. But she was content. Her mission was fulfilled. On November 26th, just one month after her final triumph at Carnegie Hall, the voice of Florence Foster Jenkins was stilled forever.
*NOTE: I want to point out that while Mme Jenkins inspired my first concert and is one of my heroines, my reference to her has nothing whatsoever to do with the very competent professionals and amateurs whom I have invited, and who have graciously accepted to participate, to make the evening more enjoyable for my more discerning friends!