Florence Foster Jenkins’ story sounds as believable as Santa Claus, but it’s true. Carnegie Hall says that of all archival concert programs the hall has in its history, the one that is asked for most is for Florence’s music, a legendary singer said to be so bad that she could be the worst singer in history.
“In order for a singer to succeed, they need to have a combination of talent, charisma, and interpretive quality. And, by definition, they need to be able to sing. Florence Foster Jenkins had none of these attributes,” states Carnegie Hall’s website about the star of the most often requested archival concert program performance. But Jenkins was very real.
Meryl Streep portrays Florence Foster Jenkins in a new movie released this month alongside Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, and according to Donald Collup, creator of A World of Her Own, a documentary about Jenkins, Streep nails her performance of America’s worst opera singer. History vs Hollywood quotes Collup saying in his review of the movie, “I can also confidently say that Ms. Streep recreates every single nuance of the Jenkins singing voice: glottal stops, an absence of vibrato, hit-and-run register breaks, the sliding up and arrival just short of a climactic high note, transforming the letter “r” into a vowel and the completely unintelligible diction.”
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So how did a woman who had very little talent become such an icon? Money. In 1909 her wealthy father died, leaving her a large amount of money to help her pursue a career in singing even if no one really wanted to hear it.
Florence was known for being an eccentric who performed in such places as the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, hand-delivering tickets to those who wanted to attend. For the most part, these were people that she socialized with, not the general public or professional critics. She was known for creating her own elaborate costumes and ordering flowers before a performance and then forgetting that she had done so and then later assumed that they were from her adoring fans.
Though everyone who heard her sing knew that Jenkins was not a good singer, few ever told her so. The ones who were brave enough to speak the truth, Florence dismissed.
According to Dave Lewis of AllMusic, Jenkins made a few recordings of her music at the Melotone studio in New York and sold the records privately. She hired Cosme McMoon to serve as her accompanist who also performed with her on stage.
“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,'” says Lewis.
During the recording sessions, Jenkins rarely, if ever, did retakes. “She was 73 at the time and could care less about retakes, microphone levels, or doing acoustic tests,” reports History vs. Hollywood. “She listened to the result and was thoroughly satisfied with every aspect … At first, they were mostly sold to her large circle of friends. However, without these records and others, history would have likely forgotten her.”
At the age of 76, Florence Foster Jenkins finely accomplished her life-long dream of performing at Carnegie Hall, although this time it was without the support of St. Clair Bayfield, her manager and common-law husband. “I didn’t want her to sing after her voice was worn out,” admitted Bayfield years later, “but she was adamant. ‘I can do it,’ she told me. ‘I’ll show everybody.'”
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The concert was sold out and it is said that about 2,000 people were turned away at the door. As with the others, the concert was not good, but this time, the crowd was not filled with people who knew her or those who really cared for her. They just wanted to hear her sing poorly.
“What we experienced was so hilarious,” said singer/actress Marge Champion. “I was just totally unprepared for the fact that it did not seem to bother her in the least that everybody in the audience was convulsed with laughter, nor was she in any way thrilled by it…. And it continued throughout the concert.”
The movie Florence Foster Jenkins comes to theaters on August 12.
[Image via Paramount Pictures]