Has a singer ever performed with the vitality and passion of Florence Foster Jenkins? A Carnegie Hall audience has certainly never witnessed such a splendidly horrible performance. Somehow, her powerful voice never seemed to find the right notes. Yet, she sang on with conviction, and somehow it worked.
Born in 1868 as Florence Foster, she was the daughter of Charles Dorrance Foster, a banker and member of the Pennsylvania legislature. Charles Foster instilled a deep passion for music in his daughter at a young age. She started out a piano player, but an arm injury shifted her attention to singing. When her father would not allow her to pursue her dream of studying and performing music, Florence eloped with Dr. Thomas Jenkins. Together, they settled in Philadelphia. The couple was divorced in 1902 and Florence subsequently moved to New York City. After her father’s death in 1909, Florence used her inheritance to enhance her city life. In addition, she finally began to pursue her passion for music and performing.
As portrayed in Stephen Temperley’s “fantasia” on her life, the majority of her performing career consisted of annual benefit recitals and small concerts given for the numerous charities she supported. Audiences were limited by the capacity of the Ritz-Carlton Ballroom, her preferred venue. Early patrons were friends and acquaintances, but as word spread about her “talent,” strangers, as well as the crème de la crème of New York Society came, too. Fans included Cole Porter (who wrote a song for Florence), Beatrice Lillie and Thomas Beecham, who played her songs on the British radio.
Laughter in the audience was contagious; audience members would stuff their mouths with their handkerchiefs to keep from laughing. “At that time, Frank Sinatra had started to sing, and the teenagers used to faint during his notes and scream. She thought she was producing the same kind of an effect, and when these salvos of applause came, she took them as great marks of approval,” observed Cosme McMoon, her talented piano accompanist at all performances. “She would pause altogether and bow, many times, and then resume the song.”
In 1944, Florence succumbed to the pressure of her admirers and announced she would give a concert at Carnegie Hall. One of the most important music venues in the world, musical luminaries Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein made their first appearances there just one year earlier. Within weeks of her announcement, all 3,000 tickets to Florence’s October 25 debut were sold and 2,000 ticket-seekers were left disappointed. On November 26, just one month after her performance, Florence died of a sudden heart attack. Some say that the stress of the performance at Carnegie Hall at her age led to her decline in health and death. She was 78.
The legend of Florence Foster Jenkins includes many hilarious and fascinating stories: in performance, she made a habit of changing into different costumes –all self-designed – between numbers. One of her most famous, depicted on the cover of the posthumously released album The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, included a large pair of angel wings attached to her back. In one performance, she threw flowers about the stage. When the crowd cheered enthusiastically at the end, she retrieved the petals and repeated the number again. One of the most famous tales was that she claimed that experiencing a minor taxi accident enabled her to sing a high F. She tipped the driver generously and subsequently expand her repertoire to include music with the higher range. Though she claimed to be in her sixties throughout the bulk of her career, she was actually in her seventies.
Perhaps people paid attention to Florence because of her sincerity and passion about music. She was always happiest when she sang and her self-confidence seemed never to falter. Some accounts suggest that Florence never knew how she sounded to the critics. Others say that she knew, but simply did not care. She was quoted as saying, “People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing.”
- By Meg Cook and Rebecca Curtiss
Cosmé McMoon, Florence Foster Jenkins's faithful accompanist, first became acquainted the “dire diva of din” in 1927.
Jenkins asked this concert pianist and aspiring composer to play for her first private concert. He continued, accompanying her for private shows at The Ritz-Carlton Ballroom, The Birdy Club, on recordings, and at her first and only performance at Carnegie Hall. Although Jenkins's audiences were often doubled over with laughter, McMoon always played with a straight face and tried his best to highlight what little talent Jenkins had. On her recordings, McMoon can be heard adjusting the rhythm of his playing to accommodate Jenkins's vocal shortcomings. He also composed songs for her, such as “Serenata Mexicano” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Their partnership lasted until her sudden death in 1944.
- Notes by Katie Kierstead