One of the more curious cultural artifacts in the history of this country is the very odd musical career of Florence Foster Jenkins. A rich heiress, she loved music. She was a talented pianist in her youth but stopped taking lessons when she married in 1885 at age 18 Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins. The marriage was a rocky one, characterized by her contracting syphilis from him. They parted after three years. He passed away in 1917, but she retained her married name for the remainder of her life. Moving to New York with her mother in 1900, she founded the Verdi Club in 1917, to share her love of music. It was through this venue that she embarked upon her career as a singer, giving recitals to small groups of fans, with musical critics carefully excluded. Jenkins was convinced she was a great singer. In truth she was an an appallingly bad singer, with virtually no sense of rhythm or pitch. She was a generous patron of various causes, most of them musical, and her audiences treated her with kindness, any titters being drowned by applause.
She would be forgotten today but for a memorable concert she gave for charity at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944. The tickets for the event sold out immediately and about 2000 people were turned away the night of the performance. Ticket prices were $20.00, the equivalent of $274.00 today. (Privates in the US Army, with combat pay, earned $50.00 per month in 1944.) Many celebrities attended. As in her past outings, her fans covered over laughter during her performance with applause. Alas music critics were among the crowd and their reviews were scathing. She passed away a month and a day later of a heart attack. She had been crushed by the bad reviews but, considering that she was in the tertiary stages of syphilis her death may well have had nothing to do with her reaction to the reviews.
Remarkably, in the past two years there have been two films about Jenkins, one in French and the other in English, Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep in the title role. I saw this film last Saturday with my family and the Godmother of my children and my review is below the fold. The usual caveat as to spoilers is in full effect.
Streep does a serviceable job playing a dottie society matron who can’t sing to save her soul but who thinks she is a great singer. Hugh Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield, who is described in the film as the husband of Jenkins in an unconsummated marriage. Historically Bayfield was the companion of Jenkins for 42 years. He is sometimes described as her common law husband although their relationship is not clear from the historical record. In the film Bayfield is in it primarily for the money, but he obviously cares for Jenkins, although he has a girl friend he lives with on the side, and goes to great comedic lengths to protect her from the knowledge that she is a wretched singer. Simon Helberg portrays Cosme McMoon, (yes, that was really his name) the young pianist hired to be the accompanist for Jenkins. To his horror he quickly realizes that she cannot sing but his sympathies are quickly enlisted to go along with her fantasy. Helberg’s performance seems to be some sort of homage to Gene Wilder whose mannerisms he copies. The effect is hilarious.
At the Carnegie Hall performance the guests of honor are hundreds of Marines and Sailors, almost all drunk to one extent or another. Initially they laugh and jeer her, but after being called out by an attractive blonde fan of Jenkins, they settle down and enjoy her performance with muffled laughter and loud applause. (This part of the film struck me as reasonable. The only opera most of these men would have been exposed to would have been opera done as comedy in Marx Brothers pictures or Bugs Bunny cartoons. They were used to opera as part of comedy and the whole performance would have struck them as a spoof.)
Initially I was skeptical about going to see the film, not being a fan of Streep. However, I enjoyed the film. It has elements of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, and its evocation of the forties is dead on accurate, down to such details as the uniforms of the Marines and the way their hair was cut. It is not deathless entertainment, but it was a pleasant way to pass part of an afternoon.