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. Continue Reading