Friday, 22 July 2011

Go with the Flo

Narcissa Florence Foster, better known by her married name of Florence Foster Jenkins is, for lovers of bad music, where it all starts. Sure there were appalling performers before her but none have left behind the recorded legacy she has - less than a dozen (nine, according to Wikipedia, but I believe I have 10) tracks of light opera and lieder all recorded before the mid 1940s and all in her inimitable style. If you thought Mrs Miller was where it was at, you ain't heard nothing yet.

Born in Pennsylvania to a wealthy family young Florence had, as did most young women of the time, received music lessons as a child, However, when she expressed a desire to go abroad to continue her studies her father refused and so she eloped to Philadelphia (soon to be home of the estimable Grace Pauline Chew) with Frank Thornton Jenkins, who she married in 1885. Flo, again like Grace, earned a living as a music teacher and pianist, and in 1908, six years after her divorce from Frank, began living with St. Clair Bayfield, an actor with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

Upon her father's death in 1909, Florence inherited a sizable sum of money and set off on her singing career, giving her first recital in 1912. Her mother's death 16 years later gave her even more money and more opportunity to pursue her dreams of a career on stage.

The shame of it is that Florence had little sense of pitch and rhythm and, God love her, was barely capable of sustaining a note. In spite of this, some would say because of this, she became tremendously popular - audiences loving her for the amusement she provided, her stoicism in the face of failure and her staunch belief that she was indeed a great artist. She compared herself to the renowned sopranos of the day and dismissed the laughter which often accompanied her performances as coming from rivals consumed with jealousy. No fool, in her later years she was quoted as saying: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

'It is too bad', wrote Francis Robinson, Assistant Manager of the Metropolitan Opera and the author of the liner notes to one of her posthumous collections, that 'she did not record her favorite encore, Clavelitos, a number she invariably had to repeat. A contemporary account describes Madame Jenkins as appearing in a Spanish shawl, with a jeweled comb and, like Carmen, a red bloom in her hair. She punctuated the rhythmic cadences of the song by tossing tiny red flowers from her pretty basket to her delighted hearers. On one occasion the basket in a moment of confusion followed the little blossoms into the audience. It too, was received with spirit.

Before she would do the repeat, her already overworked accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, had to pass among the jubilant groundlings and retrieve the prop buds and basket. The enthusiasm of the audience at this point reached a peak that beggars description.' Florence reminds me here of another hero of mine, Robert 'Romeo' Coates, recognised as the worst actor ever to grace the world's stage: a man who so enjoyed Romeo's death scene that he would play it again and again. And again.

After an accident involving a taxi in 1943 Florence was thrilled to discover that she could sing "a higher F than ever before." Instead of suing the taxi company she sent the driver a box of expensive cigars as a thank you. One year later, at the ripe old age of 76, she performed at Carnegie Hall. So great was the demand for tickets that the event sold out weeks in advance. Jenkins died a month later at the Hotel Seymour in Manhattan. Some naysayers would later claim that her death was the result of a broken heart, however the critic Robert Bagar wrote in the New York World-Telegram: "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are. And the happiness was communicated as if by magic to her hearers."

Here, for you delectation, is the hysterically brilliant Like A Bird, one of the few existing pieces co-authored, with Cosmé McMoon, by Florence Foster Jenkins herself. Enjoy!


  1. Stunning. Just when you thought you'd heard the worst. Thanks for another excellent post.


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