A new movie starting Meryl Streep relates the life and art of Florence Foster Jenkins, leaving many to wonder just who the lady was. Jenkins was a real life figure, a wealthy socialite with a love for music that led her to also fancy herself a performer. An operatic soprano to be exact. Unfortunately she is completely lacking in pitch. In other words, she just plain cannot sing, to the point to being excruciatingly painful for her hapless listeners.
Jenkins, born in 1868, performed regularly for audiences that were carefully hand-picked by her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield. After an arm injury that ended her early career as a pianist she began to take voice lessons, and started private vocal recitals in her early 40s. The Verdi Club was founded by Jenkins, who was the “President Soprano Hostess.” The social organization, with over 400 members, was dedicated to “fostering a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English.”
Jenkins contracted syphilis from her first husband, Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, a condition some think may have caused at least some of her performance difficulties, as it caused progressive deterioration of the central nervous system. The only treatments available at the time used poisonous arsenic and mercury and surely left additional side effects. By the time penicillin made its appearance, Jenkins’ condition had progressed to the point of unresponsiveness to antibiotics.
Despite her obvious lack of musical ability, Jenkins was a popular performer among her loyal Verdi Club members and personal friends, some of whom were secretly paid to attend. She maintained a lifelong belief in her vocal talent, and had no idea the world was mocking her. Her one public performance was at Carnegie Hall sold out weeks in advance, and was attended by numerous celebrities and music critics, who ridiculed her loudly. Two days later she suffered a heart attack and died a month later, Nov. 26, 1944, at the age of 76.
The composition Jenkins is singing in the clip below may need to be identified. Queen of the Night, by Mozart. A perfect example of Jenkins’ ability, but no measure of her heart and devotion to music.