Cher Public

Orchids, tiaras, minks, ermines and top hats

FFJIt all began for me when I was ten years old as a member of the Texas Boys Choir in my hometown of Fort Worth. Before every weekday rehearsal after school, director George Bragg would play classical music LPs through huge theater speakers, giving us an exposure to great music. One day, breaking tradition, he played a 1954 10” RCA record called A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!!, featuring a lady singing so off-pitch and generally just plain awful in every aspect. 

The RCA 12” LP, Florence Foster Jenkins: The Glory (????) Of The Human Voice, released in the early 1960s, turned out to be the first “classical” LP I ever purchased. At the time, I wondered: why is that lady wearing that angel getup depicted on the cover?

The voice of Florence Foster Jenkins seems always to be introduced without an introduction. Soprano Lucine Amara tells the story of her visit with composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold in the late 1940s. He said he’d like to play for her a recording of a soprano he had just discovered. Not giving anything away, he started playing one of the original Jenkins 78 rpm acetates and sat down in his overstuffed chair, Ms. Amara sitting at his feet. She thought, “This guy must have lost his mind!” When it was over, he asked her what she thought. She cautiously said, “Very… uh… interesting…” Then laughter ensued.

Fast forward to 2005. In searching for photos of the unstoppable British soprano Olive Middleton, I met noted collector Gregor Benko, and he relayed to me tidbits from his previous 20 years of sporadic research about the indomitable Florence Foster Jenkins. I immediately thought a documentary should be made telling the complete, factual and uncensored life story of that fascinating figure. We then collaborated on Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own. Now able to grasp the entire saga, I said to myself, this story screams to be a major motion picture.

Well, the screaming is now over (except for those original early 1940s Melotone Studio recordings). A biopic entitled Florence Foster Jenkins, marvelously directed by Stephen Frears of Philomena and The Queen fame, stars the actress that never ceases to amaze us all, Meryl Streep, as Mme. Jenkins. The always debonair Hugh Grant portrays St. Clair Bayfield, the not quite successful British Shakespearean actor, monologist and common-law husband of Mme. Jenkins.

Simon Helberg completes the trio as her ever-faithful and final accompanist, Cosme McMoon. The supporting characters of Kathleen Weatherley, St. Clair’s romantic refuge on the side (whom St. Clair married after Mme. Jenkins’ death), and Agnes Stark, a blonde bimbo showgirl (a fictional character for metaphorical purposes) are portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson and Nina Arianda respectively. We also see brief characterizations of Talullah Bankhead, Arturo Toscanini, Cole Porter, journalist Earl Wilson, Lily Pons and Metropolitan Opera coach Carlo Edwards. It’s like a bountiful wedding cake of musical personalities from the distant past.

Filmed in Liverpool, England, a city whose architecture resembles that of 1940s Manhattan, Pathé Studios’ production values are rich and lavish with numerous vintage automobiles, lovely detailed costuming and period settings (though their re-creation of Carnegie Hall itself is not ideally accurate). Composer Alexandre Desplat provides music that is blended well.

Nicholas Martin does not disappoint in his first outing as a screenwriter. In fact, he has delicately woven into the script just about everything one would like to know about Mme. Jenkins, even the subject of potato salad, one of her favorite dishes. It even gets its own vignette. There is hardly a jot in the script that either didn’t actually happen or couldn’t have happened.

Those jots can easily be dismissed by the fact that this is not a documentary but a dramatization. The tale is lovingly told by Martin—the true story about a wealthy club woman who produced musicales, balls, solo recitals, fully-staged operas, luncheons, charity benefits and sumptuous mountings of tableaux vivants.

In 1941 came one of these tableaux called “Stephen Foster and the Angel of Genius.” Based on a painting by Verdi Club member Howard Chandler Cristy, it depicts an angel coming down from Heaven to rouse Stephen Foster from a composer’s block.

This tableau developed into a little play with additional characters—listed in the Verdi Club program—such as Suzanna, Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, Ol’ Black Joe (portrayed by future Met baritone Randolph Symonette) and Darkie from the Swanee River. Jenkins was the Angel, the center of attention. As always. This tableau opens the movie with Streep as Jenkins literally descending from above the little stage.

A particularly moving and powerful scene in the movie is when Mme. Jenkins pays an unexpected visit to McMoon’s cluttered garret apartment. She confides in him about her affection for Bayfield and how she misses him so when he occasionally needs his “sport” of golf, which is the excuse he gives in order to see Kathleen. It ends with the two of them playing a Chopin prelude. Unable to use her left hand due to nerve damage from syphilis, she begins by playing the simple plaintive melody with her right hand and McMoon then joins her, playing the left hand part. In my opinion, every facet of the story is in this one scene, proving that more is said when less is said.

As far back as 1928, the midpoint of Jenkins’ career, one can read that her reputation as a singer was firmly established but unfortunately, unbeknownst to her: “The audience as Mrs. Jenkins’ audiences invariably do, behaved very badly. In the back of the hall, men and women in full evening dress made no attempt to control their laughter.”

Of course, there is unavoidable hilarity and light slapstick in this movie, but thanks to Frears’ direction, there is nothing gratuitous or over-emphasized as the story tells itself. Two themes that are vividly portrayed are Mme. Jenkins’ sincere and unabashed love for music, and the clarification of the complicated yet endearing relationship between her and Bayfield. Yes, she was his meal ticket, but she needed him as well for his style, his managerial abilities and his theatrical expertise.

And then there’s that nasty syphilis she was diagnosed with when she was only eighteen, contracted from her first husband, Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins. This obviously prevented any physical intimacy between Florence and St. Clair, and they didn’t live together during much of their relationship.

This is yet another performance by Streep of complete transformation into a character. It is a touching and sympathetic portrayal in both body language (she’s outfitted with some padding) and the beautiful speaking voice that Mme. Jenkins was known to possess. I can also confidently say that Ms. Streep recreates every single nuance of the Jenkins singing voice: glottal stops, an absence of vibrato, hit-and-run register breaks, the sliding up and arrival just short of a climactic high note, transforming the letter “r” into a vowel and the completely unintelligible diction.

Grant, in a welcome return to the screen, is perfect as St. Clair Bayfield. Handsome as ever, elegant, vulnerable—it’s all there. He also successfully depicts Bayfield’s relationship with the “other woman”, Kathleen. As the real Kathleen Bayfield intimated in the early 1970s, Jenkins and Bayfield loved each other and they never quarreled. But Kathleen also loved St. Clair as well.

Though Helberg as Cosme McMoon delivers a meek interpretation in voice and manner, this decision actually helps delineate the third personality of the story. His wordless facial expressions are worth the price of admission. Also, Helberg’s pianistic skills are quite impressive. In fact, the soundtrack will include complete renditions by Ms. Streep and Mr. Helberg of five of the selections originally recorded by McMoon and Jenkins.

I’ve had the opportunity to see this movie three times, once at a privately arranged screening at the Manhattan offices of Paramount on April 6, again at the London world premiere on April 12, and finally at a screening sponsored by The Telegraph on April 13th, which was followed by a Q and A with Ms. Streep and Mr. Helberg. It opens in UK theaters today and will open in the US on August 12th.

In conjunction with the movie, a thoroughly researched biography, titled Florence Foster Jenkins, was published on yesterday. The book’s author Jasper Rees leaves not one single pebble unturned. He has unearthed many shocking and revelatory facts about the periods before, during and after Mme. Jenkins’ life of 76 years, including vivid descriptions of all aspects of the life of a club woman, what happened to her colleagues after her death, and has given great context with national and international history of the period.

There is even a psychological point of view throughout. It is a fascinating and colorful read. There will also be a rarity in the publishing world: Nicholas Martin’s great screenplay will be included at the end of the biography.

Over the years, three of the questions of why the phenomenon of Florence Foster Jenkins ever happened have continued to be asked, but we can only speculate about the answers. She was originally named Narcissa(!), research has told us, ironically, since, as a child, she developed an all-encompassing need for attention, fed by her local celebrity as a pianist.

When her little sister Lillian Blanche was born when Florence was 7, she probably discovered that she was no longer the subject of familial focus. Seven years later, at the death of Lillian from diphtheria, Florence realized that the spotlight would seemingly never return due to her parents’ mourning of the loss. Ten days after Lillian’s funeral, Florence eloped with Dr. Jenkins (yes, that’s right—do the math!)

In addition to developing confidence and this mindset of the need to be onstage, the effects of the disease she contracted from Dr. Jenkins gradually began to erode her physical self. The treatment of the era for syphilis was mercury and/or arsenic, poisons themselves. Over the next 58 years, her nervous system and auditory abilities slowly deteriorated from the tertiary phase of syphilis, most likely bringing on tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing in the ears. This may explain, at least in part, why she didn’t hear what her audiences heard.

The manners of the first half of the 20th century were far different from today because nothing prevents us from easily speaking our mind globally. The social strata that Jenkins interacted with consisted of people that were extremely polite and well-mannered and it probably would have been considered discourteous to even bring up the subject of her bad singing.

I also think that people realized that if they did confront her, she would end her musical endeavors, and thus prevent the charitable contributions she provided to organizations such as the Red Cross, the Veteran’s Mountain Camp and The Actors Fund.

There have been about a dozen projects about Jenkins within the past twenty years—plays, books, a documentary and now two major motion pictures. This interest is exemplified by the fact that reportedly whenever Carnegie Hall receives an inquiry, it is invariably about one of three subjects: Judy Garland, the Beatles… or Florence Foster Jenkins. Hers is a unique American story, of personal triumph and public tragedy.

  • PCally

    “stars the actress that never ceases to amaze us all”

    Calls me blasphemous but while I think at her best Streep is THE best, she ceased to amaze me a pretty long time ago. I think there are actresses who make bolder more interesting choices, regarding both the actual acting and their project choices.

    • phoenix

      -- again, you are far more generous than I. Obviously they were looking for the BEST BIG NAME to hype to the GENERAL PUBLIC. Streep’s tiresome image, like her iconic but predictable ‘acting’, seems to be required for any role with a matron at the helm. She must draw them in -- it’s like going to see Grandma.
      -- I would have hoped for the coup d’état of hiring a crackly voiced CULT diva with grand histrionic stage experience who is still drawing them in at certain operahouses -- or at least a popular American diva on the cusp of becoming one. I had some candidates in mind but since they are still worshipped as bona fide on this site, I shall refrain from further comment.

      • Camille

        oh, please DO, phoenix! I would love to hear your *candidates*!
        No need for such girlish modesty in these climes……

        • phoenix

          Well Camille, of course I would love to have European singers interpret Flo -- the greatest coup would be a non-native speaker of English giving a flawlessly accurate rendition of Flo’s haute-Scranton dialect. But the way Hollywood works is on media-hyped household names -- now who is the most likely candidate?--> An American woman of a certain age with the initials RF.
          -- When I first heard they were going to make a film of Flo, in hopes of candidacy I got my DNA analyzed -- amazingly it appears that I am closer to Flo than I thought. Disappointingly I have no Jewish, Finnish, Middle Eastern, Italian or Central Asian ancestry -- but I do have some small less than 1% percent of Ukranian, West African and Native American. But most of what I got: 63% came from Welsh-Scots-Irish, 25% Nederlands-Belgium, 4% mixed Berber North African & South Balkan (old Yugoslavia), 4% Norwegian, 3% French/German, 1% Iberian. In spite of these percentages, I still could do Flo better than the others!

          • Camille

            Well, thanks pardner.

            I do declare that mme rf has already had a similar type of gig, impersonating my belovèd SOB! and now long departed from these shores *Bianca Castafiore*, and therefore nullifying her chances to portray FloFos. Not right for the part in any case.

            Far more of interest to me is your discussion of DNA analysis: I, too, have thought of doing thusly but fear to find out what bad blood lies deep in my veins--it’s already bad enough there is rumored to be a wild Lithuanian streak as it is!--so goodness knows what else lurks within. Are you happy you found out now, after all is said and done?

            Also, muchísimas gracias for the link on another thread to La Juive. I will haul out the old score and give it another go--an opera which interests me more for historical reasons than one I actually love. Academic, ya know.

            Big besitos, padre! Ciao 4 now.

            • phoenix

              With the intellectual curiosity you seem to have, I think you could have quite a time with it. But remember some of us are fools and these tests are NOT foolproof:
              -- There are ‘Broadly’ defined DNA percentage points assigned to certain areas that do not exactly fit into any specific nationality in that region but designate specific qualities shared by DNA only in that region. For example, I have no specific Italian or North African DNA listed but 3.2% of my total DNA is ‘Broadly’ defined as Southern European/North African. Apparently I have no Finnish nor Jewish DNA -- they seem to have put those 2 groups under THE microcosmal microscope and I can’t seem to come up with anything close from my test results -- but I love both those groups more than any of the others! Figure it out, huh? And of course, the area I like least is northwestern Europe! 67% of my DNA is from northwestern Europe plus 24.3% of my total DNA is assigned as ‘Broadly Northwestn European’ -- by subtracting the known countries they already identified with percentage points in northwestern Europe, I came up with Belgium & Nederlands, which seemed logical. Yet they seem unwilling to scientifically verify my theory.
              -- The other, even more interesting, element of the ancestry test are the halogroups: which identify the areas of the migratory movements of one’s ancient ancestors before their residency in the DNA identified areas/countries -- for example, the population of the entire western hemisphere at present time bears little resemblance to what it was 1000 years ago but there are halogroup migratory patterns BEHIND the Native American DNA markers many of us have which designate ancient origin migratory patterns connection to Asia. Although my mother’s halogroup connection is strongest linked to Norway & Sweden, there are trace elements linking her halogroup migratory pattern to both Spain & North Africa. My father’s halogroup migratory pattern is strongest linked to France & Spain but with trace elements going through North Africa as well as far into central Asia & the Middle East:
              my mother’s halogroup -- http://tinyurl.com/ju2ogkk
              my father’s halogroup -- http://tinyurl.com/h2wj3tt
              -- The real value of these tests is their juxtaposition with known source language & cultural markers. For example, there were tribes living in Paraguay & Argentina 500 years ago who spoke the same root dialect as other tribes living in Alaska & Canada -- an indicator that they were united at one time somewhere in a migratory pattern. Likewise with the shared language source groups & cultural markers of Europe, Africa, Middle East & Asia there are source language & cultural links between them identified long ago, before the emergence of DNA/Halogroup testing.

    • mjmacmtenor

      Several years ago I saw ” Souvenir” -- the play about Mme. Jenkins -- starring Judy Kaye (Tony nominee for this role and 1988 Tony winner for Carlotta in Phantom). She was wonderful. It was not just the crazy singing. It was her seriousness about her “art” and utter belief in herself. One of the most moving moments was at the end when she sang “normal” as an indication of how Flo perceived her singing.

  • FlorezFan

    It’s interesting that this is being released here in the month of August, just as Rikki and the Flash was last year.

  • WindyCityOperaman
    • Patrick Mack

      Sweet Lord is our suffering never to end? First Trump, now this? Did you know Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim share a birthday? The only thing they have in common apparently.

      • JohninSeattle

        I believe the correct title is Noted Puccini Plagarist and Frog-Faced Peer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. There, I fixed it!

        “Lloyd Webber has also been accused of cribbing off Puccini, most notably in Requiem and The Phantom of the Opera. A claim regarding Phantom by the Puccini estate was settled out of court.”

        http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/andrew-lloyd-webber/accusations-of-plagiarism.html

        • Camille

          True dat. At least he gave Fanciulla del West a little publicity.

          P.S.:

          JiS: i also HEART Gluck and never hang my head about it. Never complain, never explain.

          Alceste is pretty heavy sledding, though, I shall concede.

  • Gualtier M

    Considering what Streep achieved portraying Julia Child and the fact that this probably has strong elements of comedy in it (though the reviewer concentrated on the pathos), I suspect she will nail this. Factoid: Streep as a teenager studied with Beverly Sills’ teacher Estelle Liebling.

    There is another film -- more a documentary starring Joyce DiDonato as FFJ that is in pre-production now (it was announced this past January):
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5199494/

    Question to Mr. Collup: The other film is the fictionalized “Marguerite” a French film. Have you or anyone else seen “Marguerite” and have recommendations/insights/opinions on it?

    • Joe Conda

      I haven’t seen Marguerite and I wish I spoke fluent French. Paris in the 1920s is a favorite of mine and the bits I’ve seen look wonderful.

    • Gualtier M

      Another thing: Cosme McMoon in later life supposedly became a male madam specializing in supplying muscular gay male prostitutes for wealthy closeted men. He would haunt bodybuilding competitions looking for “talent” -- there is a well circulated photo of Cosme being lifted by future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu at the 1974 Mr. Olympia contest at which he said he was a judge. It was known that in the mid-seventies Ahnuld was cozy with a number of rich gay men including Paco Arce Gomez (he was photographed in a speedo on Arce’s yacht with a stack of Playgirl magazines behind him) and before that in the 1960s he was supported by wealthy British businessman John Dixey. One wonders about the Cosme McMoon/Arnold Schwarzenegger personal connection…

      • Krunoslav

        Cosme’s bio pic will in fact be titled STRAPPING ALONG.

    • classicalbeat

      Gualtier M: I do not often enter this arena, but it seems relevant and only slightly self-serving to say that I did see Marguerite and I put a bit about it in my own article on bad singing this weekend: http://wapo.st/1TMzVjg
      (I did not know that I would be going up against the master himself, Donald Collup.)

      My take is that is almost a very good movie, particularly for the first 2/3 of the film, but it collapses in the last act. It was certainly made with a lot of thought and care — too much care, though, and the story it’s telling is not really about the things that made Jenkins wonderful.

      • Gualtier M

        AM you are always welcome here and your input is both informative and appropriate.

        BTW: that Cosme McMoon/Schwarzenegger/Columbu photo is reproduced in the booklet for “The Muse Surmounted” a now hard-to-find cd of bad singers including FloFoJen. Gregor Benko produced that cd. It is really fascinating but there are some sad things there as well as humorous. Legends like Mari Lyn, Natalia de Andrade, Vessilka Petrova, Sylvia Sawyer and Olive Middleton are represented.

        But even in the laughter there is sadness. I remember once in an old Opera-l thread about La Puma, a poster (not Charlie H) remembered laughing at Olive Middleton as the heroine in “La Gioconda”. Middleton had in her distant youth sung professionally in England for Sir Thomas Beecham. He said there was a phrase in the La Puma “La Gioconda” where she did something very beautiful. He suddenly realized that this wasn’t funny but very, very sad -- that Middleton was a musician and an artist but just was old and had no voice. He left and never returned.

        In that Homophone “Muse Surmounted” cd there is also a singer called Alice Gerstl-Duschak who was in her eighties. Her family had known Mahler as a personal friend and later as a teacher her pupils included Jessye Norman. She sings some very obscure German lieder in private recordings made at a very late date in life. Her voice is in ruins but she is a musician and artist.

        You laugh at some of the geriatric swoops but it is clear that she is a professional, not a deluded amateur.

        The other track that is kind of hair raising but also tragic is by Sari Bonchuk-Wontner. This is the equivalent an operatic snuff video. Evidently Sari was a lovely socialite who married a very rich man. She had the money and the guts to “perform” “Ah forse lui…Sempre libera” from “La Traviata” with a hired orchestra and it was recorded on a cassette player from the audience. Shortly after Bonchuk-Wontner died from falling off her yacht and drowning (shades of Natalie Wood). It is clear from this live tape that Sari Bonchuk-Wontner had issues other than pitch, rhythm and voice production and well every else. Clearly she is under the influence -- clearly not the influence of Giuseppe Verdi.

        It would explain this performance and her later tragic accident.

        • gustave of montreal

          aaaaaaaaah!!! did anyone call the ambulance?

        • phoenix

          Martin Katz and I went to see Mme. Middleton (as Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani) -- Katz knew her quite well. Yes, there was laughing here & there but not as much as I expected -- what amazed me most wasn’t Olive, but her audience, many fans appeared to mesmerized by her stage persona -- taking it all in very devotedly.
          -- Also never to be forgotten was Bella, the ticket taker: huge black pupils staring wildly at me out of a tense skull -- like Azucena reincarnated.

    • calprov

      Yes, I have seen the recent French version “Marguerite”.
      Wonderful performance by the lead, Catherine Frot. But in fact all the roles were subtly and wonderfully played. Marvlous black actor playing her majordomo Mandelbos.
      The film is very touching -- heartbreaking really. Very few laughs. Not broadly played. It is the story of someone who profoundly loved music. Someone whose generosity was exploited for the needs of others. But the story line seems to follow very closely the English language version being released soon. I can only hope that the “Streep” version will be half as sensitive.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    From the press release: Deborah Voigt’s faculty appointment [in San Francisco] is being supported by the Voigt Consortium, initiated with a lead gift and challenge grant from Diane B. Wilsey.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    I was so happy to read here that Donald Collup’s work on Jenkins has been taken into account for the new film, and that he was invited to the various screenings, but now it looks like others are claiming rights to the origins of the movie
    http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/opera-movie-has-an-encore-in-court-hj5lx8thm

  • Camille

    This was very enlightening. Thanks to Mr Collup for giving us the word, straight from the horse’s mouth, to use an expression.

    Sometime in the mid-sixties, (to the best of my recollection) someone indicated, or somewhere I read something about the recording of Mme Jenkins and gleaned an impression it was “funny”. Thinking it may be something along the lines of Anna Russell, and dutifully checking it out from my public library, I found it, well, mystifying and very unfunny. All I could do was to put the LP gently back into its sleeve and hurriedly return it to the library. ‘How?’ and more importantly, ‘WHY?’, were the only things I got from this recording.

    Now, with all these facts coming out about Mme Jenkins and her state of health and unwell-being, perhaps we have ultimately come to a resolution of the ‘Why?’, but on the other hand and in her defense, may I hazard an opinion that she created as much joy as she did havoc. For, the memory of her recitals, as per an old lady friend of mine back in the 1980’s, was SUCH, that tears of joy still sprang into her eyes, and all the details were fondly and happily remembered after all those years. Now, I ask you, cher parterrien(ne)s, is *JOY* a bad thing, no matter how it is obtained? Probably not, I would venture.

    Although I count myself as no particular fan of Ms Streep and her manifold machinations, she is, Herself, something else in how she continues to reinvent and renew herself; a lesson for all of us old ladies here below, and one does hope all those lessons with Mme Liebling will show themselves to good accounting in this venture.

    Thanks to Mr Collup for understanding the un=understandable and for, most of all, his compassion and wisdom in surveying this phenomenal persona.

  • Dolciamente Pipo

    Those interested in exploring the existence of Florence Foster Jenkins phenomenon might examine the career or her closest modern equivalent: Edita Gruberova.

    • phoenix

      I had her in mind 1st -- but she doesn’t look the part.