It 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.