Any critic who printed the truth
was missing the point. But hearing your voice was not enough.
For sometimes it fell just under the notes or chortled
like a guinea hen arranging its barnyard nest of dust.
I say bravo. What do any of us want more than art—
to hold it, if only as a fistful of snow?
—Darren Morris, “Accompanist for Florence Foster Jenkins”
There may never be agreement on the best soprano of all time. But every opera buff will give the same answer when asked to name the worst.
It’s Florence Foster Jenkins, the legendary diva of awfulness, an early 20th century robber baron heiress who had little talent and no technique, and whose enthusiasm for singing was surpassed only by the size of her ego.
After a lifetime dabbling in music, Florence Foster Jenkins launched her singing career in 1912 at the overripe age 44. Fearlessly, she scaled the bilious heights of the classical repertoire, performing ear-splitting renditions of opera’s most difficult coloratura arias. (Hearing is believing: listen to her sing the Queen of the Night’s most famous aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.)
Her self-funded private vocal recitals in the ballrooms of Manhattan’s ritziest hotels became a popular amusement for New York’s social elite, who gathered for the hilarity of the spectacle.
Even Cosmé McMoon, her longtime accompanist, was said to pull faces behind her back as she warbled. But Foster Jenkins was apparently as impervious to self-doubt as she was tone-deaf; she interpreted her audiences’ stifled laughter as applause.
Egged on by her “fans”, at the age of 76 Foster Jenkins rented out Carnegie Hall to give a grand public recital. It was to be the most important performance of her career. Tickets for her concert sold out more quickly than any event in the venue’s history—a massive public joke to everyone but the diva herself.
Although her earlier performances had been spared attention from the press, Foster Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall debut was reviewed nationally. The scathing, often sarcastic critiques pricked, for the first time, her bubble of self-delusion.
A month later, she was dead of a heart attack.
Had she been a mediocre or even competent singer, Florence Foster Jenkins would be forgotten by now. Ironically, her staggering incompetence has bought her immortality. There are four plays about her, and her terrible recordings are easy to find on Spotify and YouTube, where she is a cult celebrity. A new biopic, Florence, starring Meryl Streep as Foster Jenkins, is due out in 2015.
A quick scroll through the JSTOR archives brings up dozens of colorful passing references to her in music reviews and scholarly articles written in the decades following her death 70 years ago. She’s become a trope, her name synonymous with being “giftedly bad”.
“…What she provided was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience: it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end,” wrote poet William Meredith, who served as opera critic for The Hudson Review in 1955.
Perhaps the memory of Florence Foster Jenkins affects us mostly strongly because she embodies our deepest fear, that are we deluded about our own accomplishments; that everyone is secretly laughing at us behind our backs. Would a glimpse of reality kill us, as it did Foster Jenkins?
Sometimes the answer is clearest in poetry. In “Accompanist for Florence Foster Jenkins“, published in American Poetry Review in 2007, poet Darren Morris offers a view of Florence Foster Jenkins’ strange career that is as cogent as any prose biography, and more generous. The poem, which is historically accurate with the exception of the date of the Carnegie Hall recital—it was 1944, not 1947—channels the voice of Cosmé McMoon. Morris humanizes his subjects, peeling away the layers of satire automatically associated with Foster Jenkins to create a complex portrait of the women we love to mock—but whose audacious, uninhibited enthusiasm draws us close.
It was said
That your records could melt the best victrolas.
But I swear to you, that though they laughed, most of our set
curled around a life thin as a wine glass stem.
They said you did not know—you knew. And I did too…
—from “Accompanist for Florence Foster Jenkins“