It’s a hell of a story. The life of the inimitable Florence Foster Jenkins was begging to be told, and has now hit the big screen in a biopic, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. (She was inimitable, because nobody in their right mind would have wanted to imitate her.)
Lovely Flo would have done well in our modern age – she’d have not quite managed to win a Got Talent TV show and been a Twitter sensation. Do we laugh at her or with her, does it matter and would she notice the difference anyway?
Some of sober disposition would cry “epic fail” as she painfully mangled classic operatic repertoire a country mile beyond her ability.
Some would defend her “unique” interpretations – attendances at her performances were closely controlled and limited to fiercely loyal supporters… until that famous night at Carnegie Hall. Until that point, it was strongly suspected that the flattering reviews were written by her friends or herself (professional critics were excluded from her recitals).
Yes folks, reviewing yourself is as old as the hills, it’s just easier to do since the advent of the internet (see Putting a Sock in It).
There seems to have been an element of “aw, bless her cotton socks” about things. Aside from the yes men who were happy to be so because she was, despite it all, just so nice, Cole Porter and Menotti (among others) were fascinated supporters, if not exactly outspoken fans…
CARRYING A TUNE IN A BUCKET
Some would kindly point out that behind the hopeless voice and theatrical angel wings and flower tossing was a potentially great musical figure cruelly crippled by syphilis contracted in her youth (when she was a tolerable drawing room pianist) and well into tertiary stage by her heyday. The name of her first husband wasn’t the only thing of his she kept for life. (Hollywood surprised me by not fudging this point.)
Others would point out that she was so bad she was good, or at least entertaining for the wrong reasons (and possibly therefore a pioneer for many to follow). Still others would argue that, as a wealthy and well-connected socialite, her entire career was a colossally inflated vanity gig.
Yet others would say that she was admirable for sticking two fingers up at “the professionals” and just damn well having a go at what she loved – she herself said (in a rare random moment of awareness of the outside world) that while some might say she couldn’t sing, nobody could ever say that she didn’t sing. There’s certainly something in that. Something.
Whatever anyone’s view on La Jenkins, I’d like to shout out to her long-suffering accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (yes really). An admirable effort, and an example to all accompanists. He adjusted to her every cack-handed turn of phrasing and tempo like a contortionist on a trapeze. I’m sure that had the keyboard technology of his day involved a pitch wheel, he’d have used that too.
Her story reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun. There have always been stars who talk the talk, but walk the walk on banana skins – and whether they’re popular because of it or in spite of it is impossible to disentangle and probably irrelevant.
And at the end of the day, you just have to celebrate someone who was such a character. She was once involved in a near fatal crash in a taxi, let out a scream and realised that she had a higher point to her range than she’d thought. Then sent the cab driver a box of cigars as thanks. Bonkers, undoubtedly deluded, but what a gal.
Here’s Flo’s extraordinary take on the famous Mozart aria by the Queen of the Night(mare). It’s truly, and quite marvellously, awful. Never mind the pitching, her German sounds like a drunken chipmunk imitating a mechanical digger. While being randomly goosed from behind.
With cat commentary. My cat mews in B, by the way.