Updated in 2015
Many people, during the course of their lives, try to do something and fail. Yet very few somehow contrive to achieve a spectacular success out of their very failure. Think of Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, who in 1988 was the sole British ski-jumping entrant at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Despite being ranked 55th in the world, the brave man was simply not up to Olympic standard, and came last by a substantial margin in both the 70- and 90-metre hill events. Yet he had a go, and for that he won the hearts and minds of people all over the world1.
Think also of William McGonagall, who for 25 years continued to pen the most atrocious verse, thereby earning himself the title of 'The World's Worst Poet'. Yet, over a century after his death, his work is still in print, when many far more competent poets have long been forgotten.
Into this hallowed 'Hall of Infamy' we must add the name Florence Foster Jenkins, to be inducted as the 'World's Worst Opera Singer'. Despite a complete inability to sing, being unable to hit a correct pitch, and a further inability to recognise these facts, she had the money and social clout to gather a band of faithful followers around her. Jenkins also had the organisational ability to put on lavish musical extravaganzas, allowing privileged audiences to 'share' her musical 'talent'.
Much conflicting information was recorded about her life, but these seem to be the reliable facts. She was born Narcissa Florence Foster in about 1868 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA. Her father, Charles Foster, was a rich and successful banker and lawyer who had been active in the state legislature. Florence received music lessons as a child, gave her first piano recital aged eight, and attended the Philadelphia Musical Academy. Afterwards, she wanted to study abroad but her father refused to pay for her to do so.
Around 1885, she left Wilkes-Barre, went to Philadelphia and married a Dr Frank T Jenkins. Unsupported by her father, she earned a living there as a teacher and pianist. Given Florence's enormous ambition, and her husband's rather more small-town mentality, it is not surprising the marriage was no great success; the couple divorced in 1902. Continuing to support herself, Florence became more and more active in the musical and social life of Philadelphia.
In 1909, Florence's father died. His will bequeathed to his daughter a diamond stud and a piano, and a half share (with his wife Mary, née Hoagland) of the net income from his estate after a number of substantial bequests had been made. This legacy finally gave her the financial freedom to pursue the singing interest her father had denied her. She moved to New York and took up with an English-born actor, St Clair Bayfield, who functioned as her manager throughout the remainder of her life. He claimed her singing teacher was a famous opera singer, but never revealed who it was. He also claimed to have been her lover and that they lived together at his apartment from the time they met. Although there may have been some truth in what he claimed, Florence maintained an 'official residence' apartment suite at the Hotel Seymour, where she received and entertained visitors.
From 1912, she began to stage her own performances in quality locations like Newport, Washington and Boston, and started to gather around her something of a following. She founded the Verdi Club for Ladies, which raised money for artists and musicians, and sponsored the private, select playing of extracts from the composer's work. Florence covered all the Club's expenses, including its annual extravaganza, entitled 'The Ball of the Silver Skylarks'.
News of her began to spread by word of mouth and attracted the curious who wanted to see for themselves if she really was as bad as everybody claimed. Her appearances were always over-the-top affairs at which she would often sing in outrageous costumes. In fact, each piece of music had its own costume which she would dash offstage and change into, entreating her audience: 'Don't go away.' As an example, picture if you can a tall woman in a full-length gown with a long train and an enormous pair of angel wings on her back!
Her accompanist at these 'recitals', Cosme McMoon (undoubtedly a nom des clefs2), seems to have had more ability at suppressing his laughter than the audiences, whose members were sometimes obliged to leave their seats, unable to resist any longer. Amazingly, Florence regarded these exits as being due to the person concerned being overcome with emotion at the beauty of her singing!
Her greatest triumphs were reserved for her annual private concerts at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Attendance at these was strictly by invitation only and she would issue the 800 much sought-after tickets personally. The proceeds from these concerts were donated to charities.
In 1943, she was in a taxi that was involved in a traffic accident. She claimed afterwards that the accident had enabled her to sing a 'higher F than ever before', and sent a box of cigars as a token of appreciation.
Her final act of self-aggrandisement was to hire Carnegie Hall for a public recital, the 3,000 tickets selling out quickly; 2,000 unlucky hopefuls were turned away. Just a month later, Florence suffered a heart attack and died on 26 November, 1944.
Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing.
Florence Lives On
During the 1930s and 1940s, Florence made a number of recordings at the Melotone Studio in New York's Manhattan — where you could just walk in off the street and make a record — with the intention of selling them to friends. From time to time, some of these recordings have been available as commercial releases. Mercifully short extracts from them can be found on the Internet.
Two stage plays feature her: Souvenir by Stephen Temperley and Glorious! by Peter Quilter; both writers are British-born. Souvenir was mounted off-Broadway in 2004, produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2005, before opening on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre in November of the same year. The comedy Glorious! opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, England, in 2005, with the well-known actress Maureen Lipman playing the role of Florence. The play then went on a short UK tour, before opening at the Duchess Theatre in London's West End.
In 2014 it was announced that a biopic of her would be made, directed by Stephen Frears, starring Meryl Streep in the title role as Florence and Hugh Grant as her manager St Clair Bayfield.