The woman in this experiment is Florence Foster Jenkins, an American opera singer who managed to build a career and an enduring reputation despite her extremely dubious vocal talents. She is remembered fondly as “the world’s worst singer,” and has inspired a recent film adaptation of her life starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.
Nascina Florence Foster was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on July 19, 1868. Her father, Charles Dorrance Foster, was a lawyer of considerable wealth (both earned and inherited), and a Pennsylvania landowner. Her mother’s name was Mary Jane, and she had a sister called Lillian, who passed away at the age of eight. In her early years, Nascina decided to abandon her first name for her middle name, Florence.
Jenkins was a child prodigy piano player, performing at many venues and festivals in Pennsylvania. She even played at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When she requested that her wealthy father send her abroad to study music, however, he refused, so in retribution she eloped to Philadelphia with the much older Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins when she was only fourteen.
Illness and Career
Not long after they were married, Jenkins contracted syphilis from her husband and they became separated, although she retained his family name for the rest of her life. Florence was able to earn a living as a piano teacher until she injured her arm, at which point she joined forces with her mother and moved to New York City around 1900.
Jenkins’ father died in 1909, leaving Florence enough funds to pursue a career in singing at long last. In the same year, she met Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield, who became her manager and loosely defined partner, and with whom she lived for the rest of her life.
With Bayfield’s help, Florence took voice lessons and gained membership in numerous women’s clubs, becoming musical director for many of them. She founded her own organization as well, called The Verdi Club, and in her early 40’s began giving recitals to carefully chosen groups of supporters.
These gatherings were by invitation only (avoiding the presence of professional critics), and this may have been for the best, given that Florence suffered from a distinct lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone. The notes she sang were frequently flat, and her pronunciations were often incorrect. And all of this was enhanced by her tendency to take on difficult pieces that were well beyond her limited capabilities.
Despite all of these failings, however, audiences were still greatly entertained by Florence’s performances, if perhaps not for the reasons she intended. She dressed in elaborate and dramatic winged costumes, sometimes flinging flowers into the crowd. Her enjoyment of the music was unmistakable, her enthusiasm was infectious, and she was well respected for her kindness and numerous charitable projects.
Jenkins understood that some people were critical of her performances, but she didn’t allow them to hold her back. “People may say I can’t sing,” she retorted, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Jenkins’ curious popularity resulted in increasing demand for her performances, until she was finally persuaded to hold one public performance at Carnegie Hall, at the advanced age of 76. The concert took place on October 25, 1944, and tickets were in great demand. Celebrities such as Cole Porter and actress Kitty Carlisle attended, and conductor André Kostelanetz composed a song just for the occasion.
Because this was a public concert, professional critics could not be prevented from attending, and the negative reviews that followed the concert were extremely upsetting to Florence. She suffered a heart attack two days later, and passed away a month later, on November 26, 1944, at the Hotel Seymour in New York City.
Several readers identified that Florence was involved in the arts, played the piano, and sang in music halls. She gained a lot of self-worth and enjoyment from her performances, and her strength of character allowed her to ignore her many detractors in favor of following her passion for music.
Some of you felt that Jenkins had suffered a loss in her life, and this may refer to the death of her sister Lilly at the young age of 8. Florence had an unhappy marriage as well, and perhaps as a result of her illness, had no children of her own.
It is possible that Jenkins’ nearly lifelong battle with syphilis was partly responsible for her inability to sing properly, because the mercury treatments of the time could result in tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. It is also possible that the disease produced a certain amount of mental instability, which many readers seemed to pick up on.
Florence was indeed assisted by the wealth of her parents in achieving her goals, but she appears to have been a very kind-hearted, loving, charitable person in her own right. This probably accounts in part for her enduring popularity, despite her artistic shortcomings. She did pass away from a heart condition, which more than one reader mentioned, and a reference to the name Claire may refer to Jenkins’ longtime partner, St. Clair Bayfield.
Overall, there were a great number of hits on this experiment – more evidence that practice makes perfect! Get ready to hone your skills even more on the next one, which will be posted in the near future!
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