“Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
-Florence Foster Jenkins
I recently saw Florence Foster Jenkins, a film about the singer one critic labeled “the tone-dumb darling of the tone-deaf.” Jenkins, who died in 1944, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due in no small part to Meryl Streep, who brings to the starring role not only her usual extraordinary acting skill, but a naturally melodious voice masterfully mangled to evoke Jenkins.
Here’s the real McCoy (a little goes a long way):
“She came so close in moments,” Streep said in a recent Fresh Air interview. “I think that’s sort of what held the audience in rapt attention: that she almost got there — until the moment where it went wildly off the rails.”
“When you listen to Florence on YouTube, you think: ‘I cannot believe that anyone’s singing this badly,'” says film director Stephen Frears. “And at the same time she breaks your heart. She is both ridiculous and touching.”
Watching the film is an emotional challenge for just that reason. If you are of a certain age, you may recall an iconic episode from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary’s newsroom colleagues break up over the circumstances surrounding the death of a station colleague, Chuckles the Clown, who was “shelled” by an elephant while marching in a parade dressed as the character Peter Peanut. Mary chastises them for their insensitivity, only to lose it herself during the funeral:
I had a similar experience watching Streep perform as Jenkins. One moment, I was quietly crying while my fellow film-goers were laughing, and the next, I was trying in vain to stifle a guffaw while they’d gone all weepy. I couldn’t tell whether we were at a funeral or a party. It was exhausting — and exhilarating, because of Jenkins herself: her purity and passion; her utter awfulness.
It remains unclear whether she was in on the joke. “She dismissed the laughter that often accompanied her performances as ‘hoodlums’ planted in the audience by her ‘spiteful enemies,'” Darryl Bullock writes in a new biography of Jenkins. “Ignorant of her limitations and buoyed by her supporters, she blithely carried on.” Indeed, during her performing life — she sang publicly off and on from 1911 until her death in 1944, not long after a packed Carnegie Hall concert — she developed a large and devoted following.
Many fans were no doubt laughing at her, and critics of the day were ruthless, though Jenkins’ devoted husband and manager did all he could to shelter her from ridicule. Billboard magazine referred to her “pathetic bleating.” Newsweek said her voice “rocked like a drunken sailor in a gale.” Life magazine observed that Jenkins’ “unquenchable ambition to sing … triumphed over what was probably the most complete and absolute lack of talent ever publicly displayed in Manhattan.”
But at least some fans were touched by her earnestness, as later generations were by the notoriously inept film director Ed Wood, who in the 1950s gave his exuberant all to creating the worst horror and sci-fi films ever produced. (The eponymous film starring Johnny Depp is not to be missed).
And while it’s possible to argue that both Wood and Jenkins were character studies in self-importance (Jenkins’ given first name was Narcissa), it’s not that simple. The wealthy singer was widely known for her philanthropy, the director for his kindness to actor Bela Lugosi near the end of the Dracula star’s life, when Lugosi struggled with depression and drug addiction. New York magazine probably came closer to the truth of both Wood and Jenkins when it described the latter as “charmingly deranged.”
“She had a superb faith in her destiny as a diva,” wrote Daniel Dixon in The Diva of Din, a famous article about Jenkins. “She was tireless. She was genuine. And she was indomitable. Neither she nor the vision she clung to could be squelched. In the end, Madame Jenkins was more than a joke. She was also an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage.”
That’s why Jenkins remains so appealing, more than 70 years after she graced — or, arguably, disgraced — New York’s premier concert halls: She gave herself wholeheartedly to her passion, even if her lungs and vocal cords weren’t up to the challenge.
Like many of us, she lacked talent. But her story stands as a reminder of qualities that are in shorter supply, and that matter more, qualities that reflect the best in all of us: Courage and fidelity.