Queen of Denial

“Some people said I couldn’t sing,

but no one could say I didn’t sing.”

Let me begin on a positive note.  Singing is good for everyone, and learning to love music will enrich your life.  But you ought to be better than average before charging people money to see you perform, unless you are destined to be among the best of the worst. Some people can’t tell good from bad when it comes to singing, and as American Idol proves each year, some don’t want to know.  The worst singer ever to appear on a major stage and in recordings was born three years after the American Civil War.  Her first name at birth was Narcissa.  Whoever named her knew something she didn’t.  She performed and became infamous under the name Florence Foster Jenkins.

In 19th Century America it was usual and reasonable to give a child piano and voice lessons.  Like teenage girls today, Narcissa dreamed of becoming a famous singer.  She asked her daddy to pay for her to go and study abroad.  Daddy said no.  Her reaction was to elope to Philadelphia with a physician named Frank Jenkins.  It didn’t last.  They divorced in 1902 when she was 24.  Florence taught voice and piano to make ends meet for the next six years, when two strokes of luck occurred.  She met an actor, a man with minimal skills but boundless enthusiasm, her male equivalent.  Then Daddy died and left her his money, enough to never have to work again with some left over to start her career as a diva.  The actor, St. Clair Bayfield, became her live-in manager, a position he held for the rest of her life.

The dynamic duo moved right to the beating heart of arts in America, New York City, and took residence in Manhattan.  Florence founded a women’s group for high-society wannabes she named the Verdi Club.  The club gave charity fundraisers benefitting worthy causes.  Though others also performed, the ladies knew who the star was.  Florence was the headliner.  Word began to spread of an extraordinary new singer, someone whose impact upon an audience had to be seen to be believed.

It’s one thing to be Rebecca Black, William Hung or Tiny Tim, and sing dumb songs or wacky novelties.  Florence Foster Jenkins insisted on performing the most challenging arias and lieder (art songs) available for a coloratura, the highest of high-range sopranos.  She couldn’t come close to getting away with it, and she had either the tinnest of ears or the best support system for her delusions.  Maybe both.

She had no aptitude for the foreign languages she sang in.  She gestured extravagantly, with inappropriate emphasis.  She bobbled along under pitch and behind the beat (or ahead of it) until she wound up for the high notes, which ended up either as screeches or silent exhalations of intense breath.  Her ladies loved her.  Her actor-manager loved her.  She was happy in her work.

Jenkins and Bayfield were shrewd marketers.  Aside from benefits, her recitals were restricted to a few favorite venues each year.  She handled the tickets herself, which allowed her to flirt with her adoring public and assure herself they were true devotees.  It was the greatest musical in-joke ever pulled.  If you were lucky enough to get a ticket, the rule was to play along.  Those from her club heard her songs through her ears.  Outsiders had the time of their lives trying not to crack up and spoil the illusion.

Encouraged by her success, Florence designed elaborate costumes with the same level of taste she showed in her singing.  Imagine Kathy Bates or Roseanne dressed as Carmen, carrying a big basket of faux flowers.  She would toss the flowers to the audience during her song.  Once she got so carried away she threw the basket.  The audience cried, “ENCORE!”  She sent her pianist into the audience to gather up the props so she could DO IT AGAIN.

A few critics at the time tried to ruin the joke, writing about what an awful singer she was, but by every account of those close to her she laughed it off as “professional jealousy”.  After three decades of public pressure, she emerged from her well-managed fantasy, “performed” in a sold-out Carnegie Hall, and died a month later.

FloFoJo’s life and legend have inspired a documentary (A World of Her Own) and several plays, including Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir.  If Daddy had left me any money, I would make that film.


Filed under humor, Music

31 responses to “Queen of Denial

  1. Where do you find this stuff? I tried to listen, I really did, but a few bars was enough. It’s like the musical equivalent of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” without the cheeky young boy to put an end to the madness. Very interesting stuff.

    • I’m just odd. I have had a lifelong love for odd things, and as explained in the post before this one, I like “bad art”. When you get to be my age, you’ll know about all kinds of things younger people haven’t heard of. I first learned about this lady when an exec from WB played me a recording about 20 years ago. I’m glad you found her story interesting, as I did.

      • I am attracted to “bad art” as well – as is George. When I was with L.A. Opera we had a couple of really “bad art” moments. George, of course, left the theatre talking only of what was the funniest – like when the curtain went up at the wrong time at the back of the stage and all of the stage hands were scurrying around back and forth while the opera was going on. This is really good stuff!

        • I wasn’t entirely aware you guys shared this area of taste with me, though I do seem to recall your performance of a parody (“My Bull” – you wore a cowbell) that should have tipped me off. You should come visit. There are two local venues with audiences that would like George’s work. One’s called the Manresa Castle. It’s the local jazz HQ:
          The other, the Upstage, features all music styles, with jazz alternating:
          Of course you could visit and NOT work too 🙂

  2. It’s like she’s a a laughing gull especially the Strauss one.

    and this one is just funny..

  3. First of all, “FloFoJo’s” totally cracked me up.
    This is brilliant. The joke is on us, however. Here we are enjoying her “talent” all these many years later. FloFoJo lives on.
    I can’t wait to share this.

  4. Pie

    As soon as I saw her picture on this post, I felt a cold chill of recognition. I’ve heard of this lady before, Mikey, and I’ve also heard her. You could find a million ways to describe her awfulness, but it would never be enough.

    Strangely, since I have listened to the clips you kindly posted here, I have found a new appreciation of her! I think in part it’s because I’m much older now than when I first heard her, but also it’s because of her back story. Delusional she may had been, but she got to do what she wanted (leaving aside the financial ability to do so) and she is still being discovered thanks to the internet in general and YouTube in particular. How many of us could say that?

    She was absolutely right when she says that: “some people say I couldn’t sing, but no one could say I didn’t sing.” That’s how you turn a negative into a positive. We could learn something from her.

    I’ll Just add one last thing. When I read that quote it reminded me of the Morecambe and Wise show sketch, which featured Andre Previn. Eric Morecambe is playing terribly on the piano and Previn tells him he’s playing all the wrong notes. This is Morecambe’s response: “I’m playing all the right notes — but not necessarily in the right order.”

    • Thank you, Pie! I’m just beginning to discover M+W, as their work isn’t easy to run into here. I loved this.

      The whole documentary about her life is posted on YouTube, in several parts.

      • Pie

        This is only a small part, of course. There’s a 12 minute version on YouTube where you can enjoy the majesty of possibly their most popular sketch in full. Oh, and give the Shirley Bassey one a whirl when you get a moment.

  5. Mikey,
    A delightful read, and thanks for it. I’ve heard of Florence before, but I hadn’t heard that quote about “couldn’t, didn’t”, which really affected me positively. I had felt really sorry and embarrassed for her when I first heard what her legacy is, because I assumed she’d wanted critical praise. But her quote is brilliant and tells a different story. She wanted to sing. She sang. Ch-ching. Maybe the VERY FIRST audience she sang for could claim they’d been robbed the price of an admission ticket, but everyone thereafter knew what they were buying, even if they were only buying an opportunity to laugh and sneer at someone else’s expense. As I write this, she’s sort of becoming a hero of mine. Like right now. I’m deciding I adore this person for her Emersonian disregard for public opinion. Go FloFoJo, go!

    • Her first audiences were the members of the Verdi Club, and they adored her. She paid for the food too. Her particular combination of passion and insulated self-critique protected her completely. She truly believed she was the equal of any soprano in her time. She had absolute faith in her abilities.

  6. And wasn’t that supposed to be “Murder OF the High Cs”?

  7. lifewith4cats

    After watching your link, I then watched a parrot singing her aria from the youtube recomendation. I couldnt tell the difference between the bird and the woman.
    This woman is admiral for her daring and freedom, ok I give you that. But I do really wonder greatly about her fans. Carnegie hall?!!!

  8. How interesting! Where on Earth did you find out about her and why? She is an absolutely awful singer. I can do almost as good with a voice impairment from my brain injury. Wait a minute, that makes me feel kinda good. 🙂

    I do agree with the basic sentiment above in that she may have been delusional, but she got to do what she loved and is still being talked about. That is the best delusion ever!

    BTW love Pie’s clip! Fun!

    • I used to be a sound engineer in Hollywood (20 years ago), and a friend who was a project manager at Warner Bros. played me a recording because he knew I liked weird stuff. I agree with you about the delusion. It didn’t matter, because she was legitimately providing entertainment whether you loved or couldn’t believe her performances.

  9. wow! I listened to those youtube videoes *which wouldn’t play on this site because of content but it defers you to youtube where if you’re signed in, you may listen fyi* but that backstory is incredible. Goes to show you a lot about the human psyche. It always interested me why people did things just for the sake of doing them. She sold out Carnegie Hall????! that’s saying something about the power of manipulation. We the sheeple….
    Love the post iMikey. as always!

    • Yeah, I knew they wouldn’t play on this site, but thought the links would still be worth the trouble. They have a lot more of her material over there, and it’s all restricted content just like when she was alive and held on to her own tickets.

      The sales psychology angle was a good hook for the story. I’m glad you enjoyed it. (Kymlee’s a singer-songwriter, and some scambag is holding “opportunity” like a carrot just out of her reach.)

      • its ok. I won’t let the guy hold me down, I make my own success. I’m thinking Georgia is where it’s gonna happen 🙂 I’m moving next friday. 🙂

  10. Unbelievable. That is all I can say. Money can certainly buy illusions, if nothing else!

    • I’m always interested to explore the nature of truths and illusions, the unquenchable human capacity for self-delusion (sometimes a survival adaptation) and how much perception dictates reality. Thanks for reading, Robyn.

      • I’ve never been a believer that perception dictates reality. Perception certainly distorts reality in our minds, but the reality is the reality – perhaps none of us actually ever see the reality, however.

        I’ve been reading The Idiot Speaketh’s medico/legal battle. I wonder what the surgeon’s perception of reality was. An extreme case, I grant you, but while Florence may have been delusional, she never actually hurt anyone. Well, apart from their eardrums temporarily! Others’ delusions are more damaging, especially those of grandeur.

  11. A dog I once lived with used to nip at my lips to shut me up when I sang, but are you saying there’s still hope for me yet? ;P

    • Unlike Flo, you can tell when you are improving. Anyone who can breathe without a respirator and whose vocal cords operate (even partially) can learn to sing. Nothin’ to it, but to do it. Next year you won’t need to ask.

      BTW, when my voice changed at age 14 it took me a solid year (2hrs/day, 5 days/week) to widen my range from 4-5 notes back up to 2 1/2 octaves. I have about 3 now, though my tone needs more work.

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