“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.