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Florence Foster Jenkins: How the world's worst singer sold out Carnegie Hall

A world exclusive featurette explores the fascinating woman behind acclaimed director Stephen Frears' latest film

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 19 April 2016 15:28 BST

Stephen Frears’ new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, explores a very peculiar tale in musical history; of one of its ultimate underdogs, transformed in the confident hands of Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep into most lovely of tributes to the purity of naiveté and to the validity of the wildest of aspirations. "It's about a love for music; but a love of life, I guess, even more," star Simon Helberg beautifully summarises. ​

Born Narcissa Florence Foster, the film's titular dame was daughter to one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent lawyers and bankers; yet dreamed only of arias and of lieder. Of Mozart, Verdi, and Brahms. Her vast wealth afforded those ambitions; it allowed her to stand on stage, wrapped in tulle and tinsel, bearing huge gold wings while declaring herself the "Angel of Inspiration". Nothing would dampen these pursuits, not even author Stephen Pile's declaration that she was "the world's worst opera singer".

Call it ironic delight, but Florence somehow managed to acquire quite a monumental audience in her time. Performing in New York City in the closing years of World War II, her blissful lack of self-awareness may have proved a much needed morale boost, especially at a time when even the arts scene had come under ration. Indeed, Cole Porter reportedly never missed a concert of hers, even going so far as to compose a piece especially for her.

A world exclusive featurette for the film delves into the odd and fascinating life of its titular socialite.

Florence Foster Jenkins Featurette

Yet, wealth is the creator of islands; it shipwrecks the privileged as to isolate them in their own taffeta-lined delusions. Florence was a woman so shrouded in her own wealth that the derisive laughter of her audiences mutated into applause in her own ears. Though light and comic in its tone, Frears’ treatment of Florence's life poses a much deeper question here: is she to blame for her own delusions? Were they the product of misdirected kindness from those who loved her? Or worse, the drive of sycophancy?

Florence was birthed in love with music; receiving piano lessons as a child, but deemed as worth nothing more by her parents. Her long-time piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (played by Helberg in the film) claims it was due to the "excruciating quality of her voice." Florence would likely rather have dismissed her lack of support as the usual trials and struggles of the great artiste.

Determined to become a great soprano, she left home and married local physician Francis Thornton Jenkins; yet they divorced in 1902, and her attempts to earn a wage in piano teaching left her near destitute. But, she was still an heiress by name; some of her father’s wealth passed to her after his death in 1909, and she began taking voice lessons in a spirited return to her ambitions.

By 1908, she had met St. Clair Bayfield (played onscreen by Hugh Grant): a stage actor who promised the ‘in’ with New York’s theatre society. Florence's real ‘in’, however, was her wealth; her mother’s death in 1928 made her the sole heir to her family’s considerable fortune, and opened the doors to her future self-made notoriety.

Initially faced only with an onslaught of criticism; her voice sharp, pitchy, and largely unbearable to the human ear, she took to staging her own recitals. Furthermore, she actively placed herself in the centre of the city’s cultural lifeblood; chairing the Euterpe Club’s yearly living tableaux events, serving as president of the American League of Pen Women, and founding the Verdi Club seen at the opening of Frears’ film.

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Florence’s delusion had become all consuming; Francis Robinson, assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera, once wrote on how an accident in a taxicab led Florence to gift her driver with a box of Havana cigars, after claiming it allowed her to sing "a higher F than ever before." Unfortunately, no one could actually hear this note she claimed she was now divinely gifted with.

Between the late ‘30s and ‘40s, Florence produced five 78-rpm records for New York’s Melotone label, containing nine operatic arias. She sold them to her friends for $2.50 each, but they quickly spread through the upper crusts of society and became something of a collector’s item. Recordings of her live performances sold under the names of Florence Foster Jenkins and Friends: Murder on the High Cs or A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!!

"People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing"  

&#13; <p>Florence Foster Jenkins, as quoted by Meltone Recording Studios in 1946.</p>&#13;

Florence’s big moment and the climax of Frears’ film, however, saw her grace the stage of the legendary Carnegie Hall – at her expense, of course. On 25 October 1944, Florence performed all of her most beloved selections in what is said to be the fastest sold-out concert in the hall’s history; with fans eagerly forking out twenty dollars to scalpers for the two-dollar tickets. It had sold out even than Sinatra faster, Streep’s own Florence so enthusiastically declares; with 2,000 turned away at the door.

"Howls of laughter drowned Mme. Jenkins's celestial efforts. Where stifled chuckles and occasional outbursts had once sufficed at the Ritz, unabashed roars were the order of the evening at Carnegie," Newsweek scoffed; but popularity is popularity, however won.

It’s as if Florence’s soul knew she had been enshrined in musical history with that performance; a month and one day after her performance, she suffered a heart attack and passed away at her residence in the Hotel Seymour.

Florence Foster Jenkins hits UK cinemas 6 May.

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