She sold out Carnegie Hall in the fastest time ever, her costumes were the wildest to grace a stage – and as Lady Florence, she genuinely did good works. As Florence Foster Jenkins makes a big screen entrance, Adam Smith tells us why she was so loved
As Florence Foster Jenkins makes her big screen entrance, Adam Smith tells us why she was so loved:
1. She had absolutely no idea how bad she was. Critics were barred from her performances, and any that did sneak through were dismissed as spies planted by her musical rivals. Audiences helped out, disguising the inevitable laughter with whistles and cheers.
2. She did not do retakes of her infamous recordings. Incapable of imagining that she had delivered a bum note she refused her producer’s entreaties to sing again and the cuts are, for the most part, her unadulterated first efforts.
3. She acknowledged those who helped her on the way up. When she was involved in a taxi crash in 1943 she screeched in fear and was delighted to discover that her voice, she imagined, could now reach “a higher F than ever before”. She gave the taxi driver a large box of pricey cigars as a reward.
4. The records she made became huge hits for the Melotone record label and have been repeatedly reissued in the years since her death, often with new, and less than flattering titles, including: Florence Foster Jenkins and Friends: Murder On The High Cs (Naxos Nostalgia 2003) and A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!! (RCA Victor, 1954).
5. She always gave audiences their money’s worth. Often after throwing roses into the audience during an encore she would jump down off the stage, scurry round picking them all up, and throw them again during an encore to the encore, much to the crowd’s inevitable delight.
6. She was the source of some of the funniest music criticism of all time. “What she provided was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience: it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end,” opined William Meredith, opera critic forThe Hudson Review.
7. She had legions of celebrity fans. As well as her adoring public, Jenkins’ groupies included composer Cole Porter, and opera stars Lily Pons and Enrico Caruso, while David Bowie and Barbra Streisand are among her more contemporary admirers.
8. Her costumes were among the wildest ever to grace a stage: audience favourites included her giant pair of wings (the “Angel of Inspiration”) and a tent-like 18th-century ball gown. She would often accessorise her ensembles with a parasol that she would enthusiastically twirl, or ostrich feathers with which she fanned herself.
9. She was a genuine patron of the arts. She founded the Verdi Club, performed regularly for military and artistic charities, and was president of the American League of Pen Women.
10. Her final concert sold out Carnegie Hall. More than 2,000 music buffs had to be turned away from her final, unforgettable performance, which was the fastest sell-out in the venue’s history. Sadly some of the criticism may have finally hit home, with one reviewer complaining in print of “dizziness, a headache and ringing in the ears”. She died within a month, many thought of a broken heart.
• Florence Foster Jenkins is released on 6 May 2016