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The Worst Singer in the World

Her given first name was Narcissa, she lost her hair due to mercury treatments, and she did not possess what even the most generous person might call a "good voice." But none of that kept Florence Foster Jenkins from getting on stage and singing her way to Carnegie Hall.
Florence Foster Jenkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Florence Foster Jenkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Inspiration comes o’er/ When your music is heard
In fondest endeavour/ I sing like a bird. —Florence Foster Jenkins

Carnegie Hall was filled past capacity, with lines stretching down 7th Avenue and around 56th Street. The will-call window was demanding IDs. The 76-year-old soprano Florence Foster Jenkins—Madame Jenkins, or, as was her preference, Lady Florence—had rented the hall on her own dime for an operatic recital that would, the following day, be described by Robert Bagan in the New York World-Telegram as “a night of nights in the musical annals of this fair city.” Celebrity gossip columnist Earl Wilson, writing in the Post, was far blunter, calling it “one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen.”

Florence Foster Jenkins was, and will forever be, the worst singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. And more: She is arguably the worst singer to ever devote herself so wholeheartedly to, and fail so fully at, the craft of singing. Wilson summed it up acidly: “She can sing anything but notes.” The records she made—the sole surviving aural evidence of that “craft”—are a cacophony of squawks and screeches; great, careering arcs grasping vertiginously for high Ds, Es, and Fs, that come clucking wildly, frantically down again. She sang in public so consistently—and so consistently badly—that she became one of New York City’s most prominent musical cult figures; since her death in 1944, she’s become one of world’s. The hilarity and, ultimately, the tragedy of Jenkins’ story is that she remained blissfully, utterly convinced of her ability until the bitterest of ends.

It’s a bit like an amateur tightrope walker attempting the Niagara Falls crossing, over and over again, with every first step a spill. And yet, each time she beams, triumphant, insisting she’s made it and in the finest style.

NARCISSA FLORENCE FOSTER WAS born to a prominent family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on July 19, 1868. Her father, Charles Dorrance Foster, had made his fortune in banking and railroads, and young Florence entertained society functions as a child prodigy, seated at the piano as “Little Miss Foster.” When, at 17, she expressed her desire to pursue music professionally, old man Foster forbade it, and she eloped to Philadelphia with a Dr. Jenkins, 16 years her senior. The marriage was short-lived, but the effects of the mercury treatments for the syphilis he gave her were not: Florence lost her hair and kept herself in wigs for the rest of her life. It has also been suggested—tentatively, unconvincingly, and maybe wishfully—that the disease or the treatments thereof permanently compromised her hearing.

After C.D. Foster’s death in 1909, Florence and her mother Mary became the beneficiaries of a sizable trust and moved to New York City, where Florence threw herself into polite society. She joined dozens of social clubs as “chairman of music,” discovering a particular aptitude for directing lavish, full-scale operatic productions before founding her own Verdi Club in 1917. Its founding principle was “the fostering of a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English,” and the reputation of the Club’s opulent functions quickly spread. “President Soprano Hostess Jenkins” swelled the Club’s ranks to over 400 members, with an honorary membership given to Enrico Caruso. By this time, Mme. Jenkins, due to an arm injury, had weaned herself from piano and had dedicated herself exclusively to singing; under the auspices of the Verdi Club she began giving vocal recitals in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton. They featured ornate sets, multitudinous costume changes, and concluding tableux-vivants after which Jenkins might take two, four, six curtain calls, all the while blanketing the stage and the audience alike with tossed blossoms. These affairs, too—for which she would foot the ample bills—soon developed their own reputation.

To simply say that Florence Foster Jenkins was an awful singer doesn’t do justice to what she accomplished—“committed” might be a better word—with her voice. It’s likely that, in the age of American Idol and The Voice and all the rest, we’ve inured ourselves to public displays of arrhythmic and tuneless singing, but those particular butcheries tend to be directed at material largely drawn from the popular canon. And while Lady Jenkins’ repertoire did include art-song chestnuts—as well as contemporary compositions, like those by her longtime accompanist, the sublimely named Cosmé McMoon (which was not, even more sublimely, a pseudonym)—her primary targets were the world’s most difficult coloratura and dramatic arias, from Faust, Rigoletto, Aida, the Magic Flute. It’s a bit like an amateur tightrope walker attempting the Niagara Falls crossing, over and over again, with every first step a spill. And yet, each time she beams, triumphant, insisting she’s made it and in the finest style.

Mme. Jenkins’ safety net was composed of the society gadabouts who attended her Verdi Club doings. It doesn’t seem fair to call them sycophants—Jenkins was well-to-do but not rich, and of course had no chance of ever advancing beyond the rankest amateurism, so her audiences couldn’t have been flattering her for any hope or promise of reward. But she was so completely naive of her talentlessness that propriety, in a surprisingly gracious spirit, came to dictate her congratulation and encouragement. McMoon, in an interview in the 1970s, explained the somehow tender delicacy with which spectators simultaneously indulged their mirth and sustained Jenkins’ fantasy: “The audience, not wanting to hurt her feelings, developed a convention that whenever she came to a particularly excruciating discord, where they had to laugh, they burst into these salvos of applause and whistles, and the noise was so great that they could laugh at liberty.”

As Jenkins became more and more assured of herself and her art, her notoriety grew. In 1941, she cut a vanity record at the Melotone label’s studios in Midtown; when it sold out, she made another. Her announcement of that second record read: “Following the sell-out of Mme. Jenkins’ record of [the Bell Song from] ‘Lakmé’, there have been innumerable requests for another of her recordings. With the intention of fulfilling the popular request, Mme. Jenkins has made a double record, ‘The Queen of the Night,’ by Mozart, and the ‘Serenata Mexicana’ by McMoon.”

It sold briskly. Donald Collup, in his documentary film on Jenkins, A World of Her Own (which provides the most complete biography of the singer to date), quotes an unidentified reviewer: “This record will give the listener more of a kick that the same amount invested ($2.50) in tequila, zubrowka, or marijuana.” Jenkins got a kick of her own with a guessing game. She would play three recordings of the “Queen of the Night” aria from the Magic Flute—the first two by professional divas; the third her own—and ask her guests to vote on which they deemed the finest. Only once, Collup says, was a ballot cast for another diva. Jenkins “vehemently questioned their taste and explained that hers was the perfect recording ... [and accused] them of being unable to discern such vocal talent as hers.”

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS CUT nine sides, all of which remain extant—they’ve never, in fact, gone out of print—and it’s safe to assume they are at least an adequate aural representation of the spectacle that filled Carnegie Hall near to bursting at her debut on October 25, 1944. The only photograph that survives from that evening shows the audience minutes before the house lights went down for Act I. The scene is electric, giddy. There are big, toothy smiles and animated gestures. One of the most lively faces, upon closer inspection, turns out to be Cole Porter’s. Some of the foremost stars of the Metropolitan Opera were in attendance, as was composer Andre Kostelanetz. It’s said that actress Tallulah Bankhead was asked to leave due to disorderly conduct. After Jenkins’ singing of Valverde’s “Clavelitos,” during which she tossed flowers to the crowd, the ovations were so sustained that she sang it again, compelling McMoon, meantime, to collect all the flowers for a redux.  There was curtain call after curtain call. Dancer and actress Marge Champion, in an archival interview included in Collup’s film, recalled the hangover: “We had sore muscles in our stomachs the next day as we laughed so hard and so long.”

The aftermath for Jenkins was far worse. Her long-time agent, publicist, and (allegedly) common-law husband, the actor St. Clair Bayfield, told a reporter that upon seeing the reviews, she was crushed. “She did not know, you see,” he sighed, pulling back the final curtain. Five days later, Jenkins suffered a heart attack; a month later, she was dead.

Poet William Meredith wrote that what Florence Foster Jenkins “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.” But though Lady Florence was ultimately devoured, she wasn’t always so. Nearly all of her life she remained suspended in and protected by the relative safety of a wholly enveloping delusion, all encompassing from within and entirely transparent from without. When propriety could sustain it no longer, it shattered and she fell. But until then, all those cheers, ovations, bouquets—they had been real. “People may say I can’t sing,” Florence Foster Jenkins famously declared, in a touching moment of lucidity. “But no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”