Florence Foster Jenkins
By Charlotte White
“Tinga ling aling a ling a ling,” touted the insistent telephone early, early on a Sunday morning, awaking us from a deep sleep.
I was going to ignore it but I always feel there may be something special, an emergency, that I must not miss. So I answered. The voice at the other end was a little squeaky and said proudly,
“Are you Charlotte White, the pianist? I am Florence Foster Jenkins, the famed soprano. I heard you in concert just the other day and I felt you might be perfect as my accompanist. I have been searching extensively for the right person but of all you are the most interesting. I’m giving a concert tonight at the Park Lane Hotel and I would like to invite you and then perhaps we can go upstairs to my apartment where I live and we can have a talk about what this work involves. Oh yes, by the way, if I should suddenly stop speaking, you’ll know I’m saving my voice so I don’t want to talk too much now. Will you come?”
I had heard many rumors about Florence Foster Jenkins and amusing ones so I didn’t want to miss this and I said yes, I’d love to come.
“I will leave two tickets for you at a desk in the lobby. See you tonight, good-bye.”
That night, I appeared in the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel and as promised I found two tickets waiting for me. It was nice of her to consider the fact that I might enjoy the concert more fully if I could share my impressions with those of a friend who came with me.
We waited eagerly until the lights went down and that was the signal for Florence to come onstage. It was almost shocking to see her getup. She was wearing a hat that looked like an old lampshade and a costume full of jingling appendages. That was shock number one. Shock number two, which was more forceful than the first, was her voice. She opened her program with a bele song from Lakme. Each note was completely out of tune, either a quarter tone above or a quarter tone below and caused the audience to laugh and giggle because she was at that point more of a comedian than a serious operatic soprano (as she enjoyed calling herself).
Looking around the room, the audience seemed very odd as well. Most of them were older women and men. The women dressed in gowns that looked as if they had been hidden in mothballs in a trunk for many years and taken out for such special occasions. Obviously these were the friends of Florence. This was the first time I ever heard her sing and it was a joke funnier than any prepared comedian’s routine, because she gave the impression that she was really a great singer and out of that mouth came distortion after distortion.
Her husband, who I met after the concert, was also there and he had the appearance, as my companion expressed, of a starved out gaunt-looking herring. She very proudly greeted the guests after her performance.
Every song in the program was as distorted as her opening aria. She chose to sing only very famous, supposedly lyrical arias from very well-known operas. The audience came originally because she was touted as a famous opera singer (and the audience seemed to be opera fans), and they surely knew these works extremely well having heard them at the Met with outstanding voices performing. She sang some colatura pieces, which were funniest of all because of the speed or the tempo and missing the mark each time by singing notes that were never there. So she left a crowd of her friends laughing but trying to give the impression afterwards that she was really very, very good. When Florence Foster Jenkins was asked about the people who laughed, she said they did that because they were jealous of her.
At any rate, we wound up in Florence’s lavish apartment after the concert. It certainly had a style: it was very dark with massive amounts of furniture, sofa after sofa where I bumped myself not expecting to see so many sofas placed one in front of another. Of course there was a little slim vase with one rose sitting on her piano which looked like a very good piano (it was a Steinway). We finally found a place to sit down.
She quoted a fee that I should get if I accepted this job. As much as I and my family needed money at that time, since my father had died and left my mother alone to support three children, I just couldn’t bring myself to accept the tempting offer. She was ready to pay a lavish fee for each concert and each rehearsal. I had to say no, since as a musician of my standards I simply could not listen to that voice continuously for any fee.
Imagine my surprise when it was announced that Florence Foster Jenkins was going to make her formal debut, at Carnegie Hall no less. I had to be there! Of course she had found another accompanist since I refused, a rather nice-looking young man, and his name was Cosmi McMoon, which sounded to me like a made-up name. I went to the concert and the large Carnegie Hall was filled to the rafters with musicians, all of whom had heard about her and had come to be amused and laugh. And they did. I believe one of the audience fainted in the midst of such intense laughter. I was really surprised to learn that many of my musician idols were there. They also wanted to make a joke of this weird singer.
She did her regular routine at Carnegie Hall, singing the same famous arias, and changing costume for each song. For the opera Salame, she wore a bare midriff gown (and she was not slim enough to carry it off). I don’t quite remember at this late date all the details of the gowns she chose for each presentation but whatever they were, they were also enough to shock the audience that a woman of that age and size could carry them off with confidence, presenting herself as the seductive and gorgeous Salame. And to top it off, she added her unbelievable voice to the whole package.
The rumor that floated around was that she had really lost her hearing because of a bout with syphilis which she caught from a previous husband. But the amazing thing to me was the fact that she didn’t seem to hear the distortions and truly felt herself to be a great prima donna.
I was surprised to learn recently that a movie was being made about her life. My daughter called and invited me to see the movie with her, even though I am nearly blind because of macular degeneration and hadn’t gone to a movie in years. But I thought it still might be interesting for the sound, which I could hear, and to compare the facts that I knew about the woman with what they showed on the film. On the film they depicted her comical debut with a Carnegie Hall filled with military personnel. I was there and saw just a few military uniforms. They were mostly musicians and many that I knew. It sounded logical that she had lost her full sense of hearing because of a disease and as they put it, it was syphilis. But she became very famous despite that.
Many artists dream of making a debut at Carnegie Hall, the pinnacle of all famous concert halls, renowned for presenting the greatest performances and artists of the day. And here was what I would call a complete phony, except that she really and truly believed that she was especially gifted and deserved recognition as one of the greats.
Several weeks after her debut she was found lying unconscious on 57th street. This eventually was diagnosed as a heart attack which had caused her death. She must have died a happy woman since she made it giving her debut at Carnegie Hall to a full and enthusiastic house. Whether she was aware of their laughter I do not know, but even if she was, she always felt those who laughed were just jealous rivals. And so her career turned out to be a huge success, converting beauty into an amusing joke.