This is my second post about Florence Foster Jenkins. The first can be found here. In it I wrote that there were plans to make a movie about her life in 2015 staring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. As it turned out, two movies inspired by her life were released in 2016. The first was a fictional French film called Marguerite, a 2015 comedy and drama film directed by Xavier Giannoli and written by Giannoli and Marcia Romano, loosely inspired by the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. It received eleven nominations at the 41st César Awards, winning for Best Actress,Best Costume Design, Best Sound, and Best Production Design (source, Wikipedia).
Here are two trailers for that movie.
The second movie is the one mentioned in my first post. Not only were two movies inspired by Florence released this year (2016) but there are two books to be released this year.
The following is an extract from the first book – Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by
We live in a society that laps up the mundane: thanks to TV shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and the like our homes are invaded by bad singers on a weekly basis, and today it seems as if anyone can become a star for a week or two, although that very same celebrity is as disposable as a blunt razor. Florence wasn’t just a bad singer: we have evidence that proves that she was a stratospherically, catastrophically awful one. And yet it was her limitations that catapulted her to real, lasting stardom and to ceaseless celebrity. Bad singers usually bring out feelings of revulsion, pity or disgust thanks to their dreadfully off-pitch squealing, but Florence never fails to make the listener smile, to elicit feelings of genuine warmth towards her. As St. Clair Bayfield, her lover, manager and unflinching supporter, once put it: “She only ever thought of making other people happy.”
The second book is due to be released on 12 July 2016 according to Amazon.com and is by two authors. I will quote from it after the trailer for the movie.
In their book Florence Foster Jenkins, Jasper Rees tells her extraordinary story, which inspired the film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, and directed by Stephen Frears. The book includes Nicholas Martin’s funny, moving and inspirational screenplay; and archive photographs from various arhives and collections, as well as colour stills from the movie.
I quote from the beginning of the Prologue in the book:
On the evening of Wednesday 25 October 1944 something like two thousand people were shut out of Carnegie Hall. Crowded onto the New York City sidewalk, some waved S2o bills in an effort to persuade their way in, even though the most expensive tickets, long since sold out, officially cost S3. They could only watch as Cole Porter walked through the doors of the most hallowed concert hall in America, there to be joined by the much-loved superstar soprano Lily Pons, and the queen of burlesque Gypsy Rose Lee. Some say they saw Tallulah Bankhead swan in too. The old hall also swarmed with journalists eager to witness a phenomenon.
The night before, Frank Sinatra was on the same stage at an election rally in support of President F. D. Roosevelt. The night after, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed under the baton of Artur Rodzi’nski. But on 25 October it was the turn of Florence Foster Jenkins, a sizeable woman in her mid-seventies who had recently released a series of recordings. It was these – including her versions of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria and Delibes’s “Indian Bell Song” – which had created such a feverish thirst to be there.
The evening has no real right to be remembered on so important a day in the history of the world: 25 October 1944 is such a pivotal date that there is a whole book about it – One Day in a Very Long War by John Ellis. In the Philippines the Battle of Leyte Gulf became the largest naval conflict in history, in which for the first time the Imperial Japanese Navy deployed kamikaze suicide bombers against US warships. In Europe, the last Romanian city under German occupation was liberated by Romanian and Soviet forces, who also pushed the Wehrmacht from their Norwegian base in Kirkenes, while Bomber Command and the US Air Force took part in daylight raids against Essen, Homberg and Hamburg.
Meanwhile, back in New York, the cover of the recital programme featured a photograph of a stately lady wearing, over short permed brown hair, a tiara with a diadem mounted in the centre. A heavy necklace plunged past her low neckline towards two tentatively clasped hands. On her left hand was a thumb ring. Her eyes were beady and her jaw firm. On a mid-blue background, and under black capitals blazing her name, were the words “Coloratura Soprano”.
Inside the programme, bona fides advised of previous triumphs. Madame Jenkins, as she liked to be known, “possesses a marked individuality in style and piquancy in her interpretations”. So reported the New York Journal-American. A Dr B. B. James (publication unattributed) confirmed that a recent audience in the federal capital “included persons in the political, cultural and intellectual society of Washington”, all of them “critically minded hearers”. The New York Daily Mirror hailed “a personage of authority and indescribable charm” whose annual recitals “bring unbounded joy”.
These notices were in accordance with more or less everything that had ever been written about “Lady Florence” (another of her preferred modes of address). She had been singing to select audiences since the 1910s, mostly in the protected world of the women’s clubs which flourished in great profusion in New York City from the turn of the century. In 1917 she founded her own society and called it the Verdi Club, to whose members she later began singing in an annual recital in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Press coverage was not solicited, other than from the Musical Courier, a trade paper whose friendly discretion could be relied upon, indeed bought. The recitals acquired a cult following and, apart from the odd exuberant heckler, for years no one publicly said the salient and obvious thing about Florence Foster Jenkins: that she was a remarkably talentless singer. Instead they cheered and clapped and stifled their guffaws by stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths.
In 1941 those recordings introduced her feeble voice and drastic pitching to a wider public, and word started to travel. Then came Carnegie Hall. Supported by a pianist, a flautist and a string quartet, she proceeded to massacre a variety of tunes in a variety of outlandish costumes. The three thousand who crammed Carnegie Hall as it had never been crammed before raised such a commotion that her accompanist Cosme McMoon judged the recital “the most remarkable thing that has happened there”. Her assault on the famous aria from The Magic Flute had all the trappings of a brilliant comedic tour de force as she persistently failed to reach the stipulated notes. But it wasn’t meant to be funny, any more than her rendition of “Clavelitos”, a short, flirtatious song in the Hispanic idiom which pushed the audience to fresh peaks of hysteria. As Florence lobbed rosebuds into the audience from a basket on her arm, one uncontrollable actress had to be removed from her box. In such a frenzied atmosphere it is hard to imagine anyone creating enough of a disturbance to warrant ejection, and yet apparently it happened. The instant demand for an encore meant that poor McMoon had to make his way down into the stalls to retrieve the flowers. The pleasure – and the pain – was even more intense the second time round. And throughout the evening Madame Jenkins interpreted the gales of laughter and waves of applause as a genuine acknowledgement of her art. Afterwards, her guests mingled with her onstage. “Don’t you think I had real courage to sing the Queen of the Night again,” she said to one of them, “after that wonderful recording I made of it at the studio?”
The next morning news spread far across the United States. “Mme Jenkins, if you haven’t heard, and the chances are you haven’t, is a lady who gives song recitals because there’s no law against it.” That was the Milwaukee Journal. “She takes the songs that bring out the best in Lily Pons and permits them to bring out her worst. And the worst of Mme Jenkins, you are herewith assured, is something awful.” Earl Wilson of the New York Post reported that Florence Foster Jenkins could “sing anything but notes”. “Hey, You Music Lovers!” ran the headline above his report. “I Heard Madame Jenkins. “ Describing her recital as “one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen”, his column – he was not a music journalist – pondered the discrepancy between the serious demeanour of the performer and the unbridled jollity of the audience. On the way out Wilson bumped into a man he described as the singer’s personal representative, whose name he transcribed as Sinclair Bayfield.
“Why?” Wilson asked.
“She loves music,” said St Clair Bayfield, an Englishman in his late sixties who for many years had been a minor Broadway actor. There was only one question Wilson could ask next.
“If she loves music, why does she do this?”
“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” That’s what Florence Foster Jenkins is reported to have said towards the end of her life. It certainly sounds like her. She lived for music and she loved to perform. She refused, utterly and triumphantly, to dwell on her limitations as a singer or to be cowed by those who mocked her. Indeed there is a poignant possibility that Florence simply could not hear those limitations. Audiences certainly rejoiced in her sincerity, and the pleasure she derived from entertaining them. Her performances, by dint of sheer charisma, somehow transcended technique. So inspirational is her example that even the greatest singers have found a place in their hearts for her. In 1968 the young Barbra Streisand was asked by New York magazine which other singers she’d like to be: “Ray Charles and Florence Foster Jenkins,” she said. For Vanity Fair in 2003 David Bowie nominated The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, the RCA album of Florence’s recordings released in 1962, as one of the 25 LPs that he counted as his greatest discoveries. (The only other soprano listed among all the blues, jazz and rock was Gundula Janowitz singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs.)
Nowadays Florence is not alone. One of the reasons why her extraordinary story resonates, long after the great prima donnas to whom she absurdly compared herself have been forgotten, is that there are Florences all around us: less than entirely talented performers who nonetheless have a yearning to be heard. Latter-day incarnations of Florence audition on The X Factor or America’s Got Talent and, like her, are mystified by the howls of ridicule. Florence is their patron saint. As Cosme McMoon explained, “She thought she was great.”
And yet Florence was also a complete one-off. It is almost always overlooked that she was a passionate, serious and hugely knowledgeable lover of music, and an impresario who for thirty-five years was a very significant patron of young talent in New York. Some of the burgeoning stars of opera were grateful for her friendship. If her pursuit of audience approval manifested an unconscious need to heal some sort of psychic wound – and it certainly looks that way – the cause lies somewhere in what went before. Earl Wilson passed on a story he heard that Florence’s musical ambitions were blocked by her parents and then her husband, only to be liberated after all of them had died. It’s a neat fairy tale. But is it a true fairy tale?
In general terms, hers is a story of her time.
The music in the following playlist is from the movie soundtrack.
Track 1 is my favourite. It is lushly orchestrated, beautiful and yet purveys a deep feeling of sadness. Track 2 bring me back and destroys the mood and the feeling of sadness. Here we have “Florence” in all her glory in stereo and hi-fi sound.
I have placed track 7 (The Bell Song sung by Aida Garifullina) before track 8 (The Bell Song sung by Meryl Streep as Florence to give you a clear comparison of Florence with a good singer. Track 9 is Florence herself with Cosme McMoon accompanying her on the piano.
Track 13 is a sequence where Florence is dreaming and in the dream she is singing like she thinks she does. It gives Meryl Streep the opportunity to show her own singing ability. I really enjoyed her in Mamma Mia.
The following is the beginning of the screen play – the beginning of the movie (the titles) and possible titles to be show on screen to show the time and location. I did not understand the use of (beat) in the screenplay so I did a Google search and Wikipedia advises “A beat is the timing and movement of a film or play. In the context of a screenplay, it usually represents a pause in dialogue. In the context of the timing of a film, a beat refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal.” And I suppose (cont’d) indicates that Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant) is still continuing with his remarks to the audience.
BASED ON TRUE EVENTS – 1944
INT. COMMODORE HOTEL / BALLROOM – NIGHT
Bayfield, the showman in tails, is on stage before a 150-strong AUDIENCE of well-to-do New Yorkers. To one side of the stage, a small orchestra of about 10 MUSICIANS. To the other; a sign which reads “The Verdi Club” Bayfield, 50s, a macho-camp man of the theatre, is in his element.
BAYFIELD ‘Swounds, I should take it, for it cannot be, But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall, To make oppression bitter, or ere this, I should have fatted all the region kites, With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! O vengeance!
The Audience is a little taken aback by his theatrics but applause begins to build.
BAYFIELD Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you. That was of course the speech of Hamlet’s, from a play I was lucky enough to perform in on several occasions, though not as yet in the principal role.
Our next tableau features someone who has devoted herself to the musical life of this city. Amongst others she is patron of the Euterpe Club, of the Brooklyn Orchestra for Distressed Gentlewomen as well as, of course, our very own Verdi Club. Let us journey back in time to 1850 and the state of Alabama…
The plush velvet curtains open to reveal the music room of a grand plantation mansion. Accompanying music.
The Audience gasps at the splendid sight.
A PIANIST, 50s, playing Stephen Foster dressed in frock coat, is tinkling away at the piano.
BAYFIELD (cont’d) America’s greatest popular songwriter, Stephen Foster, has run out of ideas! He’s a desperate man …
The Pianist tries to write a few notes on the score but sighs in frustration before screwing up the sheet and tossing it on the floor, where it joins many others. He buries his head in his hands – he’s a terrible actor. The Audience laughs.
BAYFIELD (cont’d) But wait, what is this?
At the side of the stage, STAGEHANDS heave on ropes.
The Audience gasps as FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, 65, dressed in a white gown, pouf hat, and wearing magnificent white wings “descends” from on high holding a golden harp. She really is an extraordinary vision.
BAYFIELD (cont’d) It is the Angel of Inspiration, sent from on high!
With her index finger extended, she touches the Pianist on the temple, bestowing upon him the gift of Inspiration. The Audience gasps some more and applauds.
A little hesitantly, Foster begins to pick out the familiar tune of “Oh Susanna!”
BAYFIELD At last! Stephen Foster can write his song!
STEPHEN FOSTER (singing) “I came from Alabama with my banjo on my knee…”
The Audience love this and clap along. As the song reaches its climax, Foster is joined onstage by actors playing his FAMILY and SERVANTS.
ALL (singing) “Oh Susannah, won’t you marry me …”
The Stagehands struggle with their ropes. Florence is quite a weight! STAGEHAND #1 Hold her! Hold her! Keep her steady!
The song finishes with a flourish and Bayfield steps centre stage as the Audience applauds.
BAYFIELD Bravo! Bravo! The Angel of Inspiration – Madam Florence Foster Jenkins!
The curtain falls to loud cheering and enthusiastic applause.
Above is The Angel of Inspiration – Madam Florence Foster Jenkins herself. The photo is from the book, with the caption – “At the Ball of the Silver Skylarks in 1940, Florence cast herself as the winged inspiration of the great American composer Stephen Foster when re-enacting Howard Chandler Christy’s painting ‘Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration’. Newspapers had much fun with this image.”
Here are two more photos from the book –
“In 1937, Life magazine sent the photographer Margaret Bourke-White to capture one of Florence’s private gatherings in her Seymour Hotel apartment for its series ‘Life Goes to a Party’. Here, Florence sings for her guests. The photographs were never published.”
“Carnegie Hall, New York, in the 1930s, capacity 3,000. The night before Florence’s performance, Frank Sinatra had appeared there at a Democrat rally.”
The address of Carnegie Hall is 881 7th Avenue – but the front seems to be in West 57th Street. I’m intrigued by the double-decker bus crossing the streets, and the design of the taxi parked across the street (7th Avenue) from the camera.
About the Authors and the book:
Nicholas Martin has worked as a croupier, a labourer, a bouncer and a barman. In his early twenties he worked at sea as a deck hand and later as a yacht captain. He then worked as a journalist, contributing to The Sunday Times, the Guardian and various magazines, before graduating from the National Film and Television School as a screenwriter in 1992. He wrote extensively for TV before writing Florence Foster Jenkins for Pathe. He lives in London.
Jasper Rees is an arts journalist and author who has contributed regularly to many British publications. His books include I Found My Horn: One Man’s Struggle with the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument (published in the US as A Devil to Play) and Bred of Heaven: One Man’s Quest to Reclaim His Welsh Roots. He lives in London.
Florence Foster Jenkins was first published 2016 by Pan Books an imprint of Pan Macmillan 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR Associated companies throughout the world. www.panmacmillan.com ISBN 978-1-5098-2468-7