When a talented artist achieves fame and artistic renown despite appalling reviews from critics, we say good for them. When a critic’s panning of a lackluster artist keeps their work from our movie screens and museums, we say good for us.
It’s a rare occurrence for an artist to cross this divide, taking their lack of talent to the bank for a hefty withdrawal of fame, fortune and fans. In 1912 Florence Foster Jenkins began a journey towards doing exactly that.
This is a story about following your dreams, no matter what others may think.
When Florence’s father refused to bankroll her operatic training in Europe, she eloped to Philadelphia to marry Frank Thornton Jenkins. Having put her dream of a singing career on hold for years, Florence returned to New York and began performing in 1912. Her father’s death in 1909 had provided her with the funds to self-produce recitals and charity benefit concerts starring herself.
Florence quickly developed a following, though not for the reasons she would have liked. Despite being known among her friends in New York’s high society as “modest in all things,” there was one area of her life that no one could persuade her of: her complete lack of musical talent. Her fans, in fact, were packing out concert halls to laugh at her well-known caterwauling.
Florence would not listen to criticism of her performances, though. She was utterly convinced that she had great operatic talent, and believed that anyone who laughed at her or called her names which many did (like her common nickname, the ‘diva of din’), did so out of “professional jealousy” or adoration.
Florence was so dedicated to her ‘art’ (A.K.A. “a sound like alley cats pitching whoopee”) that she actually screened the general public who wanted to attend her concerts. Audience members were allowed to purchase tickets only after proving that they were genuine music lovers.
Her career flourished – not despite her woeful performances, but because of them. Audience members paid up to ten times the original price for scalped tickets to hear Florence screech her way through classics like Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Strauss.
Her long-suffering accompanist Cosmé McMoon reportedly made adjustments to compensate for Florence’s mistakes and tempo variations. McMoon was also in charge of collecting the roses, rose basket and castanets she threw into the audience during one of her regular numbers, the Spanish waltz “Clevelitos.” She would then repeat the number, prop-hurling and all, for her encore.
Having performed to such limited audiences (mostly made up of elite guests from the music business or New York’s upper class whom she invited personally), Florence finally yielded to public demand by appearing at Carnegie Hall in 1944. The one-night event sold out weeks in advance and more than 2000 people were turned away.
A week after her greatest concert, Florence suffered a heart attack. She died just one month after her Carnegie Hall appearance.
Although Florence was the subject of derision by the masses, she is something of an enigma as well. Young artists are often told to develop a thick skin in order to succeed; Florence had the thickest skin I’ve ever heard of. To know of her (many, many) detractors and brush them off is a feat in itself. She is often quoted as having said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Florence dreamed of being an opera singer, and she did it regardless of what people said about her. By doing so, she achieved something far more important: as her World-Telegram obituary said, “she was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”
In case you’re curious about the dubious talents of Florence Foster Jenkins, here’s a recording of her performing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria from The Magic Flute. You be the judge.