There seems to be a push in Hollywood for films based on true stories. Embellished as they may be to make the story more exciting, most are pretty good and add rather than take away from the events that made it worthy of a Hollywood film in the first place. Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is no exception. Some of these films are about people a lot of us have never even heard of. I for one have never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins. I must say, it was my loss. It appears that Florence, an American socialite and flamboyant dresser, loved music more than life. She became a prominent musical cult figure in NYC from the 1920s through the 1940s. Madame or Lady Jenkins (as she liked to be called) loved to sing however, she was known for her poor singing abilities and allegedly had no idea how she actually sounded but sang anyway with the help of her beloved husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), her voice coach, Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and her concert pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). Florence was born to wealthy parents on July 19, 1868 in Pennsylvania. She was labeled “Little Miss Foster” because of her lifelong passion for public performance, which included a recital at the White House during the President Rutherford B. Hayes administration. At the age of 7, she was considered a child prodigy, as she was an accomplished pianist. An arm injury ended her aspirations as a pianist, so she turned to singing but not until her mother passed in 1930.
Florence had difficulty with basic vocal skills as pitch, rhythm and sustaining notes and phrases. Her intonation was inaccurate and she was consistently flat. She also deviated from the proper pitch and her diction was substandard, especially foreign language lyrics. A great many songs she tried to sing were technically challenging and beyond her ability and vocal range.
There may have been a reason she was so awful at a talent she loved so much. After high school, she wanted to study music in Europe. Her father refused to grant his permission or the funds for her to do so. At the age of 17, she eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins. She learned that she contracted syphilis from him and terminated their marriage immediately never speaking to him again. Back then, the treatment for Syphilis was Mercury and Arsenic. Florence’s difficulties were possibly attributable to the effects of the disease, which in the era before antibiotics caused progressive deterioration of the central nervous system. Nerve damage may have been compounded by toxic side effects, such as hearing loss from mercury and arsenic.
At the age of 41, Florence met St. Clair Bayfield, a 34 year old handsome actor who became her manager and unofficial 2nd husband until her death on November 26, 1944. Florence Foster Jenkins is quite the story — you may think you have gotten an earful already but there is so much more I haven’t even touched upon. This is a scenario I’ve often thought of but have never encountered. For instance, why didn’t she know how she sounded? You might wonder how she was married a second time to a handsome man that was so much younger than she (and the bigger question) when she has syphilis? How did she get coaches and pianist to accompany her when she sang so badly? She also owned a night club called The Verdi Club — she made it a practice to never sing in her own club so when and where did she perform? Her last performance was at Carnegie Hall? How was that possible? Who came to all of these performances? Also, Cole Porter rarely missed one of her recitals. She received fabulous reviews after each recital she gave, why? To get answers to these questions, you will need to see the movie. You won’t be disappointed. By now, you can tell that I really loved this movie. Both Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant deserve Oscar nods for their portrayal of Florence and St. Clair, respectively. Surprisingly, this movie fell way under the radar despite it’s great ratings. There’s a documentary by Donald Collup on YouTube and Amazon that tells the true story if you’re interested in a follow-up. I highly recommend this movie, it’s entertaining, delightful and informative. BTW: Florence Foster Jenkins is considered “The world’s worst singer”.