FLORENCE! FOSTER!! JENKINS!!!
The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer
By Darryl W. Bullock
Illustrated. 198 pp. The Overlook Press. $24.95.
One of the daunting aspects of biography, from the reader’s point of view, is length, which is why we like obituaries. An obituary gives us a life in under a page — and for some lives that’s as much as we feel we need. The 600- or 700-page biography, complete with lengthy lists of sources, can be tough going. Under 200 pages, which is the length of Darryl W. Bullock’s charming “Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!,” is just about right for those who want to know more about the world’s worst opera singer but might not want to know absolutely every detail.
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is quite astonishing. Born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1868, she showed a strong early interest in music and the arts and succeeded in graduating from a music academy. She made an unsatisfactory marriage to a physician, and when this ended in divorce she enjoyed the life of a socialite in New York. After her father’s will “mysteriously vanished” from his office safe, she succeeded, with her mother, to his extremely large estate and took up residence in a Manhattan hotel. There she conducted the life of a patroness of the arts, assisted and encouraged by an English actor, St Clair Bayfield, with whom she entered into what the couple described as a secret marriage.
Then the performances started in earnest, and over the years she established a considerable reputation for singing at the soirees of the various clubs and societies she supported, attracting an enthusiastic audience of well-heeled New Yorkers. They loved her. They loved her elaborate, ridiculous costumes; they loved her overdramatic gestures. They presented her with bouquet after bouquet as well as expensive jeweled trinkets to show how much they appreciated her efforts. But she couldn’t sing. She was gloriously, spectacularly, irredeemably out of tune.
Not that this stopped her. She once observed that although some people said she couldn’t sing, they could never say she didn’t sing. Nothing was too difficult for her to attempt — not even Mozart’s notoriously demanding “Queen of the Night” aria. Higher and higher she would go, squeaking and clinging on to the notes, taking her audience with her in sheer delight at her audacity. And when it came to recordings, she tackled these in a single take, apparently believing the excruciating results were incomparably good.
Bullock deals with all this in a thoroughly readable and entertaining way. His explanation of how she got away with it is convincing: She was loved, she was magnanimous, and she brought happiness and laughter to those fortunate enough to get tickets to her concerts. Why shouldn’t one get away with something like that, if that is the sort of person one is? We all love sheer slapstick failure, particularly when it’s clothed in camp and presented as high art. Florence Foster Jenkins was Tintin’s Bianca Castafiore and Groucho Marx’s Margaret Dumont rolled into one. What’s not to love in that?
This appealing little biography — which arrives just as a film version of its heroine’s story, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, has been released in the United States — is warmhearted and delightful. At its core is a touching love story, as well as a message about the human spirit. Florence Foster Jenkins was generous in her outlook and seems to have brought joy and light into the lives of many. In a world where slickness, ambition and greed have destroyed the spirit of amateurism, here is the great and utterly hopeless amateur filling Carnegie Hall. What a message for our times.
Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!: the Life of the World's Worst Opera Singer is released in paperback in the US on November 21