NPR Story
11:07 am
Fri August 1, 2014

Queen Of The Night

Originally published on Fri August 1, 2014 4:54 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the Grand Illusion episode. Today we're digging into the real lives of people living day-to-day believing that a lie is in fact the truth. For our next piece Julia DeWitt hops on SNAP JUDGMENT'S Time Machine for a real story with The Beat.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: As a girl, Florence Foster Jenkins had one dream - to be a professional musician.

STEPHEN TEMPERLEY: She was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her father was a banker and it was a very kind of well-to-do, middle-class family. I don't think they were particularly involved in the arts. But she was very interested in playing the piano and singing from quite an early age.

DEWITT: This is Stephen Temperley, he wrote a Broadway play about Florence.

TEMPERLEY: It's very, very loosely based on her life. It is called "Souvenir."

DEWITT: One night a while back, a friend of Stephen's brought a tape of Florence's singing over to his house.

TEMPERLEY: I listened to it. I thought this is very strange something very, very strange is going on here. The more I listened to that record the stranger I thought it was.

DEWITT: In order to understand what's strange about it we'll have to go back a bit. So Florence always wanted to be a musician but her dream was ahead of her time. She was born in 1886 - and raised in a wealthy family to grow up and be a lady. When she asked her dad if he would send her to Europe to study music more seriously he said, absolutely not. But Florence had already made up her mind. So she headed out on her own. Her dad cut her off so she was broke for years she taught piano just to pay her rent. Then she caught her first break. Her dad died and left her some money and a decade later mom died - leaving Florence the entire family fortune. Florence is now 40. She's been studying to be an opera singer for years. And after all this time she's still utterly determined to be a professional musician. So she moved to New York, made rich and well-connected friends and finally she was perfectly situated to start her career. But there was just one small problem left.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Singing).

DEWITT: After years of study, Florence was still absolutely terrible.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Singing).

TEMPERLEY: Her voice, if you listened to it, it's a series of hoots and shrieks and she'll see a high note and pretty much go - screams - coughs - excuse me, I have to drink some water.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Singing).

DEWITT: But so far as anyone can tell, her complete and utter lack of a sense of tone, pitch and rhythm didn't seem to faze Florence at all. In fact Florence thought she was one of the greatest opera singers of her generation.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Vocalizing).

TEMPERLEY: She seemed to have a kind of boundless self-confidence. And I think there were a few times when it almost penetrated but she managed to tap that down.

DEWITT: Florence recorded an album of her singing and she would have friends over for listening parties. She would play this game where she would make her guests vote for who was best. First she would play a famous singer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (Vocalizing).

DEWITT: Then she would play herself.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Vocalizing).

DEWITT: Famous singer.

WOMAN 1: (Vocalizing).

DEWITT: Then Florence.

FLORENCE JENKINS: (Vocalizing).

DEWITT: Staring back at Florence, her expecting eyes misty with pride, her guests always voted for their hostess. When one woman finally voted against her, Florence told the woman she simply had no taste.

TEMPERLEY: She suspected from time to time (laughing) that perhaps something was up. But she developed a way of saying there was a rowdy element. It's one of the things she used to say and obviously the people who were close to her also insulated her.

DEWITT: No one wanted to hurt their friends feelings. And they especially didn't want to hurt their very rich and well-connected friends feelings. So spurred on by her friends approval, Florence started giving little recitals at teas and luncheons. When she would catch wind of any disapproval, she would just dismiss it as jealousy or tribute it to the, quote, "rowdy element in the room." But after a while something even stranger start to happen.

TEMPERLEY: Casual audience members saw her and then said to their friends, you've got to come and see this - just shut up, just trust me come this come and see it. Word spread like wildfire. And gradually the venues got a little bit bigger. And then when she was living at the Ritz-Carlton she used to give recitals in the ballroom. And that was when her reputation really took off. I mean, that became one of the hottest tickets in town. I mean, it got to be like a Star Trek convention. They had (laughing) they would come with extra handkerchiefs that they could shove in their mouths. They would pretend to drop their programs and be on all fours screaming with laughter. And as they say, the hot ticket was the back row - the back two rows - that was where everybody wanted to sit or at least on an aisle so that if it got too bad you could at least, you know, stuff a handkerchief in your throat or in your mouth and run down the aisle and get out.

DEWITT: On stage she Florence always had an accompanist. One of her go-to's was a man with the improbable name of Cosme McMoon. Cosme knew what she sounded like but also knew that Florence was providing him with a fat paycheck. So he went along with her. Cosme died in the early '70s but before he did he was interviewed about Florence's early recitals. Here's Cosme in that original recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COSME MCMOON: At that time Frank Sinatra had started to sing and the teenagers used to faint during his notes and scream. So she thought she was producing the same kind of an effect. And when these shovels (ph) of applause came she took them as great marks of approval for some tremendous vocal tour de force. And she loved that. She would pause altogether and bow many times. And then resume the song.

TEMPERLEY: People still are not sure if she's actually having us on. There is a body of thought that thinks the whole - it was a hoax - and that she was really laughing at us. I don't believe that.

DEWITT: There's almost no evidence that Florence ever acknowledged that she was anything less than one of the greatest voices of her generation. And as befitting any great singer of her time Florence next went to Carnegie Hall.

TEMPERLEY: When the Carnegie Hall concert was announced I think they sold out within two hours.

DEWITT: On the night of October 25th, 1944, the hall stood under siege. Everyone wanted to see this show. People that were there say that the crowd outside waved $20 bills in the air in the hopes that they could buy a ticket off of someone. Hundreds of people were turned away. Here's Cosme McMoon again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCMOON: Her performance in Carnegie Hall was a most remarkable thing that as happened there, I think. The house held a record audience it seemed that the people were hanging on the rafters besides taking up every inch of available standing room. When she came out - the ruckus was so great that it lasted five minutes before it there was enough quiet for her to begin.

DEWITT: Florence ran through all of her most impressive arias. Remember it's 1944, so by now she's 76. You can barely tell under her thick mascara and wigs. When she got to "Club Elitos" (ph), a classic of hers, there's a shout of Olay that she punctuated by throwing flowers into the audience. She danced a kind of fandango to the intro music and more Spanish Manteca. The crowd went so wild that she asked the audience to return all the flowers she bowed them in her basket and she did it again. With every song the crowd got louder and louder, feeding off the audience's energy, Florence added more and more flourishes. For a song called "Adele's Laughing Song" Florence emerged onstage with a shepherd's crook and her favorite rig of yellow ringlets piled on her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MCMOON: The "Adele's Laughing Song" was especially noteworthy because for this Madame came out in a pastel colored gown. Her eyes were veritable caverns of mascara.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Singing).

MCMOON: There was a place in the text where it says if my silhouette does not convince you yet - my figure surely will. She put her hands righteously to her hips and went into a circular dance that was the most ludicrous thing I have ever seen. And created a pandemonium in the place. One famous actress had to be carried out of her box because she became so hysterical. But she was very well satisfied with it as well she might be in a certain way because there was never such enthusiasm or applause or noise heard in Carnegie Hall.

DEWITT: Some people said that their stomachs hurt for days afterwards because they were laughing so hard. Still after the close of the show Florence's manager just wrote one line in his journal - recital a great success. But if Florence thought it was a great success the illusion didn't last long because the next day the reviews came out.

WOMAN 1: It was largely a recital without voice for the tones that Madam Jenkins produced produced were tiny. Much of her singing was hopelessly lacking an a semblance of pitch but the further a note was from its proper elevation the more the audience laughed and applauded.

DEWITT: About the show the New York Sun wrote...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Mrs. Florence Foster Jenkins, a widowed lady of our town, has a great voice. In fact she can sing everything except notes.

DEWITT: And then from the New York Post.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Lady Florence or Madam Jenkins as she likes to be called if you're thinking of her as an artist indulged last night in one of the weirdest mast jokes New York has ever seen.

DEWITT: Five days later, Florence had a heart attack and a month after she made her Carnegie Hall debut she died. Her obituary in the LA Times said, she died of a broken heart. She was 76-years-old.

TEMPERLEY: There was a legend that grew up that she heard the laughter at Carnegie Hall and read the bad reviews and then a month later she died and that it was the concert that killed her. But her capacity for self-delusion seemed limitless. I mean, she may have been shocked but I daresay had she lived she would've got over it.

DEWITT: The closest Florence maybe ever came to admitting that she wasn't the star she imagined she was was when she said - they may say I can't sing but they can't say I didn't sing.

DEWITT: Florence was buried next to her father in the family crypt in Pennsylvania. Today the bronze above the door is green with age, the family fortune is gone. But Florence's music lives on.

TEMPERLEY: And, you know, you get a couple of glasses of wine into an opera singer at a party and the record will come out and everyone starts laughing.

DEWITT: In the 1950s RCA reprinted Florence's LP back when Stephen first heard it his friend had just bought a tape of her album in the early 1980s. And today you can still get it on iTunes. Two generations later, people are still laughing at her. We can never know if she died finally hearing her voice for what it was. But we do know that she live with the unparalleled confidence it took to do what she loved.

TEMPERLEY: One is jealous and at the same time thinks - let me not be like that.

DEWITT: I feel exactly the same way. There's something actually very touching and also really scary.

TEMPERLEY: Exactly. You're making me think of a favorite poem of mine - it goes, see the happy moron, he doesn't give a damn. I wish I were a moron, my God perhaps I am. You know, it sort of sums it up I think.

FOSTER JENKINS: (Vocalizing).

WASHINGTON: Now Snappers we still say, shoot for your dreams. Here at SNAP JUDGMENT we just can't promise you won't miss. Big thanks to Stephen Temperley for helping us tell that story. His Broadway play is called "Souvenir." Additional help came from Erin Neff of the San Francisco Opera and our voice critics were Peter Schubert, Pat Mecidiye Miller and Eliza Smith. That piece was produced by Julia DeWitt and Joel Rosenberg.

When SNAP returns someone put something in a jar that should never, ever, under any circumstances, be put into a jar. When SNAP JUDGMENT the Grand Illusion episode continues - stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.