Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
Alex Heigl
January 23, 2017 04:00 PM

Warning: Spoiler alert.

Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance in Florence Foster Jenkins is shaping up to be yet another highlight of the incredible actress’s long career. The irony that one of America’s greatest living actresses would wind up playing a woman known as one of its worst singers seems staggering, which is why Jenkins’ incredible life deserves a closer look.

Jenkins was born — appropriately — Narcissa Florence Foster on July 19, 1868, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The city’s population and industry were booming after the discovery of coal in the region; Woolworth’s, Planter’s Peanuts, Bell Telephone and Luzerne National Bank were all based in the city during the 19th century. Jenkins’ father, Charles Dorrance Foster, was a lawyer, banker and member of the Pennsylvania legislature, and she received the early childhood musical education duly afforded to a member of the upper class at the time. Her early piano recitals received acclaim, but her parents did, however, deny her request to study abroad, citing — according to her accompanist Cosmé McMoon — “the excruciating quality of her voice.”

In a fit of pique, Jenkins eloped with Francis Thornton Jenkins, a Philadelphia doctor 16 years older than herself, leaving home around 1885. The marriage lasted until 1902; though Jenkins retained her ex-husband’s name, they had no children, and cut off by her parents and newly single, she eked out a living as a piano teacher for several years. (Francis left Florence with more than a name — he gave her syphilis, which necessitated a life of mercury and arsenic treatments that cost her her hair, necessitating her use of wigs in public.)

1909 was a momentous year for Jenkins: First, she met St. Clair Bayfield, an actor known in New York’s theater circles — he would eventually become her common-law husband and manager — and then, her father died, leaving her a substantial inheritance and with it, the means to pursue her musical career. Moving to New York, Jenkins infiltrated the city’s circle of musical socialites, joining several musically-oriented social clubs and founding her own, the Verdi Club, in 1917. Eventually, the Verdi Club’s membership swelled to over 400 members, including an honorary membership for legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso.

Jenkins performed her first recital in 1912. By this time, she’d given up piano owing to an arm injury and was singing exclusively, her performances tied to the Verdi Club and occupying the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton or the St. Regis. Divorced completely from the musical aspects of the performances were the elaborate visuals: Jenkins went all-in, with ostentatious sets, multiple costume changes and props. She also studied voice with Carlo Edwards, a maestro at the Metropolitan Opera.

Jenkins possessed — perhaps by virtue of her birth name, perhaps by virtue of her fortune and standing in New York’s complacent, high-society incubator — a self-confidence astronomically out of touch with her talent. Not content to perform lesser works, she regularly devoted herself to arias characterized by difficult coloratura, from works like Faust, Rigoletto, Aida and The Magic Flute. “No one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation,” Stephen Pile wrote of her performances.

Nevertheless, when her mother died in 1928, Jenkins inherited her family’s considerable fortune and with it, the ability to continue following her muse. Her yearly recitals — journalists were barred from attending, and tickets were only available through her — began drawing crowds beyond her social circles — legendary songwriter Cole Porter was one of her ardent fans. (Porter’s method of keeping himself from laughing during her performances was to ram his cane into his own foot. Others were known to stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths.) Her performance schedule took her around the country, to Newport, Washington, Boston and Saratoga.

The question on everyone’s mind — how could Jenkins not have known how bad she was? — has been widely discussed. “There’s no way she could not have known,” voice teacher Bill Schuman told NPR. “No one is that unaware, especially a person who has developed so much of her time and resources to helping young, really good singers.”

Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne offered the opposite argument: “We can’t hear ourselves as others hear us,” she told NPR. “We have to go by a series of sensations. We have to feel where it is.”

Schuman also addresses Jenkins’ illness: Mercury and arsenic, which she took regularly for her syphilis, “affected her hearing,” he told CBS Sunday Morning. “More than likely she had tinnitus, which is a constant humming in her head.”

Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Jenkins had fans. By all accounts a kind woman and ardent patron of other musicians and music lovers, the applause she garnered at her recitals initially may have just been the support of friends. But her shows were increasingly packed, and continuously listed in the New York Times arts section.

In 1941, Jenkins went into the studio to cut a record. (As with the majority of her creative career, it was at her own expense.) The first sold out of its run, so she made the second a double record. All told, she cut nine sides of recorded material, none of which have ever gone out of print. (“This record will give the listener more of a kick that the same amount invested ($2.50) in tequila, zubrowka, or marijuana,” one review read.)

Perhaps bolstered by the success of her recordings, Jenkins rented out Carnegie Hall for a performance on Oct. 25, 1944. Two-dollar tickets were scalped for as high as $20, Newsweek reported the following month that 2,000 people were turned away from the performance, and the who’s-who of attendees included Porter, composer Andre Kostelanetz and several members the Metropolitan Opera. Actress Tallulah Bankhead was reportedly kicked out of the evening for disorderly conduct, but the concert was a typically Jenkins-ian success, she performed curtain call after curtain call to deafening applause.

That night must have been the high point of Jenkins’ life, because what followed wasn’t as pretty. Though the New York Times merely recounted drily that “Florence Foster Jenkins, soprano, gave a recital at Carnegie Hall last night,” New York Post reviewer Earl Wilson described it as “one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen,” saying Jenkins could “sing anything but notes.” The Los Angeles Times reviewer Isabel Morse was so infuriated by what she later called “the most pathetic exhibition of vanity I have ever seen” that she declined to file her review.

Whether the reviews actually killed Jenkins — she suffered a heart attack five days after the performance and died a month after the Carnegie Hall show — is debatable. She was, after all, a 76-year-old woman with a lifetime of toxic syphilis treatments behind her, but Bayfield told a reporter the reviews had crushed her. “She did not know, you see.”

“No one can do what Florence Foster Jenkins did because they all try to send her up,” McMoon said once. “She was totally sincere.” Perhaps because of this unquantifiable quality earnestness or perhaps because of their unique sonic qualities, Jenkins’ recordings gained a cult following when they were reissued in the 1950s. People reportedly took acid and listened to them in the ’60s, which presumably qualifies her for inclusion in the lineage of “outsider musicians” like Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnson and Jandek. Barbra Streisand and David Bowie were both fans.

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Jenkins’ possible self-awareness is her famous quote, “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.” Mayfield echoed that sentiment after her death, providing a fitting epitaph for her singular life: “People may have laughed at her singing, but the applause was real.”

 

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