I came across this wonderful story recently, and feel compelled to share it, as it exemplifies what many wish for and few dare – yet I believe it is exactly where happiness lies…
I had never heard of one Florence Foster Jenkins. She inspired so many, to this day, even though passing 72 years ago, in 1944 New York City, at age 76.
After watching an enchanting movie about her life, with Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg giving superb performances, I dug a little deeper and came across a documentary featuring eye witness interviews with those who personally knew her. Watching both films, one wonders how the Jenkins phenomenon was possible – how an elderly lady madly in love with classical music, and once a child prodigy on the piano, including a White House performance, pulled off to sing opera in the most intriguingly terrible way, yet performing in NYC at will, including Carnegie Hall.
Contrary to most of her audience, Florence thought herself a brilliant singer: the key ingredient to the phenomenon that she became. She believed in herself, to a degree that she would quiz visitors on who the best singer was, playing them records of two other artists, then her own. Her guests politely chose in her favor, despite the obvious lack of class. The startling discrepancy between Florence’s perception of her singing ability and most anyone else’s will likely remain a mystery. Maybe her intake of mercury and arsenic as remedies for long-term syphilis played a role in inducing delusion, adding to the illness itself. Maybe not.
Florence thought she was great – and so she was. People likely agreed for different reasons. But does it matter? She contributed to NYC’s musical life for decades, serving in countless roles of various social clubs. Florence loved dressing up and being on stage. She loved singing. She loved music. I love how she lived who she saw herself as. A diva. A singer. A performer. She embodied all of those. Never mind lack of talent. One simply admires her courage to live the dream, her devotion to the music, and the way in which it all culminated for her – and her audience. People were shaking with laughter, and according to concert witnesses, Florence seemed unphased. She received standing ovations. She gave encores. Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso were loyal fans. She gave people belly aches the next day from laughing so hard the evening previous. An accomplishment any comedian would envy! To help people laugh is awesome any day. To have them retain a physical memory and reason to laugh some more later is priceless. She made people feel good. What better thing to achieve? That it was involuntary comedy does not change its effect.
Would I have gone to see her? Absolutely. Would I have laughed? Inevitably. Would I have laughed at her? Never. Would I have applauded a lady following her bliss? Wholeheartedly. Would I have gone for the music? No. For witnessing someone fearlessly standing in the courage of her own convictions? You bet. It’s disarming. Magnetic. Inspiring.
Of course, the unbribed music critics of the day couldn’t quite see it that way. With a sole focus on the music and its technical delivery, I doubt they would ever conceive of a performance like Florence’s as having any value at all – yet the audience loved her. And the momentum continues. Today, she features in theatrical plays, in print, on film, vinyl, and on CD. Long after her passing, the spirit of Florence’s passion and expression lives on. Her Carnegie Hall recordings are some of the most sought after – together with those of Judy Garland and The Beatles.
I just love seeing where following one’s bliss with conviction, enthusiasm, and passion can lead. Indeed, one might ask: Is there any better way to live? Florence’s strong desire to play and share music drew everyone else in to participate in kind – be it husband, vocal coaches, accompanists, recording studio, other collaborators, or audience. They all became cooperative components in enabling her reality. Never mind absence of talent. If anyone is a great example of confidently living a heart’s desire, it’s Florence Foster Jenkins. She acted out who she saw herself as – and became it. On all levels. Including playing Carnegie Hall at age 76. No small feat. I admire the sincerity and spirited way of living her dream, no matter what.
Truly: terribly good!
Given how wholesome and freeing laughing is, perhaps it’s a good idea to gift yourself (or someone else who needs happiness) one of Florence’s recordings? I dare you to keep a straight face for 30 seconds. Guaranteed to bring you joy!
Florence Foster Jenkins: Adele’s Laughing Song (Die Fledermaus)
“Some say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins on CD:
Bullock DW. 2016. Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer
Documentary: Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own