Florence Foster Jenkins – the worst singer who ever lived


Florence Foster-Jenkins

As a new movie starring Meryl Streep chronicles the story of Florence Jenkins, Getintothis’ Joseph Giess tells the story of the worst singer who ever lived. 

The annals of music are littered with inspiring stories, heart-wrenching litanies and extraordinarily bizarre tales that are just too far-fetched to be true. Amongst the latter, the odd fable of Florence Foster Jenkins – a lady who had absolutely no talent at singing, but sold out Carnegie Hall because of the lack of ability. In fact, the great Cole Porter was apparently “lucky” enough to catch Jenkins at that very performance.

Her story comes across like a failed X Factor contender, achieving global stardom only for the purpose of humiliation. In a very real way, Florence Foster Jenkins was the opera equivalent of the Cheeky Girls, or that bloke who worked in a chicken factory. Even David Bowie forebodingly gave a nod to in a 1971 Vanity Fair article, warning us to “Be afraid, very afraid.”

Florence led a colourful life. Born into nobility and a child prodigy on the piano, but chose to elope with her soon-to-be husband, despite her remarkable aptitude. As lady luck would have it, she ended merely teaching piano at a severely perfunctory level, due to jeopardising complications in an arm injury. Forcing a once opulent woman to live remarkably close to the breadline.

Obviously born underneath a bad star, she took not just her name from her first husband, but also contracted syphilis, which acted as a corollary to further distance away from the limelight. The rudimentary medicine that was supplied was an anodyne that was essentially a concoction of poisonous mercury and arsenic. This became a massively debilitating element to her already diminishing hopes of a career – with it deterioating her central nervous system.

Florence admirably persevered with her passion. When her father died, she used the inheritance to assist her climb to success. Annually, she would hire out the main room at the Ritz Carlton hotel. When she took to the stage, she would bellow out cacophonous renditions of Mozart, Verdi and Strauss, dressed in a costume of wings and tinsel that she made herself.

Incredible, the audience gave her nothing but bolstering support, adorning her with roses as they cackled in their seats. When the abundant laughter would fill the audience, she would dismiss them as “hoodlums” who had been planted by her jealous rivals.

No doubt you are now itching to hear her massacre Mozart. So please, enjoy (if you have small children, you may wish to remove them from the room)…

Beginning with Letter To Brezhnev, Getintothis’ Del Pike‘s Liverpool at the Movies column explores the city through the eyes of cinema

This is a woman who genuinely compared herself favorably to renowned sopranos such as Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini. She’s closer to Les Dawson‘s piano skills, except she isn’t doing it on purpose. It’s almost as if she has forgotten the words and melody and is compensating by just warbling any old shit. Or she is an arachnophobe and a spider just scurried up her skirt whilst she was in the studio.

It’s a questionable subject; whether she adored the attention or if she was in on the gag or not, but she certainly seemed an unassailable eccentric, declaring: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

In some ways, her career mirrors that of Tommy Wiseau of The Room. Many of our readers will already be aware of this anti-masterpiece, but for those who are unaware The Room is essentially the worst film ever made. Written, produced, directed, edited and starring Wiseau, it continually baffles audiences. Just when you think it can’t find a new, astonishing way to suck, along comes another. Like Jenkins, Wiseau refuses to acknowledge exactly how awful his cult classic is, maintaining that it is a sterling work of art.

This outlandish, absurd tale is one that has captured the imagination of the cherished, award winning British director – Stephen Frears of High Fidelity and Philomena fame who chose to film the majority of the picture on Liverpool’s very own streets. The film showcases the stalwarts of the British film canon Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant and enters our cinemas on May 6.

In the words of David Bowie; “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”