In July 1868, Florence Foster Jenkins was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter to a wealthy family. Meryl Streep will portray the infamous operatic soprano, who was known and ridiculed for her generally poor singing ability, in a new film.
A child prodigy pianist, Florence performed all over the state of Pennsylvania, appearing in Sängerfests and even at the White House during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. When she expressed the desire to study music abroad, her wealthy father refused to pay the bill. Florence eloped with Philadelphia’s Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, but separated shortly after contracting syphilis from him. Complications from the disease and the treatments at the time are suspected to have at least partially caused some of the performance quirks that Florence later became infamous for.
After suffering an arm injury, the piano teacher had no means to support herself and lived in near poverty. She was very close to her mother, Mary, who came to her rescue and the two eventually moved to New York City around 1900. It is then that she decided to become a singer. In 1909, she met a British Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield, who became her manager. They lived together in a vaguely defined “common law” relationship for the rest of her life.
Despite the vocal and musical inaccuracies of her performances, Jenkins became popular for the amusement she unwittingly provided. She rarely performed despite public demand and limited attendance to a select few, carefully excluding professional critics. At the age of 76 she finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944. Tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance and numerous celebrities attended, such as dancer and actress Marge Champion, song writer Cole Porter, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, actress Kitty Carlisle and soprano Lily Pons with her husband, conductor Andre Kostelanetz.
The new film is inspired by the life and singing career of Jenkins. You can watch locally at the Ambler Theater beginning August 12th.