No one is really quite sure what voice Depression-era Manhattan socialite Florence Foster Jenkins heard in her head, but what came out of her mouth was objectively awful. Long before YouTube, recordings of Jenkins attempting to sing classic opera were passed around. Now, her infamy is set to expand further with the August 12 release of Florence Foster Jenkins, a biographical film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.
According to Jenkins historian Donald Cullop, the misguided vocalist’s passion for music began in childhood. Born in 1868 to wealthy parents, Jenkins excelled in piano but could never quite overcome her warbling pitch and tendency to force notes. When her mother passed away, she used her inheritance to fund artistic endeavors around New York City and open a club where she could pursue her passion: butchering classic opera.
“Her goal was to perform, to be in front of an audience, and to receive adulation,” Cullop says. “She didn’t hear the flaws.”
By Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jenkins was able to record several 78-rpm albums, which were quickly circulated as the viral sound bites of the day. One attempt was even renamed Murder on the High Cs.
After meeting the charming (and philandering) St. Clair Bayfield during a performance, Jenkins went on to arrange private concerts for friends and fans, most of whom couldn’t quite believe she had no self-awareness. In 1944, she booked a date at Carnegie Hall; her notoriety had reached such heights that the show sold out in two hours and left more than 2000 people outside and unable to gain entry. Celebrities like Cole Porter were in attendance, and tickets were reportedly being scalped outdoors.
The reviews were not kind, and spectators reportedly laughed so hard they sometimes drowned out her performance, but Jenkins remained unfazed. “People may say I couldn’t sing,” she said near the end of her life, “but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
Here’s a look at the Paramount film, featuring Streep as Jenkins and Grant as Bayfield: