DVD0310. FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS – A World of Her Own, incl. interviews with Kathleen Bayfield, Florence Darnault, Adolf Pollitz & Cosme McMoon. VAI 4431. - 89948443193
“It's ironic that one of the best-known singers in recording history should also be one of the worst. Who has not got in their collection an example of her art? Who does not revere her name as the prima donna assoluta of awfulness, the queen of the promissory note? Who, after listening to her, has not asked ‘why’? Well, here is the answer.
Donald Collup has put together the whole mysterious story, unearthed photographs and reviews (some not seen for more than 60 years), tracked down audio interviews of those who knew La Jenkins (including her faithful accompanist Cosme McMoon) and who saw and heard her perform, researched her family background and created a documentary that finally tells the unvarnished truth about the phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins.
She was born Nascina Florence Foster into a prosperous family in Pennsylvania in 1868. She became a child prodigy pianist, then married a Dr. Jenkins, 16 years older than herself. The relationship quickly foundered, not least because he infected her with syphilis and it may well be that her subsequent inability to pitch notes was caused by treatment of the disease (‘one night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury’). The rest of the tale is told with exemplary clarity and without resource to irony or sarcasm. Of course, she was a hoot. Yet one is left at the end of the film (one of the few I can recall without any moving footage at all) feeling slightly uneasy that we are laughing at someone quite unable to see the extent of her self-delusion and unable to hear properly.
Collup is to be heartily congratulated on all of the three roles he has undertaken for this venture. VAI has at last spruced up its presentation, and with any luck the DVD will sell like the Melotone shellacs on which are enshrined this enduring paragon of triumphant disaster.”
- Jeremy Nichols, GRAMOPHONE, Aug., 2008
"The missing ingredient is filmed footage of the lady in action, which does not seem to exist. Pity! But in a way, she's best left up to the imagination and some wonderful descriptions that conjure up a surreal presence. It may be that Jenkins could at one time sing decently, but that time, if it existed, was long before she began to record at the age of seventy-three. Her recordings opened the door to a far wider public, and her now-or-never Carnegie Hall debut was a sellout, with an estimated two thousand turned away. The glittering audience included Tallulah Bankhead, Marge Champion (who describes it in the film) and Lily Pons. Jenkins seemed oblivious to the gales of laughter emanating from the crowd. After she sang a spirited ‘Clavelitos’, tossing blossoms from a basket, the audience demanded an encore. So she had her erstwhile accompanist, Cosme McMoon, get up and collect all the flowers so she could repeat the number and toss them again. (Such brilliance is greatly admired by those of us who actually endeavor to do musical parody.) The downside of the Carnegie event was exposure to bona fide critics, as opposed to benign society columnists, and the write-ups broke her heart. She died a month later, on November 26, 1944. RCA's continuing re-release of her records - they have made it all the way to CD - has made Jenkins a legend, and not merely in her own mind. Now we can know about the woman behind those amazing quarter tones.”
- Ira Siff, OPERA NEWS, Aug., 2008
"When I was a member of the Texas Boys Choir, we were always treated to recordings before rehearsal every afternoon. The director, George Bragg, introduced us to many great masterpieces of music - Bach, Brahms, etc. On one of these afternoons, he played for us a recording of this hysterically funny lady singing all sorts of
things. In spite of our young age but because of our expert training, we knew this was not good - off-key, bad rhythm and rather ugly singing.
Often, the voice of Florence Foster Jenkins is introduced with a single, somewhat sarcastic sentence to entice the listener and nothing else, letting the recording sing for itself. Metropolitan Opera soprano Lucine Amara tells the story of preparing Marietta’s Lied from DIE TOTE STADT with its composer, Erich Wolfgang
Korngold. After their session, he told her he wanted her to hear ‘ this wonderful singer’. She sat at his feet as she listened in horror. After it was finished he asked what she thought. She then said, ‘Well, it was most interesting’ which absolutely broke him up. It was only then she realized he had been joking all along. In a
similar way, Marge Champion, Alfred Hubay and Daniel Pinkham knew next to nothing about what they were to experience at Carnegie Hall in 1944.
When I met the noted author and collector Gregor Benko, he told me bits of information and stories about Jenkins that were extremely intriguing. His personal collection of materials about Jenkins was vast and extensive: over the years, he had acquired parts of the collections of Jenkins’ accompanist Edwin McArthur and former OPERA NEWS editor Gerald Fitzgerald, plus twenty years of detailed off-and-on research, creating a chronological database of Jenkins’ life and career. This also included dozens of extremely rare images that had not been seen for almost sixty years. Benko also gave me access to a tape recording made by the Australian pianist Bruce Hungerford. In 1970, Hungerford realized that he was acquainted with three people who knew or interacted with Jenkins: Kathleen Bayfield, the second wife of Jenkins’ second (common law) husband; Adolf Pollitz, a friend of Jenkins and participant in her club activities, and the sculptress Florence Darnault, from whom Jenkins commissioned a bust. During this conversation, the three subjects reminisced candidly without censure and told personal anecdotes about Jenkins. In addition, Ms. Bayfield reads from her memoirs the chapter concerned with Florence Foster Jenkins.
Hopefully, this documentary will dispel rumors and eradicate false stories that have been concocted over the years. I also have chosen not to make fun of this ecentric socialite, but only tell her story, which stands on its own. At the same time, the documentary puts forth medical and psychological information, unknown until now, for the viewer to draw their own conclusion as to why Jenkins became a cult figure.
Jenkins’ career as a child prodigy seemingly created her false perception of reality: one of audiences acclaiming her talent and showering her with praise. This most likely formed the basis of her total confidence and, in the words of Daniel Pinkham, her intrepid delivery. Also, mercury treatments, which began in her early
twenties, certainly had an effect on her hearing, as did the disease for which she was being treated.
We shall never know what Florence Foster Jenkins actually sounded like in her middle-aged ‘prime’ but, as Gregor Benko points out, musicianship does not degrade as time goes on, nor does the fascination with this endearing and utterly unique lady of song.”
- Donald Collup