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Florence Foster Jenkins: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg | based on the real life story told in the book "Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer" by Nicholas Martin

Meryl Streep
Born: June 22, 1949
Summit, New Jersey, USA
Florence Foster Jenkins
Born: July 19, 1868
Birthplace: Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA
Death: November 26, 1944, New York City, New York, USA (heart failure)
Hugh Grant
Born: September 9, 1960
Hammersmith, London, England, UK
St. Clair Bayfield
Born: August 2, 1875
Birthplace: Cheltenham, England, UK
Death: May 19, 1967
Simon Helberg
Born: December 9, 1980
Los Angeles, California, USA
Cosmé McMoon
Born: February 22, 1901
Birthplace: Mapimí, Mexico
Death: August 22, 1980, San Antonio, Texas, USA (pancreatic cancer)
Rebecca Ferguson
Born: October 19, 1983
Kathleen Weatherley
Birthplace: UK
David Haig
Born: September 20, 1955
Aldershot, England, UK
Maestro Carlo Edwards
Born: December 31, 1889
Birthplace: Osktosh, Wisconsin, USA
Christian McKay
Born: 1973
Bury, Lancashire, England, UK
Earl Wilson
Born: May 3, 1907
Birthplace: Rockford, Ohio, USA
Death: January 16, 1987, Yonkers, New York, USA (Parkinson's disease)
Aida Garifullina
Born: September 30, 1987
Kazan, Russia
Lily Pons
Born: April 12, 1898
Birthplace: Draguignan, France
Death: February 13, 1976, Dallas, Texas, USA (pancreatic cancer)
Nat Luurtsema
Watford, Hertfordshire, England, UK
Tallulah Bankhead
Born: January 31, 1902
Birthplace: Huntsville, Alabama, USA
Death: December 12, 1968, Morningside Heights, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA (pleural pneumonia)
People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing. -Florence Foster Jenkins

Questioning the Story:

Had Florence Foster Jenkins really been a talented pianist?

Yes. Born Nascina Florence Foster (she chose to go by her middle name in her formative years), the true story reveals that she received piano lessons as a child and was considered a child prodigy pianist, performing across the state of Pennsylvania. Twice she showcased her talent as the soloist at Sängerfests, which are competition-based song festivals where singers compete for prizes (A World of Her Own Documentary).

The photo of Florence Foster Jenkins wearing angel wings (left) is the most famous image of her. The costume was originally created for a tableau vivant titled "The Stephen Foster Play" based on the Howard Chandler Christy painting "Stephen Foster and The Angel of Inspiration." The costume was recreated for Meryl Streep for the movie.

Did Florence really play for the President when she was 8 years old?

Yes. Fact-checking Florence Foster Jenkins revealed that as a child prodigy pianist, Florence performed at the White House when Rutherford B. Hayes was President.

Did Florence's father threaten to cut her off if she didn't give up music?

Yes. In the movie, Meryl Streep's character states that at age 16 her father threatened to cut her off if she didn't give up music. According to the Florence Foster Jenkins true story, around the time she graduated high school at age 17, she wished to pursue a career in music and study abroad in Europe, but her wealthy father, Charles Dorrance Foster, refused to foot the bill.

Why did Florence Foster Jenkins leave her first husband?

After Florence's father refused to financially support her desire to continue to study music, she rebelled and left town with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins (1852-1917), who was sixteen years her senior. They were married in 1885 after moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but the decision resulted in Florence's father disinheriting her. The marriage was short-lived, however, and ended after Jenkins contracted syphilis from her husband. Whether the sexually transmitted disease meant that he hadn't been faithful is unknown but rather likely. The two seem to have had little in common regardless, and it is believed they cut ties completely after the split. It is unclear whether they legally divorced or separated, but they were still legally married in 1906, so it is likely that she never sought a divorce. Doing so would have tarnished her reputation. Dr. Frank Jenkins had passed away by 1916 and Florence assumed the title of "widow."

Why did Florence stop playing the piano?

In the 1890s, while living in Philadelphia after splitting with her husband, the real Florence Foster Jenkins worked as a piano teacher and went back to school. Already living in near poverty, her mother Mary came to Philadelphia to help her, offering both guidance and financial support. Around 1900, the two began travelling to New York City often, developing a foothold in high society. At some point, Florence suffered an injury to her arm that forced her to give up the piano. In the movie, Florence (Meryl Streep) states that the nerves had been damaged in her left hand, implying it was from her struggle with syphilis (it is unclear whether this is the exact "injury" that forced her to stop playing in real life too). Unable to continue playing the piano, Florence refused to give up her love for music and decided to fully embrace singing (an interest she had dabbled in under the radar). -Nicholas Martin book

Does Meryl Streep get Florence's singing voice right?

Yes. Donald Collup, the creator of the Florence Foster Jenkins documentary A World of Her Own, says that Meryl Streep is spot on in her recreation of Florence Foster Jenkins' voice. In his review of the movie, he states, "I can also confidently say that Ms. Streep recreates every single nuance of the Jenkins singing voice: glottal stops, an absence of vibrato, hit-and-run register breaks, the sliding up and arrival just short of a climactic high note, transforming the letter "r" into a vowel and the completely unintelligible diction."

When did Florence Foster Jenkins meet St. Clair Bayfield?

As we researched the Florence Foster Jenkins true story, we learned that she met British Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield (portrayed by Hugh Grant) on January 14, 1909, not long before permanently moving to New York City with her mother. Florence, 41, and Bayfield, 34, met during an afternoon meeting of the Euterpe Club where she was Director of Music. They further hit it off that evening when they bumped into each other again at a party on Riverside Drive.

This was the same year that Florence's father had died of kidney disease and left her with a large sum of money that she received from a trust in quarterly installments. She now had sufficient funds to finally pursue a singing career. Like in the Meryl Streep movie, Bayfield became her manager and the pair entered into a sort of "common law" marriage.

Florence met British actor St. Clair Bayfield (left) in 1909. Hugh Grant (right) as Bayfield in the movie

Did she really start her own club?

Yes, and in doing so, she broadened her access to the various musical social circles of New York City. In fact-checking Florence Foster Jenkins, we learned that she started The Verdi Club in 1917, named for 19th century Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. Keep in mind that this was a social club, not the name of a nightclub. It was not a physical location. The Verdi Club eventually had over 400 members, cementing Florence's place in high society. It should be noted that Florence saw The Verdi Club as a place that could offer young musicians paying jobs. She never sung at Verdi Club functions herself, as she thought it would be inappropriate. Florence also joined numerous women's clubs, where she took the position of director or chairman of music.

Were Florence Foster Jenkins and St. Clair Bayfield ever legally married?

No, but they did have a symbolic wedding ceremony at The Hotel Vanderbilt with four witnesses present. He presented her his grandmother's wedding ring, and she gave him what she termed to be "a ring of entwining love," a gold ring with a blue stone that he wore on the ring finger of his left hand. Their "common law" marriage was at her insistence and it is possible that this was because she and her first husband had never legally divorced. Less likely is that it was due to her syphilis preventing her from being able to consummate a marriage and be intimate in that way.

Is it possible that St. Clair Bayfield was with Florence Foster Jenkins for her money?

Yes, at least one could certainly make an argument for it. However, Florence's father, Charles Dorrance Foster, specifically stated in his will that Florence's husband, or any future husband, could not obtain her inheritance. St. Clair Bayfield, a six-foot-tall British Shakespearean actor, had come to New York City in search of his big break but struggled to find success. He had been raised as a member of British aristocracy on his grandfather's sprawling country estate. However, he had inherited nothing and became a sheep farmer in New Zealand before turning to acting. Florence paid for an apartment for him in exchange for his duties as her manager. She herself stayed in semi-posh hotels, eventually settling at The Hotel Seymour.

There certainly seems to have been a mutual attraction, and Bayfield is said to have remained loyal and celebrated the anniversary of their meeting with flowers. However, due to Florence's struggle with syphilis (a gift from her first husband), it is unlikely that her relationship with Bayfield ever turned sexual. It is said that he was attracted to her dynamic personality and she to his aristocratic ways. He nicknamed her "Bunny" and she affectionately called him "Whitey." Despite their affection for one another, the romantic side of their relationship would eventually come to an end.

When did the real Florence Foster Jenkins make her first public appearance as a singer?

She made her first public appearance as a singer in 1912. She hadn't told anyone that she had been studying voice with Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Henriette Wakefield. Within a few years, she was regularly singing in public, far more than most performers could ever hope for. Florence and these invitation-only recitals were often featured in the press. The recitals included several costume changes and props. In addition to New York City, she occasionally performed in other cities as well, including Pittsburgh, Newport and Washington, D.C. She also held regular musical gatherings dubbed "Evening Salon de Musique" every Wednesday at her apartment in The Hotel Seymour. Young musicians sometimes performed.

The real Florence Foster Jenkins (top) at the Verdi Club's annual ball dressed as Brünnhilde, the Wagnerian Valkyrie. Meryl Streep dresses as Brünnhilde for the movie.

Is the blonde floozy showgirl Agnes Stark based on a real person?

No. Nina Arianda's character, Agnes Stark, was not a real person. The flirtatious showgirl was created for the film for metaphorical reasons.

Did Florence's relationship with St. Clair Bayfield last the remainder of her life?

No. The romantic side of their relationship ended by 1932. However, the pair relied on each other too much professionally to completely cut ties. Bayfield needed Florence's financial support and Florence needed him to write, produce, direct and act in her numerous club events. He was still her escort to various social events, but they were both known to flirt with others, and he entered into a secret relationship with a dominant British woman named Kathleen Weatherley.

When did Florence meet concert pianist Cosmé McMoon?

Unlike the movie, the real Florence Foster Jenkins met pianist Cosmé McMoon (portrayed by Simon Helberg) sometime in the early 1920s and knew him for several years before he became her accompanist. Born in Mexico, McMoon had moved from San Antonio to New York City in approximately 1920 to further his musical education. At first, he wrote several songs for Florence and performed as a solo pianist at a few of her recitals. He didn't perform as her accompanist until a bit later. It is unlikely that he ever had to audition for her.

The real Cosmé McMoon and his onscreen counterpart, actor Simon Helberg.

Did Florence perform with other accompanists besides Cosmé McMoon?

Yes. In 1928, Florence began performing with pianist Edwin McArthur, who became her accompanist for the next six years. The Florence Foster Jenkins true story confirms that McArthur was permanently replaced by Cosmé McMoon after he offended Florence when he mocked her in front of her audience. Some of her other less notable accompanists included Almero Albanesi, Carl Pascarella, Willa Semple and Malton Boyce. Composers, including Charles Haubiel, Richard Hageman and Charles Gilbert Spross, also collaborated with Jenkins.

Was Florence Foster Jenkins really bald later in life?

Yes. In 1934, sculptress Florence Darnault walked in on Jenkins while she was in her dressing room. Jenkins was sitting in front of a mirror completely bald. "Everybody wears wigs today," the sculptress remarked, "I mean, you know, but, it was a completely bald dome, but completely shiny." Jenkins hair loss could have been the result of mercury treatments she received for syphilis, which she is thought to have contracted from her first husband.

Did she refuse to do retakes while making recordings?

Yes, like in the Meryl Streep movie, the real Florence made the 1941 recordings at Melotone Studios in New York. She was 73 at the time and could care less about retakes, microphone levels, or doing acoustic tests. She listened to the result and was thoroughly satisfied with every aspect. Her recording of the aria the "Bell Song" from the opera Lakmé became her first issued record. Her second record was a double record with Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria and "Serenata Mexicana" by Cosmé McMoon. At first, they were mostly sold to her large circle of friends. However, without these records and others, history would have likely forgotten her.

Florence Foster Jenkins (left) in one of her many stage costumes and Meryl Streep in a similar wardrobe in the movie.

Did critics pan Florence's records?

Yes. Soon after she issued her first two records, a TIME Magazine critic would describe her Mozart recording as being "innocently uproarious to hear" with repeated staccato notes that sound "like a cuckoo in its cups." The Mozart recording would become the most well-known depiction of her voice. Another critic reviewed her recording of "Adele's Laughing Song," writing, "...the record will give the listener more of a kick than the same amount invested ($2.50) in tequila, zubrovka, or marijuana."

Did Florence really bring happiness to some?

Yes. In the Meryl Streep movie, Florence's less than perfect singing brings happiness to many, including wounded soldiers returning home from WWII. One soldier is heard saying that he lost his left leg at the Battle of Quadalcanal but Florence has him happy to be alive. In 1941, Florence could be heard performing on Sunday radio broadcasts on station WINS and she also made several records. She brought happiness to those who heard her, even if it wasn't in the way she had intended.

Did Florence Foster Jenkins really perform at Carnegie Hall?

Yes. "This is my favorite place and I'm going to sing here," states Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) in the movie. She took the Carnegie Hall stage in real life too, at age 76, after a 32-year-long pursuit of a career as a singer. St. Clair Bayfield did not support the 8:30 p.m. October 25, 1944 Carnegie Hall performance. "I didn't want her to sing after her voice was worn out," admitted Bayfield years later, "but she was adamant. 'I can do it,' she told me. 'I'll show everybody.'" Despite her confidence, she still decided to rent the hall and give away the tickets for free. Word of the concert spread and by the day of the performance, approximately 2,000 people had to be turned away. A sold-out Carnegie Hall was filled to the rafters with every bit of standing-room space occupied. A few famous faces could even be spotted in the crowd, including composer Cole Porter, coloratura soprano Lily Pons, and actress Kitty Carlisle.

The original program for Florence Foster Jenkins' 8:30 p.m. Carnegie Hall recital on October 25, 1944.

"What we experienced was so hilarious," said singer/actress Marge Champion. "I was just totally unprepared for the fact that it did not seem to bother her in the least that everybody in the audience was convulsed with laughter, nor was she in any way thrilled by it. ... And it continued throughout the concert." It became obvious right from the start that the audience had not gone there expecting to hear serious music. Still, Florence left the hall pleased with her performance and Bayfield even wrote in his diary, "Recital a great success." Without subtracting the cost to rent the hall, Florence's recital brought in approximately $4,000. It wasn't until she read the reviews the next day that the full reality of the evening began to sink in.

Did The New York Times and other papers give Florence's Carnegie Hall recital scathing reviews?

Yes. The New York Times didn't feel Florence's recital at Carnegie Hall was worth reviewing. Their coverage read, "Florence Foster Jenkins, soprano, gave a recital at Carnegie Hall last night, assisted by the Pascarella Chamber Music Society quartet; Cosmé McMoon, pianist; and Oreste De Sevo, flutist." That was all that was written. Others, like New York Post celebrity gossip columnist Earl Wilson (portrayed by actor Christian McKay in the movie), didn't hold back. "Mrs. Florence Foster Jenkins, 76, a widow lady of our town, has a great voice. In fact, she can sing anything but notes. Lady Florence, or Madame Jenkins as she likes to be called if you are thinking of her as an artiste, indulged last night in one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen." Other reviews were similar, or worse.

Did pianist Cosmé McMoon initially refuse to play at Carnegie Hall with Florence?

The Florence Foster Jenkins true story reveals that Pianist Cosmé McMoon seemed to have less hesitation to play Carnegie Hall with Florence in real life (he had been her accompanist for many years by that point). Later, McMoon said that it was't a question of approval, the audience approved of Florence wholeheartedly. "But [her audiences] nearly always tried not to hurt her feelings by outright laughing," recalls McMoon. "So they developed a convention that whenever she came to a particularly excruciating discord or something like that where they had to laugh, they burst into these salvos of applause and whistles. The noise was so great that they could laugh at liberty." Others, like Verdi Club member Florence Malcolm Darnault, found that McMoon's own attitude toward Florence had become equally disrespectful. "He was paid as an accompanist and then laughed while he played the accompaniment and winked at the audience. He lived on her, she gave him everything," recalled Darnault. -Nicholas Martin book

Overall, was Florence pleased with her Carnegie Hall recital?

No. After the recital, Florence attributed the laughter in the audience to a few hoodlums planted in the crowd by her enemies, but underneath her facade, she was upset. According to St. Clair Bayfield, when she read the awful reviews, the reality of the evening began to fully sink in. "Afterward when we went home, Florence was upset," Bayfield revealed to a reporter, "and when she read the reviews, crushed. She had not known, you see." She had believed the audience was thoroughly enjoying her performance. After years of receiving mostly false praise from friends and peers who were too afraid to be honest with her (or her not willing to accept the opinions of those who were), she was now being judged by people who were not part of her circle.

After facing the reality of the Carnegie Hall reviews, the always upwards momentum of her artistic life came to a halt. Distraught, she had a heart attack five days later in New York City while shopping at G. Schirmer's, a sheet music store. She passed away in her apartment at The Hotel Seymour less than a month later on November 26, 1944 in the presence of her doctor, a close friend and her maid. St. Clair Bayfield was dining with a male Verdi club member when he heard the news. He was distraught. Distant relatives from her mother's first family then appeared, whom she had despised. They took over the funeral arrangements and forbid St. Clair Bayfield from attending. Florence was buried alongside her immediate family in Hollenbeck Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Did St. Clair Bayfield expect to inherit Florence's estate when she died?

Yes. "My life's entirety circled around hers," Bayfield told a reporter. "If I were a necessity, she would provide for me, and if she died first, I was to inherit her personal estate. My statements and her promises are corroborated by three witnesses to whom she said much the same thing. She intended me to inherit all her estate. Of that I am perfectly sure." A will to corroborate Bayfield's statements could not be found (he believed that her relatives were responsible for her missing will). Florence's father's will had stated that if Florence died without children, the income from her trust would go to her step-nephews and step-nieces. Complicating things further, pianist Cosmé McMoon claimed Florence had promised to leave him money to establish a music school.

Cosmé McMoon tried to sue the estate, claiming Florence had been in love with him too, but it was dismissed. Bayfield produced love letters in court, and the dispute lasted many months. He was eventually awarded $10,000, a small portion of Florence's estate. His girlfriend from England, Kathleen Weatherley (who leaves him in the movie), came back to America and the two were married in 1950. They used the $10,000 to purchase a house in Westchester, New York. St. Clair Bayfield passed away in 1967. He was 91. Cosmé McMoon earned a living by teaching piano and coaching singers, living until 1980.

Florence Foster Jenkins Audio Recordings & Documentary

Hear Florence Foster Jenkins cringe-inducing singing voice, and expand your knowledge of the true story by watching Donald Collup's Florence Foster Jenkins documentary, A World of Her Own, which was the source for most of the information above.

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