“Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I DIDN'T sing.”
So said Florence Foster Jenkins, a singer like no other. A New York socialite in the early 1900s who had a deep knowledge of classical music, she loved to perform. Once you've heard her sing - several Web sites offer samples - you'll never forget her voice, but not because of its dulcet tones. Quite the opposite, in fact: Her voice was so wildly off-key that critics variously referred to her as “the Diva of Din,” “the First Lady of the Sliding Scale,” and a woman “who clucked and squawked, but lived to sing.”
The writer George Plimpton, who last year gave a college commencement address citing Jenkins as a woman to be admired for fulfilling her daydreams despite the odds, compared her voice to a crow's, or a banshee's. Another writer, Pablo Helguera, described her as “a dumpy coloratura soprano” with a voice that was “preposterous!”
“She trumpeted and quavered. She couldn't carry a tune. Her sense of rhythm was uncertain, [and] in the treacherous upper registers, her voice often vanished into thin air. ...”
Bizarre though she was, Jenkins, daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania banker, rented and promptly sold out Carnegie Hall in 1944, when she was 76 years old, although most of the audience were there to laugh themselves sick. The critics scorned her from the beginning, but she dismissed them as “hooligans,” and continued singing in swank clubs and get-togethers. Usually she dressed in outlandish gowns with big gold wings on her back, tossing roses into the audience as she sang. Among her admirers was said to be the great tenor Enrico Caruso, surely displaying heroic noblesse oblige.
Jenkins went on to make four recordings, samples of which can be heard at several sites on the Web, including Amazon.com (type her name in the search box); Brumm.com, which features a biography, photograph, and an audio clip of the winged diva, and Telegrama.org, which contains Helguera's essay on Jenkins. He eulogizes her as “more than a joke. She was also an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage.”
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