14 June 2016
Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World's Worst Opera Singer by Darryl W. Bullock
"Probably the most complete and absolute lack of talent ever publicly displayed." —Life Magazine
Madame Jenkins couldn't carry a tune in a bucket: despite that, in 1944 at the age of 76, she played Carnegie Hall to a capacity audience and had celebrity fans by the score. Her infamous 1940s recordings are still highly-prized today. In his well-researched and thoroughly entertaining biography, Darryl W. Bullock tells of Florence Foster Jenkins meteoric rise to success and the man who stood beside her, through every sharp note.
Florence was ridiculed for her poor control of timing, pitch, and tone, and terrible pronunciation of foreign lyrics, but the sheer entertainment value of her caterwauling packed out theatres around the United States, with the 'singer' firmly convinced of her own talent, partly thanks to the devoted attention for her husband and manager St Clair Bayfield. Her story is one of triumph in the face of adversity, courage, conviction and of the belief that with dedication and commitment a true artist can achieve anything.
*Note: This is not the movie tie-in book, which can be found here and which I have not read.
I knew of Florence Foster Jenkins back when I was still singing (read: before I ruined my voice in college). My voice teacher brought her up whenever she thought my singing was too "wooden" - Madame had a terrible voice, but so was very entertaining. But I had never actually heard a recording of her voice.
Florence Foster Jenkins came out to somewhere between "good" and "ok." The actual book construction feels a little uneven and jumps around which gives the biography a "soapy" feel (he quotes the wretchedly bitchy Simon Doonan - in a soundbite that should just die and I'm not going to repeat it here - who wasn't even born when Madame died in 1944). However, what Bullock did do was evoke a lot of sympathy for his subject. Florence Foster Jenkins was a moneyed Society lady who clearly LOVED classical music, had once been a talented classical pianist, and had the wherewithal to indulge her passion despite (or because of) her lack of voice.
You can still purchase Madame's recordings (just search "Florence Foster Jenkins" on iTunes and it appears they are being reissues on vinyl/CD). I can only take listening to the iTunes samples because it's just too awful. The recordings were made when she was in her 60s/70s and if she ever had a decent voice it is long gone. It's too cruel to laugh at her for merely being an eccentric elderly lady.
Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher at Book Expo America.