Fostering the Arts?— Florence Foster Jenkins

Fostering the Arts?— Florence Foster Jenkins August 19, 2016

I’m on record as saying I’d watch Meryl Streep play Kermit the Frog, she is such an amazing actress, and it’s nice to watch her grow older and continue to play important age appropriate roles for her, like Julia Childs and now Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), a very interesting music maven indeed. It will be worth your while to read the whole Wiki article on her, as the movie is a very faithful representation of both her personality and the last year or so of her life. It will also be worthwhile to go see this movie with fine performances not only by Streep but also by Hugh Grant as her husband, and Simon Helberg of Big Bang Theory fame as her pianist. His performance is so good he almost steals the limelight, and that’s hard to do with Streep as the centerpiece of the film. And yes, Simon really plays those piano parts in the film.

To say this woman was colorful and eccentric would be putting it too mildly. Here for example is one of the more amusing notes in the Wiki article——“Once, when a taxi in which she was riding collided with another car, Jenkins let out a high-pitched scream. She later confirmed that the note she had screamed was the fabled “F above high C”—a pitch she had never before been able to reach. Overjoyed, she refused to press charges against either involved party, and even sent the taxi driver a box of expensive cigars.”

Ms. Jenkins, and her common law husband St. Clair Bayfield, a British actor who was not any better at acting than she was at singing, lived in high society New York, before and during WWII. She inherited millions from her first husband and loved music and founded the Verdi Club, dedicated to the performance of great opera arias in English. She did a lot of charity work, and there are some things to commend about her life. For one thing her first husband (Jenkins) gave her syphilis, which was not properly treated, so it was something of a miracle she lived as long as she did. She really soldiered through a lot in life. And this disease affected her hearing which in turn would also affect her ability to sing on pitch. She was greatly loved by her friends, and indeed by St. Clair, but she was also greatly indulged, even to the point of being allowed to give her own concert at Carnegie Hall, bad singing or not. And herein lies the difficulty with this film— it raises the ethical question whether a person’s narcissistic dreams and desires should be indulged just because that person is rich and an interesting and sometimes charitable person. I am in sympathy with the critic who wrote a scathing review of her concert, which when Florence saw it, appears to have sent her into a tail spin. Five days after the concert she had a heart attack at Schirmer’s the famous music store in Manhattan and died shortly thereafter.

This movie is excellent. It is one part comedy, one part tragedy, and one part face. It will make you laugh, but it may also make you cry and at one hour and 50 minutes, it breezes right along. And while you are busy being entertained it raises important questions about whether for the sake of love one should indulge the fantasies of people who think they can do things they really shouldn’t attempt. Sadly, in the country where money talks louder than almost anything else, one can get shouted down for objecting to pure narcissism. In the case of this movie, the reality of Florence Foster Jenkins was perhaps even more eccentric than the film. But still….. it’s hard not to smile and feel badly for her, and at least allow she was brave.

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