Florence Foster Jennings Was A War-Time Operatic Hero…Sort Of

Earlier this summer, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant appeared in the biopic ‘Florence Foster Jennings’, a movie about the famous socialist and amateur singer. The amateur singer and socialite was born Nascina Florence Foster on July 19th 1868, and spent years performing in garish and often comical costumes, much to the amusement of her audiences. The singer was often mocked for her performances and her technically poor singing abilities.

Regardless, Foster Jenkins became a cult figure. Her loyal fans adored her shows and performances, and throughout the war, the American people and soldiers found joy in her professional recordings between 1941 and 1944. Nine songs were performed on 78RPM records, which included four coloratura arias taken from Mozart operas, as well as five art songs – two of which were written specifically for Jenkins by Cosme McMoon.

Foster Jenkins started her singing career late. Her recordings were made during her 70s, and when she died in 1944, she was in the middle of her career – something that began in 1912 when she first starting taking private vocal training recitals. After five years of training, Foster Jenkins became the ‘President Soprano Hostess’ of a social organization she founded, called the Verdi Club. She made the club to celebrate Grand Opera in English, and despite her singing style, managed to gain a following of over 400 people, with Enrico Caruso (an Italian operatic tenor) being one of their honorary members.

One of the great American eccentrics, Foster Jenkins actually had quite impressive skills on the piano, but had to give up the instrument after an injury. Pianist Cosme McMoon can be heard in recordings making changes to account for her errors. Her performances, however, were loved by those who attended. Legend has it that Cole Porter would bang his walking stick into his foot to stop himself from laughing when she sang, and he would rarely miss any of her live performances.

In 1944, Foster Jenkins made an appears at Carnegie Hall, one of the most highly esteemed performing venues in New York. Her performance was a hit, but the reviews were terrible. She was crushed by what some of the newspapers had to say about her, but she did famously say:

“People may that I can’t sing, but nobody can say I didn’t sing.”

So maybe she couldn’t sing, but the people loved her. To this day, eccentrics can bring smiles to our faces, and Foster Jenkins joins a long line of them who brought a little extra joy to the world.

Now, promise not to laugh…

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