Discussion of film/TV series Non-fiction Review of Biographical Fiction

Read the books before you judge the films – GoT and Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins, by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees (Paperback; Martin’s Griffin; July 12, 2016; 256 pages. Biography by Jasper Rees, screenplay by Nicholas Martin)

Game of Thrones has now ended, and amid the uproar about the storyline and perceived-as-unsatisfactory conclusion of the final season, despairing fans have been advised to wait and read the final two novels in the series by George R. R. Martin, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. I, too recommend that you suspend your judgment of the TV show and wait to read Martin’s novels, and the same goes for the film about the infamously bad soprano, Florence Foster Jenkins. There’s always the debate – should I read the book on which the movie is based? Will it spoil the fun? In the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, I took the plunge and read her biography and it really answered all the questions I had after having watched the film. 

Queen of De-Nial

Florence Foster Jenkins was the most extreme case of denial in the history of show-biz. On a recent long, cramped transatlantic flight I got to watch the 2016 film about “Madame Jenkins”, a New York heiress known for her very poor singing, and it was a treat that made me laugh out loud. Florence Foster Jenkins (F.F.J.) is directed by Stephen Frears, written by Nicholas Martin, and stars Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, Hugh Grant plays her husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, and Simon Helberg plays Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ accompanist.

Biographical films are often not very close to reality, and feature only the dramatic highlights of a person’s life. In the case of F.F.J. her entire life was dramatic, and absurdly so. And in case you were wondering, was she really a poor singer? Yes, she was. She was really, really bad. She was so bad you can still listen to it today and wince at the sheer awfulness of that voice.

Meryl Streep won a Critics’ Choice Award for her portrayal for which she had to learn to sing as badly as F.F.J., in F.F.J.’s vocal style, which is something to be heard to be believed.

“Playing a real-life society grand dame who sang with enormous enthusiasm but only the vaguest acquaintance with things like pitch, timing and tone, Streep’s Florence is monumentally awful but awfully entertaining; as Jason Solomons wrote in a review for The Wrap, “it is very hard to sing that awfully on purpose, and her twinkling commitment to the part is, as ever, a thing of wonder.” (Steve Pond, Meryl Streep Explains Why She Wanted to Sing So Badly in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’, in The Wrap, Aug. 11, 2016, rtrvd. 2019-05-31)

(Above) Florence Foster Jenkins singing “Die Hölle Rache…” from W.A. Mozart’s opera  The Magic Flute. The only professional audio recordings of Jenkins consist of nine selections on five 78-rpm records by Melotone Recording Studio, New York City, 1941–1944, produced by Jenkins herself. Seven of the selections, including this one, were released by RCA Victor on a 10-inch LP in 1954, and reissued on a 12-inch LP in 1962, called The Glory (????) of the Human Voice. (Sony Classical, OCLC 968787814, 1992)

The biography of Florence Foster Jenkins

Having seen the film I then read the book – Florence Foster Jenkins – The Inspiring True Story of the World’s Worst singer, by Jasper Rees, which also contains the film’s script by Nicholas Martin. These two are tightly and noticeably aligned in content, tone and understanding of the individual and the times in which she lived. As a result, the book did not spoil my enjoyment of the film, nor did the film ruin my enjoyment of the book.

Conversely, the last season of Game of Thrones largely consists of original content not found in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, while also incorporating new material that Martin has revealed to show runners Dan Weiss and David Benioff about the novels that are still to be published. As they explained, they learned in advance from Martin where the story was going and how it ends. In fact, back in 2015 they told viewers that the TV show will spoil the books for readers. (Robinson, Joanna (March 22, 2015), Game of Thrones Creators Confirm the Show Will Spoil the BooksVanity Fair, rtrvd. 2019-06-07)

“It is rare – maybe unprecedented – for a biography and the script of a biopic to be published in harness. Florence Foster Jenkins feels like an ideal fit for such treatment, being a figure with a splendid flair for self-dramatization.” (Prologue, p. 9)

The book is a fairly detailed depiction of the status and roles of women in New York society in the early 1900s, because there is, unfortunately, not much information written by F.F.J. or St. Clair Bayfield themselves that Rees could base his narrative on. Much of their diaries, personal correspondence and notes were destroyed or lost, therefore much of the information is from people who were involved with them, and the records of their public appearances. A few snippets of the personal letters between F.F.J. and Bayfield show, at least, his affection for her.

The largest, but not entirely trustworthy resource is a 1971 interview in which “[the second] Mrs. Bayfield read out a substantial chunk [of St. Clair Bayfield’s biography] in a joint interview alongside two Verdi Club members who had known Florence personally.” (p.7).

Mad, bad or just sad?

The initial conclusions I came to while reading the book are that F.F.J. was delusional and mad as a banana in a hat shop. But in those days, if you were a widow who could not do actual work for an income, who had to stick to “her place in society” – you did what you could to find meaning in life and make money. F.F.J. found hers in music. She was a formally educated, classical pianist, apparently a very good one when she was young, and then she assiduously promoted classical music in women’s clubs and societies, for instance the “Euterpe Club” of New York and her own, aforementioned, “Verdi Club”, and finally, she started singing classical arias.

In fact, when she first started singing she was well trained and her performances got good reviews. But why did she stop playing piano and start singing? Rees can only guess:

“…Florence was getting good reviews for her singing in the 1890s. When she started singing again [around 1912] her performances were discreet and below the radar, because they went unreported, but in 1915 her mini-résumé in The Musical Blue Book of America […] described her as a singer and a pianist. Kathleen Bayfield [St. Clair Bayfield’s second wife] refers to an injury to Florence’s arm which meant she had to give up playing the piano. It seems likely that one means of musical expression replaced the other.” (p.115)

However, what the book does make clear is that Florence might have been consciously avoiding the truth about her singing, but she was by no means crazy. In fact, one could say she was exceptionally strong-willed and rational about her singing capabilities and career. It just didn’t matter to her that she was a bad singer – she lived for music. By providing women with opportunities to become all sorts of professional musicians, from pianists to violinists and singers, through her societies and clubs, Florence proved herself a proper trail-blazing feminist. She put her money where her mouth was when it came to female empowerment – starting with women’s voting rights:

“‘The moment a man admits that [a] woman is entitled to the franchise [the right to vote],’ she reasoned, ‘that moment it becomes his duty to make no argument against her obtaining it.’” (Extract from a letter written by  Florence Foster Jenkins, published in the Evening Star, Feb. 1912, in Florence Foster Jenkins, by Jasper Rees, p. 131)

Why did she sing so badly? There is only circumstantial evidence, but apparently F.F.J., like many people at that time, had syphilis, for which effective treatment had not yet been developed. Syphilis was sometimes treated with mercury which had terrible side effects – in her case it made her as bald as an egg, it gave her trouble breathing and it gave her tinnitus, which meant that she couldn’t hear herself sing. Added to that was the fact that, by the time when she really became infamous for her singing, she was already in her seventies and in ill-health. When she gave her final terrible performance in Carnegie Hall, she was 76 years old. Who’s to say that she couldn’t have one final moment of grandeur?

The real Florence Foster Jenkins

There are 20 illustrations of the real F.F.J. in the book, but I would have liked to see more since the author describes some others that sound intriguing. (In the Florence Foster Jenkins Scrapbook of the New York Public Library there are more documents.)

(Above) Select items from the Florence Foster Jenkins Scrapbook, by Bob Kosovsky, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, August 18, 2016

But actually, the only proof that you need of the accuracy of the descriptions of Madame Jenkins is to listen to her awful singing. This raised the question of what was going on in the head of F.F.J.’s devoted common-law husband, manager and promotor, St. Clair Bayfield. In the book, it is clear that he really loved her. Between them they sustained a shared delusionshe believed that he thought she sang wonderfully, and he believed that she thought she sang wonderfully, and so the two of them kept each other going while the audiences collapsed with laughter, right until she finally read the real critics’ reviews of her performance at Carnegie Hall. And that caused her death soon after.

The power of love

Isn’t love strange? People will do all sorts of things to support the creative pursuits of the one they love even if it means lying like a pro and buying good reviews. If you were a writer, would you believe it if your significant other told you that you were the greatest? Of course you would. And would your S.O. not feel driven to praise your talent? Of course they would. (Which is why you should never believe your loved one when they tell you those pants do not make your bum look big.)

Apparently one can actually die of a broken heart, or rather of the unpleasant physical symptoms of extreme emotional trauma. So F.F.J. died when her heart was broken about the panning of her performance in Carnegie Hall. She really believed that she was a “coloratura soprano”, poor woman.

And now for Game of Thrones…

The proposed (proposed, not actual!!) cover for George R.R. Martin’s “The Winds of Winter.” (Source: BANTAM BOOKS)

As for Game of Thrones – in April 2019, Martin commented in an interview that the writing “has been going very well lately”, and in May 2019 he jokingly told his blog readers that if he did not have a copy of The Winds of Winter in hand for the 2020 Worldcon in New Zealand, Air New Zealand has his permission to imprison him until he finishes it. (Rtrvd. 2019-05-31) So let’s wait and see, shall we?

About the header: Photo of Icelandic geyser by M.F. O’Brien, 2017; woman’s figure adapted from sheet music cover of: The Walkyrie (Die Walküre), Richard Wagner Opera for Song and Piano, French version of Alfred Ernst, Paris, Schott Publishing House 19th century c. 1893

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