Thursday, November 09, 2006

I think I heard Florence Foster Jenkins’ recordings for the first time in the 1960s on WBAI-FM, New York’s left-wing listener-supported station. During the regular pledge drives, a few minutes of Mme. Jenkins was sure to get a steady stream of listeners to promise to contribute if the DJ would get her off the air. Yes, people would pay to stop her singing. And hanging out with fellow teenage musicians as I did at that time, fans of Tom Lehrer and the Goon Show, it was inevitable that we’d come across RCA Victor’s Jenkins LP, The Glory (????) of the Human Voice. So when I saw a notice on Parterre Box for the premiere screening of Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, I simply had to go.

Filmmaker Donald Collup, assisted by researcher Gregor Benko, assembled a 91-minute film that explores all the facets of Jenkins’ life, and if it wasn’t tragic, there was certainly more than enough pathos to quiet some of the laughter around her recordings. As it turns out, there was more to Jenkins than someone whose attacks on notes above high C have left listeners gasping in disbelief for more than sixty years. There was the father who stifled her aspirations to study music in Europe, the goal of all serious students at the time. There was the accident that ended her piano studies. Later, her husband was a disappointment and the marriage led to her being disinherited for a time. She never could overcome her small-town background, though she traced her forebears back to the Revolution. A dedicated social climber, her tactic of choice was membership in New York’s women’s clubs. She belonged to more than a dozen and even founded one, the Verdi Club, but her aspirations to be accepted into New York City high society were never realized.

And, of course, there was her singing. She studied for years, performed at her clubs and at society musicales, but her dream was to be recognized as an artist. She could almost be the inspiration for Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet,” of course) of Keeping Up Appearances. That Jenkins was in her seventies when she went into the studio explains a lot about the way she sounded. Explaining the rest may be a combination of profound self-delusion and the complete absence of a musician’s ear.

Far from being an obscurity, as I assumed she was, Jenkins was well-known enough to leave a considerable documentary trail. Using a surprising number of articles from newspapers and magazines, supplemented with interviews, plentiful photographs, and period music, Collup has produced a film somewhat in the Ken Burns mode, though there was no contemporary movie footage. The testimony of people who were at the 1944 Carnegie Hall recital —Marge Champion, Alfred Hubay, and Daniel Pinkham — along with the photo taken from the stage, showing Cole Porter, were fascinating, as were articles by critics and gossip columnist Earl Wilson. Overall, we get perhaps too much information about Jenkins — I could have done without the family tree, for example — but the result is that a person takes shape behind the notorious recordings. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” applies here.

Collup’s film is aptly titled. Jenkins did her best to construct a world of her own but ultimately had to live in the same world as the rest of us, where disappointment is plentiful and triumphs hard-won and often fleeting. Though not without its longueurs, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own is well worth seeing if you are at all interested in understanding the person behind the legend.

NOTE: In response to public (?) demand (!), Video Artists International released A World of Her Own on DVD. It is available from VAI, as well as Amazon and other fine retailers.

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