3 Stars – Sympathetic
People are often prone to seeing themselves in either an exaggerated positive or negative light. Florence Foster Jenkins was a woman who dreamed of herself as a world-renown musical performer well beyond her capacity and talent. What is remarkable about this true story, is that she managed to survive in high society until the age of 76 without anyone ever really revealing to her the extent to which the public was making her bad singing the butt of their jokes.
Florence Foster Jenkins is the true story of an American heiress whose life spanned the social circles of Philadelphia, Washington DC, and most notably New York. Played masterfully by Meryl Streep, Jenkin’s life was rich in character and blinded by wealth. At an early age she played a piano recital at the White House during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes, and she became one of the grand patrons of the arts in New York during the early and mid-20th century. During most of her sheltered adult life, she controlled who got to hear her sing, and how the public received her. Her society friends adored her, but then she contributed a great deal of money to their favorite causes.
In 1944, in her only public performance that she organized to “help the boys who were fighting for our freedom” during the World War II, the outside world got to review and publish their opinions about her talent. On October 25, 1944, Jenkins organized a free concert at Carnegie Hall and gave away the tickets to soldiers and a few members of high society, including composers such as Cole Porter. Included in the audience were critics from the New York newspapers who the next day gave her one of the most scathing reviews in the city’s history. Jenkins was so overcome by the devastating statements by the public that within days she suffered a heart attack and within a month she was dead.
How is it that someone can so misinterpret reality? Historians will point out that Florence Foster had married Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins in 1885, and within a year after learning that she had contracted syphilis from him, she ended their relationship and reportedly never spoke of him again. In those days the medicines to treat such a progressively deteriorating disease such as arsenic and mercury, had horrible side effects including the destruction of the central nervous system and a loss of hearing.
For over three decades before her death, Jenkins had a semi-marriage arrangement with a British Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield, who managed her life and career. Bayfield also managed to buy good publicity for Florence so that she would be able to live in her dream world of musical talent. Bayfield was not aware of the fact that Jenkins had booked Carnegie Hall to support the war effort, and once it was set in motion, he couldn’t talk her out of this “charitable event” that she believed was so necessary to defeat the evils of Hitler’s empire. Little did either know that this would lead to the end of her career and life.
While it is amusing to witness this comically tragic tale, it is a good reminder that the gifts that are born in our lives have to be shaped by testing and loving cultivation. We must honestly face the question: Is avoiding honest feedback a “blessing” to someone’s self-esteem or, is it just another way of “enabling” poor behavior? We all have abilities and talents that if shaped correctly can grow into great gifts for all that we encounter along life’s path.
In the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, money sheltered her from reality even as it underwrote many worthy artistic endeavors. Her life was not without pain, but it certainly was marred by a lack of true friends and loving companions. Like many others, her life has become a teachable moment and has garnered for more attention after she died than when she was with us on this earth. Most found her an amusing story, but in her own mind she was using her skill to elevate the minds and spirits of us all in her words, “to become better angels.”
- Do you have someone in your life who will give you honest feedback? If so, how do they accomplish this as a blessing? If not, how do you know your true abilities and talents?
- The early diminished hearing undoubtedly caused Florence to be unable to know her true tone. Is there any such physical difficulty you experience and how does it effect your perception of yourself and of reality?
- Wealth can protect us from many things, but not from the truth. How do you think wealth is impacting the ability to know the truth in the world today?