39: Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins was made with a low budget of only about $30 million and released in 2016. After its release, the critics loved the film as it went on to be nominated for two Oscars, including Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Meryl Streep and Best Achievement in Costume Design for Consolata Boyle.

 

In just a couple weeks, we’ll find out whether or not those nominations pan out at the Academy Awards on February 26th. If you’ve seen all of the Oscar nominations this year, you probably watched Foster Florence Jenkins. But how true to history is what you saw on screen?

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie simply called Florence Foster Jenkins starts off with Florence, who’s played by the amazing Meryl Streep, as an adult. But to really get to know Florence, we’ll need to jump back further than that.

Our story begins three years after the Civil War in the United States came to an end when Charles and Mary Foster welcomed their daughter into the world. Narcissa Florence Foster was born on July 19th, 1868 in the coal mining town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

While little Narcissa was growing up, her father earned a living as a lawyer and businessman. He made quite a living this way as he had a hand in the growing railway business and banks.

We don’t really know when, but we know that at some point in her childhood Narcissa started going by Florence. It seems she preferred her middle name, so it’s what most people called her.

Thanks to her family’s affluent position, at a young age Florence started taking piano lessons. She took to it really quickly, and became a true child prodigy.

Her biggest claim to fame as a child piano player was probably when, at only seven years old, she played at the White House for the then-President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was about this time, in 1875, when Charles and Mary had their second daughter.

Lillian Blanche Foster, or Lilly as she was called, was Florence’s only sibling. But there’s not a lot we know about Lilly, and since she wasn’t mentioned in the movie at all we won’t really dig into her history.

Florence loved performing, and was clearly good at it.

But it wasn’t something her dad saw as anything more than a hobby. According to her dad, it was something she’d grow out of. That’s not quite how Florence saw things.

Although we don’t know what things were like in the Foster household, it’s probably safe to say this was the cause of plenty of arguments between Charles and his teenage daughter.

We can only imagine what additional stress must’ve added to the Foster home when, on June 29th, 1883, Florence’s baby sister died. Unfortunately, we don’t really know how she died. We only know she died at the age of eight.

That is something that would send shockwaves across any family.

In 1885, Florence graduated from high school and tried to convince her dad to let her go to Europe to study music professionally. She wanted to make a career out of music.

This was the same year her dad dabbled in politics when he represented Lackawanna and Luzerne counties at the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives in 1885 and 1886.

While we don’t really know how the conversations went down, there’s a very good chance Florence’s dad wasn’t around much in that year. After all, he was already an extremely busy businessman, lawyer and now on top of that he had a budding political career. So when his daughter asked for money to go to Europe, he did what many other dads would do—he said no.

He refused to pay for it. But Florence was stubborn.

Instead of sticking around, at the age of 18 in 1886, Florence Foster became Florence Jenkins when she eloped with a dashing young doctor from Washington, D.C. named Frank Jenkins.

Well, I say “young.” When they got married, Frank was 34 years old. So he wasn’t old, but certainly much older than the 18 year old Florence. Frank Jenkins’ father was Rear Admiral Thornton Jenkins.

If that name rings a bell, you paid attention in history class. He served as the Chief of Staff for Admiral Farragut in the Union Navy during the U.S. Civil War.

We don’t have any information on how this marriage between the much older Dr. Jenkins and Florence made Florence’s dad feel, but I think it’s safe to say he probably wasn’t too happy about it.

After getting married, the two lived in Philadelphia where he continued his work as a doctor and Florence took up a job playing and teaching piano. Around this time, she started taking vocal lessons, too.

While the movie is set much later than this, there’s a moment where Meryl Streep’s version of Florence remarks to a doctor that her first husband gave her syphilis at an early age.

Sadly, this is true, although the marriage lasted a little longer than the movie makes it seem. A lot longer, actually.

Now it’s important to point out that there’s a lot of details we just don’t have. But there’s some things we can surmise from what we do know.

After eloping in 1885, Florence and Frank divorced in 1902, meaning they were married for 17 years. At that point, it was almost half of Florence’s life.

So we can guess it was an extremely scary decision for Florence to leave Frank. Or was it Frank who cheated on Florence and left her? We don’t know.

What we do know is that in 1902, Florence Foster Jenkins who had only been a teenager when she fled home to marry young was now alone and forced to support herself.

And that’s exactly what she did. For years, Florence made a living teaching piano. Then, in 1909, two events would fundamentally change Florence for the rest of her life.

The first of these happened on January 14th, 1909 while Florence was working as the “chairman of music” at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. It was on this day that Florence met a young man who’d have an enormous impact on her, St. Clair Bayfield.

In the movie, St. Clair is played by Hugh Grant.

And this time when I say “young man”, I mean “young.” Historians have debated the exact date of St. Clair’s birth, but most agree he was about 23 when he met Florence in 1909.

By comparison, Florence was 40 when the two met.

For a time, Florence was happy. Tragedy would strike soon, though, when Charles Foster died on September 29th, 1909. We don’t know how this affected Florence. We know she wasn’t particularly close to her family, but it was still her dad. It couldn’t have been easy.

Despite their differences, Florence was Charles’ only child. Half of his estate was given to Florence, and the other half was given to his only other benefactor, his wife and Florence’s mother, Mary. Most have estimated it to be about $1.5 million going to Florence, and roughly the same going to Mary.

Today, that’s the equivalent of almost $41 million. That’s life-changing money.

And that’s exactly what it did for Florence. Overnight, she went from someone teaching piano and struggling to make ends meet to a rich socialite who didn’t have to work another day in her life.

She was finally free to pursue her passion. That passion, of course, was music. We don’t know what the very first thing she did after getting the money, but we do know she started taking voice lessons again. It didn’t happen right away, but Florence’s first public singing performance was in 1912.

And yes, it is true that she was just as bad at singing as she sounded in the film. In fact, many have applauded Meryl Streep for managing to very accurately depict the way Florence really sang on screen.

That brings up another question of accuracy, though. In the movie, Meryl Streep’s version of Florence mentions something that happened to her left hand. There’s a scene where she’s in the apartment of her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, and she has trouble playing the piano. So Cosmé jumps in, playing the left hand on Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor while Florence plays the right hand.

In the movie, Cosmé is played by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg.

Although in the movie, Florence blames her inability to play the left hand on the change in the weather. The truth is, we don’t know exactly what happened to Florence’s left hand. And we don’t really know if that’s the reason why Florence stopped playing the piano, but it makes sense why it would be.

Maybe it was syphilis. Maybe it was something else. All we know is that by this point, the once childhood piano prodigy had traded in the ivory keys for vocals.

While this is purely my speculation, given the events we’ve learned about so far, it seems to make sense that if Florence were unable to play the piano for some reason, she’d continue with her love of music in whatever way possible. And since we know she’d been taking vocal lessons for a long time, that may have been her backup.

Sadly, it just seems that Florence wasn’t quite as talented of a singer as she was at piano.

In 1917, Florence used a portion of her money to start the Verdi Club. Although there’s no dates in the movie, this is where we first see Meryl’s version of Florence as she descends on an actor portraying Stephen Foster.

No relation to Florence Foster Jenkins.

Stephen Foster was a 19th century American songwriter who made a name for himself by writing songs like Camptown Races, Hard Times Come Again No More and the one shown in the movie, Oh! Susanna.

In the movie, there’s a moment that comes as a surprise when Florence goes to bed and takes off her wig. It’s then that we see her completely bald.

While we just don’t know enough about what happened in the privacy of Florence’s home to know if that particular scene took place, the truth is that Florence was bald. Most historians agree it likely wasn’t directly because of her syphilis, though, but probably because of the mercury treatments she was receiving for the syphilis.

At the time, the best medical treatments for syphilis included a barrage of mercury-induced items such as ointments, pills, mercury chloride oil and even mercury-filled steam baths.

Today, we know mercury is extremely poisonous, but at the time it was considered a treatment for illness. All of this despite its long list of side effects such as tooth loss, ulcerations in the mouth, throat and skin and, of course, death.

Sort of makes you wonder what medical treatments now-a-days, with their own long list of side effects, will end up being banned as poison in the future.

Another turning point in the movie occurs when Florence sees Lily Pons singing. The movie makes it seem like this is the inspiration for Florence’s desire to sing.

Well, as you can probably guess, Florence was in love with music for her whole life. She had been taking vocal lessons off and on for most of her life up to this point, so even though we don’t really know if Florence ever saw Lily perform, it’s pretty safe to say this specific moment didn’t happen.

With that said, Lily Pons was a real person. She had an incredibly successful career as an actress and singer for about 50 years, starting around this time in the 1920s to the 1970s.

Oh, and in the movie, Lily is portrayed by another talented actress, Aida Garifullina.

Speaking of which, in the movie, a few of the other characters we learn about are Florence’s pianist, Cosmé McMoon, and her manager, St. Clair Bayfield.

We’ve already heard a bit about both of these, but the way the film portrays these two is actually pretty accurate.

However, unlike the movie, Cosmé wasn’t the first pianist to play with Florence. It was in 1928 when Florence met a pianist named Edwin McArthur at one of her social events.

In the movie, we see a line of pianists come in for interviews with Florence. While it may not have happened exactly like that, Edwin did come in for an interview at Florence’s request. He got the job and worked as her accompanying pianist for the next six years.

We don’t know quite as many details about how Florence and Cosmé met, but it’s probably safe to assume it’s fairly similar. Since Florence frequented social clubs and events, she likely met up with the talented pianist at some point in the late 1920s as well.

For a time, both Edwin and Cosmé would accompany Florence. Not at the same time, but rather, when Florence began singing to entertain her friends at social events, it was usually Edwin or Cosmé who accompanied her on the piano. While these two may have been the ones who most often accompanied her, it’s worth pointing out that they weren’t the only pianists to play while Florence sang.

For the most part, the pianists seemed to play along with it. Both physically and figuratively.

In the movie, though, Cosmé is torn. He knows how badly Florence sounds, but he really starts to like her as a person. So he goes along with it…and I’m sure the money didn’t hurt, either. 

Again, we don’t know the specific details, but the gist of what we see on screen in the movie seems to be pretty accurate to history. Perhaps the reason why Cosmé is the only pianist we see accompany Florence is because in truth, he was the only pianist who stuck with Florence throughout her singing career.

Florence Foster Jenkins’ first full-length concert came in 1931 when she performed at the Ritz-Carlton. Florence was 63 years old at this time.

She continued to perform from time to time.

Then, in 1934, she fired Edwin McArthur after he made fun of Florence in front of an audience. What we don’t know is if this was a one-time occurrence, or if it happened multiple times and Florence simply had enough.

In 1935, she performed publicly twice and twice again in 1936. Then in 1937, Florence performed five times. We know Florence had a love of music. And since everyone around her seemed to love her singing, as the years went on, she kept it up.

As 1938 rolled around, Florence performed as many as eight times. She even went over to England to sing, something that’s pretty remarkable considering that’s just before World War II broke out. While it was still a little too early to put a halt on traveling in Europe, for a socialite who’d spent most of her life with the well-off in the United States, traveling abroad at such a time had to have been quite an ordeal. 

In the movie, it appears to be St. Clair Bayfield who enables Florence’s behavior by paying off audience members and even newspaper reporters who review Florence’s recitals.

Unfortunately, we just don’t know exactly how much of this is true. What we do know is that there was indeed a large group of people around Florence who cheered her on and encouraged her. Along with this, there were quite a few good reviews of Florence’s performances in the papers, too.

One of the more popular ones quoted by newspaper articles and historians was an unnamed critic who claimed Florence’s singing would give you more kick than the equivalent cost of tequila, vodka or marijuana.

Another aspect shown in the movie are the Florence’s dazzling costumes.

These were all pretty spot on historically, and they were something the audience loved.

In the movie, there’s a sort of a love triangle between Meryl Streep’s version of Florence, her manager, Hugh Grant’s character, St. Clair Bayfield, and another woman that St. Clair is seeing named Kathleen. In the film, Kathleen is played by Rebecca Ferguson.

Of course, we don’t have all of the details about their private lives, but of what we do know there appears to be some elements of truth in this. There also appears to be some inaccuracies with the way it plays out on screen, too.

We already learned that Florence and St. Clair met in 1909, long before Florence’s first singing gig in 1931. During this time, Florence was one to frequent a variety of social events around New York, she often needed someone to accompany her.

After all, that was typical of the time.

St. Clair filled in, and it didn’t take long for a romantic relationship had sprung up on top of their professional relationship. But this didn’t stop both Florence and St. Clair from flirting with others at these social events.

We don’t know when it happened, but at some point St. Clair met a British woman at one of these events named Kathleen Weatherley. The two hit it off, and a rather secret relationship started. So that part of what we see in the film is true.

Probably the most inaccurate part of what we see in the movie is with the timeline. In the movie, Florence seems to keep trying to get St. Clair to stay with her throughout, well, most of the film.

In truth, by the time 1932 rolled around, Florence and St. Clair had ended their romantic relationship. Despite this, though, the two still needed each other. Florence had come to rely on St. Clair’s writing, directing and overall management of the events she loved putting on. On the other side, St. Clair needed, well, a job and the two continued to work together professionally.

Were there attempts from Florence or St. Clair to resume their romantic relationship like the movie implies? There seems to be no indication of this, but because we don’t know much of what happened in their private lives—we just don’t know.

In the movie, the big dramatic ending happens when Florence decides to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City.

As with anything we’ve seen in the film, there’s no time indicated here, but this event did happen on October 25th, 1944.

And just like the movie indicates, it was a sold out event. By this time, everyone knew who Florence was. Something which helped sell out this concert was something the movie eludes to—it was Florence’s first concert open to the public.

Up until this point, she’d performed in front of plenty of people, but it was always something she ran and for her friends.

This time was different. Anyone could buy a ticket, and everyone wanted one. Many historians believe Florence only opened up the concert to the public because so many requested to hear her sing in person.

Because of Florence’s numerous and influential friends, her performances were the talk of the town even if most hadn’t seen her in person. The singer we saw in the movie, Lily Pons, was in attendance that night and even wrote a song specifically for Florence to sing.

Something else that helped her sell out Carnegie Hall were her recordings, which the movie correctly shows has having been something she did in a single take. These have been reviewed numerous times by critics, and listened to by countless more people.

Almost every single one of these reviews refused to say anything negative. Instead, they merely stated it was extremely entertaining. One critic even went so far as personally offering to refund your money if weren’t entertained by Florence’s record.

Of course, we don’t know if anyone took him up on that. But the point is still that everyone seemed to have a fascination with Florence.

It reminds me sort of like the more recent fascination with the TV show American Idol. Especially in those early episodes when the whole point of the show is to be entertained by how bad other people are at singing.

Anyway, back in the film, at the Carnegie Hall recital there’s a moment in the beginning when everyone starts laughing at Florence. Then a blonde woman stands up and scolds the crowd.

This woman, who’s played by actress Nina Arianda, is named Agnes Stark. We saw her earlier in the film when it was her who laughed at Florence. Now, in a moment almost too good to be true, it was Agnes who was backing Florence.

Well, if it’s too good to be true, it’s usually not. And in this case, it’s not true. There was no Agnes Stark. That character was made up by the filmmakers as a way of characterizing crowd reactions.

In truth, the audience at Carnegie Hall on October 25th, 1944 absolutely loved Florence’s performance. Many critics in attendance assumed most of the people in attendance weren’t there to see a serious musical, but rather to enjoy a fun evening of entertainment.

Whether or not that’s true, that’s exactly what they got.

Although the movie doesn’t show this, there was a moment during the performance when one of the wings on Florence’s magnificent bird costume collapsed. The entire performance had to be put on hold while stage hands tried to help repair the costume.

Meanwhile, Cosmé had to stop playing on the piano while the costume was fixed. When the performance resumed, Cosmé was a bit flustered by what had happened and spent much of the rest of the performance trying to keep up with Florence.

While this wasn’t in the movie, the assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera mentioned during the performance, Florence threw tiny red flowers from a basket into the audience.

And, then, in an moment of apparent confusion, the entire basket accidentally got tossed alongside the flowers!

One of the critics in attendance that night would later say Florence could sing anything but notes. Or another saying she only hit a few notes the entire night.

In the movie, after the performance there’s a great deal of effort that St. Clair and Cosmé go to, to try and hide the negative reviews from Florence.

While we don’t know if the way the movie portrays it is exactly how it happened, again the gist of what the movie shows is fairly accurate.

Probably the most inaccurate part was that after the performance, Florence wasn’t happy with it. She had gone into the performance assuming she would be cheered and applauded. While everyone seemed to love it, there was also plenty of laughing going on. That wasn’t something she expected.

The next day, as the movie shows, Florence read the reviews. It crushed her. The movie makes it seem like it was right after reading a negative review that Florence fainted and hit her head. Then, she dies seemingly right away.

Sadly, again, this is fairly accurate. Although she didn’t faint and hit her head like that.

 

In truth, Florence was never in very good health. If it wasn’t because of the syphilis, it was mercury poisoning from the medications. Whatever the cause, we know she had a heart attack and took ill after her performance at Carnegie Hall.

Almost exactly one month after the performance, on November 26th, 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins passed away at her residence in the Seymour Hotel in New York City.

Throughout the movie, there’s a general sense that Meryl Streep’s version of Florence Foster Jenkins is a very sweet lady who has a kind heart. As best as we can tell, the movie got this pretty spot on to the real Florence.

According to many who knew her, she truly believed she was a talented singer. Anyone who laughed at her was merely a hoodlum.

One reporter even went so far as to ask St. Clair Bayfield why Florence sang. His reply was that she simply loved music. But if she loved music so much, why would she sing so horribly? St. Clair’s reply was that she used the proceeds to help aspiring young artists.

We just don’t know what Florence’s true intentions were. Was she aware of how offkey she was, and just keeping it going as long as she could? Or did she truly believe herself to be a talented musician on par with the best singers in the world?

With little to no information about Florence’s intentions, this is something historians have debated for decades. And it’s likely something we will all continue to debate any time the topic of Florence Foster Jenkins comes up.

Regardless of the debates, one fact we know is that Florence made a pretty penny that night in 1944.

While not all concerts are the same, by comparison a ticket to see a performance at Carnegie Hall today can range anywhere from $50 to $150 for the average ticket. The cost of a ticket to see Florence’s first, and what would ultimately be her only, truly public performance was about $20. Or the equivalent of $277 today.

In a single night, Florence left Carnegie Hall with $4,000 in ticket sales, over $55,000 in today’s dollars. Not bad, considering, according to one critic’s review of the evening, all the audience left with was a dizzying headache.

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