Florence Foster Jenkins, an Off-key Muse


“People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
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     Those inspiring words belong to Florence Foster Jenkins, a most unusual muse. This coming Friday, August 12, 2016, Meryl Streep opens here in the US in a film about  the opera diva and impresario. (The film opened in Europe in May) If you’re like me, you probably don’t know much about the woman. My relationship with Madam Jenkins, as she liked to be called, goes back two decades.
     A little over twenty years ago a packet arrived in the mail. The postmark was London and the return address belonged to my friend, Gia. I met Gia at London Business School (LBS) in 1986. Gia was enrolled in the school’s two-year MBA program. I was there on exchange from the University of Chicago. Her correspondence wasn’t a surprise. Since LBS, we kept in touch regularly.
     Inside the envelope, I found a cassette tape and a note. Gia intended to embark upon a journey to train her voice to sing opera. Based on the recommendation of another one of our LBS mates, David M., Gia intended to stage a concert in Italy. The cassette was offered with the following explanation: Listen to the music of Florence Foster Jenkins, inspiration for my concert.
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     I popped the tape into the cassette deck and sat back for a listen. Although not a huge opera fan, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard.  Why don’t you give a listen? (Warning! Lower volume now)
     Who was this woman? Did she listen to herself sing? Did others listen to her sing, and if so, how could they encourage her to continue? How could my friend Gia find inspiration from a woman who was billed the Diva of Din, the Queen of the Sliding Scale?  Despite dubious talent, could Florence Foster Jenkins inspire others? Now, over 70 years since her death in 1944, America’s finest actress is set to bring her incredible story to the screen. Madam Jenkins would relish the accolade.
     But what about Gia? With Madam Jenkins’ inspiration, she staged her first concert in 1998 in the beautiful opera house of her hometown in Fidenza, Italy. Being the international sophisticate that she is, Gia drew a global audience. The best word to describe the magical weekend in northern Italy was enchanting.
The Fidenza Opera House

The Fidenza Opera House

 

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     The singing, I dare say, was quite a bit better than that suggested by the sample tape of Madam Jenkins. The concert was such a rousing success that Gia repeated her triumph five more times in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2014. Her singing keeps getting better and better. For fun and to share the limelight, Gia has added an amateur chorus.
On Stage with the Chorus

On Stage with Chorus

     The music and camaraderie captivate all who attend. Most look forward to returning to reunite with friends for another concert weekend. Just this week as the film about Madam Jenkins premiers in the USA, Gia announced her next concert in June 2017. A handful of diehard fans have attended every concert. Jim and I can’t imagine missing concert weekend.
     Gia’s story inspired my third novel, None Shall Sleep  (Outskirts Press 2016). At the end of this post, you’ll find one of my favorite excerpts from the award-wining book*. In the chapter, the story’s main character, Isabella Fabrini comes face-to-face with Madam Jenkins. The passage speaks to all artists. Madam Jenkins’ motto, People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing, could just as easily apply to writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, etc…. artists of any kind. In a way, Madam Jenkins is my muse. Her words speak to those of us who have dared to follow a dream, to have the guts to follow a new, uncharted path. Every now and then when I feel my progress as a writer stall, I return to this passage for inspiration.
 *(Finalist, Contemporary Novel: 2016, National Indie Excellence Awards)
     I consider myself fortunate to have crossed paths with Gia some thirty years ago. Her concerts have enhanced Jim’s and my life. An Italian holiday is one of life’s special pleasures. Six such holidays are downright indulgent. But most of all, Gia’s journey is inspirational.
Concert Weekend 2002

Concert Weekend 2002

Concert Weekend 2005

Concert Weekend 2005

A Favorite Picture with Gia, 2005

A Favorite Picture with Gia, 2005

Concert Weekend 2008

Concert Weekend 2008

Concert Weekend 2012

Concert Weekend 2012

Concert Weekend 2014

Concert Weekend 2014

     Even more glorious than a summer holiday in Italy are the dozens of wonderful people from around the globe we’ve met during concert weekend. Many have visited us in Chicago and Jim and I, in turn, have visited many in their countries. We’ve even met friends and family of concert friends. For a greater appreciation of concert weekend, consider reading None Shall Sleep. I tried to capture the magic with a fictional account. As you will see in the story, one person’s dream has far reaching consequences beyond what even she might imagine.
Concert Friends, 2002

Concert Friends, 2002

Concert Friends 2008

Concert Friends 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concert Friends 2014

Concert Friends 2014

     I hope you see the Meryl Streep movie, and enjoy the incredible story of Florence Foster Jenkins. But remember, as good as the movie is, a book is always better.

 None Shall Sleep

Chapter 7

The dark auditorium reverberated with noise. A percussion of thunderous applause accompanied the drumming of Isabella Fabrini’s heart as she edged closer to the stage. The smell of fresh wax drew her eyes to the floor. Oak planks gleamed under the hot lights. Her fingers, knuckles white, clutched the red velvet curtain. She looked to the pit. The face of the white-haired conductor signaled concern for her: was she ill, scared, would she sing?

Spotlights bathing the orchestra cast a halo over the first row of seats. Faces flashed with anticipation. Friends and family applauded. Isa’s mother clutched a rosary. Brad Novak, wearing a tuxedo and white cowboy hat, raised two fingers to his mouth and released a walloping whistle. Kilt-clad Jamie Stuart stomped his feet. Other familiar faces beamed: Gina, Danny, Tommy, Willy, Christina, and—

Were her eyes playing tricks? Walter Benchley, preening in pinstripes, sat with Ivy Vine, clad in sequined bustier and red miniskirt. Isa gasped; their hands clasped.“Bloody hell!”she grumbled.“The stripper’s practically in his lap.” Where were her biggest fans, Ana and Papa?

The baton’s flourish got her attention, but the conductor mouthed something she couldn’t make out. Isa’s gaze wandered across the stage to a shock of platinum blonde hair. Her stomach soured, hands trembled. Lady Blatherwicke stood in the opposite wing—jaw clenched, head turning from side to side. A low-cut gown showed off her cleavage. Below the waist, the dress resembled the black, billowing robes of a judge. Isa’s nose filled with the aroma of the other woman’s perfume, a mix of cardamom and citrus that Isa grew to detest. The lips of her nemesis moved, repeating like a ship’s distress signal: Told you so…told you so…told you so!

Fanning herself with a handkerchief, Isa patted her forehead. The skin was cold and clammy. Perspiration beaded her chest. She closed her eyes. Please don’t let me faint. Escape fantasies hijacked her thoughts. I could barricade myself in the dressing room or bolt out the stage door, climb into a taxi, and never look back.

Her gaze arced from Lady Blatherwicke to the conductor whose face had turned bright red. Why hadn’t she noticed how much the moon- faced maestro resembled Leech? He began to cough; sweat dripped from his jowls onto the musical score. With an urge to flee, Isa turned away from the stage. But a broad-bosomed woman blocked her getaway. Her heavy gown and dramatic pose recalled images of Dame Nellie Melba and Lillie Langtry.

“Let me pass,” Isa cried. “I can’t go on.” She tried to move but the wax ensnared her feet like flypaper.

The other woman stood firm,arms folded across her chest.“Poppycock! You’re a professional.” She nodded toward the audience. “They’ve come to hear you sing.”

“That’s what terrifies me.”

“Don’t fret,my dear.This hall has marvelous acoustics.Provides cover for a multitude of sins.” Her hand pressed her breast. “Of all performers, I should know.”

“What if they hate me—tell me I can’t sing? Or worse…laugh?”

The matronly woman inhaled, squared her shoulders, and lifted her chin. The seams of her lavender brocade gown strained. “Obey my credo.” Isa’s mind raced. Surely the woman wouldn’t throw her own vow back

in her face. No Sing, No Sleep seemed trite, inadequate. Perhaps, she’d offer something more profound. Isa leaned forward; her stare invited the woman to proceed.

The mysterious matron spoke to the catwalk above Isa’s head as if it were a crowded balcony. Ostrich plumes quivered in her curls. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

Isa recognized those words. Her back stiffened; eyes grew wide with the epiphany. She wasn’t standing in the wings of the San Benedetto Opera House. She gazed into the auditorium. It was Carnegie Hall. The woman wasn’t attired in period costume from the wardrobe department. Before Isa stood The Diva of Din—The Queen of the Sliding Scale. The sudden realization cleansed the air. Instead of noxious floor polish and

stale perfume, Isa delighted in the sweet aromas of the woman’s gardenia wrist corsage and the basket of carnations hanging from her arm.

“It can’t be. You are…”

The woman presented pudgy fingers encased in white, elbow-length satin gloves. “Yes, my dear, Florence Foster Jenkins.” Every word rose from the depths of her diaphragm with dramatic vibrato.

Here stood a woman who knew how to breathe.

Isa closed her eyes and counted to ten. When she reopened them, the imposing figure hadn’t vanished. With eyebrow raised, the woman glowered with the impassive face of an empress.

Isa stammered, “B-but how? Y-you’re—”

The woman took Isa’s hand, pressed it between gloved fingers. “Opera, my dear, dear Isabella, is shrouded in mystery. Of all people, you should know that.”

Indeed, Madam Jenkins, as she liked to be addressed, was one of opera’s most enigmatic personalities. Ever since Tommy mentioned her name at the reunion, Isa had gorged on her history. Isa found parallels to her own life. A kindred spirit, Madam Jenkins took up singing in her early forties, giving her first concert at the inspiring age of forty-four. She rose to great prominence despite dubious talent.

“You’re simply brilliant,” Isa blurted, unable to contain her excitement. “Selling out this very hall at the age of seventy-six. Your crowning glory.” Her story gave Isa hope. She dismissed Madam Jenkins’ death just one month after her triumph as a coincidence—at least she hoped that was the case. The woman’s heavy makeup and white-powdered face crinkled under the stress of a broad closed-mouth smile. Isa came to her senses. “You’re either a ghost or the consequence of too much vodka.”

“Pshaw! Believe what you will—spirit, specter, phantom, or merely a dream. Labels are unimportant, and a wicked waste of breath.”

“Why are you here?”

“To help, my dear. To guide you on your artistic journey.” Undeterred by critics, Florence Foster Jenkins plowed ahead, clearing a unique place in the small, snooty world of New York’s artistic elite. She founded and funded the noted Verdi Club, surrounding herself with loyal supporters for whom she gave an annual concert.

“Why are you so…” The woman’s eyes, rimmed in black liner, darted; she searched for a word. “Discombobulated?”

“I don’t want to fail.”

Madam Jenkins lifted her chin. “Balderdash!”
Isa swallowed hard. Wasn’t fear of failure the reason her nerves

twisted into knots? Searching her mind, the answer came. She looked into Madam Jenkins’ eyes. “I’m petrified of humiliation.”

“Sounds like you’re experienced in that regard. We all are. Successful people are ridiculed as readily as are failures.They simply don’t surrender— end up laughing at their detractors.”

Madam Jenkins shared a story that Isa had read in her biography. As a young woman, she found herself in a loveless marriage. Adding insult to injury, her husband, a medical doctor, infected her with syphilis. Her parents, like Isa’s mother and sister, tried to crush her passion for singing. The obstacles of her chauvinistic world made Isa shudder. A modest inheritance from her father freed Madam Jenkins to pursue her truth. She became a trailblazer, shaping her destiny in an age when women didn’t have the right to vote. Embarking upon a career required courage; achieving success demanded determination.

Madam Jenkins stared into Isa’s eyes. “As for failure, have you faced any yet?”

Isa assumed the woman had no interest in her litany—a stalled career, unsatisfying flings, and a catastrophic romance with that bastard, Walter Benchley. Responding to her question, Isa shook her head. “In pursuit of music, no. I haven’t failed…yet.”

Madam Jenkins creased her brow and narrowed her eyes, an expression that reminded Isa of her papa whenever he caught her lamenting life’s travails. “Lady Blatherwicke took you into her chorus. You survived one year under her yoke.”

“But she hasn’t rendered judgment on my recital. I could be out on my ear.”

Madam Jenkins swatted at the air. “Inconsequential! Ask yourself why she’s pushed you.”

“She’s a sadist.”

“Perhaps she’s done so to exorcise your bad habits—to unleash your talent.”

Isa recalled her interactions with Lady Blatherwicke—taunts, jeers, bullying—torment worthy of an Olympic god. “No!” Isa scoffed, arms folded across her chest. “Benevolent tutelage never crossed my mind.”

Madam Jenkins shifted her weight from one leg to the other and placed a hand on her hip. “Of course you may be right. Lady Blatherwicke could very well be a Captain Bligh of a woman—pompous, smug, irascible… toxic. Heaven knows I’ve dealt with my share. But then again, she may be the sculptress and unforgiving chisel you needed to shape your voice.” Madam Jenkins lifted Isa’s drooping chin. “Do tell, dear heart, despite her dubious tactics, what has this nemesis taught you?”

Isa had to think. She continued to attend practices, week after agonizing week. Passion drove resolve. Lady Blatherwicke’s criticism made her stronger. She wanted to sing for Ana, Papa, even Leech. She yearned to show the old bitch she was wrong. Digging deeper into her mind, the answer came. A smile flashed victory. “The only person I need to please is myself.”

Madam Jenkins closed her eyes. Satisfaction swept across her face as if she’d hit the elusive high C. “Yes!” she exclaimed, opening her eyes. “That’s the secret. Precisely what drove my will to succeed at all costs.”

“But your critics, the bad press—” Isa stopped abruptly, her hand flying to a warming cheek. “I’m so sorry. I—”

Madam Jenkins shrugged. “Blah, blah, blah. Never listened to them. Nothing more than bleating sheep—cowards—naysayers. How many critics ever took a stage, faced an audience, wrestled their fears, gambled with failure? Each must find her own way.” She thrust a finger in Isa’s face. “Nobody gives a flying fig about your success more than you. Remember that!”

“What about Ana, Papa?”
“We have our supporters—cheerleaders, advocates—”
“Who believe in me more than I do.”
“And that, dear heart, is your fatal flaw—suffocation by self-doubt.

Put on the blinders of success. When I took the stage, I became a different person—Mozart’s Queen of the Night, Strauss’s Adele. No one dared repeat my triumphant ‘Clavelitos’.” She lifted a carnation as a nostalgic gaze wandered to the stage.

“Clavelitos,” meaning little carnations, was Madam Jenkins’ favorite encore. As she sang, she threw carnations into the audience. In her exuberance, she often hurled the empty basket.

Her expression changed. With a look of stern resolve, she faced Isa, eyes fired with emotion. “Don’t let anyone steal your triumph…most of all, yourself.”

“Is it that easy? Lose myself on stage. Allow the role to consume me.”

She laughed, one of those halting society laughs. “Not easy—an artist’s life is never easy. Struggle sweetens applause. But never go to bed disappointed with your performance.” Madam Jenkins filled her with awe. She made Isa’s pursuit sound easy—a simple click of the ruby slippers.

Isa sighed. “What should I do?”

“Listen to those American boys. Stage a concert in San Benedetto. Keep it private—surround yourself with family, friends. Harvest sympathizers. Build and buttress your singing career from there.”

“How can I recognize supporters?”

“False friends reveal themselves. Some will surprise you. Wash your hands of them.” In dramatic fashion, her hands pantomimed her words. “Cast them to the black depths of oblivion.”

Another round of booming applause roused Isa. She spun toward the stage. When she glanced back over her shoulder, Madam Jenkins was gone.

Isa awoke with a start. Lightning flashed through her flat; rain pelted the windows. As she pulled the covers under her chin, she smiled. She had the guidance for which she yearned.

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