David Bowie, Barbra Streisand and Cole Porter are among those who worship at the feet of the goddess of song. Adam Smith looks at the famous names who loved Florence Foster Jenkins as the film of her life hits the big screen
According to journalist Brook Peters, the legendary Broadway songwriter and Night and Day composer was among Lady Florence’s (as she preferred to be known) most devoted fans, attending her recitals whenever possible and even writing a song for her.
He was, however, careful enough of Madame’s feelings to repeatedly pounding himself in the foot with his own cane while listening to her perform, thus preventing himself from bursting out laughing.
The globally renowned Italian tenor, recognised as one of international opera’s first true superstars, was supposed to have been an ardent fan of Jenkins’ unorthodox take on the classics.
It’s worth noting however that he seems only to have attended one of her concerts after which he visited the exhausted songstress backstage and informed her that: “I’ve never heard anything like it!”. Typically, Jenkins took this Delphic utterance as a compliment.
The late, much lamented, Thin White Duke named Jenkins’ infamous recording The Glory (????) of the Human Voice as one of his 25 most treasured vinyl possessions. “She had, and was blissfully unaware of, the worst set of pipes in the world of music,” Bowie admiringly wrote of the album, which he had been introduced to by legendary New York art collector Norman Fisher.
“[She] would change costume as many as three times during the course of a recital … punctuating the cadences of the song by tossing tiny red roses from a basket, then the basket itself, in her enthusiasm, followed the roses into the laps of her delighted fans. Be afraid, be very afraid.”
Gian Carlo Menotti
The Pulitzer prize-winning composer and librettist was an ardent fan of his operatic colleague, even attending her infamous final concert at Carnegie Hall alongside veteran Broadway actor Chris Alexander. “Gian was a great fan of hers,” Alexander recalled after Menotti’s death.
“For one number she came out with a large bowl of rose petals that she scattered on the floor. And when the song was over she got down on her honkers, scooped them all up, and did the number over again. It was one of the highlights of my theatrical life. Right up there with Laurette Taylor in Glass Menagerie.”
In an extended interview for New York Magazine in 1968 La Streisand, a performer not unfamiliar with public castigation, named Florence Foster Jenkins alongside Ray Charles as her most admired fellow performers.
In other news, her favourite flower is the gardenia, her preferred star sign Taurus and colour-wise she is: “a mixture of heliotrope, burnt orange, fuchsia and grey – with a little dab of taupe on the side.” Remember, it was the Sixties.
Sir Thomas Beecham
British music fans had been for the most part blissfully unaware of Lady Florence’s astonishing operatic performances, her recitals being mercifully confined to the American stage.
But all that changed when London Philharmonic founder Sir Thomas Beecham included her unprovoked assault upon Strauss’s Laughing Song (from Die Fledermaus) among his picks on Desert Island Discs, much to Roy Plomley’s delight, in 1957.
• Florence Foster Jenkins is released on 6 May 2016