In the new biopic, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Meryl Streep plays the title role of a wealthy philanthropist with the desire — but not the talent — to be a singer. The Stephen Frears film is based on the real-life character who was a prominent figure in New York arts scene for almost half a century.
Born into a wealthy Wilkes-Barre, Penn., family, Nascina Florence Foster took piano lessons up until the age of 15, when she married 30-year-old Dr. Frank Jenkins, who most likely gave her syphilis, a then-incurable disease. When the pair separated after three years, she kept the doctor’s name and returned to music, attending the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
She moved to New York City and with the help of her father’s inheritance started programming musical recitals, often for women’s groups. During one performance in 1909, she met St. Clair Bayfield — played by Hugh Grant in the biopic — an accomplished English actor who became her partner and later her manager.
Jenkins still dreamed of being an opera singer and she started giving performances for some of the groups she supported such as the Verdi Club. Her singing, which was by all accounts awful, was greeted with enthusiasm by club members no doubt grateful for her sizable contributions. She continued to do live performances for decades.
Though she received generally terrible reviews from critics after releasing her first record, Jenkins remained convinced of her vocal talent. She considered the critics ignorant and held private performances to which they were not invited.
When performing, Jenkins would dress in extravagant homemade costumes and throw flowers into the audience. The highlight of her career came on Oct. 24, 1944, when she performed at Carnegie Hall where tickets were for once available to the general public (and music critics).
Two days after the performance, the blissfully oblivious singer suffered a heart attack, and one month later she died in her Manhattan home at the age of 76. During her last days, Jenkins reportedly said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”