The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (2024)

2 July 2021, 12:15

The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (1)

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Florence Foster Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep in the 2016 biopic, was an American socialite and aspiring coloratura soprano. But everyone who went to her concerts was in on a strange joke: she was an absolutely terrible singer.

Florence Foster Jenkins built a career in the early 20th century on being “the world’s worst opera singer”. Her flat-by-a-country-mile top Fs, flamboyant costumes and self-parodic album titles have been the subject of fascination for years since, her legacy so enduring that Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant starred in a film about her life story a few years ago.

The daughter of a wealthy lawyer, Jenkins would sing at private gatherings organised by her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), performing for friends and loyal followers who cherished and even milked Jenkins’ unwavering support for music and the arts. Knowing Jenkins’ influence, they kept their cringes and chuckles to themselves.

Eventually, the cod coloratura managed to squeeze her way – flamboyant bird wings, tiara and all – into New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall, after which she was ruthlessly ridiculed by critics.

Two days later, Jenkins had a heart attack. She died a month later in her Manhattan home at age 76. Here’s her extraordinary story.

Read more: Florence Foster Jenkins proved you can be a terrible singer and still be absolutely awesome

The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (4)

Who was Florence Foster Jenkins?

Florence Foster Jenkins was a socialite from a well-off American family, who had one dream: to be a great opera singer. She watched her contemporaries, the likes of Lily Pons – played in the film by Russian soprano Aida Garifullina – in concert and was transfixed.

“I could do that,” thought Jenkins. And so, believing that her love of music could turn her into a gifted singer, she reached for the moon and grasped it with both hands.

She found a singing teacher and hired private pianist Cosmé McMoon (played by Big Bang Theory actor Simon Helberg) to accompany her lessons and with the help of her philandering husband, started to put on invite-only recitals.

Jenkins, whose father was a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, had no trouble finding audiences willing to listen to her “singing”. She also supported young artists, who knew that her Jenkins could help them make it in the industry.

Her most famous recordings range from the lofty heights of Johann Strauss II’s ‘Laughing Song’ to Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria, which featured on albums whose titles include the brilliant The Glory (????) of the Human Voice and Murder on the High Cs.

Jenkins, many believed, knew of her limitations as a singer – and cared not a fig.

The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (5)

Florence Foster Jenkins Sings "Adele's Laughing Song." Die Fledermaus

Did Florence Foster Jenkins know she was bad?

Undecided, it seems.

One of the young artists Jenkins supported, Louise Frances Bickford, later became the teacher of vocal coach Bill Schuman, who in an interview told NPR that Bickford “said that Florence was in on the joke”.

Schuman added: “She loved the audience reaction and she loved singing. But she knew.”

Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne disagrees. She told NPR: “I would say that she maybe didn’t know. First of all, we can’t hear ourselves as others hear us. We have to go by a series of sensations. We have to feel where it is.”

What we do know is that Jenkins was a delightfully flamboyant performer, waltzing through the audience at her recitals and throwing out bouquets of flowers. One anecdote says that she was involved in a minor taxi crash, went to scream and discovered that she could sing higher than the F sharp she had thought to be her limit. She thanked the taxi driver by sending him a box of cigars.

Did Florence Foster Jenkins have syphilis?

Florence Foster Jenkins caught syphilis from her first husband. The disease apparently affected her hearing, giving her tinnitus. Some reports even say that was what prevented her from singing in tune.

The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (6)

Florence Foster Jenkins - Queen of the Night by Mozart.

Did Meryl Streep do all her own singing in the film?

Talking about the film, Streep told Radio Times: “I feel like I’m a B, B+ singer – I’m very well aware of my limitations. Much as I would have liked to be a good singer after I began studying opera as a child, I gave it up very early and sort of ruined my voice with smoking, drinking and debauchery.”

Odd as it may seem for playing a character known for their terrible singing, Streep – who, herself, trained in opera – worked with a vocal coach to help her prepare for the role of Jenkins.

Twice a month for four months, Streep worked with music professor Arthur Levy. First, they learned the pieces properly. Then, they added the mess-ups. “These arias are no joke, even if you’re singing off-key,” Levy said. “Especially off-key, which strains the voice.”

Streep said she practised the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria “eight times one day. And then came back and sang it eight times the next day”.

As a result, Streep is extraordinarily good at singing badly.

Talking on Lorraine, Streep says of Jenkins’ curious technique: “She’d go off in the weirdest places and it was the particularity of her getting things wrong that was so funny. You can hear her getting ready to sing something and she spends all of her voice on the beginning of the phrase and there’s nothing left at the end, and she trails off.”

The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (7)

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins - Queen of the Night aria (complete)

What happened at the Carnegie Hall recital?

The film production of Jenkins’ story culminates in the amateur soprano singing the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She invites a large army contingent to thank her country’s armed forces, who evidently weren’t prepared for the joke. As soon as Jenkins starts to sing, the soldiers collapse into laughter.

In real life, Jenkins really did perform at Carnegie Hall, her debut selling out within two hours. Her audiences had been begging her to perform there for years and flocked there in their masses as soon as they got the chance.

On Carnegie Hall’s website, a writer remembers how that night, “She walked onstage in these ridiculous costumes that she’d made herself. She’d throw roses out into the audience, her assistants would go out and collect them, and she’d throw them out into the audience again. The audience would not let her go home. They cheered her and clapped.”

Read more: Who was Jenny Lind, the real-life opera singer in The Greatest Showman?

What happened to Florence Foster Jenkins?

Two days after the Carnegie Hall performance, Jenkins had a heart attack. And one month later, she died in her Manhattan home at 76.

In her final hour, Jenkins reportedly said: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

Florence Foster Jenkins, the world’s best bad singer, brought out the amateur and aspiring musician in all of us. What a legacy to have left.

The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’ (2024)


The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’? ›

Florence Foster Jenkins (born Narcissa Florence Foster; July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American socialite and amateur soprano who became known, and mocked, for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability. Stephen Pile ranked her "the world's worst opera singer ...

Who gave Florence Foster Jenkins syphilis? ›

Florence lives in a grand hotel suite, while Bayfield lives in an apartment with his mistress, Kathleen Weatherley. Florence suffers from long-term syphilis, contracted from her first husband.

Did Meryl Streep actually sing in Florence Foster Jenkins? ›

Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg recorded all of their songs together at Abbey Road prior to filming. Once filming began, director Stephen Frears asked them to perform all of the music live, on set.

Did Florence Foster Jenkins know she couldn t sing? ›

As St Clair Bayfield wrote (Bayfield became her common-law husband and manager), the essence of the Florence Foster Jenkins story was that she never knew what her singing voice was really like. Not because she couldn't hear it, but because she lived as a legend in her own lifetime.

Did Florence Foster Jenkins really play at Carnegie Hall? ›

She was having a great time, and her audiences were having a great time; her friends kept telling her, “You need to make your Carnegie Hall debut.” On October 25, 1944, she did; the event sold out within two hours. People came from all over the country. She walked onstage in ridiculous costumes that she'd made herself.

Why did Florence Foster Jenkins have no hair? ›

Jenkins' late husband, Frank Thorton Jenkins, had been a philanderer who gave his wife syphilis. The disease affected both her ability to produce and hear sound. As treatment, a doctor has prescribed high enough levels of mercury to cause permanent baldness.

Who was the rich woman who couldn't sing? ›

Florence Foster Jenkins (born Narcissa Florence Foster; July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American socialite and amateur soprano who became known, and mocked, for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability.

What was Florence Foster Jenkins illness? ›

Background: The biographical comedy film “Florence Foster Jenkins” was released in 2016. Set in 1944, it tells the story of the New York City socialite and amateur soprano, Mrs. Jenkins, who suffers from long-term syphilis.

Did Simon Helberg really play the piano in Florence Foster Jenkins? ›

Helberg performed all of his character's music in the film, as did Streep, who had to conceal her genuinely good voice to nail Jenkins' just off pitch.

Who is the richest opera singer of all time? ›

TOP 10 Richest Opera Singers
1Plácido Domingo Net Worth: $300M
2Luciano Pavarotti Net Worth: $275M
3Kiri Te Kanawa Net Worth: $20M
4Juan Diego Flórez Net Worth: $5M

Did Elvis ever play Carnegie Hall? ›

Although the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley, never performed at Carnegie Hall, the Presley name entered the Hall's concert database in 2012, when Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie, performed in Zankel Hall on November 17 of that year.

What musician saved Carnegie Hall? ›

Even if he had played no role in the saving of Carnegie Hall from demolition, with more than 250 performances as recitalist and soloist stretching across six decades from 1943 through 2001, Isaac Stern would still be a major figure in the Hall's history.

What happens at the end of Florence Foster Jenkins? ›

Jenkins is in bed, dying. She asks Bayfield if everyone was laughing at her all along — and if he was laughing at her. He tenderly tells her that he never laughed at her. She tells him that people may say she can't sing, but they can never say she didn't sing.

Did Karen Blixen get syphilis from her husband? ›

She herself attributed her symptoms, in a letter to her brother Thomas, to syphilis acquired at 29 years old from her husband toward the end of their first year of marriage in 1915.

Did Florence Nightingale spread syphilis? ›

Answer and Explanation: No, Florence Nightingale did not have syphilis. Florence Nightingale likely had brucellosis, a disease caused by drinking contaminated milk, that she contracted while serving in the Crimean War in 1855.

Who was in charge of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study? ›

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (informally referred to as the Tuskegee Experiment or Tuskegee Syphilis Study) was a study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a group of nearly 400 African ...

Who discovered the causative agent of syphilis? ›

It was not earlier than 1905 that Schaudinn (1871-1906) and Hoffman (1868 – 1959) have discovered the etiologic agent of syphilis, whom they have named Spirochaeta pallida, on various syhilis lesions, proving its existence in both fresh and Giemsa coloured specimens.


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