CATCO/Phoenix presents ‘Souvenir’: Florence Foster Jenkins!

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). You can't say she didn't sing.(Photo: Bettman)
Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). You can't say she didn't sing.(Photo: Bettman)

CATCO/Phoenix presents Souvenir  by  Stephen Temperely, a romp with diva Florence Foster Jenkins and her pianist, Cosme McMoon. November 22 to December 11 at the Riffe Center Studio 2 Theater.

Performers who buy themselves engagements are nothing new. A number of careers have been manufactured by wealthy dilettantes, or lovers, partners, parents or disciples of those whose need to express is not matched by any vehicle for said expression.

What happens when you mix ambition, love, money, loneliness and delusion? You don’t get Lotte Lehmann or Placido Domingo. You get Florence Foster Jenkins.

Madame Jenkins was born in Wilkes-Barre , Pennsylvania in 1868.  No doubt she was entranced by news clippings and rotogravure reporting of life in Edith Wharton’s Europe and New York.  Florence came from a well to do family, but nobody was writing novels about Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  The young woman escaped into marriage with a respectable doctor, and settled into a routine life of giving piano lessons and being “at home.”

This would never do.  Florence divorced her patient husband in 1901 and took off for New York.  She never looked back.  Two strokes of luck awaited her: she became a millionaire on her father’s death, and she took up with the actor St. Clair  Byfield. Don’t bother looking him up.  Byfield’s footnote in history exists only for his thirty years as Florence Foster Jenkins’ official consort.  But St. Clair Byfield had more on his mind than cuddling up with the zaftig Florence.  He was a large man with an “over the top” theatrical bent and the best years of his career were over.  How to channel that energy?

Florence Foster Jenkins was not pretty and she was not young. She wasn’t slim, but she was musical and she was rich.  Byfield had the theatrical sense, and Florence’s money would provide the connections.  Would she debut as a concert pianist for selected audiences? No. Not showy enough. Can’t do much with a nice lady at the piano.  But singing! Costumes! Lights! Sets! Glamour! Florence Foster Jenkins, soprano, a self-created large bosomed diva, was born.

From the records she made in the 1920s we know Florence was tone-deaf, and had a singing range of three notes. (Chickens have four.) There was not one shred of true talent in the lady’s singing. But she sure could put on a show. Florence’s annual recitals in hotel ballrooms in New York were THE social events of the season.  Of course, “the public” was not invited!  These were society functions, to which civilians counted themselves blessed if they gained access.  People roared and cheered and applauded. Florence would strew the stage with carnations and offer costumes, from large angel wings to a dirndl with (designer made) wooden shoes.

Florence sang everything from Bach to Cole Porter.  She was a performer without inhibition and without sense.  Who’s to say? Her audiences laughed and screamed and the lady carried on delightedly.  Her iron clad denial insured her own enjoyment.  “You can say I can’t sing, but you can’t say I didn’t sing.”

And sing she did, for thirty years. Society adored her.  Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, all the Barrymores and their friends and the Prince of Wales flocked to her society gigs.  She was welcomed everywhere.

And then there was Cosme McMoon. Madame’s accompanist was born in Mexico in 1901 as Cosme McMunn, the son of Irish farmers.  Mexico was to Cosme what Wilkes-Barre was to Florence-he too, went off to New York.  McMoon was apparently a gifted pianist who hooked up with Madame, and his fortune was secure.  “The audience always tried not to hurt her feelings by outright laughing, so they developed a convention that when she came to a particularly excruciating discord, or something like that, where they had to laugh, they burst into salvos of whistles and applause and their noise was so great they could laugh at liberty.”

There’s an annoying mystery surrounding Cosme McMoon.  He was for many years rumored to be the pianist and conductor Edwin MacArthur.  The latter was Kirsten Flagstad’s accompanist and the first American to conduct Wagner at the Met. People insisted Cosme and Edward were one and the same. Phooey. Your obedient servant knew Edwin MacArthur late in his life. No McMoon, he.  Cosme went on to careers as a body builder, chess champion and bath house attendant. He died in 1981.

And Florence? Maybe she couldn’t sing, but God love her, she enjoyed her life.  After an accident in a New York City cab the lady declared her “high notes were higher than ever before!” She sent the cabbie flowers.

 

At the end, society audiences gave way to Carnegie Hall. At seventy-six, Madame rented the world’s foremost concert hall for an (infamous) afternoon of song on October 25, 1944. With McMoon at the piano, he offered her favorites, the vengeance aria of the Queen of the Night, Clavellitos, Johann Strauss and Bach.  The public applauded and laughed. Cole Porter sat in the front row, stabbing himself in the foot with his cane to keep from hysterics.  For the first time ever, Florence Foster Jenkins was reviewed in the papers as a serious artist. This was Carnegie Hall. The incredulous and vicious notices had her take to her bed. She died a month later.

“She died happy” insisted her long time friend, Francis Robinson.  I’ll bet she did.  After decades before a discerning public, I doubt she was sidelined by mere critics. For years the public had laughed with her. If one last time they laughed at her, well they obviously didn’t get the message.

 

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