Florence Foster Jenkins, Patron Saint of Persistence

 

There are two opposing strains in American conservatism. The scolding, risk-averse strain likes nothing more than to remind people – especially young people – that no one is a special snowflake. In fact, you’re probably a bigger failure than you think you are. And no, you most likely shouldn’t follow your dreams.

The other strain recognizes the importance of risk taking and admires risk-takers (or at least admires them when they succeed). This is the strain that delights in pointing out that big government crushes big dreams. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen, the less scope there is for the big dreamers of the world.

But the very nature of risk means not everyone who’s qualified will succeed. Otherwise, success would be a sure thing: just rack up the qualifications and you’re done (many of us Millennials have been taught exactly that, which might explain why we’re so annoyingly insecure). To admire the the risk-takers when they succeed, yet to have no tolerance for them when they fail, cannot be done without some cognitive dissonance.

I think we conservatives are sometimes guilty of this dissonance. In the spirit of atonement, therefore, I’d like to introduce you to the big dreamer and spectacular failure Florence Foster Jenkins. Lady Florence (as she liked to be called) never succeeded at her dream of becoming a world-class singer, but she never gave up on it either, and ended her days doing something many musicians far, far better than her only dream of doing: performing in Carnegie Hall.

On October 25, 1944, at the age of 76, Lady Florence gave perhaps the most dreadful performance the hall had ever witnessed. Judging by the recordings she made a few years earlier, the whole show probably sounded something like this:

Yet it was a performance so popular that it sold out weeks in advance, grossing $6,000 ($82,172 in today’s dollars, according to this inflation calculator). The hall was packed to maximum capacity, including standees. Two thousand additional fans had to be turned away. Scalpers charged $20 a ticket in ($274 in today’s dollars) just for the privilege of listening to this woman screech.

How did all this happen?

Young Florence’s parents — like many well-off parents of her time (and ours) — encouraged their daughter to develop an amateur interest in music. An amateur interest, not a serious one. Although she was something of a wunderkind at the piano (at the age of eight, she had played at the White House for President Hayes), she fell in love with singing instead. Her singing, though, was hardly wunderbar. When, at 17, she expressed a desire to study opera in Europe in order to pursue it professionally, her parents (rather sensibly, you might say) refused to foot the bill.

She rebelled by eloping with a society physician named Jenkins in order to escape parental control. Dr. Jenkins wound up no more impressed with her musical ambitions than her parents were. The marriage soon soured, and the couple divorced. After she had spent several lean years eking out a living as a tea-room pianist and music teacher (of piano, not voice, I hope!), her father died, leaving her a small fortune. She immediately put that fortune to use pursuing her passion: becoming a coloratura soprano.

Why coloratura soprano? Perhaps she was attracted to the coloratura repertoire because it’s often thought of as the most prestigious repertoire for the female voice; perhaps because she wasn’t noticeably worse at coloratura ornamentation than she was at everything else. Every once in a while, Lady Florence could manage a few microseconds of mediocre coloratura ornamentation, moments that, while far from gorgeous, wouldn’t be entirely out of place as bloopers during a live performance at a major opera house. True, after attaining these dizzying heights of mediocrity, Lady Florence would immediately plunge back into the depths of atonal, arhythmic squawking. Her unadorned passages, though, were more consistently awful, a sort of unholy cross between a mosquito, your granny, and a vacuum cleaner.

Lady Florence gave her first voice recital in 1912, at the already-advanced age of 43. She soon developed a following among society ladies, perhaps because she was an excellent charity organizer and a tireless promoter of many causes (including her own). As her following grew, she staged yearly recitals at New York’s Ritz-Carleton Hotel, eventually attracting upwards of 800 paying guests (the proceeds went to charity). Gatecrashers had to be turned away by the police. True, audience members often had to stuff their handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter. But they still paid to see her, and her concerts netted a profit. Her fan base grew to include musical luminaries such as Cole Porter, Lily Pons, Enrico Caruso, and Sir Thomas Beecham.

Not content with simply massacring the music, she also designed elaborate costumes and stage settings for her recitals. For her encore, “Clavelitos” by Valverde (which she, alas, never recorded), she’d don a mantilla, stick red flowers in her hair, and throw roses at the audience. But her favorite costume may have been her “Angel of Inspiration”, complete with tinsel halo, sturdy gold wings, and a figure-skimming gown whose silvery fabric showcased every awkward bulge of her rather dumpy frame.

For years, her fans urged Lady Florence to perform in Carnegie Hall. Finally, at the age of 76, she acquiesced, hocking her furniture in order to pay the rental fee. There she performed, as a few critics put it, “undaunted by… the composer’s intent”, with a “happiness… communicated as if by magic to her listeners… who were stimulated to the point of audible cheering, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing” The concert was a stunning commercial success: her furniture had not been hocked in vain. She died a month later “with a happy heart.”

So how does this tuneless and quite frankly ridiculous woman who squandered her parents’ fortune indulging delusions of musical competence become a personal hero to me or any other music lover? It’s not for her singing: as a singer, she’s everything I hope not to be. Nor is it for her grasp on reality, which evidently wasn’t too firm. Rather, she’s my hero for her persistence in the face of discouragement.

Failure is no good in itself, but some amount of it is an inevitable byproduct of risk, of dreaming big American dreams. None of us is born into this world knowing exactly where our talents lie, or, when we do have talent, whether we can make a useful living off it. We are forced to guess, and it’s only a guess, however educated it may be. “But what if I fail?” is often the foremost question in our minds. While it’s good to have backup plans in case you do fail, it’s also true that every millisecond spent distracting yourself with worries of failure when your performance is on the line is one less millisecond devoted to being totally absorbed in doing whatever it is you’ve got to do to achieve success. And sometimes all that differentiates ultimate success from ultimate failure is perseverance and devotion in the face of the many failures along the way.

Florence Foster Jenkins had many weaknesses, but allowing herself to become distracted by fears of failure – fears which she had every right to feel – wasn’t one of them. She was fearless. Fear did not prevent her from doing her best, bad as that happened to be.

In that one sense, she was a great performer, and for that, she has my lasting admiration.

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There are 43 comments.

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  1. Member

    Thanks, Midge.

    • #1
    • September 27, 2014, at 3:12 AM PDT
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  2. Moderator

    I guess these musings of mine aren’t complete without some sort of bibliography. Besides Lady Florence’s Wikipedia page, there are several excellent online resources for learning a bit more about this charmingly batty woman. Foremost among them is perhaps MaxBass’s Florence Foster Jenkins page. Her American National Biography page is also informative, as is this interview with the actress playing Lady Florence in “Glorious!” (yes – dear old Flo has had multiple plays written about her). Also see this piece at Edwardian Promenade, this piece from the New York Daily News, and this short biography from AllMusic.

    • #2
    • September 27, 2014, at 3:41 AM PDT
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  3. Member

    Well, Lady Florence certainly was persistent, and had a love for music she would not let got. I’ll applaud her for everything she did for charity. Plus, she was happy, and her audience was never forced at gunpoint to attend, but willingly supported her.

    I’ve always found her story uncomfortable, and it breaks my heart she spent her life’s energy becoming the most famous laughing stock. I think it unfortunate that she misdirected her energy and committed her musical spirit so stalwartly to singing, rather than piano, in which you say she was actually somewhat accomplished.

    Thanks for sharing, her life is an interesting story.

    • #3
    • September 27, 2014, at 5:03 AM PDT
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  4. Member

    When I was a child (too long ago to mention in polite company) we had a recording of Florence’s “singing” and we listened in amazement for the amusement of it. She was indeed a laughing stock, and I don’t recall anyone admiring her persistence, though I do admire her eccentricity, of which we have precious little. I’m not sure that she is a good model for your point, however, because her lack of fear seemed to arise from delusion, and the (upper class) audience’s participation in her delusion was rather sad, no?

    Just one comment on the duality you propose: I put myself in the category of admiring risk-takers, especially those who fail and get up again, but my hopeless wish is never again to hear the phrase “follow your dream.”

    • #4
    • September 27, 2014, at 5:24 AM PDT
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  5. Member

    I wish I could have seen this person perform. If you just listen to the voice you are missing a lot. Some people have something special that comes through the weaknesses. It is also true there are people who bore me to tears with their strength. There is originality in the one where the other is copying.

    People are very subjective. There is no telling what they will like. I bet a concert from Lady Florence would have been memorable. It might have been the Pro Wrestling of Opera but who is to say that it was not art. We can agree that it was noise but if it was joyful it probably made the audience smile.

    Miley Cyrus comparisons anyone?

    • #5
    • September 27, 2014, at 5:50 AM PDT
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  6. Moderator

    Sandy:I’m not sure that she is a good model for your point, however, because her lack of fear seemed to arise from delusion, and the (upper class) audience’s participation in her delusion was rather sad, no?

    I dunno. It seems to me that a little delusion about your own greatness (not the excess that Florence had, but just a touch) might actually be helpful for success. Illusory superiority might be so common because it’s adaptive – perhaps people perform better when they think they’re just a bit better than they really are. It appears that “the optimum level of self-efficacy, the extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals, is slightly above ability; in this situation, people are most encouraged to tackle challenging tasks and gain experience.”

    Lady Florence is also a very personal hero to me. I don’t suffer from overconfidence – rather the reverse – so I recognize in Lady F’s supreme overconfidence the epitome of a trait I could stand to have a bit more of.

    • #6
    • September 27, 2014, at 7:02 AM PDT
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  7. Thatcher

    It’s a very good post, Midge. Thanks.

    • #7
    • September 27, 2014, at 7:41 AM PDT
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  8. Member

    Midge, this was – as ever – informative, enjoyable, thought-provoking, and bittersweet…In short, it’s you! Thanks!

    Btw, TC, it’s the 27th here…(Whose calendar are we using? Since I’m up on the 28th in the rota, I’ll switch with Midge., no worries.)

    • #8
    • September 27, 2014, at 10:06 AM PDT
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  9. Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Lady Florence is also a very personal hero to me. I don’t suffer from overconfidence – rather the reverse – so I recognize in Lady F’s supreme overconfidence the epitome of a trait I could stand to have a bit more of.

    I agree MFR, and there are many lessons to learn from FFJ, and for that she gains hero status. I did not mean to bash your hero.

    Strength, courage, and confidence shines through in recognizing the value of ones’ skill set and building on it. She stuck to her guns, and did not give up.

    She may stand alone among many who achieved Carnegie Hall since she delivered from the stage one thing (coloratura opera performance), and her audience perceived another (comedy?).

    • #9
    • September 27, 2014, at 10:09 AM PDT
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  10. Moderator

    Julia PA:She may stand alone among many who achieved Carnegie Hall since she delivered from the stage one thing (coloratura opera performance), and her audience perceived another (comedy?).

    The audience definitely perceived it as comedy. That was the beauty of it. She was there to entertain through song, and she did. Just not in the way she thought.

    • #10
    • September 27, 2014, at 6:18 PM PDT
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  11. Inactive

    10 Cents, I was sort of with you at #5, right up until you mentioned Miley C.

    No sale.

    • #11
    • September 27, 2014, at 7:06 PM PDT
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  12. Member

    MJ,

    It was to contrast the difference. I would rather go to a Florence concert.

    • #12
    • September 27, 2014, at 8:43 PM PDT
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  13. Inactive

    Midge, VERY enjoyable post. Thank you.

    • #13
    • September 27, 2014, at 11:12 PM PDT
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  14. Inactive

    But the very nature of risk means not everyone who’s qualified will succeed. Else success would be a sure thing – just rack up the qualifications and you’re done (many Millennials have been taught the “just rack up the qualifications” model of success, which might explain why they’re so annoyingly insecure). 

    I sense I’m going to get into some trouble in the near future for outright plagiarism.

    • #14
    • September 27, 2014, at 11:29 PM PDT
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  15. Member

    Midge, you were September 27th.

    • #15
    • September 28, 2014, at 4:04 AM PDT
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  16. Thatcher
    She

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Julia PA:She may stand alone among many who achieved Carnegie Hall since she delivered from the stage one thing (coloratura opera performance), and her audience perceived another (comedy?).

    The audience definitely perceived it as comedy. That was the beauty of it. She was there to entertain through song, and she did. Just not in the way she thought.

    Frankly, I’d rather listen to FFJ murder classical music than to most of what’s called ‘popular music’ today, in which screaming and shouting, accompanied by suggestive sexual movements, substitute for any sort of musical ability, class or taste.

    Whereas the audiences of the first half of the twentieth century ‘got the joke,’ (even if poor old Florence might have missed the boat (and maybe she was just laughing all the way to the bank, who knows?)), the audiences of today adulate, fawn over, enrich, and imitate these talentless creatures all the while insisting that they are creative geniuses.

    Which probably says more about the audiences, than it does about the performers.

    • #16
    • September 28, 2014, at 5:20 AM PDT
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  17. Member

    She:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Julia PA:She may stand alone among many who achieved Carnegie Hall since she delivered from the stage one thing (coloratura opera performance), and her audience perceived another (comedy?).

    The audience definitely perceived it as comedy. That was the beauty of it. She was there to entertain through song, and she did. Just not in the way she thought.

    Frankly, I’d rather listen to FFJ murder classical music than to most of what’s called ‘popular music’ today, in which screaming and shouting, accompanied by suggestive sexual movements, substitute for any sort of musical ability, class or taste.

    Whereas the audiences of the first half of the twentieth century ‘got the joke,’ (even if poor old Florence might have missed the boat (and maybe she was just laughing all the way to the bank, who knows?)), the audiences of today adulate, fawn over, enrich, and imitate these talentless creatures all the while insisting that they are creative geniuses.

    Which probably says more about the audiences, than it does about the performers.

    She, you made my point in #5 far better. FFJ tried to have class. Nowadays pop performers want to see how edgy they want to be.

    • #17
    • September 28, 2014, at 5:41 AM PDT
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  18. Member

    She: Frankly, I’d rather listen to FFJ murder classical music than to most of what’s called ‘popular music’ today, in which screaming and shouting, accompanied by suggestive sexual movements, substitute for any sort of musical ability, class or taste.

    I agree, and with every passing moment, contemplating much of popular culture as a contrast to Lady Florence, she becomes a cultural hero. At least she kept her clothes on, and only attempted gyrations with her voice.

    :)

    • #18
    • September 28, 2014, at 7:35 AM PDT
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  19. Member

    I suspect that many of the Hot Young Things of today sound like this without autotune. Maybe FloJenk just needed a better producer.

    • #19
    • September 28, 2014, at 7:55 AM PDT
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  20. Inactive

    This was wonderful! I’d never known about Lady Florence, but I think her charitable efforts show she had a heart of gold, if not vocal cords to match.

    • #20
    • September 28, 2014, at 7:56 AM PDT
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  21. Moderator

    10 cents:Midge, you were September 27th.

    I know. I put this up yesterday, the 27th, just with a typo in the date. I didn’t catch the typo until several hours had passed and Nanda had put up her Heroes post with the label Sep 27. By then, it would have been more confusing to fix my typo than it would be to let it stand.

    • #21
    • September 28, 2014, at 9:13 AM PDT
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  22. Moderator

    Julia PA:

    She: Frankly, I’d rather listen to FFJ murder classical music than to most of what’s called ‘popular music’ today, in which screaming and shouting, accompanied by suggestive sexual movements, substitute for any sort of musical ability, class or taste.

    I agree, and with every passing moment, contemplating much of popular culture as a contrast to Lady Florence, she becomes a cultural hero. At least she kept her clothes on, and only attempted gyrations with her voice. :)

    Well, there are rumors that, when she had run out of roses to throw during “Clavelitos”, she’d start throwing bits of her costume. Nothing major, I’m sure. But it would fit with her enthusiasm.

    • #22
    • September 28, 2014, at 9:43 AM PDT
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  23. Member

    What a pleasant surprise to see her here! I hadn’t thought about the good Lady in many ayear. I was introduced to her by an organist friend who had a CD of her’s that was put out in the late 1990s. There was another singer with similar skills in the 1960s whose name escapes me at the moment.

    I have tried to take a mixed lesson from my life and times, and communicate it to my students.

    Strive to find a talent or interest that you love, seek to be the best at it you possibly can be, but then realize two things – One, it may never lead to a lucrative career, you may not be good enough to survive on it, and as a corollary, always assume there are more talented or accomplished people at it – and never become jealous of them, instead learn from them. Two, if you cannot build a career out of it, or rise to great eminance in the field as an amatuer, still pursue it and enjoy it in whatever capacity or venue, be it ever so small, God gives you.

    I wanted to be a great composer or conductor – reality – I’m a mediocre upper end organist and choirmaster, and I have a small talent at arranging music for silent films. So I concentrate on doing what I do as well as I can in venues that would normally have to settle for far less. It isn’t my career, but it has helped pay the bills, some years providing almost half my income. I could cry in my pillow all night because I never become Sir Christopher Hogwood, but why? Instead I see the joy my programs have brought to thousands over the years and that is very precious thing to have attained. Had I not lived in small towns though, I probably wouldn’t have achieved even that, but in a small place my talents and my abilities were rare enough to attract an audience, and I knew that I was giving them something they wouldn’t have. It was a win for all of us.

    The other important lesson from Her Ladyship – give back, and give back with a warm heart, and with love and charity.

    May she enjoy the celestial choirs now and forevermore.

    • #23
    • September 28, 2014, at 9:50 AM PDT
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  24. Moderator

    St. Salieri:Strive to find a talent or interest that you love, seek to be the best at it you possibly can be, but then realize two things – One, it may never lead to a lucrative career, you may not be good enough to survive on it, and as a corollary, always assume there are more talented or accomplished people at it – and never become jealous of them, instead learn from them. Two, if you cannot build a career out of it, or rise to great eminance in the field as an amatuer, still pursue it and enjoy it in whatever capacity or venue, be it ever so small, God gives you.

    Great advice. I think giving people a proper sense of caution about pursuing their dreams is better than simply poo-pooing them. Very few people dream big and actually achieve it, but if nobody ever risks dreaming big, where will those few great achievers come from?

    I wanted to be a great composer or conductor – reality – I’m a mediocre upper end organist and choirmaster, and I have a small talent at arranging music for silent films. So I concentrate on doing what I do as well as I can in venues that would normally have to settle for far less. It isn’t my career, but it has helped pay the bills, some years providing almost half my income. I could cry in my pillow all night because I never become Sir Christopher Hogwood, but why? Instead I see the joy my programs have brought to thousands over the years and that is very precious thing to have attained. Had I not lived in small towns though, I probably wouldn’t have achieved even that, but in a small place my talents and my abilities were rare enough to attract an audience, and I knew that I was giving them something they wouldn’t have. It was a win for all of us.

    Wonderful story!

    • #24
    • September 28, 2014, at 10:12 AM PDT
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  25. Member

    St. Salieri:What a pleasant surprise to see her here! I hadn’t thought about the good Lady in many ayear. I was introduced to her by an organist friend who had a CD of her’s that was put out in the late 1990s. There was another singer with similar skills in the 1960s whose name escapes me at the moment.

    I have tried to take a mixed lesson from my life and times, and communicate it to my students.

    Strive to find a talent or interest that you love, seek to be the best at it you possibly can be, but then realize two things – One, it may never lead to a lucrative career, you may not be good enough to survive on it, and as a corollary, always assume there are more talented or accomplished people at it – and never become jealous of them, instead learn from them. Two, if you cannot build a career out of it, or rise to great eminance in the field as an amatuer, still pursue it and enjoy it in whatever capacity or venue, be it ever so small, God gives you.

    I wanted to be a great composer or conductor – reality – I’m a mediocre upper end organist and choirmaster, and I have a small talent at arranging music for silent films. So I concentrate on doing what I do as well as I can in venues that would normally have to settle for far less. It isn’t my career, but it has helped pay the bills, some years providing almost half my income. I could cry in my pillow all night because I never become Sir Christopher Hogwood, but why? Instead I see the joy my programs have brought to thousands over the years and that is very precious thing to have attained. Had I not lived in small towns though, I probably wouldn’t have achieved even that, but in a small place my talents and my abilities were rare enough to attract an audience, and I knew that I was giving them something they wouldn’t have. It was a win for all of us.

    The other important lesson from Her Ladyship – give back, and give back with a warm heart, and with love and charity.

    May she enjoy the celestial choirs now and forevermore.

    Re your first paragraph, are you thinking of Anna Russell perhaps? A horse of an entirely different color, however.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07E5sLsJQe0

    • #25
    • September 28, 2014, at 10:27 AM PDT
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  26. Member

    No, not Anna Russell…

    Mrs. Miller!

    How did we live before the internet…

    These boots are made for walkin’:

    • #26
    • September 28, 2014, at 10:38 AM PDT
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  27. Moderator

    St. Salieri:No, not Anna Russell…

    Mrs. Miller!

    Thanks, St S :-)

    Anna Russell did start out intending to be a serious opera singer, and found that she couldn’t quite hack it. She liked to say her voice had been ruined by the world’s greatest teachers.

    The difference is that Dame Russell was in on her own joke:

    In one of Russell’s comic routines she said that some of the world’s greatest teachers had completely ruined her voice, going on to relate that she was interrupted early in her graduation song recital by the Royal College’s judges who indicated her singing was a joke. Whether this was literally true or not, it is a fact that she began to think of what she might be able to do with the voice and technique she had.

    I thought of writing about Anna Russell as my hero, but Florence Foster Jenkin’s story is just so absurd that I couldn’t resist!

    • #27
    • September 28, 2014, at 11:08 AM PDT
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  28. Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    St. Salieri:No, not Anna Russell…

    Mrs. Miller!

    Thanks, St S :-)

    Anna Russell did start out intending to be a serious opera singer, and found that she couldn’t quite hack it. She liked to say her voice had been ruined by the world’s greatest teachers.

    The difference is that Dame Russell was in on her own joke:

    In one of Russell’s comic routines she said that some of the world’s greatest teachers had completely ruined her voice, going on to relate that she was interrupted early in her graduation song recital by the Royal College’s judges who indicated her singing was a joke. Whether this was literally true or not, it is a fact that she began to think of what she might be able to do with the voice and technique she had.

    I thought of writing about Anna Russell as my hero, but Florence Foster Jenkin’s story is just so absurd that I couldn’t resist!

    I love Dame Russell, and have her rare songbooks at home…but I also couldn’t help thinking of another failure who parlayed his inability to be a classical barnstormer into a slightly different musical career, a sort of lounge room gold mine, namely Dwight Fiske. Although for his time, he was quite off-color, actually, he still is…in a 1930s kind of way. The recording below is not for the kiddie-winkies or the office.

    • #28
    • September 28, 2014, at 11:16 AM PDT
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  29. Member

    Salieri, thank you for this Dwight Fiske thing. That is magic.

    • #29
    • September 28, 2014, at 1:50 PM PDT
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  30. Member

    I love this story of vivacious, voluptuous audaciousness!

    It reminds me of a quote I have posted in my studio:

    The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” Emile Zola

    Many people with talent are not recognized because they expect talent alone to take them where they want to go. It doesn’t. A certain measure of bald audacity is required.

    • #30
    • September 28, 2014, at 2:38 PM PDT
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