Florence Fosters the Spirit of Art

Aug 12, 2016 by Marketing on The Nickelodeon Blog

If the 1920s had hosted a season of American Idol, Florence Foster Jenkins would have been first in line. Through fourteen seasons, hopeful and hopelessly deluded singers have crossed the stage, fearlessly warbling Whitney Houston and John Legend. Encouraged by well-intentioned loved ones, the contestants and Florence Foster Jenkins share a resonant heart and a deaf ear.

Jenkins, however, had several things that these applicants did not have: money and social status. Born in 1868 to wealthy parents, she grew up with a strong musical backbone. Childhood piano lessons—a skill that would feed her after her split with her first husband—blossomed into a passion for singing that grew wildly, despite her parents’ refusal to water it. After struggling through a failed first marriage and subsequent destitution, she inherited her late parents’ fortune and pursued music with fervor.

She took a leading role in the cultural affairs of New York and began giving extravagant performances throughout the Northeast, her costumes only slightly less colorful than her interpretation of pitch and rhythm. Surprisingly, her recitals were met with enthusiasm, which fortified the upward climb of her self-financed career. While some of this enthusiasm may have been offered in the name of politeness, far more of it was undoubtedly due to schadenfreude, the same perverse enjoyment taken in a friend’s trip down the stairs or—for that matter—fourteen seasons of American Idol auditions.

If Jenkins’ goal was to share the joy of music, she certainly succeeded, particularly after the release of her (again, self-financed) records. Streaked with mocking titles and reviews, her classical arias became comedy. At her concerts, amused audiences became circus crowds and her operatic career culminated in a sold out recital at Carnegie Hall. She passed of a heart attack shortly after.

Florence Foster Jenkins’ sincere and unfaltering passion for music is certainly inspiring to the artist in all of us, but her story asks a greater question about our place in a world overwhelmed by extraordinary talent: With short lives in a busy world, can we afford to care if we’re the best at what we love? Jenkins took her happiness where she found it, and the rest is history.

-Laura Smith  

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