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Arts Desk

The Socialite Who Sang At Carnegie Hall

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Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944)

Arriving in theaters this week, a new film starring Meryl Streep tells the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the notoriously untalented singer and socialite who, in 1944, gave a historically dreadful public performance at New York's Carnegie Hall. Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns attempts to understand the legend.

David Patrick Stearns: No rhythm, no pitch, no musicality but a lot of pretension. The folly of Florence Foster Jenkins went way beyond warbling a genteel art song; she thought of herself as a distinguished coloratura soprano.
 

Any one of us could rent Carnegie Hall for a night, convinced of our own artistry when nobody else is.

The most famous photo of Florence Foster Jenkins is of her wearing a huge pair of angel wings. Her world of make-believe was indeed multifaceted. As it turns out, she had many reasons for escaping. A little-known period in her life, explored in the excellent Jenkins biographical DVD titled A World of Her Own is when she lived in Philadelphia. An arm injury had ended her promising concert pianist career. Her family had temporarily disowned her because of her hasty marriage. The marriage itself failed and Jenkins had, thanks to her husband, been infected with syphilis.

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Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins.

The Jenkins legend is strangely haunting. With too much money and not enough meds, any one of us could rent Carnegie Hall for a night, convinced of our own artistry when nobody else is.

So laugh, but not because you feel superior to the high society matron with so much money and so little voice, laugh with relief because at least today, you are not her.