My play was never intended to be a factual account of the life of Mrs. Jenkins of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: which is why it’s subtitled a fantasia.
Souvenir off-Broadway at the York
Clockwise from left; the stage during tech; the director Vivian Matalon, Jack Lee as Cosme, Judy Kaye as Mrs Jenkins; Jack Lee and Judy Kaye; Jack Lee, Judy Kaye, and the stage manager Jack Gianino who stage managed this production, when it moved to Broadway, and all its subsequent revivals.
The real Mrs. Jenkins never sang in angel wings. That’s my invention.
The real woman wore that costume for an appearance as the Angel of Inspiration at a tableau vivant for one of her charities. The photograph was used maliciously for the cover of her vanity recordings that were licensed by RCA and released under the Melotone label as The ‘Glory’ of the Human Voice— but it was never thought that she sang in that costume till Souvenir.
On the subject of what she didn’t do: she never sang the Ave Maria. Especially not Gounod’s version. Especially not while wearing angel wings. And especially not at Carnegie Hall in 1944.
She also most emphatically not did not hear the laughter from the audience in the middle of the that concert. That’s a fabrication of mine.
Neither was there any question that her accompanist rescued her from doubting herself.
There was no scene in a dressing room after the concert. There are no dressing rooms at Carnegie Hall. There is the Maestro’s Room and a kind of glorified closet.
Nor did she ever complete the story by returning from the dead to sing with the voice she’d imagined as her own.
These are fabrications on my part. I confess. It never happened.
But these are nothing compared to what she invented about herself: for example, the incident in the taxi when she found high c. She repeated it many times. I made my own version:
FFJ Few sopranos are equipped to tackle the Queen of the Night. As you’re no doubt aware, the aria’s range is extensive. I had my doubts. One is only human after all. (Laughs. Stops herself abruptly) However — and this is almost too uncanny — the next day — the very next day, Mr. McMoon! — while riding in a taxicab on Lexington, I found myself in a slight collision. The f above c burst from me spontaneously.
McM (Bewildered) The f above c?
FFJ Passersby were enraptured, amazed. I stepped from the wreckage a new woman.
Improbable or not, McMoon’s name was real. Scottish father emigrates to Mexico; marries; has five sons; gives the fifth and last a name from his homeland—Cosmo. It was high-class when he jumped a ship to the new world. So his youngest son was Cosmo McMahon. Then Spanish speakers added their own twist. It’s not Cosmé, as some reviewers have gone into print to correct my French—and as it’s mystifyingly recorded at the Carnegie Hall website—though not at the Library of Congress. The songs attributed to him that were sung by Mrs. Jenkins in Carnegie Hall—Like a Bird I am Singing and Serenata Mexicana— were copyrighted in his name. Since you can’t copyright a work under a pseudonym unless you state your real name—Cosme was real.
As a child, he moved from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, with his mother and four brothers. Then at the age of nineteen he moved to New York and was living in a boarding house on 34th Street. In 1929 he gave a recital in Town Hall—and subsequently met Mrs. Jenkins.
The Carnegie Hall program.
The daughter of the leader of the Pascarella Chamber Music Society came to see the play at the York and introduced herself after. She told me that her father had been fond of Mrs. Jenkins and accompanied her many times over the years.
To say that there can be a ‘real’ or ‘true’ account of the life of Mrs. Jenkins seems dishonest to me. Which is why I wrote a frankly fictional account.
In all the many productions of Souvenir—beginning with the supremely talented Judy Kaye—Mrs. Jenkins has been played by a woman in the prime of her life. When the audience laughs at her it’s safe in the knowledge that it’s only make-believe—shielded from the cruelty of what actually took place in Carnegie Hall of October 1944.
Because when Florence Foster Jenkins gave her Carnegie Hall concert she was seventy-six years old.
That is the fact to bear in mind, and one that has never been addressed in any of the so-called ‘true’ versions of her life story. In the only honest account I’ve read of that concert the reviewer damns her colleagues for their collusion with the audience to shame a poor old woman, ludicrously dressed and made up, hopping and staggering about the stage as if demented. For one night it was the hottest ticket in town. She produced the concert herself and was proud that she made a two thousand dollar profit.
If there is a ‘real’ story, it’s the public mockery that greeted her. Today it would be looked on with revulsion. We no longer live in the world she inhabited, when attending her recitals was a ‘thing’ that defined status, our place in the social world of Manhattan. When we went to hear her so we could later entertain dinner parties with first-hand accounts, making fellow-guests shake their heads in wonder at such folly, such reckless delusion that made her believe she could sing der hölle rache, the mad coloratura fantasy from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
The stage of Carnegie Hall as it might have been in Mrs Jenkins’s time.
The open stage with its classical moldings was only revealed when the hall was restored following WWII. For a period before then the stage had been framed by drapes to make a proscenium and a stage right entrance. Since the Carnegie Apartments were constructed there has only one way onto the stage, from stage right. It could be further contained by a box-set that could be inserted into the opening.
I hadn’t heard the syphilis theory till quite recently: that syphilis caused nerve damage that stopped her from hearing what she was doing. Certainly none of the people I spoke to who had known her or had attended her recitals brought it up, and it was never mentioned in any of the gossip I read about her. Perhaps someone has seen her medical records and based this theory on what was found there. To my mind it seems to echo Karen Blixen’s biography—young bride (both nineteen) infected by husband on her wedding night; a great love unconsummated for fear of passing the contagion along—in Blixen’s case to Dennis Fynch-Hatton, in Mrs. Jenkins’s to StClair Bayfield. This offers a more sympathetic reading of Mrs Jenkins remaining legally a spinster than my idea, which is that she remained single to keep control of her money. And the new perception of her that she was a piano prodigy whose career was cut short by her illness which was when she taught herself to sing is suspiciously like the biography of Galli-Curci, who was regarded by Mrs Jenkins as a rival. There is no way to explain away her delusions without diminishing her mad career. I could be wrong about all this—I purposely didn’t see a documentary film about her. It was shown when the play was already running off-Broadway and I didn’t want anything to interfere with my ‘facts’ as we went forward—so perhaps I’m deluded, too.
In the play, after the concert, as she sits with Cosme in his dressing room where she has come for comfort having heard the laughter in the house, my Mrs Jenkins seems to have an intimation that her life is over:
FFJ Since I was a girl, you know, I’ve dreamed of such a night. And now it’s gone. It was ahead of me. It was there to be hoped for. But now it’s over. It’s in the past. A memory. If only we could live in the music forever, Cosme. If only it could go on and on. But of course it can’t. Of course it has to end.