Florence Foster Jenkins, 1868—1944, was a New York socialite and clubwoman who, despite all evidence to the contrary, considered herself to be a coloratura soprano to rival Lily Pons. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, she left her husband soon after they were married and supported herself by teaching the piano. After the death of, first, her father, and then her mother, she used her inherited wealth to move to New York and take up her long-delayed singing career. Beginning in the mid-1930s, she gave private musicales plus an annual recital in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where she lived. Though she enjoyed a long romantic attachment with the actor St. Clair Bayfield, they never married. Her longest musical association was with her accompanist, Cosme McMoon who, as a child, emigrated from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, with his mother and four brothers. 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.
I first tried to write a play about Mrs. Jenkins in 1981. Researching it then, I talked to people who’d attended her recitals, or had known her, or heard about her.
Everyone had a different version: her career is fossilized in gossip, innuendo, and camp. To this day, her record (now on iTunes) is pulled out at parties and people will laugh. To prepare for a recent interview I listened again to a recording of Cosme McMoon made in 1977. His poised sneer perfectly exemplifies the attitude of those about Mrs Jenkins. He manages to forget the matter of her marriage, and when he gets to the Carnegie Hall concert of 1944, he spends a good deal of time describing her performance of The Laughing Song, including flowers tossed from the stage and retrieved for an encore. It’s all very amusing except that she didn’t sing Mein Herr, Marquis at Carnegie Hall. And what’s even funnier, when the interview is over the interviewer tells us that the person we’ve been listening to was not in fact someone named Cosme McMoon, because that person didn’t exist. He was in fact the distinguished accompanist Edwin McMaster appearing under a pseudonym.
It would have been easy to lampoon her, but that would have become tiresome in about 15 minutes. What is extraordinary about "Souvenir" is that Temperley has made Jenkins, for all her foolishness, a remarkably sympathetic woman. You never doubt that Jenkins has tremendous dedication to the composers whose work she massacres. Kaye makes her devotion to Art incredibly moving. To have made Jenkins a tender, poignant human being is breathtaking.
New York Daily News
Till Souvenir Mrs Jenkins had only ever been regarded as a figure of fun, fit only for ridicule. Most of of us understand that there’s a difference between how we see ourselves and how the rest of the world sees us. In my play Mrs Jenkins is blind to that understanding, insisting that her own view of herself is the objective truth. Is it the responsibility of her accompanist to stop her making a fool of herself? So far as he’s concerned she’s merely a wealthy woman with no talent and too much time on her hands. But as years pass and his own disappointments pile up he finds that he has come to care for her. Does his responsibility then change?
As Cosme confesses, he never lied to Mrs jenkins: but he also never told her the truth.
The McMoon interview.
And my recent interview on the subject.
Temperley recognizes something poignantly universal in Jenkins’ delusion—the fantasy of artistic triumph that lies behind all the screenplays in desk drawers and the impromptu karaoke numbers performed at high speeds on the freeway. This is a must-see for anyone who’s ever delivered an Oscar speech to the bathroom mirror.
Vivian Matalon’s production never lets the funny business get too far ahead of the feeling. That is quite a feat. Those first mangled notes are hard to recover from. The hilarity quickly gives way, however, to a psychological curiosity that’s delicately explored by two actors beautifully committed to making unbeautiful music together.
… a superbly dry Donald Corren… Judy Kaye delivers the cacophony at full farcical blast yet never loses sight of her character’s tone-deaf innocence.
L.A. Times: Ovation Production of the Year Award