A True Account?
I never intended this play to be a true account of Mrs Jenkins or of her accompanist Cosme McMoon, which is why I call it a fantasia.
The real woman was seventy-six when she produced her own concert at Carnegie Hall. The audience went there to laugh at her. That seems to me to be unconscionably cruel. When I first heard her infamous record I mostly thought it sad—and very strange. We’re all of us blind to our own follies and self-deception, it was the scale of her delusion that seemed remarkable.
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.
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—which could be even more destructive.
The final Broadway model by R. Michael Miller
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.
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.
It’s not that Mrs. Jenkins sang badly, it’s that she didn’t sing at all; she had no voice. According to the distinguished singing teacher Orra With, one of those I consulted when first planning the play, Mrs. Jenkins did have a teacher, though she couldn’t remember who that was.
If you’re reading this and contemplating a production I’d urge you to make your own version of the recording that Mrs Jenkins plays. No matter how badly an actress can try to sing you can still hear a voice, the presence of a technique, of musicality. The real person had none of that and if you use her recording you can hear the difference. She squeaks and yelps, hoots and screams like a child showing off at her birthday party by pretending to sing. That’s how I think of her. And just as a child’s vanity can make them be unwittingly cruel, there is a tyranny about Mrs. Jenkins, a cruelty that makes her want her accompanist to see the world through her eyes. That he comes to not only accept her version of reality but to embrace it is his sadness, and is perhaps what compels him to look back on his life with her on the anniversary of her death.
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.