NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Meryl Streep is making a household name out of Florence Foster Jenkins more than 70 years after the woman’s death.
As CBS2’s Jill Nicolini reported, Jenkins was a socialite turned opera singer who is now the subject of Academy Award winner Streep’s latest film – itself called “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg co-star in the film.
The real-life Jenkins managed to perform for a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1944. This was despite the consensus that she was a horrible, horrible singer.
“It’s one of the most fascinating concerts in Carnegie Hall’s history,” said Gino Francesconi, director of archives at Carnegie Hall. “Here is a woman who at the age of 76 who booked the hall — and she couldn’t sing.”
Francesconi said Jenkins was a child prodigy pianist who suffered an arm injury and later contracted syphilis.
“People say that she had a tin ear because she was ill, and she had taken arsenic and mercury as antidotes — sometimes that would affect her hearing,” Francesconi said.
In a blog post from 2012, Carnegie Hall shared two of Jenkins’ original recordings – ”Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s “ Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”), and “Like a Bird” by Jenkins’ piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon. The program for the Oct. 25, 1944 Carnegie Hall concert also appears on the blog.
So how did someone with such a fingers-on-a-blackboard voice get so far?
“She was surrounded with a lot of people who knew that she had a lot of money, and so, did they want to make her mad by saying, ‘No, you can’t sing?’” Francesconi said.
Rick Perkins of Midtown said he has once of Jenkins’ original records. CBS2’s Nicolini asked Perkins to describe Jenkins’ voice on those recordings.
“Disgusting,” he said.
Although Jenkins made about $4,000 the night of her sold out Carnegie Hall performance, people were beside themselves.
“They were laughing,” Francesconi said. “Every time they thought they would burst into laughter, they just started applauding, and that just kept her going.”
“She thought she was wonderful, but she was slammed by the reviewers,” a woman outside Carnegie Hall added.
CBS2 also learned Thursday that Jenkins gets the most inquiries at Carnegie Hall – even ahead of Judy Garland and the Beatles.
Jenkins suffered a heart attack two days after her concert, some said it was because she read the bad reviews.
She died a month later at her Manhattan apartment.