Rupert Christiansen

Deluded divas

Were Florence Foster Jenkins and her fellow culprits touchingly heroic, cynically fraudulent or just plain bonkers?

When the Fat Lady Sings, everyone is primed to chortle, even if she is Montserrat Caballé and doing it wonderfully well. Hergé’s cartoon creation of Bianca Castafiore embodies the type: with her flaxen plaits and heaving embonpoint, she is a ridiculously bad fit for the simpering virginal heroine of Gounod’s Faust, particularly when carolling her Jewel Song at such a pitch that an agonised Tintin and Captain Haddock are forced to cover their ears. But at least Madame Castafiore has a brilliant international career: what about the Fat Lady who Can’t Sing — the diva deluded into thinking she is a nightingale when in fact she is nothing but a crow?

Two recent films explore this tragicomic syndrome. Both are based on the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano of the interwar years whose dreadful recordings of classic songs and arias have been cult bestsellers for 70 years. Marguerite, released earlier this year, fictionalises the story in a Parisian and Proustian setting; Florence Foster Jenkins, which is in cinemas now, follows the known facts more closely and stars Meryl Streep, no less.

As it stands, the tale of Foster Jenkins looks tall, if not fishy. Born in 1868 into a wealthy Pennsylvanian family, she was a ‘child prodigy’ pianist prevented by her repressive father from following her passion for music professionally. A doctor with whom she eloped is thought to have infected her with syphilis, but after he vanished from the scene, she inherited money from her parents and took up with a bogus English Shakespearean actor, St Clair Bayfield, who became her common-law husband and manager.

Shortly before the first world war, unable to continue as a pianist because of an injury, she began singing at soirées in fashionable salons and at ‘subscription only’ recitals in hotel ballrooms across New York and New England.

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