Florence Foster Jenkins: The biography that inspired the critically-acclaimed film

Florence Foster Jenkins: The biography that inspired the critically-acclaimed film

by Nicholas Martin, Jasper Rees


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She was a woman with a dream. Nobody believed in her talent. But nothing could stop her. . .

This is the true story of


Now the basis of a major motion picture starring Academy Award—winning actress Meryl Streep

She had no pitch, no rhythm, and no tone. Still, Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) became one of America’s best-known sopranos. Born in 1868, Florence was a talented young pianist whose wealthy father refused to let her continue her musical studies in Europe. In retaliation, Florence eloped with Dr. Frank Jenkins, a man twice her age, and moved to New York. But when her father died and left her a large sum of money, Florence finally had a chance to pursue her one true passion: Singing. But first she would have to learn how to become a great singer.

Years of lessons and a chance meeting with St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who would become her manager and common-law husband, would help launch Florence’s career and entry into New York’s prestigious classical musical societies, culminating in her giving a recital, at the age of seventy-six, at Carnegie Hall. This is story of a woman who was not afraid to recreate herself into the person she wished to become—and achieve her own version of the American Dream.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250115959
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nicholas Martin has worked as a croupier, a labourer, a bouncer and a barman. In his early twenties he worked at sea as a deck hand and later as a yacht captain. He then worked as a journalist and travel writer, contributing to The Sunday Times, the Guardian and various magazines, before becoming a screenwriter, graduating from the National Film and Television School in 1992. He lives in London.

Jasper Rees has been a journalist since 1988. He has written over the years for most broadsheets, but principally the Daily Telegraph, Independent, Evening Standard and The Times Saturday Magazine. He has also written for Vogue, Harper's, Radio Times and GQ. He is the author of the books, Bred of Heaven: One Man's Quest to Reclaim his Welsh Roots and I Found My Horn: One Man's Struggle with the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Florence Foster Jenkins

The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer

By Nicholas Martin, Jasper Rees

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Big Hat Stories Ltd and Jasper Rees
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-11596-6


Wilkes-Barre, Pa

What does the world know about Wilkes-Barre? All American eyes have turned on the Pennsylvania coal town only once. In 1926 the celebrated baseball slugger Babe Ruth hit what was then thought to be the longest ever home run. The ball flew so far he asked for it to be measured. It came out at around 217 yards. For the rest of its history, Wilkes-Barre has tended not to hit the ball out of the park.

It has tiptoed into the purview of American culture as a byword for Ordinaryville, USA. Listen closely in All About Eve and at one point Bette Davis can be heard dropping the name. 'The evil that men do – how does it go? Something about the good they leave behind. I played it once in Wilkes-Barre.' She's quoting Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Wilkes-Barre was a very long way from ancient Rome, which is why the great writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz, multiple winner of Academy Awards and a Wilkes-Barre native, dropped a joke into the script.

Wilkes-Barre is memorialised in a long-forgotten Broadway musical romcom from 1963 called Tovarich. Adapted from a Thirties play and film which made light of communism, the show includes a song called 'Wilkes-Barre, Pa'. It's sung by a young man who has fallen in love with the maid, who happens to be a countess on the run from the Russian revolution. He paints his home town as an all-American heaven.

Take me back where I belong
Tell my baby I was wrong,
Never should have gone away
Wilkes-Barre, Pa!

In the role of the countess, Vivien Leigh won a Tony award for best actress in a musical. It can't have been for her singing. Like Wilkes-Barre's most celebrated daughter, she could barely hit a note.

The city's name is rooted in the journey to independence. John Wilkes was a member of the British parliament who was such a zealous reformer he was imprisoned for sedition. Later he championed the cause of the American rebels. So did Isaac Barré, a Dublin-born son of a French Huguenot, who was blinded in one eye at the Battle of Quebec – he is among the group immortalised in Benjamin West's epic painting The Death of General Wolfe. A fiery orator, he dubbed the colonists 'sons of liberty'. Yoked by a hyphen, and in the nineteenth century often lumped together in the single word Wilkesbarre, these two men gave their names to Florence Foster's home town.

The city sits on the southern bank of the Susquehanna river in the Wyoming valley. The first white men reached there in 1769. The skirmishes and conflagrations which soon took place in the valley floor offer a microcosm of the struggles that shaped the nation, between settlers and Native Americans, colonists and royalists. The first newspaper was published in Wilkes-Barre in 1795. The following year The Herald of the Times had its first major story when the exiled Duc d'Orléans, later to become King Louis Philippe of France, passed through. In 1806 there was another notable visitation in the form of a travelling elephant show. A bridge was built over the Susquehanna, which variously flooded or froze but was soon navigated by steamboat. In 1831 the first canal boat left Wilkes-Barre bound for Philadelphia bearing, among other necessities, the mineral which would make the valley rich.

The discovery of anthracite coal caused Wilkes-Barre to grow at speed, its workforce swollen above all by immigrants from the mining communities of Wales. It is thought to be the first place on earth where anthracite was burned to generate domestic heat. Wilkes-Barre acquired a moniker: the Diamond City. In the 1860s alone its population doubled to more than ten thousand (it eventually peaked at 87,000 in 1930). By the time Florence Foster was born, Wilkes-Barre was a force in the state. And her forebears had planted their feet near the summit of Pennsylvania society.

Genealogy was the source of fascinated one-upmanship among the descendants of settlers. In such a young country, roots mattered. Florence and her mother were life members of the city's Genealogical and Biographical Society among numerous other patriotic clubs. A profile of Florence in the New York Times in 1916 described her as 'born in Pennsylvania of distinguished American ancestry'. She was the product, on both sides of her family tree, of settlers who had sailed for the American colonies in the 1630s. But the claim to pure blood and high-born roots stretched many centuries further into the past. Her father's branch traced a direct line all the way back to the Norman Conquest. Sir Richard Forester was claimed by his descendants as the brother-in-law of William of Normandy, though genealogists and historians dispute his paternity. But at sixteen he certainly fought at the Battle of Hastings. Another forebear is said to have saved Richard the Lionheart's life on the Third Crusade. On the strength of the connection, Florence would later join a society called the Order of the Three Crusades.

Her father, Charles Dorrance Foster, was born in 1836, the only child of the marriage between Phineas Nash Foster, a farmer in Jackson County, and Mary Bailey Bulford (née Johnson), a widow with three much older children. As a schoolboy he spent his vacations on the family farm. Later he dabbled as a teacher both locally and all the way off in Illinois. When the United States was convulsed by Civil War in 1861, he did not serve, instead gaining admittance to the Bar of Pennsylvania. He soon had a large practice. In 1870, when he was thirty-three, his wealth was listed as $42,000 in real estate and $10,000 in personal estate. When Foster's father died in 1878 he inherited two farms in Dallas and Jackson Townships just to the north-west of Wilkes-Barre. His father's step-children, Charles's older half-siblings whose surname was Bulford, were left to fend for themselves. The windfall had a demotivating impact on his professional life. A mere five years on, a contemporary history of Luzerne County reported that 'clients soon came to him, but ... he found that possession sufficient to occupy most of his time and for all of his wants, so he gave only incidental attention to legal practice'. Instead he involved himself in buying and selling real estate, farmland and livestock and litigating bullishly on large matters and small: from the distribution of coal board revenues to pesky opera house billboards that sprouted in the street outside his home. '$3 REWARD,' he once offered in a small newspaper announcement. 'For the name of the person who broke the glass out of my window, Wednesday afternoon, playing ball.'

Foster's portion of Wilkes-Barre's wealth and splendour drew a tart portrait from another local historian: 'He is the possessor of wealth ample enough to gratify anything short of sordid avarice. Few men enjoy, at so early an age, such complete physical, financial, and social advantages.'

Charles D. Foster was a prominent Episcopalian and staunch Republican. He acquired a property at 124 South Franklin Street, in a district where Wilkes-Barre's conservative elite tended to cluster in elegant and spaciously arranged mansions. Not far away was the St Stephen's Episcopal church, another few doors down the Westmoreland Club. Foster was a member of both. He was the sort of wealthy pillar of the community whom people wanted on their boards. Thus he was president of the first street railway in Wilkes-Barre, director of one turnpike company, treasurer of another, director of the Wyoming National Bank, a member of sundry Masonic, banking, genealogical and historical associations. To these local accomplishments he added electoral success. He was defeated in his first tilt at the Lower House of the Pennsylvania legislature in 1882, then voted in two years later; he served for a single term.

Photographs of Foster show a well-dressed figure with fair hair atop a heavy brow and a full face rounded off by a forthright jaw. The eyebrows are dense and the moustache substantial. In one portrait of Foster as a younger man it droops either side of his mouth. In a later image it twirls upwards.

Charles D. Foster married Mary Jane Hoagland from Hunterdon, New Jersey, on 4 October 1865. Precisely when she entered the world is uncertain. Four censuses give four different versions, suggesting a streak of vanity. In 1860, when she was still living with her parents, the year of her birth was written down as 1838. A decade later, by which time she was married, she had somehow shed seven years and her birth year was now 1845. Ten years on she was only nine years older, the birth date having been dropped to 1846. There were no further alterations in the following two censuses. Then, after her husband's death, she suddenly lost another four years.

A photograph of Mary Foster in middle age shows a handsome woman in a high-necked dress, brunette hair piled above a well-proportioned face and a strong mouth. As to what came out of that mouth, the evidence is in short supply. But she was clearly proud of her English and Dutch ancestry. She joined a prodigious number of the lineage associations which abounded in the United States. At some point she came into or acquired a property that was of some significance in American folklore. This was the so-called Fleming's Castle in Hunterton County, where her grandfather had been a judge. In reality it was a modest clapperboard tavern built in 1756 by Irish-born Samuel Fleming; its importance derived from a reference to 'stopping at Fleming's' in General George Washington's journal.

Mary Foster gave birth on 19 July 1868 to a daughter, although it's not clear where as no birth certificate has been unearthed. Florence's death certificate put her place of birth as Wilkes-Barre, while St Clair Bayfield submitted a legal petition in 1945 stating that Florence was born in Flemington, New Jersey, which is not unlikely: quite often, before hospital birth, women would go home for their confinement. The child was christened Narcissa Florence. Narcissa was not a common name; in 1868 newspapers across the whole of America refer to only eleven women called Narcissa. She was named, perhaps, after Narcissa Whitman, the pioneering missionary who in 1836 became the first white woman to traverse the Rockies. More probably her blonde hair and blue eyes put her mother in mind of a member of the daffodil family. It was not the name by which Florence Foster Jenkins would later be known, but it aptly encapsulated something of her personality.

During Florence's early years, her father made frequent excursions to the farm to oversee the running of the land but also to drop in on his mother. She was still living in the modest farmhouse where he grew up and which she professed to favour over 'all the wealth and splendor that a city can afford'. A keen equestrian, Foster drove out in a Portland cutter pulled by a pair of horses he stabled by his house, and he took his daughter with him to visit her grandmother. When the snow came they would wrap up in rugs for enchanting rides in the sleigh through the Luzerne countryside.

Florence was raised as a daughter of the age. She applied herself to crochet and the piano. When she fell in love with the latter, the die was cast. The stories about her early musical career must be taken on trust. In an interview Florence gave in 1927 she said she was a piano soloist at the age of ten, performing in many public concerts, on one occasion 'facing undismayed an audience numbering ten thousand persons'. St Clair Bayfield dated her debut to an even earlier age, telling an interviewer that she'd first performed in Philadelphia at eight. Neither of these stories has the ring of truth. Florence did later perform in front of thousands in Philadelphia but, while musical ability was a valuable social asset in a young girl, there is room for doubt that Foster would have tolerated the spectacle of his accomplished young daughter playing for anyone but drawing-room guests.

And yet the environment in which she grew up was learned and cultured. Her father was widely read and polymathic in his interests. Students and other Wilkes-Barreans often heard him give amusing and informed talks on a vast range of subjects: Roman history, the superiority of the American school system, the impact of Magna Carta, the US Mint, the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone, the cardinal virtues of business, the music of the ancients, contemporary literature, the structure of banks, the influence of the solar system on the turn of the seasons, American history in the colonial epoch and, more than once, temperance. Mary Foster was a keen and increasingly accomplished painter of landscapes and portraits in oil. Later in life Florence hung two large portraits of herself side by side over her Steinway in her New York apartment. One showed her as a child, the other as a woman in early middle age. Both were very probably the work of her mother.

The most character-forming event in Florence's childhood was the birth, in 1875, of a sister. After such a long wait the arrival of a baby girl, whom her parents named Lillian Blanche, will have been the cause of much celebrating. Older siblings very often have more conflicted feelings about the sudden appearance of a rival. Seven years is a long time for a child to rejoice in the undivided love of her mother and father. Even if only on an unconscious level, Florence now had to work harder for her parents' attention. Soon after this event the accomplished little pianist seems to have begun performing for domestic audiences in Wilkes-Barre. It is possible to speculate that the uncritical applause provided her with an alternative source of approval and validation.

As a child she would have been taken on the train for jaunts in Philadelphia, just over a hundred miles to the southeast of Wilkes-Barre. It was a city to excite the imagination of a young girl. Its burgeoning wealth manifested itself in the streets and gardens. A seated bronze likeness of Lincoln was commissioned in 1866, the year after his assassination, and unveiled in 1871. (Florence's parents may well have been among the three hundred thousand who viewed Lincoln's body as its funeral train passed through the city in the thousand-mile journey from Washington, DC back to Springfield, Illinois.) The Association for Public Art effected an improving face-lift of the city's public spaces. Sculpture sprouted in the parks and avenues. When she walked through the botanical wonderland of Bartram's Garden, Florence would have encountered a pair of Medici lions – two of many big cats to prowl the city. These cast-iron copies were emissaries from the cradle of the Renaissance with which Florence shared her name. In 1874, when Florence was six, America's first zoo opened its doors in Philadelphia, its completion much delayed by the Civil War. For the price of twenty-five cents visitors could view a thousand animals. A century on from the Declaration of Independence, a statue of England's patron saint George slaying the dragon appeared in Fairmount Park, while the Columbus monument commemorated in marble the Italian who found the Americas. That same year Philadelphia became the first American city to host the World Fair. Across six months, nearly ten million people visited two hundred specially erected pavilions on the site of the Centennial Exposition to marvel at a giant celebration of America's commercial and industrial prowess. On Pennsylvania Day alone, a quarter of a million people flooded the site. It seems probable that Foster took his eight-year-old daughter to the first public display of such revolutionary concepts as the Remington typographic machine, the Wallace-Farmer electric dynamo, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, and Heinz ketchup. The US Navy's pavilion was overseen by the man, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant himself, who would one day be her father-in-law.

In July 1878, when Florence had just turned ten, she went with her sister and father to observe a total eclipse of the sun from a hotel at the nearby Harveys Lake, the largest natural body of water in Pennsylvania. She had her father to herself in the summer of 1881 on a ten-day visit to Niagara Falls; a trip taken, so the Wilkes-Barre Record reported, 'for their health'. This was a period of upheaval for Florence. That autumn she was cast out of the family home to be enrolled at the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: America's first ever boarding school for young women.


Excerpted from Florence Foster Jenkins by Nicholas Martin, Jasper Rees. Copyright © 2016 Big Hat Stories Ltd and Jasper Rees. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1: Wilkes-Barre, Pa,
2: Mrs Dr Jenkins,
3: Philadelphian,
4: Chairman of Music,
5: Mrs St Clair Bayfield,
6: Legatee,
7: Club Woman,
8: The Singing President,
9: Lady Florence,
10: Queen of the Night,
11: Prima Donna of Carnegie Hall,
12: Like Father, Like Daughter,
Acknowledgements and Bibliography,
About the Authors,

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