With the release of the latest film starring Meryl Streep, many people are discovering Florence Foster Jenkins. Long known to many of those involved with music, Jenkins is generally viewed as a society lady who was unable to realize the defective quality of her attempts at singing. That she is remembered at all is due to her recordings, which have led many listeners to find much humor in her amateur musical attempts. Streep’s film adds and enriches this portrayal, garnering sympathy for a woman who had a oversized view of her singing abilities. Although Jenkins’s biography as outlined in the film is generally correct, I feel there is more to see in this woman than just a deluded society lady.
The Music Division has a unique item relating to Florence Foster Jenkins: a scrapbook filled with many unique items documenting her career including articles, early photographs and programs (call number: JPB 01-61).
The scrapbook was not assembled by Jenkins nor was it created during her lifetime. After her death, her effects became the property of her companion, St. Clair Bayfield (portrayed in the film by Hugh Grant). When he died in 1967, the material became the property of his wife, Kathleen Bayfield (portrayed in the film by Rebecca Ferguson). Under Kathleen’s direction, the scrapbook was assembled by one of her close friends, Helen R. From. Upon Kathleen Bayfield’s death in 1988, St. Clair Bayfield’s papers were donated to the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Being of musical content, the scrapbook was transferred to the Music Division. Since its arrival it has been used extensively, particularly by costume designers of the two plays portraying Jenkins’ life, Glorious! by Peter Quilter and Souvenir by Stephen Temperley.
The contents of the scrapbook are interesting. The material dating from the early part of Jenkins’s life is not only rare but fascinating. The first pages are devoted to Jenkins’s parents, Charles and Mary Foster. Then follows a few unique and rare photographs of a young Florence.
Of particular interest is an entire page devoted to clippings concerning the will of Florence Foster Jenkins’s father, Charles Dorrance Foster. Upon his death on September 29, 1909, his will could not be found. As one of the largest property owners in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania and one of the wealthiest, this was a serious matter, and numerous articles speculated on what was to be done . The will eventually turned up the following month, mysteriously mailed from a New York City mailbox.
(Whoever prepared the scrapbook covered nearly everything with contact paper. Though we can admire the creators’ concern, the use of contact paper is never recommended as a means of preservation.)
Much of the remainder of the scrapbook includes programs from various presentations, many featuring Jenkins as singer, but also some including her partner, St. Clair Bayfield. Fortunately, the Music Division has many of these (and other) programs in its own uncataloged program file.
Jenkins’s penchant for printing red on a silver-colored program is unique.
The covers for programs of the Verdi Club (of which Jenkins was the founder) have a specially-designed cover.
Of course the scrapbook has a flyer from her Carnegie Hall concert. (The Music Division has a copy in its uncataloged program file—the front heads this blog entry.) The reverse gives the entire concert program, headed by ambiguously-phrased reviewers' quotes.
The scrapbook also has a unique photograph of the audience attending Jenkins’ recital at Carnegie Hall. (Since it's covered with contact paper, I had to photograph it from an angle to avoid glare.)
Kathleen Bayfield might have felt some kind of affection for Jenkins. She included several reviews of various reissues of Jenkins’s recordings, including one as late as 1980.
Beyond the scrapbook, the current attention to Florence Foster Jenkins led me to research her life a bit more thoroughly. In some ways we are so distant from the past that cultural context can easily be forgotten. Back in 1902 when Jenkins and her mother moved to New York City, there were minimal opportunities for integrating into cultural life. This was not only because she was not from New York City but also because she was a woman. Efforts to empower women who had an interest in music had begun in the waning years of the nineteenth century with the formation of local womens’ clubs. The National Federation of Women’s Music Clubs was formed in 1897, specifically citing the prejudice that faced women who wanted to fully embrace musical life.
Whether Jenkins was singing at this time is beside the point. Joining a womens’ club was an affirmation of womens’ right to assembly, and a nascent attempt to gain leverage within a male-dominated society. Although I couldn’t find evidence that Jenkins participated in the Suffrage movement, her club activities attests to her active social networking.
A look through the annual directories of the Official Register and Directory of the Womens Clubs in America reveals something of Jenkins’s activities. Here’s her entry in the 1906-1907 directory:
Jenkins was already a member of the Dickens Fellowship (a literary society) and the Euterpe Club of New York (devoted to music). In the 1908-1909 directory, Jenkins is a member of two additional clubs, the Pocahontas Association and the Rubinstein Club. In successive years Jenkins kept adding to her social circles, and not just music-oriented clubs. Here is her entry from the 1920-1921 directory:
Over the course of nearly twenty years, it can be said that Florence Foster Jenkins was able to transform herself from an outsider to be firmly within New York Society. In addition to her own Verdi Club, this entry lists memberships in the Mozart Club, the Manhattan Study Club, the Genealogy Society Club, National Society of Patriotic Women, Daughters of the American Revolution, The Round Table Club, the Fresh Air Fund, the Eastern Star Club, the Knickerbocker Relief, Arts and Sciences Club, the Euterpe Club, the New Yorkers, the Musicians Club, the Rubinstein Club, and the Drama Comedy Club—sixteen clubs!
So while you may laugh at the recordings, the plays, and now the film portraying Florence Foster Jenkins, keep in mind she was one of those women whose non-singing activities merit closer attention and form a contribution to our knowledge of women's activities and social lives in the first half of the twentieth century.