Happy in Her Work

07 19 florence foster jenkinsToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Florence became a New York socialite and founder of the ‘Verdi Club’, a society dedicated to the advancement of American artists and musicians. She was greatly valued by charitable organisations for the concerts she arranged. But Florence also really loved to sing, and it is for this that she is most remembered. Unfortunately, she was completely tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm or pitch.

Florence took piano lessons as a child and was something of a prodigy, performing all over her home state. She really wanted to study music abroad but, although her father was wealthy, he refused to pay. She retaliated by eloping. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted syphilis from her husband which probably lead to partial deafness. None of this deterred her though. In truth, she was blissfully unaware, until the very end of her life, of her shortcomings.

After separating from her husband she scratched a living teaching piano until an arm injury forced her to give it up. When her father died she inherited enough money to allow her to pursue her dream. She began to take singing lessons.

In 1912, she gave the first of many annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. Her concerts were immensely popular, people came along for the unique experience. The audiences were strictly by invitation only and she would interview people before allowing them to buy the $2.50 ticket, just to make sure that they were true music lovers. What she didn’t know was that the tickets were often being sold on for ten times their face value. Her concerts were always a sell-out and every year the police had to chase away gatecrashers.

She also designed her own elaborate costumes for her performances, and would change them frequently throughout. Probably her favourite outfit was a tulle gown which she wore with a halo made from tinsel and a pair of massive gold wings. She called it her ‘Angel of Inspiration’ costume. Most of her repertoire was made up from operatic arias which she was ill-equipped to perform. Her rendition of ‘Cavelitos’ from Carmen, which is a song about carnations, she sang whilst dressed in a lace shawl with jewelled combs in her hair. She carried a basket of roses and randomly clicked a pair of castanets. At the end she would fling the roses out into the audience, sometimes also the basket and the castanets would follow. Her audience knew it was her favourite piece and would loudly demand an encore. Then her accompanist would have to head out into the audience to collect the flowers, basket and castanets to give back to her. Then the whole thing would start again.

Among the regular attendees of her concerts were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There are a few surviving recordings of her singing. You can hear her massacring Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ here. Her recordings were self published and intended for friends, but quickly sold out. This only added to her complete conviction that she was an excellent singer. When she heard people laughing during her performances, she just assumed that they were ‘hoodlums’ sent by rivals to undermine her. In fact, her audience were so appreciative of her awful singing that they would try to drown out their laughter with applause and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Sadly her downfall came at the age 76, when she hired the Carnegie Hall for a public performance. No one could keep out the critics and obviously the reviews were awful. Previous reports of her singing had been ambiguous such as “Her singing, at its finest suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird.” which is lovely. Florence had this to say to her critics “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Which is true enough.

Florence suffered a heart attack shortly after her last performance and died a month later. Although her singing was absolutely terrible, it really can’t be denied that she brought joy, however unwittingly, to a lot of people. Also she clearly loved doing it. One of her obituaries read “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

Advertisements

Sensational Woman

06 03 josephine baker 1926Today, it is the birthday of this lady. In her early teens she was homeless and scratching a living on the streets of St Louis. She became a world famous entertainer, helped the French Resistance during World War II and was offered unofficial leadership of the American Civil Rights movement after Martin Luther King died. Her name is Josephine Baker.

Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman, her father a vaudeville drummer who abandoned the family not long after she was born. From the age of eight, she worked as a domestic for wealthy white families and was very badly treated by them. She dropped out of school at thirteen and found herself living on the street in the slums of St Louis, searching garbage cans for food and making what money she could as a street corner dancer.

At fifteen, Josephine was recruited into the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show and wound up performing in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and social explosion of African American culture during the 1920s. There, she performed a sort of comedy role in the chorus line. The dancer at the end of the line, who gets all the dances a bit wrong until the final number when she proves that she is better than all of them. She was a huge hit and became quite wealthy as a result. Unfortunately, racial segregation meant she couldn’t spend her money freely in the places that other, white, performers might and, in 1925, she left for Paris.

Josephine also arrived in France at an opportune time. Just as the Paris art scene fell in love with all things African. She was appearing in a show called ‘La Revue Nègre’ where she appeared  on stage almost naked and wowed audiences with her erotic dancing. She travelled Europe with the show and then returned to Paris to perform at the Folies Bergère. Although she was born in America, she enjoyed playing up to her audience’s image of her as a wild African woman. She danced wearing only a skirt made from a string of bananas and got herself a pet cheetah. The cheetah wore a diamond collar and together, they stalked the streets of Paris. It may even have performed with her. Perhaps it occasionally escaped from the stage and frightened the orchestra. Josephine was an inspiration to Picasso, to Christian Dior. Ernest Hemmingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. It wasn’t long before she was the most highly paid American entertainer in France.

In 1934, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the title role ‘Zou-Zou’, a laundress turned stage performer. In the mid 1930s, she also became a successful singer. In 1936, she returned to the United States, but her tour did not go well. American audiences were not ready to accept a sophisticated black performer and she returned to Europe heartbroken. She married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, became legally French and gave up her American citizenship.

At the beginning of World War II, Josephine was recruited by French military intelligence. As she travelled reasonably freely and often attended embassy parties, she was able to pick up all sorts of information without raising suspicion. As an entertainer, she travelled all around Europe and North Africa and carried with her important military intelligence. It was written in invisible ink on her music. It was written on notes that she pinned to the inside of her underwear. She did all this despite suffering from a bout of pneumonia and later, a miscarriage which resulted in a hysterectomy. And she was performing all the way. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and made a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur for her bravery.

06 03 josephine baker 1950Josephine returned to perform at the Folies Berègre and in 1951, she was invited to tour North America. In many ways, she was a huge success this time. She performed in Harlem in front of 100,000 and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People awarded her the title of ‘Woman of the Year’. But she found racial segregation was still rife. In many places she was refused hotel accommodation because she was black. Josephine began to write articles on the subject of segregation and when she toured the South, she gave a talk at the Fisk University about the equality of races in France. She refused to perform in venues where the audiences were split between black and white and afterwards received threatening phone calls from the Klu Klux Klan. Her tour went well until she was involved in an incident at the Stork Club in Manhattan in which she felt she was being discriminated against. Whether she was or not, there was an enormous fuss involving a court case. She was accused of Communist sympathies, which was pretty serious in 1950s America, and forced to give up her tour and leave.

In 1963, she was back in the US and speaking alongside Rev. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. She was the only female speaker. After King was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked her if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But Josephine eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to loose their mother.”

Josephine’s children were not her biological children. She adopted two daughters and ten sons from countries all over the world. She called them her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. She intended them to be an example of how people from all nations and religions could live harmoniously. They all lived in a castle with her at Château des Milandes in south western France. Looking into this, it probably wasn’t a resounding success. She kept them all too much in the public eye.

In the mid 1960s, she got into debt, lost her château and by the 1970s, began to believe everyone had forgotten her. But her family encouraged her to continue her career and by the mid 1970s she was performing at Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium. On April 8th 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her fifty years of show business in the city. It was so successful that they had to put out extra chairs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was there. So were Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, she was found in her bed in a coma, having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She was surrounded by newspapers with glowing revues of her performance. Josephine Baker is the only American-born woman to have been buried with full French military honours.

06 03 josephine baker 1