When Donald Collup attended the London premiere of the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, he was invited to the after-party where, eventually, he was introduced to the movie’s star, Meryl Streep. She was off to another, well, somewhere, but during the hustle of the brief encounter, she whispered into his ear, “It came in handy.”
That was enough to validate Collup’s decades of fascination with the title character of Jenkins, a real-life New York socialite who had enough money and delusional narcissism to sing the world’s greatest opera arias in the early half of the 20th century, despite being the only person who didn’t realize she could not hit the notes — and did not have any approximation of tone, rhythm or diction.
“[Streep] is the world’s greatest actress,” Collup says by phone from his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. “It’s just phenomenal to me that she acknowledged my work.”
Not bad for a man who fell in love with music as a singer in the Texas Boys Choir in his hometown of Fort Worth.
What Streep found handy was Collup’s 2007 documentary about the misguided singer, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own. For him, that was the culmination of a life of admiration for the singer, whom he discovered when, at age 10, he bought one of the now-famous records she made between 1941 and 1944 at Melotone Recording Studio in New York. His mother wrote the date on that purchased record.
“It was the first ‘classical’ LP I bought,” he says. “I was more a fan of the Beatles.”
A young talent
Collup grew up on the east side of Fort Worth and attended Eastern Hills High School. When he was 10, he joined the Texas Boys Choir, and it’s not necessarily a case of Florence Foster Jenkins-style hubris when he says, “I was probably the best boy soprano they ever produced.”
He also played piano and served as an accompanist for the choir by age 16, and soon thereafter, prepared the children’s chorus for a Fort Worth Opera production of Carmen. He was accepted into the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore to study piano, and after high school, left Texas.
After receiving his bachelor’s there, he attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and eventually moved to New York. He has taught voice and sung with the Santa Fe Opera and on a recital circuit.
In the 1980s, illness left Collup legally blind, but it didn’t affect his hearing, an important sense for a musician. He also became interested in documentary filmmaking, and in 2003 finished Never Before: The Life, Art and First New York Career of Astrid Varnay, about the Swedish-born soprano.
During the making of that, he rediscovered Jenkins by seeing photos of her wearing an angel costume in a tableaux vivant she performed with her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant in the new movie), and accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg in the film). That scene, of her in the angel costume, frames the new movie, which is directed by Stephen Frears. It opens in theaters Friday.
Collup began to explore archives and anything available about Jenkins, which led to the small-budget making of his documentary film, which consists of narration and archival images and illustrations about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins.
Jenkins’ formative years
Jenkins was born into a wealthy land-owning family in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 1868; her father was a successful lawyer. She was an only child until a sister, Lillian, came along when Florence was 7. Because she was no longer getting the attention she thought she deserved, Florence was sent to Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa., at age 12 — which she perceived as being kicked out.
“The first 20 years of her life are extremely telling,” Collup says. “As [one of Jenkins’ biographers] Jasper Rees says, Lillian was the arrival of her rival. In her teen years she was performing as a pianist, and she discovered this as the way she could get attention, love and admiration by going out on stage and performing for people, so that’s where the seed was planted. When you’re a child, the formative years are so important.”
Lillian died of diphtheria when Florence was 14. Not long after, Florence eloped with a doctor, who it’s believed gave her syphilis. At the time, it was thought mercury was a treatment for the disease, and because of a mercury injection, her hand and arm were damaged, which meant she could no longer play piano. This is briefly and smartly addressed in the Frears movie.
But she knew the repertoire, and began to sing, hiring prestigious voice teachers. Women’s clubs were de rigueur, and she soon started her own, the Verdi Club, which hosted recitals and performances for the society folk in Manhattan, with the money going to various charities. She had no sense of tone or pitch, but the guests at the club — and her second husband, Bayfield — praised her.
“There are two reasons why no one said anything about her bad singing,” Collup guesses. “One, it would have been considered ill-mannered for these society people to say she was awful; and two, if they did, this charity work might stop.”
She eventually worked up the courage to book and perform at Carnegie Hall in 1944 — and by that time, her fans included people like Cole Porter, Tallulah Bankhead, Kitty Carlisle and Gian Carlo Menotti. Audiences knew she sounded horrible, but even when there was laughter, Jenkins thought it was out of joy. A few times she was convinced that the scoffers were plants sent there by her rivals, other well-known opera singers.
“It was kind of like when American Idol used to air several episodes of auditions before the competition began,” Collup says, “and we would all tune in to hear the first round of bad, deluded singers.”
Jenkins’ bravura and legend has continued to inspire. There are several plays about her, including Peter Quilter’s Glorious! (performed years ago at Dallas’ Theatre Three) and Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, which played Broadway in 2005, starring Judy Kaye.
Collup says he thinks his documentary was one of the catalysts for getting the current movie going. He even surmises that a piece of information that he uncovered — that Jenkins kept all of her important documents in a leather briefcase that she carried with her at all times — was inspiration for this bit of info in the Frears movie. Streep, as Jenkins, carries it, and it’s mentioned by several other characters, but its contents are never revealed.
He and his film get a mention late in the credits, which is all he needs to feel satisfied about his work and obsession with a larger-the-life character now getting major attention, he says.
That and Streep’s whispered seal of approval.
Florence Foster Jenkins
- Opens Friday
- Rated: PG-13
- Director: Stephen Frears
- Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
- Running time: 110 min.