I will admit I haven’t yet seen the new movie “Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Meryl Streep.
But I don’t have to see it to know she is clearly one of my mentors.
Recently, my own longtime mentor, Lynn, and I were discussing our mutual enthusiasm for the film and how eager we are to see it. Lynn mentioned she has listened to some of the real FFJ’s musical recordings.
So of course I had to hop on over to YouTube and listen for myself.
The moment I heard the opening notes on the first selection, I understood why William Meredith, the poet, was quoted as saying:
….what Jenkins provided … was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience.
Nor did I have to struggle to comprehend why the great composer and performer Cole Porter was reputed to bang his cane into his own foot to keep from laughing out loud at Jenkins’ musical recitals….yet was apparently unable to stay away from each new Jenkins concert.
It would seem she was that bad….and that good.
As a lifelong musician and singer myself, I have to say, in my opinion, it is possible to be both. There are certain modern performers who might also fall into this category…you know the ones. The folks who get roundly panned with each new album, causing critics to muse about when on earth they will finally throw in the towel, and rabid fans to break down and cry with devotion when they step on stage yet again.
So this phenomenon in and of itself is certainly nothing new.
As well, like many artists who, as some say, may be “laughing all the way to the bank,” it would seem Jenkins herself was aware her musical stylings were not universally admired. Rumor has it she once informed a friend:
People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
And therein lies her charm, and her power as a mentor, and her worth as a light in the often unremitting darkness of this very serious, ponderous, don’t-do-it-if-you-can’t-do-it-perfectly world.
In other words, so not everyone likes her singing. So what? The same could be said for every painter, and dancer, and architect, and author, and on and on and on. One of my favorite things to say when people ask me to read their writing and tell them if they are any good is flat-out stolen from another mentor, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke once told his own mentee, a young aspiring poet, that if he wrote because he couldn’t not write, then he was a writer.
We get to choose who we are as much as who we aren’t. And it could be argued there is more honor in going for it than holding back out of fear of the reactions of others.
So “little Miss Foster” did it anyway. She did it (as the genuinely celebrated singer Frank Sinatra once warbled) her way. She loved music and let nothing separate her and her love.
When an arm injury caused nerve damage in her hands, she reluctantly let her dreams of becoming a concert pianist go….and promptly crafted a new dream to become an operatic soloist instead.
Jenkins supposedly said that offering what we have to uplift others can help us “to become better angels.”
In that light, who cares if she was deluding herself about her talent, fully aware of her technical shortcomings (assessed by the folks who have been deemed to know about such things), or fell somewhere in between, realizing that she had the ability to make positive change during a very dark time and by god, she was going to do what she could!
What a legacy to leave behind. And no wonder she was still making headlines until her passing at age 76….and is still making headlines 76 years after that.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you seen the Meryl Streep film? Or the independent documentary about Jenkins’ life? Do you find her inspirational or (as some claim) simply delusional? Do you think there is worth in doing something to help others even if you can’t do it to perfection (or to the level others expect, which may in time prove to be the same thing)?