Inspiration comes from unexpected places, like a movie theater on a Saturday morning. The name Florence Foster Jenkins first came to my attention while listening to National Public Radio on WOSU. She was a wealthy woman, born in Pennsylvania in 1868, who loved music from an early age and who, in later life, embarked on a quest to become a professional singer. The catch was, well, she couldn’t sing.
Unsure what to expect, I settled into my seat and watched a most unusual story unfold. I was prepared to dislike Florence—a New York socialite who belonged to all the right clubs and moved in upper class social circles, someone who, I imagined could buy her way into anything she wanted. Indeed, she eventually did rent Carnegie Hall. To my surprise, something about Florence won my heart.
Avoiding movie details in case some of you plan to see it, I’ll share a few things I learned about her through a bit of research. She was born into a wealthy family but gave it all up to follow her passion. Her father wanted her to stay home, to become a wife and mother. She wanted to study piano in Europe. Disinherited, she held on to music through years of a failed marriage, illness, and other difficulties.
When her fortunes changed, she threw herself into New York society, music still central in her life. She was a great patron of the arts, contributing to many organizations, and the music club she founded benefited the Italian Red Cross, the Actors Fund, and Veterans Mountain Camp. Lavish operatic productions she sponsored provided well-paying jobs for young musicians at time when they were difficult to find.
Privileged, quirky, and flawed to be sure, some thought she was delusional. Florence lived in her own world, unaware of the discrepancy between the beautiful tones she heard when singing and what she sounded like to everyone else. Still, she was a woman who gave her all to what she loved and believed she was made to do: singing and promoting music. That’s the thought that stayed with me as I left the theater.
Maybe that’s what her fans loved and why they flocked to her concerts. Maybe that’s why today, only Judy Garland and the Beatles are the subject of an equal number of inquiries at Carnegie Hall. Here was a woman who remained true to herself, no matter the circumstances. She loved what she did and brought joy and pleasure to her fans while doing it.
As I scribbled notes in my journal, reflecting on her life, other thoughts appeared on the page. I noted the young boy in the gospel who offered up his few loaves and fishes when the huge crowd that had been listening to Jesus grew tired and hungry. Not much, but it with God’s blessing, it became enough. And what about the servants who invested the money they had been given by their master rather than burying it out of fear?
I wrote of artists with glorious talent whose paintings moved me to tears at the Musée d’Orsay and the simple string of paper cranes folded from scraps of wrapping paper and spaced by small pieces of a plastic drinking straw that hang in my office, made by an old woman in the streets of Thailand.
Gifts seem unevenly given. Life is kinder to some than to others. Yet, every person, from the richest to the poorest, from those who appear most accomplished to those who, by society’s standards, have done little, holds a spark of Divinity to share. Our journey is to discover what that is and to give it away.
That’s all God asks of us: To do the best we can with what we have been given. Not to become overwhelmed by our flaws, deficiencies, or struggles, but to accept ourselves and our gifts and live life with energy, enthusiasm, and love. To the world’s surprise, the offered lives of those considered “least” often change it most profoundly.
The only quote I could find from Florence Foster Jenkins was this: “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
She gave what she had to give. In the end, how it was received was less important than that it was given.
Note: This column marks 30 years of my writing for The Catholic Times. I thank the paper for providing space for me to share reflections on the Sacred that is present in everyday life. I thank you, my readers, and hope that in some small way, these columns have helped you celebrate that Presence in your own lives.
© 2016 Mary van Balen