“Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”
When you think of famous opera singers, Florence Foster Jenkins might not be the first to jump to mind. However, this 1940s New York City socialite had a notable impact on NYC’s musical culture despite the fact she had no natural talent for opera whatsoever.
But it was her flat and warbling attempts at opera singing that went on to make Florence Foster Jenkins a beloved icon of 1940s New York. Despite the critics, and with the support of her doting second husband, St Clair Bayfield, Florence Foster Jenkins made a number of records and went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in 1944. Even David Bowie named her record as one of his favourites.
Her life and accomplishment have been recognised in a new biopic from Pathe UK (who brought us Suffragette and Philomena) starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. To celebrate today’s UK release of Florence Foster Jenkins, we dove into the characters’ family histories and the actors’ own ties to Europe and the United Kingdom.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence was born in 1868. Despite showing early talent for the piano, her family quashed any dreams of her pursuing music professionally. However, after her father died in 1909, Florence came into a significant inheritance, which she used to fund a bar in NYC called The Verdi Club and eventually, her passion for singing. Blissfully unaware of her lack of pitch and rhythm, Florence forged ahead with her career through her connections and sheer charisma. Her most iconic performance was at a charity event she arranged at Carnegie Hall in 1944.
Meryl Streep, as Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep plays the rambunctious character of Florence Foster Jenkins. A fifth-generation American, Streep’s ancestry can be traced back 10 generations to the small town of Loffenau in Wurttemberg, Germany. Her 2nd great-grandfather, Gottfried Streeb, illegally emigrated, possibly in the midst of the 1848 Revolution. Her maternal side has roots in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where her 8th great-grandfather, Lawrence Wilkinson, was one of the first Europeans to settle Rhode Island.
St Clair Bayfield
St Clair Bayfield was born in 1875 in Cheltenham, England to a well-respected family – his grandfather Edward Law, 1st Earl of Ellenborough, was a Tory politician who was four times President of the Board of Control. Bayfield travelled to New Zealand and Australia as a young man, before settling in New York City where he pursued acting. Bayfield married Florence in 1909 and managed her career for 36 years. Protecting her self-confidence was of the utmost importance to Bayfield and he went so far as to bribe and pay off critics to protect her reputation.
Hugh Grant, as St Clair Bayfield
Hugh Grant plays the character of St Clair Bayfield. Grant’s paternal lines are from Scotland, but a number of his ancestors were born abroad due to military service. This includes his great-grandfather, James Murray Grant, who was born in Ootacamund, India. James Murray went on to become a lieutenant in the British Military where he later returned to India on service.
Interested in exploring your own family history? Get started here.
Images courtesy of Pathe UK and NYPL Billy Rose Theatre Collection