Although the concept of camp is assumed by most to be mainly a 20th-century idea, the strange case of Florence Foster Jenkins proves that among the elite of New York in the first half of the century, bad taste could draw large crowds when properly wielded.

Born into luxury in 1868 to a wealthy Pennsylvania Banking family, Florence Foster immediately took a liking to music, and gave her first recital at the age of eight on piano. When she was 17, she announced to her father that she intended to become a singer. Pater Foster was against the idea for two reasons: He believed that a woman's place is in the home, and he also knew that his daughter had an awful singing voice. He declined to fund her education. Undaunted, Florence eloped with Frank Thornton Jenkins, a young doctor, to Philadelphia, where she began her singing career. It was an unhappy marriage, however, and the pair were divorced in 1902. Madame Jenkins turned to a career teaching piano and singing until 1909, when the death of her father left her with a sizeable inheritance. It was at this point that she had enough to launch her own singing career.

Starting in 1912, Jenkins began staging small concerts for women's clubs in various American cities. She would donate the proceeds to various charities, along with a chunk of her own inheritance money as well. Once she had the attention of a few critics, she decided to hit the big time, and set up shop in New York City. Holding recitals once or twice a year, she would perform at the Ritz-Carleton hotel for New York's Smart Set.

Music critics loathed Jenkins, and with good cause. Jenkins broke every musical rule and convention there was to break. She was tone-deaf, she tried to sing an octave or two outside her vocal range, she would squeal, squawk, and grunt her way through songs, and her catch-all manner of musical interpretation consisted of belting out the words as loud as she could. But it was for these same qualities, that her shows were frequently sold out. Audiences would pay good money to laugh until tears rolled down their cheeks as Jenkins murdered a Rachmaninoff selection. Adding to the effect were her outrageous costumes. The pudgy Madame Jenkins would sing her favorite selection, "Angel of Inspiration", while bedecked in a tinsel-covered gown with a pair of golden wings attached to the back. The spectacle kept the public coming back for more kitch every year.

Although her audiences laughed at her, and music critics took pride in inventing new ways to pan her, Jenkins remained oblivious to bad press, to the point of mild dementia. She saw her critics as ignorant, and her audience as spiteful hoolums with professional jealousy. In her own words, "Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing."

In 1944, at the age of 76, Jenkins fulfilled a lifelong fantasy, and played at Carnegie Hall. She did this by renting the hall out for herself. At this point in her career, Jenkins was so popular, or maybe just amusing, that she sold out the house, and two thousand fans were reported turned away at the door. She died a month and a day later. Obituaries for her praised her enthusiasm, if not her talent.

I thought I wouldn't be able to find any recordings of Jenkins on the web, but if you email, you can get a 450k realAudio file of the diva herself. Most of the information came from

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