When a fellow artist accused some in their business of lip-syncing their concerts, Anne Curtis came forward to say, well, not her. And I believe her, for why should she lip-sync when, in all candor, she has confessed she’s no singer and it doesn’t seem to bother her fans, and it certainly hasn’t stopped her singing? In fact, she herself calls her concerts Ann Kapal.
I’m told the more notes she misses the more the audience loves her. No doubt it helps that she’s absolutely gorgeous and puts that quality in the sort of clothes and dance moves that accentuate it further. Indeed, if she could yet sing, God could be accused of unfairness.
Actually, fame and money came to Ann Curtis through modeling and product endorsements, although concertizing has increased her success. Which speaks volumes about our standards when it comes to singing.
Indeed it’s a mystery in our culture how success can happen to someone who sings but can’t, and not to someone else who definitely can sing and does. Has Ann Curtis made it because she admits she can’t sing, but sings anyway? If she brought the house down with guffaws in appreciation of the joke, I would see the point. But it doesn’t seem the case at all. Are we giving more points now for gall and candor than ability? I just can’t imagine anyone else succeeding as a singer singing the way she does.
Her case is not exactly unique. Once upon a time America had a Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19,1868-Nov. 26, 1944), who began her musical career as a child prodigy pianist but had always had her eye on an operatic career despite her voice teacher’s discouragement. It wasn’t until she suffered a head injury in a taxi accident, when to her surprise she let out a scream and discovered she could sing a higher F than ever before, that she began to fancy herself an opera singer.
She rewarded the cab driver with a box of Havana cigars. It of course helped that she inherited enough money from her father and mother to mount her own concerts. A critic giving her the benefit of the doubt wrote, “The voice she heard in her head was beautiful—but to everyone else it was hilariously awful.”
The wonder of it all was people like the songwriter Cole Porter, the tenor Enrico Caruso, the soprano Lily Pons and her husband, the conductor Andre Kostalanetz, all expected to know better, were among her loyal patrons. Cole Porter himself never missed a concert; in fact he wrote a song for her to sing at what would turn out to be her final concert, at Carnegie Hall, no less. Perhaps she took his song with her to the grave because it never made it to the charts. She died a month after, at 76, at the luxurious Hotel Seymour, in New York City, where she lived, after a heart attack.
Her previous concerts were by invitation only except at Carnegie Hall, which was sold out at $2 per ticket; scalpers were selling them at $20 each—2,000 fans had to be turned away. A Time magazine reviewer wrote, “Howls of laughter drowned Mlle. Jenkins’ celestial efforts; where stifled chuckles and occasional outbursts had once been muffled at the Ritz, unabashed roars were the order of the evening at Carnegie Hall.”
Whenever she heard laughter in the audience she attributed it to “hoodlums planted by her rivals.” Until then her critics had been mostly friends from the social and musical crowd she belonged. Carnegie Hall was opened to the public and the press. That’s when her manager, partner, and later common-law husband, the Shakespearean actor and aristocrat St. Claire Bayfield, who had done all he could to protect his beloved from the truth, met his biggest challenge. One critic called it, “Murder on the high C’s.”
Florence had been suffering from brain, auditory and central nervous system deficiency—the effects of syphilis contracted from her first husband Jenkins, whose name she carried even after their separation or divorce. But she was bent on singing. “People may say I can’t sing but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” she said.
It was Pablo Tariman, the music critic who certainly knows his operas, who introduced me to Florence Jenkins over lunch and red wine. He brought Florence to the table precisely when I brought up Ann Curtis’ singing. Between fits of giggles brought on by the very thought of Florence, that as we spoke, ate and drank, he told me a film was being shot about Jenkins, with Meryl Streep—who can definitely sing opera—playing Florence and Hugh Grant as St. Claire Bayfield.
After hearing Florence’s voice in the 30-second sample on Google, which comes with a warning that it is “as much as anyone can take,” I can’t wait to see the movie. No words can describe Jenkins’ voice. The closest comparison I can come up with is—in some parts—car brakes screeching to an emergency stop—but, oh, so painfully funny! At any rate, in her own way, despite her voice, or whatever it was that came out of her pipes, Florence Jenkins was a success.
My mother used to tell me that in her time, if one was beautiful or photogenic, one became a movie star, and it didn’t matter a whit whether one could act or not. If one could, it was a bonus, although, if one was extraordinarily ugly, one could have as much chance at stardom—being toothless and cross-eyed increased the chance.
I guess what I’m learning here is that life is, if anything, fair, that success is within anybody’s reach. Those of us somewhere in the middle may yet taste that success, if vicariously, content to sit there in their audience and enjoy ourselves. And who’s to say we can’t have as much fun!