Florence Foster Jenkins had a dream. She wanted to be a famous opera singer. The problem was, she couldn’t actually sing.
Well, she could sing. Just not very well. Let’s listen, shall we?
If you can’t watch the video above, let me try to do it justice with a description. It sounded like two sick cats fighting over a tin can full of marbles. It was like a box of accordions being dragged behind a wandering troupe of Vietnamese folk musicians. It was the sound your elderly grandmother makes as she takes a fatal tumble down a flight of stairs.
So how did a woman like that become an opera singer? Well,basically it came down to a large inheritance and a legendary capacity for self-delusion. Not to mention a healthy dose of syphilitic brain damage.
Florence was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Early on, she discovered a love of music, and was actually something of a child prodigy on the piano. She was so good that she was invited to play at the White House during the Hayes administration.
But, Florence didn’t want to play the piano, she wanted to sing. So, she asked her father if she could go to Europe to study Opera.
Presumably having heard her sing, her father took a long draw on his pipe, worked his lip under what was probably a pretty impressive mustache and said, “No”.
Betrayed, and set on revenge, Florence eloped with a local doctor named Frank Jenkins. Unfortunately for Florence, the good doctor had a predilection for ladies of the evening and contracted a case of Syphilis, which he promptly spread to Florence. This being the 19th century, that wasn’t grounds for a divorce so Florence set out on her own while still legally married to the man whose name she would keep the rest of her life.
Florence made a meager living giving piano lessons until an arm injury stopped her from playing. She and her mother Mary moved to New York where Florence met her second, common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield in 1909. By this time her Syphilis was doing what Syphilis does and virulently attacking her brain.
In that same year, her wealthy father died, leaving Florence with the funds she needed to bankroll her own singing career. So, that’s just what she did, renting out concert halls to give private recitals. She hand delivered invitations to these recitals, making sure never to invite any critics.
Her performances were marked with mistakes in pitch, timing, and pronunciation of the foreign words that are sort of necessary to pronounce correctly when you’re singing opera. Her accompanist was forced to make frequent adjustments to his playing to account for her tendency to rapidly switch tempo and pitch, which can be heard on the recordings that survive.
Florence became the celebrity she wanted to be, though not for the reason she would have hoped. Word got around the city about her “so bad it’s good” performances and it became something of an inside joke among the New York elite to send friends to a show with purposely vague reviews. One critic wrote that her singing was “like the untrammeled flight of some great bird.”
The ultimate payoff was to go with a friend who expected to hear a lovely rendition of The Magic Flute and then watch the expression of bewilderment on their face as they tried to figure out why such a terrible singer would be giving recitals.
By popular demand, Florence was finally convinced to give a performance at Carnegie Hall at age 76, and tickets quickly sold out. People stood outside waving hundreds of dollars in the air in the hopes of securing entrance to the show. The most valuable seats were in the back where people would fall to their knees behind doubled over in laughter. People advised each other to bring handkerchiefs to shove in their mouths. Others had to be carried out after laughing themselves hysterical.
Meanwhile, Florence took the laughter as adulation rather than derision. As she walked off the stage to raucous applause, she must have thought this moment the culmination of her life-long dreams to sing opera at Carnegie Hall.
The next morning she read the reviews. One critic praised her great range saying, “She can sing anything except notes.” Another said, “It was largely a recital without voice for the tones that Madam Jenkins produced were tiny. Much of her singing was hopelessly lacking any a semblance of pitch but the further a note was from its proper elevation the more the audience laughed and applauded.”
Two days later, Florence suffered a fatal heart attack. Some attribute her demise to the stress of learning what people actually thought of her singing.
Her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon, argued that it was unrelated. He stated in an interview that her capacity for self-delusion was such that she could have easily convinced herself that it was the reviewers who were wrong.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, Florence Foster Jenkins probably summed it up best when she said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
The Dwarf Who Became A Giant
If you’re familiar with Game of Thrones, and its most popular character, you know it can be tough to be a dwarf with all the white walkers and having to murder your father with a crossbow. But it’s probably also tough to be a giant. After all, you have to duck under doors and constantly get asked to pull things off of high shelves.
But it’s probably even tougher to go from one to the other. Luckily, there’s only one person in history who has ever had to go through that. In 1899 a child named Adam Ranier was born in Austria. For most of his life. he was small and sickly. When he was 18, he was evaluated by army physicians after his draft number was called who rejected him after finding that he only measured four and a half feet tall. He was, technically speaking a dwarf.
But then one day he started growing for some reason. And in the next ten years, he grew to be over seven feet tall, making him the tallest man in the country. But while most people would be pretty excited to discover that they could suddenly dominate their local pick up basketball game, Adam had some pretty severe side effects from his growth spurt.
His spine began to curve significantly, and he lost the vision in his right eye along with the hearing in his left ear. In 1931, two doctors studying him discovered that the source of his incredible growth. They found a large tumor pressing on his pituitary gland, pushing huge amounts of growth hormones into his body. Today the condition is called Acromegaly, and Adam displayed all the symptoms, including unevenly spaced teeth, a pronounced jaw and brow, and unusually large hands and feet. Adam also found that eating was difficult and he began to suffer the effects of a poor diet.
Due to his condition, Adam remained bedridden for much of his life. The doctors performed a surgery that was intended to remove the tumor, but after examining him a few years later they found that he was still growing, which meant that they had been unable to correct the condition. Adam died at a fairly young in 1950 at a height of seven feet and ten inches.
But to this day, Adam Ranier remains the only person who has ever lived as both a dwarf and a giant. It’s a shame that more isn’t known about his life. Though, even at the time, his case attracted a lot of attention in the international press. And the Guinness Book of World Records included an entry on him in 1975. And though he was unfortunate to have to suffer such debilitating physical conditions, at least he will be remembered as unique in the history of mankind.
7 weird things we’ve learned through science
Ah, science! Domain of the geeks. I may not have loved you when I was a teenager with other things to think about, like the insane changes in my body, but now that I’m older I have come to be fascinated by your astounding discoveries.
Here’s a look at some of the strangest of natural phenomena—whether in biology, anatomy, archeology, or astronomy. Some of them are too weird too believe… and yet it’s all true!
Thought clouds weigh nothing because they float? Wrong. Clouds weigh millions of tons. Yet they float because they are less dense than the surrounding air and than the rising currents of hot air. That’s why the sky does not fall on our heads dufus!
In this very moment, there are about 100 billion bacteria living in your mouth, and 100 trillion (100,000 billion) in your digestive tract. Oh and there are 25,000 germs walking on each square inch of your cell phone, and 7.2 billion on your kitchen sponge. Bacteria and germs are living beings—that makes your body, phone and kitchen extremely social places! Fortunately, most of these microscopic life forms are harmless and work actively for our mutual benefit.
… But they are not allergic to us, unfortunately. The itch that results from a mosquito bite is simply an immune response from your body. When the insect “bites” you, it in fact sucks your blood through its “trunk” (i.e. its proboscis) while simultaneously injecting substances including an anticoagulant. This helps the blood pass easily through its proboscis and its digestive tract. Itching is not directly caused by the bite or chemicals contained in the mosquito’s proboscis but by the immune response of the body fighting them. Our body releases histamine, a protein involved in many allergic reactions, to fight against parasites. Histamine causes swelling around the bite so that the blood rushes to the affected area, and this has the side effect of itching.
93% of your body mass is actually stardust. Time to start writing poems y’all. Most of the elements that make up your body, like your bones, organs, and muscles are made of various atoms and molecules. And where do you think those atoms and molecules come from? Technically from your mom, but if you trace everything back far enough, these particles come from the stars.
Believe it or not, you have 2 meters of DNA in every cell in your body, which has 10 trillion cells. If we put all that DNA together and made a string out of it, we could tie the string from the Earth to the Moon over 100,000 times!
Giant Dinosaur Stomach
The Sauroposeidon, of the brachiosaur family, is one of the largest dinosaurs ever found. It could reach up to 18 meters in height and weigh up to 60 tons. Naturally, his stomach was the size of a swimming pool. Time for a swim in the dino’s tummy!
The muscles in your eyes are the most active ones in your body. According to one study, they actually move more than 100,000 times a day. Does that sound like a lot? Try to count how many times your eyes just moved just to read this paragraph. Now, if only I could do one push-up for every eye-movement!
Remembering the real Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Too often, those satisfied with the status quo use Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory to silence people. He’s become a symbol of peace and moderation, a reminder to be nice to people who hate you. Figures of his magnitude often have pesky rough details smoothed away through the soft lens of history lessons. But it’s malicious to wrap King in respectability in order to deny it to others.
Of course, King’s nonviolent approach to racial injustice was notable and effective. He received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for it. But to focus only on his methods and not his message is to be satisfied with an incomplete picture. People love to speak of his peaceful approach, but not why it was necessary.
Yes, there is a religious and loving aspect to King’s choice to never respond to violence with violence, and it comes through in his speeches and correspondence. However, it was also a savvy method to force tension and change, which was his purpose.
In King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he responds to a group of clergymen who wrote an open letter to Birmingham citizens urging them not demonstrate with him. These same clergy members signed off on a similar more forcefully worded open letter earlier that year to supporters of segregation asking them to let their frustrations be known legally and through the legal system and not through violence. Their critique of King was that while his methods were technically nonviolent, he was disruptive and he broke laws. These men of faith, even today, would probably be considered high-minded, equitable, fair, and moderate.
King, however elegantly and compassionately, tells them where to stuff their moderate stance. He tells them, “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” And after attempts to negotiate with a government that did not keep its promises that “[w]e had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.” He then expresses disappointment with the so-called white moderate for being a greater stumbling block for black freedom than the KKK as they chose absence of unrest over justice.
King is intense and uncompromising in both the expectation that demonstrators would not perpetrate violence (mainly for spiritual reasons, but also not the cede the moral high ground) and that treating blacks with anything less than sister and brotherhood as soon as possible was unacceptable.
He also notes that the time of the Birmingham demonstrations was chosen specifically to disrupt the economy of Easter shopping. He intentionally created a crisis situation to force meaningful negotiation. He did so without proper permits or government approval. There’s a currently a bill filed in Washington that would make such civil disobedience a felony. Indeed, King himself was arrested thirty times because he decided for himself which laws were just and which were unjust and followed or broke them accordingly.
To call King’s demonstrations nonviolent overshadows that fact that he counted on violence occurring to the very people he was organizing and himself. It’s unsettling to think about getting a group together, however scrupulously prepared, to have the ever-loving shit beaten out of them for their own rights without fighting back. King’s actions were disruptive, and they did bring out the worst in some people. He was hated for it. You and your family don’t get constant death threats because everyone loves you.
You also don’t have the FBI following your every move because the government believes in your goals and methods.
It started because of King’s involvement in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and his close friend and advisor, Stanley David Levison, was a Communist Party leader. (He stopped Communist Party activities in 1957, but it’s not like that would prevent further monitoring.) President Kennedy apparently told King to break off contact with Levison, so King pretended that he did. Of course, the FBI found out and began intensive monitoring to see what else King was hiding.
The FBI feared that black nationalist and black civil rights groups were being infiltrated by communists, which wasn’t completely absurd considering the atmosphere at the time. But the FBI also feared the groups themselves, lumping them all together as “Black Nationalist Hate Groups.” (For the record, the Southern Poverty Law Center does consider some black separatist groups to be hate groups.) To them, a man like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dangerously powerful, especially if he should give up on integration and embrace black nationalism.
King’s stature, charisma, and influence were enough to be dangerous. So much so that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was on a mission to discredit him, specifically through audiotape of extramarital affairs. Hoover considered King to be a liar and a hypocrite, and treated him accordingly.
From this side of history, it’s easy to make Hoover into that bad guy. King had to depend on FBI investigations of racially motivated violence while also being watched. It’s a horrible situation. But King was a radical during a time of great upheaval. If you consider how even the most peaceful of political disruptions are viewed today, King would still be a radical in 2017.
The concept that nominal legal rights are not enough, that tolerance is not enough, that live and let live is not enough, is still radical. King’s goal was complete and utter equality in all aspects of life for all races based on mutual respect and even love. We’re told that this is the kind of thing that loses elections.
On King’s birthday, a national holiday, you will likely hear parts of his “I Have a Dream” speech. His most famous speech describes his hope and his vision, how every corner of America will ring with freedom. It is beautiful and moving. Everyone seems to love the idea that we should be judged not by the color of our skin, but the content of our character.
But I urge you to listen not just to the pretty parts, but to the hard parts as well. King also describes injustice, oppression, a faithless government, and righteous, founded anger. He speaks against the comfort of gradualism and extols “the marvelous new militancy” in the black community. He does all that, while still emphasizing that Americans are all linked, one people, and that only through an intractable desire for justice and freedom for all, will the nation truly prosper.
Yes, he wanted peace, but not at the cost of dignity. He abhorred violence in the civil rights movement, but not because he didn’t understand the root frustration. To focus solely on his peacefulness and desire for a society beyond race without addressing what he fought for besmirches his memory and hobbles those who follow in his footsteps.
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