Last night I watched The Illusionist, a perfectly predictable and satisfying movie. The premise: the talented Edward Norton is an illusionist in love with gorgeous Jessica Biel (why wouldn’t he be?), but he must make her “disappear” in order to be with her (of course he does). He does this by faking her death and then making it seem as though he himself fades out of existence. But the true end of the movie for me is the scene in which Paul Giamatti, the detective, puts it all together in an extended epiphanatic moment. The whole mystery unravels, piece by piece, before Giamatti’s eyes as an uncontrollable grin spreads across his face and his body is filled with glee and pride at having solved an intensely complicated puzzle. He doesn’t even really care Norton got away with it.
I want that grin.
Florence Foster Jenkins, my newest project, is a mysterious bird, and it is fair to say that I have become somewhat consumed by uncovering what truth I can about her. This past weekend was spent trying to persuade a collector of Lady Jenkins memorabilia to lend us his collection for our next publication. He in no uncertain terms does not want to be associated with Stephen Temperley’s play because of its fictitious depiction of the diva. Which is a shame. How do we combat historical fiction if those who possess the truth don’t choose to share? I have long felt historical fiction is dangerous; is it not concerning that I know as much about Julius Caesar as Shakespeare taught me? Maybe this is why I do dramaturgy: to make sure that the audience enjoys the fiction but are equipped with the facts. Temperley explained to me that he called his play Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins because he has no intention of deceiving anyone. He has created a fiction. A lovely, moving fiction.
In part, this is because it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to create an accurate picture. Many of the facts have slipped into the muck of Florence Foster Jenkins’s murky history. No family remains, and there is very little information out there, especially about her private life. The majority of what is out there is suspicious, weak, or admittedly speculative. Some of the facts even contradict one another. The best source, as far as I can, is a short biography written for Opera News magazine by Brooks Peters after he heard about Jenkins on NPR. As was the case when Jenkin’s was alive, her fame seems to be passed primarily by word of mouth.
The most perplexing mystery to me is that of her accompanist, Cosme McMoon. About half of the sources I have found argue that Cosme McMoon is a pseudonym taken up by Edwin McArthur to protect his reputation. Remember: Florence Foster Jenkins was famous for how bad she was. It would make sense that a young accompanist trying to get his start in New York City would not necessarily want his name to be associated with hers. But the other half argue that Cosme McMoon was a real person, born either in Texas or Mexico as Cosme McMunn, and this I have come to believe for many reasons. Donald Collup in his documentary Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own suggests Edwin and Cosme were two different people because there’s a photograph out there of them together, but he does not provide the image or, really, any support. It seems as though reviewer James Reel watched Collup’s film; he writes, “A persistent rumor holds that Cosme was the stage name of Edwin McArthur, the longtime accompanist of noted Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, but there’s some photographic evidence against this…More likely is the other legend about Cosme McMoon: The frustrated pianist/songwriter wound up running a gay escort service.” I have done no digging into the validity of this escort service. I am saving it for Christmas.
Caption: KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD MED SIN AKKOMPAGNATØR EDWIN MCARTHUR” TURNÉ I USA HØSTEN 1935. MCARTHUR ER MANNEN BAK PSEUDONYMET COSME MCMOON SOM VAR AKKOMPAGNATØR FOR FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
Brooks explains that McArthur was an accompanist of Jenkins for six years, but was fired “for guffawing during one of her numbers.” Only then did Jenkins begin collaborating with Cosme.
But the nail in the coffin for me: the obituaries. New York Times: August 25, 1980–McMoon, Cosme–born Mapimi, Mexico, concert pianist in NYC aged 79 years. Survived by a brother, a nephew, two nieces. A small notice on B7. New York Times: February 25, 1987-– Edwin McArthur, Conductor and Accompanist, Dies at 79, by Tim Page. Born in Denver. Survived by his wife of 57 years, Blanche McArthur. Different people, right?
So what, then, do I do with “Interview with Cosme McMoon”, the ONLY interview with Cosme I have been able to find, which aired on WCLV radio in Cleveland on May 26, 1991 and claims in its closing: “You may be interested in knowing that Cosmé McMoon was in reality Edwin McArthur, the famous accompanist.” My intern has called the station. They assure her that this is accurate. They sent her some sources supporting the claim. But since we have already determined that this is decidedly NOT accurate, then what can we say about the interview itself? I am reminded of Stephen Glass: “At 25, Stephen Glass was the most sought-after young reporter in the nation’s capital, producing knockout articles for magazines ranging from The New Republic to Rolling Stone. Trouble was, he made things up—sources, quotes, whole stories—in a breathtaking web of deception that emerged as the most sustained fraud in modern journalism” (Vanity Fair). I really want the interview to be real, I really do. But what if it’s not…
I find myself inventing new strategies to uncover the truth, contacting McMunn’s nephew for clarification and writing desperate emails to the Ritz Carlton to see if they might send a photogaph of the ballroom where Florence used to sing. Carnegie Hall has already agreed to send the playbill for her final, and most famous, performance, but we are still missing those really wonderful photographs of FFJ. They exist. The next mystery to solve is how to get at them for free.
UPDATE: Cosme’s grand-nephew confirms that Cosme McMoon and Edwin McArthur are not the same person! He also says the above-mentioned interview is legit.
UPDATE #2: I am so thrilled by the traffic this particular post is getting. I created a study guide for American Conservatory Theater’s production of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkin in January 2009, and we have quite a few copies left. If you would like to buy a copy—OR if your theater is producing Souvenir and would like to buy a bundle of copies at a reduced price to sell as souvenirs—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.