Florence Foster Jenkins and her Sister in Syphilis, Karen Blixen

Have you seen the new movie Florence Foster Jenkins? It's a nice film about true-life soprano wannabe Florence Jenkins whose onstage gumption almost makes up for her mewing like a cornered tomcat. But what interested me more about the film was the underlying story of Jenkin's syphilis, which she unknowingly contracted on her wedding night. She was eighteen. The film's director, Stephen Frears, sprinkles gentle references to the disease throughout -- we see a doctor's bedside visit, a hairless head, a scarred hand. The film is mostly a sentimental feel-good vehicle for Streep, and honestly, what a waste. She would have relished the chance to go a little deeper into the story of an ugly disease that forced Florence into a shameful and frustrated celibacy and that wrecked her musical ear, her heart, and her psyche. Now that would have been dramatic.  

By the way, this is the second time Meryl Streep has portrayed a woman ravaged by syphilis given to her via a philandering husband. The first time was thirty years ago when Streep played the role of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Don't remember any references to syphilitic pustules or mercury treatments in that luscious film? That's because Karen Blixen edited her disease from her story. 

But in truth, Blixen's father likely suffered from syphilis himself which he contracted in the early 1870s while living among the Chippewa Indian tribe in northern Wisconsin. He committed suicide when Karen was nine.

Karen Blixen followed her father's footsteps and contracted the disease while seeking out her own colonial adventure. She was thirty and living in Kenya when she was infected by her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecky. You see, he enjoyed regular sexual escapades in the Masai village near their coffee plantation. Syphilis was at epidemic levels among the Masai at the time, which Bror knew but which didn't stop him for a moment.   

So, both these women came to be infected with the disease that would eventually kill them by husbands who knew they were contagious, knew the severity of the disease they carried and didn't hesitate to exercise their marital rights. It is not an unusual circumstance. There were (are) millions of women like Florence and Karen. But it is, nonetheless, a pitiful circumstance. Another burden born. Another humiliation endured.

And no one has made a film about it. 


"Out of Africa" was written by Isak Dinesen, the pen name of Karen Blixen. I inhaled it in a 3-day pagefest in college. It was the first memoir I experienced that read like fiction and it made a lasting impression. When the film came out in 1984, it truly did honor to the original story. The set design and costumes just slayed me and continues to influence me when I source for the shop. If it is vintage African, I'm in love. Click on the photos for shopping information.