- Historic Sites
How a young New York society matron named Alice Shaw dazzled English royalty with her extraordinary embouchure
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
The reporter revealed in his article that Mrs. Shaw was born in New York and had lived for many years in Detroit, but made no mention of the circumstances that brought her to whistling in public. Had she become a widow, a divorcée? What about Mr. Shaw? There are no answers; the facts of her private life were kept obscure.
We do know that in late 1886 Mrs. Alice Shaw made her whistling debut in New York at Chickering Hall, appearing before an audience of the wealthy and cultivated in what was probably a benefit performance. She was a striking brunette of about five foot seven, with clear dark eyes set in an expressive and mobile face. Elegant in her dress and with great composure, she took her place on the stage beside the piano, which was her only accompaniment. Though the audience must have been seeded with her friends and well-wishers, few were prepared for what followed. The purity of her tone, the easy execution of complicated passages, the moods and emotions she was able to suggest, and the compelling volume of sound with which she filled the auditorium—all combined to startle and excite her listeners. They had never heard anything like it.
After a short and brilliant season in New York in which she whistled for nearly every charity function that asked (“It is all I can do for them”), she sailed for England accompanied by her own pianist, Mrs. Campbell. A London journal said she arrived “absolutely unadvertised,” but there must have been a few preparations. For instance, there was a friendly note from one newspaper correspondent to another quoted in the London Times : “Mrs. Shaw, who is coming to your shores… deserves all the good things that can possibly be said of her.… She has whistled her way to the hearts of all New York.” Then there was the journalist in London to whom Mrs. Shaw confided, “It was Mrs. Vanderbilt who advised me to come, and sent me over with some good introductions.”
Good introductions indeed! When her ship docked at Liverpool, the Lord Mayor of London had his private railroad car waiting to whisk her to London for a dinner at his residence. There “a select company of nobility were gathered in her honor.” They found her charming, a bright conversationalist, and a musician of considerable talent. For the next two months her stay in London was a continuous round of engagements, mostly in the parlors of the wealthy and the titled.
She whistled often for the Princess of Wales and her friends. On one occasion she found herself at a banquet seated next to the Prince of Wales and at his request whistled the “My Queen Waltz” during the removal of one of the courses. Wherever she went, her hosts insisted on serving her personally—homage shown to favorite guests.
The editor of the London Times summed it up in July of 1888: “They don’t let the grass grow under their feet, these New Yorkers. Before I had thought out my impromptu words of introduction to Mrs. Shaw, she had been interviewed; she had walked straight into the inner circle of society; she had whistled to the Prince of Wales, and has already become one of the most sought-after lionesses of the London season.… She has a marvelous whistle, and a natural one. I have invited her to come to my next great party.”
The English press loved her. “Whistling as a Fine Art” ran one headline. Others were “Society Has Taken Her Up,” “Fairly Astonished Her Audience,” “A Whistling Wonder (Mrs. Shaw Giving Points in London to the Nightingale),” “The Latest Society Sensation,” “Compared to Niagara Falls,” “Nothing Left for Her to Conquer.”
Boxes at the theaters and for the opera were now kept at her disposal. Whenever she put in an appearance, she was greeted with cheers. Mrs. Shaw had replaced Buffalo Bill as the reigning American celebrity in London.
“Many people in London have been asked out to hear Mrs. Shaw, regarding the whole thing as a joke,” admitted the Saturday Review of London, but added, “and have come away in simple wonder at the unlooked-for display of her powers. They have found her a sound musician and a subtle mistress of her particular art.”
The critics were impressed that she whistled entirely from the score, exactly as the music was written, and that she achieved “wondrous effects”—sometimes grave, even sinister, or as often rapturous, soaring, wild. It was said that she gave the music shades of interpretation as skillfully as a singer. They observed her method, remarking that “notes are only sounded with the outgoing breath, yet there is never heard the gasping recovery.” One eloquent critic compared her to a “Magic Flute” whose “notes burst forth gaily like the laugh of a bobolink” and then “sink away soft as the evening breeze.” A cable from London printed in the New York Herald of Paris reported that Mrs. Shaw “produces a tone which would rise clear and steady above an orchestra, and with equal ease she sustains her upper B flat so gently that one almost loses the sound.” A technically minded observer said that her whistle was “a most comprehensive instrument, capable of stress, swell, staccatos, trills and tremolos, with a range of two and a half octaves.”