Whistling Women

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Her extensive repertoire ranged from heavy and light operas to difficult instrumental solos. For a “special evening” in London she began with the “Charmant Oiseau” from the Pearl of Brazil . Then came the “Message of the Nightingale,” which had been composed especially for her, and finally, Decker’s “Springtide.” But in the London drawing rooms the demand was for old-fashioned ballads, so she saved “Annie Laurie” and “Bonnie Doone” for the encores.

On a more sordid note there was a headline, “Envious Professionals,” in a publication called London Society . It had to do with Mrs. Shaw’s fees. “All the professional singers and players are very bitter on the subject of the whistling woman. She gets twenty-five guineas for whistling a couple of tunes, which is more than can be commanded by performances of a far more classical character.” It seemed that the “envious professionals” were beginning to “wax very wrathful” because, as they saw it, Mrs. Shaw was collecting on her looks and on “the way she sits down and carefully wraps herself up in a cloak in the intervals of her performance.” Besides, they found her “loud whistling” to be “somewhat harsh.”

An English magazine for youth published some doggerel called “A Shaw-t Cut to Wealth”:

A happy lot is Mrs. Shaw’s, Who’s hither come in search of pelf, For her unique performance draws And makes her rich as Croesus’ self. Along Thrift’s path she need not steer, By “scrapings” and by “pinchings” cursed, For when she chooses to appear, Her guineas, like her lips, are pursed!

Mrs. Shaw was too genteel to reply, or perhaps too busy. A group of London surgeons and medical specialists had formally requested the privilege of examining her mouth and throat “in the interests of science.” She agreed, and after the examination they announced that her art was indeed a gift, due to the unusual height and narrowness of the roof of her mouth. Mrs. Shaw accepted their finding graciously but demurred slightly. It was, after all, her custom to practice whistling two to four hours each day, and it required from two to three months for her to learn a new piece; she thought diligence might have something to do with it.

Then, once more, science beckoned. Col. George E. Gouraud of London was the chief European representative for Thomas Edison. He had successfully introduced Edison’s “speaking telephone” in England and played a major part in organizing the Edison lighting industry there. Now in 1888 Edison’s Improved Phonograph was ready for the marketplace. It was electrically driven and used wax cylinders; up to this point the Edison cylinder record had been covered with tinfoil.

Edison sent a demonstration model to Colonel Gouraud in London and with it a “phonogram,” a cylinder on which the inventor himself had dictated a message with a jingle:

Gouraud, agent of my choice, Bid my balance sheets rejoice. Send me Mr. Gladstone’s voice.

Gouraud at once proceeded to hold a series of “private exhibitions” or parties at Little Menlo, his house in Upper Norwood, Surrey, named after Edison’s laboratory. Prime Minister Gladstone was among the first to be recorded and hear his voice played back. Mrs. Shaw was there too. According to Musical Times , “Mrs. Shaw, the American whistler, performed an air in the machine and it was repeated in all its fullness and volume.” Gouraud sent his collection of historic wax cylinders to the Old Man at West Orange, New Jersey, but no one knows what became of these precious cylinders.

After her strenuous stay in London, Mrs. Shaw went on to Paris for a week’s rest. She had come billed as “America’s Phenomenon” or “The Whistling Prima Donna.” Before leaving England she had been dubbed La Belle Siffleuse by a journalist who found “her most striking feature” to be “the wonderful development of the muscles of her chest. Her bust is a beautiful one, and this she attributes entirely to whistling.”

The purity of her tone, the easy execution of complicated passages, and the compelling volume of sound with which she filled the auditorium all combined to startle and excite her listeners.

Returning to America in August, she made no public appearance until October 1, 1888, when La Belle Siffleuse filled the Cleveland Opera House with a “fashionable assemblage.” By this time the Plain Dealer in its review could label her “the finest whistler in the world.”