Jeanette Schmid, the Cross-dressing Whistler

On the 6th of November 1924, Rudolf Schmid was born in Volary, Sudetenland (now in the Czech Republic). In 1941 he enlisted in the Wehrmacht, the German Armed Forces, aged just 17 and served in the beginning of WWII at Udine in Italy. However, Schmid’s constitution was not built for the army. “A delicate young man, he was unhappy with military life and already confused by his sexual identity. He was, as he later put it, “saved” from the army by typhoid fever, which nearly cost him his life, but also saw him invalided home. But Schmid, like many Sudeten Germans, was forced to flee as the Czechs exacted revenge for the deprivations of the war years. He fled to Munich, where his love of dressing up, singing and dancing set him on a career as a female impersonator.” (Obituary in The Telegraph, 17 Mar 2005)

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Persian Shah Reza Pahlavi and his wife Soraya

In Munich, Schmid found success as a showgirl and shortly after started performing in the Neue Scala theatre in Berlin. Later, whilst acting in a vaudeville show as “Jeanette” at the Hansa Theatre in Hamburg, he was discovered by the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi and his wife Soraya, who were thrilled by his performance and invited him for a private show at their home in Teheran. Schmid’s drag routine and outfits were though way too risqué for the Persian palace and in a bid to save his reputation, Schmid was advised by a friend to try whistling classical pieces, which he was good at.  Jeanette then whistled a polka by Johann Strauss and Offenbach’s Barcarole and the Shah was suitably impressed; Schmid was to make her career from here on by this unusual art, continuing an old local Germanic tradition:

“The Austrian ‘School’ of Kunstpfeifen refers loosely to a small group of professional and semi-professional whistlers from the German-speaking lands, especially Austria, who were active from about 1880-1940 and whistled a repertoire consisting mainly of waltzes, Viennese folk songs, and well-known operatic arias.(e.g. Hans Tranquillini, Josef Bratfisch).With the approval of Johann Strauss II behind them, several successors followed. Before 1900, some of these Kunstpfeifer were still known for instrumental repertoire and instrumental techniques (such as nodal articulation and multiphonics) and were occasionally compared to the piccolo; but as light concert music evolved into parlour music and variety entertainment in the 1890s, the word Kunstpfeifen began shedding these instrumental associations and by 1940 was virtually synonymous with singwhistling or whistletainment.” (Dictionary of Whistling, http://www.synthonia.org)

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Schmid made a solid name for herself in showbusiness, mainly touring the Orient, performing on cruise ships and in private shows, even alongside stars such as Sinatra, Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. He lived in Cairo for fifteen years and there, in 1964 he finally became Jeanette by gender reassignment surgery performed by Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz. As  she moved back to Vienna, Jeanette Schmid continued a long, more obscure career in whistling, appearing in theatres and cafes for years before director André Heller rediscovered her in the 1980s reintroducing her to showbusiness under the stagename Baroness Lips von Lipstrill. Her show travelled to Europe, then Broadway and even earned Jeanette the Austrian Decoration of Merit in Gold. When asked at the ceremony about her plans to retire, the flamboyant artist declared, “I’ll whistle my way through life until I drop dead.” Her autobiography came out in 2004 and was entitled Ich pfeif’ auf alles…! : das Leben der Kunstpfeiferin Baronesse Lips von Lipstrill.

 

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