"I'll whistle my way through life until I drop dead." — Jeanette Schmid
(Content Warning: discussion of Nazis and the Holocaust)
We have covered a number of different professions throughout this project: writers, activists, actors, business owners, singers. There is more than enough proof that queer people can (and will) fill any role. So when we approach the subject of this article we aren’t confused by the fact a queer person held the role; we are surprised that this is a role that is held at all. Jeanette Schmid began as a female impersonator and ended up as a professional whistler.
The history of whistling is a long one, and there is nothing new about the profession of whistling. From the musical aspect integrated into many operas, to its use as a form of communication on ships, to its existence as a language within the island of Silbo Gomero, whistling has a long and detailed history. One particularly interesting page of this history is taken up by Jeanette Schmid.
Jeanette Schmid was born on the sixth of November, 1924 in Volary, Sudetenland, a region located in western areas of former Czechoslovakia, now known as the Czech Republic. Assigned male at birth, Jeanette Schmid was quick to rebel against the ideals of masculine expression that were encouraged at the time. Dressing up in traditionally feminine clothing from a young age, she did not quite fit the masculine ideal required for the Aryan race of Nazi Germany. Despite this, she still chose to join the Wehrmacht at the age of seventeen.
Wehrmacht was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany established by Adolf Hitler in 1935, only two years after the Nazi party seized power in Germany. In 1941, the same year Jeanette Schmid enrolled, Hitler declared himself commander and chief of Wehrmacht. Schmid was then stationed in Udine, Italy.
Before the war ended, Schmid caught typhoid fever. She was sent home and removed from duty. An obituary from the Telegraph wrote:
“A delicate young [woman], [She] was unhappy with military life and already confused by [her] sexual identity. [She] was, as [she] later put it, “saved” from the army by typhoid fever, which nearly cost [her] [her] life.”
She was forced to stay home until her health improved, but as the war ended, Sudeten Germans were forced to flee. The Czech people wanted revenge for the occupation of their country by Nazi Germany.
During the war, the Czech’s were forced to endure inhumane practices at the hands of the Germans. When a rebellion ended in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, SS leader Heinrich Himmler's deputy, Hitler ordered the arrest and execution of ten thousand randomly selected Czech citizens. While ten thousand citizens were arrested, it is estimated that five thousand were executed.
After destroying their cities, killing their men, and sending citizens to concentration camps, it is not shocking that the Czech people drove the Sudeten Germans out of their country. Considering Jeanette’s participation in the war, neither is her decision to flee.
Jeanette fled to Munich, where she began performing as a showgirl, dressing in traditionally feminine clothing more frequently, and later finding the name she would take on: Jeanette. She performed in theatres such as the Neue Scala in Berlin and the Hansa Theater in Hamburg. Under her new name, she became a vaudeville performer.
It was there that the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi and his wife Soraya discovered her and invited her to perform in their palace in Tehran, the capital of Iran. But just before she was about to perform for the court, she was informed that her costume was too revealing for the Persian palace. In an attempt to keep her reputation from being tarnished, she went on stage and whistled a polka. She had been complimented on her ability to whistle before, and this small misunderstanding launched her into an entirely new career and out of the realm of the performance art of female impersonating.
Her fame quickly rose and she accompanied stars on stages such as Frank Sinatra, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, and Edith Piaf while she lived in Cairo. It was in Egypt in 1964 that Jeanette went through gender confirmation surgery and legally changed her name.
Though she fell out of the limelight, she continued pursuing her career her entire life, settling in Vienna and whistling anywhere she could. While performing in theatres and cafes, she was discovered again, this time by the Austrian director Andre Heller. Heller gave her the stage name Baroness Lips von Lipstrill and propelled her back into fame. From there she was able to join the Wonderhouse performance on Broadway and in 2004 win Golden Medal for services to the Republic of Austria.
When she was asked at the acceptance ceremony if she ever planned on retiring, she answered:
"I'll whistle my way through life until I drop dead."
And that was more or less true. Jeanette never retired, and she spent her later life whistling professionally until she died of influenza at home in Vienna in 2005.
Jeanette Schmid is remembered as Austria's last professional whistler, and she earned that title. More or less stumbling into recognition for her talent, she found her footing pursued her career with dogged determination. She found a passion that is not quite mainstream but was needed and worthwhile. She did not have a journey devoid of obstacles, or even missteps, but by the end of her life she had found her niche, and fulfilled it as best she could.
Her participation in World War II can never be overlooked, and her life was an imperfect one. She made poor decisions, and she is not a flawless hero of history. But her life and legacy are still worth looking at, for the successes and the failures, and for the flawed woman that she was.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Associated Press. “Jeanette Schmid, 80, of Austria, professional whistler.” The Boston Globe. 13 Mar 2005. http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/obituaries/articles/2005/03/13/jeanette_schmid_80_of_austria_professional_whistler/
Bracken, Hayley. “The World's Best Whistler Explains How She Got So Good.” Vice. 13 Mar 2016. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bj3n5/molly-lewis-the-worlds-best-professional-whistler
“Jeanette Schmid Obituary.” The Telegraph. 17 Mar 2005. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1485787/Jeanette-Schmid.html
“Jeanette Schmid, The Cross-Dressing Whistler.” ARTLARK. 6 Nov 2017. https://artlark.org/2017/11/06/curious-careers-jeanette-schmid-the-cross-dressing-whistler/
“The Artpiper.” Wiener Zeitung. 3 Nov 2005. https://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/kultur/mehr_kultur/140322_Die-Kunstpfeiferin.html
“Transgender whistler Jeanette Schmid dies at 80.” Advocate. 15 Mar 2005. https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/entertainment-news/2005/03/15/transgender-whistler-jeanette-schmid-dies-80-15409
“What a World Champion Whistler Sounds Like.” 25 Dec 2015. National Geographic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51nfpGY_AJk
“Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero.” UNESCO. 25 Sep 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgEmSb0cKBg