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Sharon Ammen’s “May Irwin” is a 10+

I have a tough time finding books about the Thousand Islands that I do not like, so rating them from 1-10 is difficult. However, I will give “May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy” a 10+.Book cover

I discovered May Irwin several decades ago. Finding information in books and newspapers was not difficult, but why was it not in one place… like in a book? This summer I attended a History at Noon, session at the Thousand Islands Museum when the author, Sharon Ammen provided a much-appreciated hour-long review of the first biography of May Irwin, the almost forgotten “star” of the Thousand Islands. Not only did I discover many new facts but I particularly enjoyed meeting Sharon Ammen and listening to how it all it all began…

Sharon AmmenSharon explained that she was coming to a crossroads in her own theater career when she began an academic fellowship…“ As often happens to me”, she explained, “when I am open to new knowledge or experience, a fluke event occurred that helped me take the plunge. A book someone had recently given me fell off the shelf and opened to an entry on May Irwin. The book was ‘Women in Comedy,’ by Linda Martin and Kerry Seqrave, and I noticed as I picked it up that this woman named May Irwin had given a command performance in Washington, D.C., for Woodrow Wilson, who promptly dubbed her America’s ‘Secretary of Laughter.’”

For the next hour Sharon provided an insight into the famous vaudeville actress who made Club Island near Grindstone, as well as a farm outside of Clayton her homes. Sharo Ammen and Karen Killian

Sharon also expressed her gratitude to the many who provided material, especially Sharon Bourquin, at the Thousand Islands Museum and Karen Killian, who was in the audience.  Karen has perhaps the largest collection of May Irwin material and Sharon explained that she was not only willing to share but she would “faithfully send me new material and information that she discovered.”

Ammen carried out her research over a number of years, analyzing why May Irwin was not memorialized before now. Unlike some of the other vaudeville stars of the day, May never made the “leap into film.” Ammen explains, “A final major reason Irwin has been forgotten is also, paradoxically, one of the most important reasons for remembering her, Irwin was closely associated with the birth of the “coon song,” a style of ragtime singing with racist imagery depicting African Americans.” Ammen explained that the Epilogue chapter on which she collaborated with the NAACP to produce, not only a performance, featuring the songs made popular by May Irwin, but also providing information on coon shouting as a racist phenomenon, called “The Troubling Art of the Coon Song.”

Scattered throughout the hour that afternoon, Sharon delighted us with excepts of May Irwin’s works, including the marvelous lament that poor May could never wear her beautiful former gown as “… the hooks and eyes that once were friends, Never again shall meet!.”

Discovering Grindstone Island, Page 29

“Club Island is the southernmost, of a little cluster of islands at the head of which lies the much larger Grindstone Island. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Grindstone Island boasted a thriving community of farms and stores as well as its own post office and the Grindstone Methodist Church. Irwin shared Club Island with Mrs. Frederic Pruyn, a landscape architect from New York City who also happened to be the daughter of the banking magnate William Fellowes Morgan. Nearby islands included Watch Island, belonging to a wool merchant from Boston; Whiskey Island, the home of Bernard Carter, who was head of a Paris bank owned by Morgan; and Papoose Island, bought as a wedding present in 1884 by Morgan for his betrothed. This elite group, called “The coterie at the head of the island,” came to the Thousand Islands to spend their summer. According to local historian Stanley Norcom, Irwin and her fellow property owners “differed from other resident so of the island in the fact that they had not come to Grindstone to farm or to cut granite or otherwise make their living there. They brought their incomes with them from the eastern cities… incomes that were not subject to the ups and down of the internal economy of the island.”77 Before Irwin settled in as part of this “coterie,” she had to nurse her sister back to health and return to her tour in “Boys and Girls”, by John McNally. The two were now under Charles Frohman’s management.”

Reference: #77 Stanley Norcom, “Grindstone Island: An Island World Remembered.”

Stardom, Chapter 2, Page 37

Sun, November 26, 1906

97 requests for free tickets

63 authors trying to sell new songs

47 requests for photographs

20 requests for autographs

12 proposals for new plays

12 suggestions for charity

1 request for endorsement of a business college

1 offer for her to purchase a trotting horse

37 solicitations to try toilet preparations

23 inquiries on home life

12 queries if Irwin is her real name

1 request for a picture of her as a child

3 requests for her to form a link in a prayer chair.

In the early 1900s, May Irwin’s celebrity had grown to such an extent that she would be besieged on a weekly basis by a range of requests such as those listed above.  Her rise from a favored soubrette and singer to a major star began in the years following the opening of “The Widow Jones,” which also featured what was to become her most famous number, “The Bully”.  (Note Chapter 4 examines “The Bully” in depth.)

By the turn of the century, critics viewed her as the “personification of humor,” “The one distinctively funny woman on the American stage,” and – because of the presumed scarcity of comic ability in women – “a person of enormous consequence in comparison with the male of her species” as well as “her sex’s pride and joy in the matter of humor,”1 

Reference: #1 Strang, Famous Actresses of the Day,” 175-76 (Quote 1); James L Ford, “The Coming Queens of Comedy,” 553, 557 (Quote 2); E.F. Chase, “Plays and Players,” “Boston Journal,” September 7, 1896, Locke Scrapbook, Vol. 297 (Quotes 3-4).


Unbounded Domesticity Page 115

cookbookAs Irwin grew older and embarked on a series of “retirement” (not unusual for star performers even to his day), her domestic life became more and more important to her.1 But even in her younger days, her cooking and housekeeping were strongly associated with every aspect of her public persona. Newspaper headlines often coupled Irwin’s performances with her domestic work, usually with an emphasis on and sometimes overwhelmed descriptions of her stage career. More than three-quarters of contemporary articles written about Irwin mention her housekeeping or cooking abilities, often assuring the public that she was fulfilling her domestic responsibilities.2 She was lauded for declaring herself “a better housekeeper than actress,” and in her interviews she explained how she “worked hard on stage and knows how to make chutney and bait a mouse trap.” When she married Kurt Eisfeldt in 1907, the wedding announcement noted “Young Mr. Eisfeldt to Marry a Famous Actress and Cook.”3
Reference #1 Anhalt wrote the epigraph poem “while fishing for pike and digesting meal.” during a visit to May Irwin in Clayton during the summer of 1913, according to a note dated May 1913 in Locke Scrapbook, Vol. 299. #2 Anne Randolph, “Comedienne and Cook: May Irwin.” #3 “New York Sun,” Nov. 30, 2904, Locke Scrapbook., Vol. 298: “Denver Times,” May 23, 1913, Locke Scrapbook. Vol 200; “New York Telegraph,” May 26, 1907, Locke Scrapbook, Vol. 298.


04-03-2009 03;14;46PMExcerpts printed with permission from University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield. 2017.

Printed in the Series: Music in American Life, Includes bibliographical references and index.

Available locally at book stores.  Paperback $24.95.

On line:   University of Illinois Press or Amazon

The Kiss 1896Photos: Courtesy Karen Killian

See the Kiss:

Note: The author references the following articles from Thousand Islands Life Magazine.

See:  May Irwin and her Keeper by Kim Lunman, April 2009.

“May Irwin” Historical Discoveries, compiled by Karen Killian (PLACE, History section)“May Irwin Gives Up Home to Join Hubby at Farming” and May Irwin’s Home Cooking by Karen Killian.

So, 260 pages of what I call Research Gold, beginning with the introduction, seven chapters recording May Irwin’s life and concluding with a in-depth chapter notes. At the end of the book is the Chronology of May Irwin’s life, and two Bibliographies, one with selected works relating only to May Irwin and the book, and the other “Music in America’s Life.” Provides four pages of books from the University of Illinois Press, Music in American Series. Presenting the most famous in the world of music, with the last – and  certainly the most important –  May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy, by Sharon Ammen.

by Susan W. Smith, Editor, Thousand Islands Life Magazine.

Posted in: Book Review
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