Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lydia the Tattooed Lady Revealed

This post originally appeared on my other blog, Lugubrious Drollery, June 18, 2008.

Image courtesy of the Yip Harburg Foundation

A lot of landmark events occurred in 1939. The New York World's Fair opened. Hitler invaded Poland. The movie The Wizard of Oz premiered, and the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus was released. Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg wrote songs for both the Wizard of Oz and At the Circus. Groucho's performance of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" is a classic.

As I pointed out in an earlier post about the song Cuban Pete, the internet is littered with inaccuracies. The World Wide Web abounds in multiple copies of a mistaken transcription of Groucho's introduction to "Lydia." What shows up in this transcription is:

My life was wrapped around the circus.
Her name was Lydia.
I met her at the World's Fair in 1900,
marked down from 1940.
Ah, Lydia.
She was the most glorious creature under the sun.
Guiess. Dubarry. Garbo.
Rolled into one.

If you watch the above clip from the movie, you'll see that when Groucho lists the three beauties that were all rolled into Lydia, the first one sounds like it rhymes with "vice". According to Nick Markovich, administrator/archivist of the Yip Harburg foundation, this was Thaïs, an Athenian courtesan who allegedly convinced Alexander the Great to burn the palace of Persepolis. Jules Massanet wrote an opera called Thaïs. The Scottish soprano Mary Garden made her American premiere in the title role. The other two women were Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, and famed actress Greta Garbo. Interestingly, Yip Harburg also wrote lyrics for a song ("Salome") which was sung by Virginia O'Brien in the 1943 movie Du Barry Was a Lady.

Mary Garden as Thaïs

Madame du Barry

Greta Garbo

The joke about the World's Fairs in Groucho's intro refers to the Expositon Universelle in Paris in 1900, and the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940.

Exposition Universelle, Paris 1900

New York World's Fair, 1939

There are many historical and topical references in the song itself:

Battle of Waterloo - Napolean's final defeat by the Duke of Wellington

Wreck of the Hesperus - a poem by Longfellow, based on events that occurred during a blizzard off the east coast of the United States in 1839. In the poem, a sea captain's daughter is tied to the mast of a ship to keep her from being washed overboard during a storm, but both she and her father die.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Kankakee - a town in Illinois

Paree - the one in France. You've heard of it--it's been in all the papers

Lisa Fonssagrives on the Eiffel Tower, Paris 1939. Photo by Erwin Blumenfeld

Washington Crossing the Delaware - the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of the beginning of the surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, Decemeber 25, 1776

Andrew Jackson - colonel in the Tennessee militia in the War of 1812 and later President of the U.S.

mazurka - a Polish dance

Niagara - the Falls--you know, the big ones between New York and Canada

Alcatraz - the island in San Francisco Bay that used to be a prison

Buffalo Bill - William F. Cody, of Wild West Show fame

Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso - This is the most puzzling phrase in the song, and one for which I can't find an explanation. The abstract artist Picasso's given name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruiz y Picasso. That's quite a mouthful, but I don't find anything that looks like Mendel in there.

Captain Spaulding - Groucho's character in Animal Crackers

Godiva - the lady who, according to legend, argued with her husband, Lord Leofric, about the oppressive taxes he levied on the citizens of Coventry in the eleventh century. He challenged her to ride naked through town, and promised to lift the taxes if no one looked at her. She rode, no one looked, the peasants cheered, and the taxes were lifted, or so one version of the legend goes.

Lady Godiva by John Collier

Grover Whalen unveilin' the Trylon - a great turn of phrase. Whalen was President of the World's Fair Corporation, which planned and built the 1939 World's Fair on the site of what was up to that time an ash dump in Flushing Meadow. The symbols of the fair were the Trylon and Perisphere--a big pointy tower next to a big round building.

Treasure Island - another topical reference. Treasure Island is an artificial island in the San Francisco Bay. It is connected by a small isthmus to Yerba Buena Island. It was created out of fill dredged from the bay in 1936 and 1937 for the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition.

Nijinsky adoin' the rhumba - a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer doing "the dance of Latin romance" (see Cuban Pete).

Vaslav Nijinsky not doing the rhumba

In their book, Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz: Yip Harburg, Lyricist, Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg point out a couple interesting facts about "Lydia." The song was censored and in order to get it into the movie, Yip Harburg had to add the last stanza:

Oh, Lydia, the champ of them all
She once swept an Admiral clear off his feet
The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat
And now the old boy's in command of the fleet
For he went and married Lydia

I guess the censors could accept the rest of what they considered a risque song as long as Lydia became an "honest woman" and got married in the end.

Myerson and Harburg also point out that Yip tried his best to make "Lydia" sound like Gilbert and Sullivan, because Groucho was a big fan and would have parties at his house where he would play recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and sing along with them.

As I close this post, I must note a spooky coincidence(?). The Muzak coming out of the speaker in the office at the MRI Center where I am finishing this up is "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Arlen and Harburg!


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  2. I always interpreted the line about "classic by Mendel Picasso" as though it had a comma or semicolon between the two names, and was referring to a tattoo (or tattoos) that represented work(s) of both Arthur Mendel and Pablo Picasso. Just a guess, though.

    1. I am pretty sure Mendel Picasso is standard Jewish take-down humor.

    2. The obvious joke in the lyric is that the Picasso referred to isn't Pablo Picasso, but a low-rent artist named Mendel Picasso, who is Jewish. Get it?

  3. I've always thought that the line about Lady Godiva was probably "without her pajamas on" originally, and was forcibly censored. Because who would recognize Godiva with clothes on? I'm sure Groucho Marx of all people would not have chosen to censor Godiva, and the character of Lydia doesn't seem like the kind of woman who would be shy about that sort of thing either!

  4. "When she sits, she sits on Hitler"... Or to update it, "When she sits upon her rump, She shoots the moon at Donald Trump..."