Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mendel Picasso

The first post of this blog explains, in excruciating detail, the people, places, and events depicted on the skin of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," in the song written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg for the Marx Brothers movie "At the Circus." The one mystery that remains unsolved is the name "Mendel Picasso," as in
Come along and see Buff'lo Bill with his lasso.
Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso.
Here is Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon.
Here's Godiva but with her pajamas on.

Let's look at the last name first. It seems safe to assume that this is a reference to the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, shown to the left in 1962. Although he painted in a number of different styles, its unlikely that he was a tattoo artist. As far as I can tell, he never depicted Buffalo Bill in any medium.

And what of the first name? Picasso's given name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. There is no sign of "Mendel" in there.

So where did Mendel Picasso come from? I have consulted no less an authority than Ernie, the son of lyricist Yip Harburg. Ernie didn't know, but said he would put out feelers to see if anyone does know. So far, as we approach the first anniversary of the original publication of my article "Lydia the Tattooed Lady Revealed," no one has come forward with an answer.

Even though the song "Peasy Weasy" was a favorite of Groucho, and the priest Gregor Mendel performed his genetic experiments with pea plants, it seems unlikely that Yip Harburg was thinking of Gregor Mendel when he wrote the lyrics to "Lydia."

Through intensive research (i.e., typing "Mendel" in the Google search box), I have learned that in Yiddish, Mendel is the pet form of the Hebrew name Menahem. So, was Yip somehow implying that Picasso was Jewish? Well...it's not impossible.

Apparently, there is some speculation that Pablo Picasso's maternal grandmother was Jewish. In a speech made by Gary Schwartz at the opening of the exhibit, "The 'Jewish' Rembrandt" at the Jewish Historical Museum on 9/11/2006:
Not long ago I was surprised to read the following sentence about Picasso's grandfather in John Richardson's monumental biography of the artist: "Next to nothing is known about this bizarre gentleman...beyond the fact that he married a plump young woman from the province of Málaga, Inés López Robles, rumoured to be a Maranna (of Jewish descent)" (p. 22). This was thus Picasso's mother's mother. If the rumour about Inés López Robles were true then even the great goy Pablo Picasso was in fact Jewish according to Jewish law.
Rumors about a woman who lived a couple centuries ago aren't much to go on, but then, wars have been launched on less substantial evidence.

In the end (or at the end of the day, as the talking heads on TV are so fond of saying these days), it really doesn't matter. Maybe Yip just threw Mendel Picasso into the song because it sounded funny, or because he knew it would drive people like me crazy through the ages, and that's good enough for me. I am reticent to pursue this topic any further for fear of being classified as that most unamusing of writers--the "humor analyst."

Sing along with me now:

La la laaa
La la la
La la laaa
La la la

26 comments:

  1. It IS a hard nut to crack! Can't "Mendel" possibly be a title of some sort...? Or a reference to an artist, or anything like that. Hmm, this will keep me awake... Anyway, I love the "Gregor Mendel" long shot, haha.

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  2. Lo,
    Thanks. I'm happy to share my insomnia over this mystery with someone else.
    D.C.

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  3. I don't know anything about "Jewish law," but Judiasm is a religion, not an ethnic type, nor a race, nor even a bloodline. What it really boils down to is self-identity, proclaiming yourself to be Jewish, because there's no real such thing as "Jewish". So unless Picasso was a practicing Jew, he wasn't Jewish.

    As soon as we realize there's no statistical difference between the various groups of people here on Earth, the sooner we'll have world peace. Hail, hail Freedonia!

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  4. Anonymous,
    For a dissenting opinion, let's turn to Groucho himself. On the album "An Evening With Groucho," he related this anecdote:

    I knew a fellow named Otto Kahn, who was a very rich man, and he gave a lot of money to the Metropolitan Opera House at one time. And his close friend was Marshall P. Wilder, who was a hunchback. And they were walking down Fifth Avenue, and they came to a synagogue, and Kahn turned to Wilder and he said "Marshall, you know I used to be a Jew." Marshall said "Really? I used to be a hunchback."

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  5. According to Wikipedia, Gregor Mendel was "the father of modern genetics", so maybe it's a wordplay on his work with biological classes, combined with the work of another classic, i.e. Picasso?

    /Mikael Uhlin @ Marxology

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  6. Mikael,

    I reiterate what I wrote above,

    "Even though the song 'Peasy Weasy' was a favorite of Groucho, and the priest Gregor Mendel performed his genetic experiments with pea plants, it seems unlikely that Yip Harburg was thinking of Gregor Mendel when he wrote the lyrics to 'Lydia.'"

    Lacking further evidence, I guess it remains a possibility.

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  7. Apparently, there's something called "Classical Genetics" - 46 400 hits on Google - and Gregor Mendel seems to have been a key figure in this field. I think that's what Harburg alluded to.

    /Mikael Uhlin

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  8. Maybe it's the name of the artist who drew the tattoos? Just a wild guess.

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  9. OK, here's a thought. It's not Mendel -- it's Mendl. As in Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe) the celebrated 1930s interior designer, mentioned in other songs of the period too. Can you name a single thing linking her and Pablo Picasso? Ever heard of a Lady Mendl cocktail? Or a Picasso cocktail? Both drinks pretty much forgotten now but not in 1939.

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  10. Hmmm--interesting idea. The sheet music clearly spells it Mendel and not Mendl, but it's worth pursuing.

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  11. You gotta be kidding - "Mendel" Picasso is a simple joke that Picasso was actually Jewish. Lyric could have been "Izzy Van Gogh" or "Chaim Monet" if the rhyme was right...

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  12. I always assumed Groucho was rifting on the original lyric and threw Mendel in as a funny Yiddishism, a la, "Did someone call me schnorer?". Is there any evidence the lyric was actually written as Mendel Picasso and not Pablo Paicasso? Groucho was notorious for changing everything. As George S Kaufman famously said after seeing a screening of 'Coconuts', "Hey, Groucho kept one of my lines!"

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  13. I have a copy of the sheet music as written by Yip Harburg and the lyric really is "Mendel Picasso."

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  14. Perhaps a check of the telephone and Polk's directories would answer the question. There could have been a real Mendel Picasso who was a tattoo artist.

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  15. If Gregor Mendel the geneticist performed experiments on living tissue (albeit vegetables) which, one assumes, changed in some way their original integrity, maybe even appearance, could it be a reference to Picasso's style of painting which was relatively new when the song was written? Reminds me of Alan Bennet's joke, "Oh Picasso, she's got eyes in the back of her head". A long shot perhaps, but both Mendal and Picasso were dealing with something new and maybe those things were not dissimilar in their outcome.

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  16. So was Picasso Jewish or not?

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  17. What if he meant Arther Mendel, and "pizzicato?" Like a little musical piece...but misspelled?

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  18. Unbelievable! Others are tortured with the same questions I have. Sorry - no answere.
    Dirk
    Germany

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  19. I think it was a misdirection joke as people would expect Pablo Picasso.

    Example:

    "Hey, Joe. I just got a new tattoo. Picasso did it for me."

    "Pablo Picasso?!?!"

    "No... Mendel Picasso."

    :p

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  20. quoting from Wikipedia (and I think this is right!):
    "The link to Gregor Mendel is ridiculous. 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?"

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  21. (in other words, I agree with anonymous of Jan 10!) :)

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  22. "You gotta be kidding - "Mendel" Picasso is a simple joke that Picasso was actually Jewish. Lyric could have been "Izzy Van Gogh" or "Chaim Monet" if the rhyme was right.."

    I'm with that guy.

    As for Picasso maybe having had Jewish heritage - who in Spain doesn't!

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  23. Picasso painted a Cubist portrait of Buffalo Bill in 1911. It can be found online.

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  24. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"
    -Sigmund Freud

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  25. The legal department at MGM would probably have objected to inserting the name of a living person into a risque movie song, or the legal department couldn't get Pablo Picasso's permission to use his name, or Picasso might have demanded royalty payments for the use of his name.

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  26. I don't think there was a legal issue. Several living people were mentioned in the song: Garbo (in Groucho's introduction), Whalen, and Nijinsky.

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