Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lydia the Tattooed Lady Revealed

This post, along with many others about the Marx Brothers, also appears in its entirety at my other blog, The Marx Brothers.

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!


kt said...

Halloo! Thanks for the comment! I have a link on my Father's Day post to a recording of Groucho singing Harry Ruby's "Father's Day" song. I had only heard the live vesion previously, but this one is chock-full of strings and boy backup singers and such. It's fun! As is Groucho!

benny said...

Hi Dave,
Very interesting.I had the particular video for a long time and everytime I could laugh to bust. Re. Lydia-Your pictures brought it all to my mind.Here is an anecdote on DuBarry. I had long ago posted in my blog.
Madame duBarry(1741-1793)
Illegitimate daughter of a cook she became the favorite mistress of Louis XV, who declared that she was the only woman who made him forget he was 70-something.
As a young girl she was put in a high class brothel where she was bewildered by exaggerated affections and mannerisms of her colleagues. She felt out of place and lost which her mother tried to comfort thus, ”Don’t worry, men tire of always eating capons and delicate fruit; a good cabbage now and then delights them.”
Have a nice week end


Wow, this is a thorough post. I came across it while trying to find a copy of Groucho singing this song. (was thinking of using it as a first dance at my wedding, actually, because i've always loved it and it makes a lovely waltz) I figured I'd ask, since you seem to know a ton about this--is there a good audio recording available of Groucho performing "Lydia?" I've found numerous covers, including a more up-tempo version by Bobby Short, but none that compare with the one from At the Circus.


David C. said...


Thanks for your comment. The only recording I have of Groucho singing "Lydia" is on the vinyl album "An Evening With Groucho," a live performance at Carnegie Hall in his later years. I don't think that album is on CD. I see has an MP3 of Groucho and Bing Crosby singing the song together. It might be worth a buck to buy it and see how it sounds. Amazon also sells a CD, "Gratuitously Groucho," which includes Groucho singing Lydia. I believe this is a radio performance from the 40s. I don't know of any audio recordings from the movie soundtrack.

Zhoen said...

Thank you, I could not figure out who Gueiss was supposed to be, Thais works.

The only famous Mendel I know is Gregor Mendel - the proto-geneticist, and it was meant as not a real Picasso, but a relative. That's probably stretching the point, but I like it.

Anonymous said...

I think that "Mendel Picasso"reference is a Jewish "in joke." Mendel is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew name Menahem, and it is in a diminuitive form. The image the lyric presents is of an obscure tattoo artist who, with pretentions of grandeur, adopts the last name of Picasso. It is not the only in joke in the Groucho repertoire. One of Groucho's other signature songs has the words "Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer. (Did someone call me Schnorer?)"

David C. said...

I think you're on the right track, and that the Mendel in the song a nickname for Menahem. I have not been able to verify this however. I think I will address this issue in a separate post at my Marx Brothers blog.

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David C. said...

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compa said...

I think you could make 10 posts out of your one post. It is full of information.

Bentonbag said...

Thank you, you have solved a mystery for me.
My mother would regularly look in the mirror and say "Oh Lord! I look like the wreck of the Hesperus". I've always wondered about what she was referring to, and it was such a family saying I never asked her.

Anonymous said...

I just added Lydia to my repertoire at the piano bar I play at. Thanks for the research. I found a picture of Whalen unveiling the Trylon.

Anonymous said...

"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"

If you could speak to Groucho from the grave you could ask him, but he would probably say "Hello, I must be going"


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