Cole Porter and a Vanished Culture: Brewster and Mussolini

Cole Porter and a Vanished Culture: Brewster and Mussolini

 “You’re the top: You’re a Brewster body”

Down­load­ing a Cole Porter clas­sic, “You’re the Top,” to Spo­ti­fy, I real­ized how much the lyrics have changed. Some vers­es were altered, oth­ers just dropped, because they’d only baf­fle peo­ple. Take for exam­ple my favorite—a verse now extinct, because it’s well-nigh unrecognizable:

You’re the top! You’re a Ritz hot toddy.

You ‘re the top! You’re a Brew­ster body.

You’re the boats that glide on the sleepy Zuider Zee,

You ‘re a Nathan Pan­ning, You’re Bish­op Man­ning, You’re broccoli!

Brew­ster and Com­pa­ny was a car­riage mak­er found­ed by James Brew­ster in New Haven, Con­necti­cut in 1810. It last­ed 127 years, felled by the Great Depres­sion in 1937. At the turn of the cen­tu­ry, Brew­ster began build­ing bod­ies for the horse­less car­riage. They were, as Cole Porter said, the top of the line. The finest crafts­man­ship com­bined with the best mate­ri­als. A Brew­ster body meant the own­er had arrived. Old mon­ey or new, it didn’t mat­ter. If you were real­ly loaded you’d order two Brew­ster bod­ies for your Packard or Rolls-Royce chas­sis: a classy open num­ber for the sum­mer, a snug town car or lim­ou­sine for the win­ter. In 1915-25 they even built their own line of opu­lent motorcars.

Back to Cole Porter and his verse. Peo­ple still know what the Zuider Zee is. And I sup­pose a few have heard of the Ritz Hotel and the hot tod­dy drink. Broc­coli was a kind of bou­tique veg­gie in the 1930s. But who are Nathan Pan­ning and Bish­op Man­ning? You have to click the links to find out. The for­mer is tricky. George Nathan was a lead­ing the­ater and arts crit­ic when Porter wrote his song. Even a bad review by Nathan was a good review for most. So, in the Porter lex­i­con, a “Nathan Pan­ning” is a desir­able thing.

Cole Porter

Porter
Cole Porter in the 1930s. (Wiki­me­dia Coimmons)

I’m too young to remem­ber Cole Porter in his hey­day. It was even before my time. I was alive and sen­tient, how­ev­er, for one of his last tri­umphs. That was the score for High Soci­ety, a charm­ing com­e­dy with Cros­by, Sina­tra, Arm­strong and Kel­ly. But by then Porter had a lega­cy that would make him immortal.

 “You’re the Top”  is the lead­ing num­ber for the 1934 musi­cal Any­thing GoesEthel Mer­man sang it in the show, and I think these are the orig­i­nal Amer­i­can lyrics. Per­son­al­ly, I pre­fer Ella Fitzgerald’s ver­sion, mod­ern­ized though it is. Yet it too prob­a­bly sounds like Greek to any­body born after about 1960. It would take an edi­to­r­i­al cleaver to pro­duce a ver­sion every­one under­stands today.

The lyrics, says Wikipedia, “are par­tic­u­lar­ly notable because they offer a snap­shot as to what was high­ly prized in the mid-1930s and demon­strate Porter’s rhyming abil­i­ty.” Wikipedia does us a ser­vice by offer­ing all the odd­ball words in the song and links iden­ti­fy­ing them. Click here.

“You’re Mussolini, You’re Mrs. Sweeney…”

Read­er Richard Munro reminds me that the tune’s “high­ly prized” items include Mus­soli­ni. Mus­soli­ni? Yes, but only the ori­gin is debat­ed. It’s not in the orig­i­nal. Some Porter experts con­tend that Mus­soli­ni was insert­ed by P.G. Wode­house to replace the Amer­i­can lines in the British pro­duc­tion of Any­thing Goes. Here’s the verse:

You’re the top! You’re an Arrow Collar.

You’ re the top! You’re a Coolidge dollar.

You’re the nim­ble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,

You’ re Mus­soli­ni, You’re Mrs. Sweeney, You’re camembert!

(The Wode­house line alleged­ly replaced “You’re an O’Neill dra­ma, You’re Whistler’s mama” in the Porter orig­i­nal. It was feared that Britons wouldn’t know of Eugene O’Neill, though they should have recalled James Whistler, who spent much time in England.)

Good grief, this is almost as obscure as the Brew­ster body! Arrow Shirts were prized by the well-to-do in those days. They are still around, made in India. A [Pres­i­dent Calvin] Coolidge dol­lar was fond­ly remem­bered as worth a lot more than the dol­lar was in the Depres­sion. Mrs. Sweeney was the socialite Mar­garet Camp­bell, a “debu­tante of the year” who famous­ly mar­ried indus­tri­al­ist Charles Sweeney in 1933.

But why Mussolini?

If Wode­house insert­ed Mus­soli­ni, I’m not sur­prised. He admired the dic­ta­tors. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War he made five broad­casts from Berlin. He was nev­er charged after­ward. Asked what to do with him, Churchill cracked: “Let him go to hell—as soon as there’s a vacant passage.”

But of course, Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni was much admired in the 1920s and ear­ly 1930s. In 1927 Churchill praised his coura­geous han­dling of Italy’s econ­o­my. (Of course WSC said as Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer. He was hop­ing Mus­so would cough up Italy’s war debt to Britain.) Then in 1933 Churchill called him “the great­est law-giv­er among liv­ing men.” (By then he was eye­ing Italy as a pos­si­ble ally against new­ly-elect­ed Adolf HItler.)

After Mus­soli­ni fell in with Hitler, Churchill had oth­er words: “This absurb imposter… frisk­ing up at the side of the Ger­man tiger with yelp­ings not only of appetite—that can be understood—but even of triumph!”

Ah so. I would like to think it wasn’t Cole Porter who put Mus­so into the song.

1934 Brew­ster-bod­ied Ford V-8 (Pho­to by John Lloyd, Cre­ative Commons)

One thought on “Cole Porter and a Vanished Culture: Brewster and Mussolini

  1. I sup­pose we will nev­er know for sure if Porter had a pinch hit­ter (P.G. Wode­house) for the Lon­don show. but it remains a fact that it was a Porter show. He was depict­ed as the author and it was per­formed many times. So at the very least Porter had to have known it was insert­ed even if he did not orig­i­nal­ly write the lines (though this sto­ry that Wode­house edit­ed Porter’s verse is new to me.)

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