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

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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