The Other Lady Gagas: What does the pop star have in common with an ancient Babylonian, a French-Irish noblewoman,…

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June 2 2011 12:56 PM

The Other Lady Gagas

What does the pop star have in common with an ancient Babylonian, a French-Irish noblewoman, and a fictional flapper? Her name.

Lady Gaga. Click image to expand.
Lady Gaga—but which one?

"I've always been Gaga," Lady Gaga told Rolling Stone in 2009, and spiritually speaking, she may be right. But for most of her life she was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta—"Stef" to her friends. It was one of those friends, her ex-boyfriend and former manager, Rob Fusari, who gave the singer her nom de guerre, by accident, in 2004. Fusari sent Germanotta a text message that read, simply, "Radio Gaga," a reference to the 1984 hit by Queen. Or rather, Fusari tried to text "Radio Gaga"—his cellphone autocorrected "Radio" to "Lady." Germanotta had been looking for a stage name, and "Lady Gaga" had the right ring. Fusari told an interviewer: "She texted me back. 'That's it.' After that day she was Lady Gaga. She's like, 'Don't ever call me Stefani again.' "

As pop-star aliases go, Lady Gaga is awfully good—an ideal combination of regal and ridiculous. It pays tribute to Queen's Freddie Mercury, the glam rock titan who is audibly one of Gaga's heroes. The honorific Lady strikes the right note of diva-ish pretension; there's a hint of Dada in Gaga.

But there's also 2,600 years of history in it. Did Germanotta know that she was not the first Lady Gaga—that she was staking claim to a title previously held by a Babylonian slave owner, an Irish-born French noblewoman, and a fictional habitué of the Roaring Twenties London party scene?

The first Lady Gaga enters the historical record in a letter, inscribed on Babylonian cuneiform tablet, dating from the sixth century B.C., probably during the reign of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The letter, addressed from Gaga to her father, Sa-pi-Bel, concerns minor domestic matters. It begins with Gaga chastising Sa-pi-Bel for not having written her recently—"Why … have my daughters and I passed the time in thirst for a letter from thee? Rack thy brains (for an excuse). ..."—before asking for advice about some stolen fruit. Evidently, this same Babylonian Gaga owned a Jewish slave named Barachiel, who several years after Gaga's death unsuccessfully petitioned a Babylonian court for his freedom, in what may be history's first recorded fugitive slave case.

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It is because of another legal entanglement that we know about a second Lady Gaga—a certain Madame de Gaga, who crops up in London court records from 1839. The case of De Gaga v. The Duke of Leinster was a complicated affair, involving French dowry law and the purchase of a house on the Rue D'Anjou in Paris. Although the paper trail reveals little about Madame de Gaga, we can infer at least one similarity with the singer of "Poker Face." Like Stefani Germanotta, Madame de Gaga was a bootstrapper, a Gaga by choice: She was born Matilda Fitzgerald in County Kildare, Ireland, and attained her aristocratic title when she married the Chevalier de Gaga in 1817.

A century later, we come to a third Lady Gaga, who in several respects eerily anticipates the 2011 version. This Gaga showed up in the April 24, 1929 issue of Punch, the humor magazine that was devoted to skewering the follies of London society. Punch's Lady Gaga was fictional, the lead character in a satire that took aim at the so-called Bright Young People, a brigade of bohemians and socialites whose aggressively post-Victorian antics caught the spirit of London's Jazz Age.

For several years, into the 1930s, the Bright Young People captivated London's gossip columnists with a series of "freak" or "stunt" parties—themed soirees featuring elaborate costumes, cross-dressing, wild animals, and outlandish musical entertainment. Guests at the Second Childhood Party arrived at a posh Knightsbridge townhouse in oversized prams. For the Wild West Party, flappers traded in their Parisian frocks for chaps and boots. There was a Bottle and Pyjama Party (booze and sleepwear), a Bath and Bottle Party (booze, swimming pool), a Mozart Party (powdered wigs). At the Circus Party, held in July of 1929, the musical entertainment included a jazz orchestra and an accordion quartet. There was a dancing bear on hand, and a Siberian wolf, and a seal.

In the Punch satire, "The Dull Young People: A Study at a Stunt-Party," the unnamed narrator gains entry to an exclusive gathering hosted by "The Honorable Batsine Belfrage and her husband 'Bobo,' whose sobriquet has attained the dignity of recognition by all the smartest paragraphists of the dance-club Press." The narrator's escort is a blue-blooded party-girl with a slangy vocabulary ("Aren't they too ultra-super?") and a lust for publicity. Her name? "Lady Gaga."

"It was terribly difficult for me to get you a card," said Lady Gaga as she steered me dexterously in her pink two-seater through the mazes of after-theatre traffic; "but, my dear, I get away with it. I told them you wrote for the papers.

"You're still in the thirties," she went on severely, "yet you're so Victorian! And I'm determined you shall meet some of the Bright Young People."

The pair arrives at a small house in Bloomsbury packed with revelers and—to the delight of fame-hungry Gaga—the leading lights of the gossip press.

"Look!" whispered Gaga rapturously, "there's Bobby de Bootlace; he's 'Mask' of The Morning Headline. And there's Dodo d'Organdie; she's 'Flâneuse' of The Evening Eavesdropper. That's Bunloafe she's talking to; he does that priceless page every week in The Sunday Shocker! How glorious! They're sure to put us in!"

The party is a Dionysian romp, with guests who could be extras in the "Bad Romance" video. There's "a flabby fellow wearing a leopard's skin and a gold bracelet" who gives a dance performance "assisted by an immensely tall emaciated girl with her lips painted black." There's "an exquisite in exaggerated dress-clothes and a crash-helmet … introduced to me by Gaga as 'Toto.' " Everywhere, there are homosexuals:

Here was a cocktail-bar, from behind which "Bobo" in person, attired as a merchant skipper, dispensed refreshment to a perspiring mob of boys and girls in rather too elaborate fancy-dress, most of the latter showing a curiously unimaginative preference for trousers. On the counter sat a massive maiden in a cavalry officer's mess kit, whom everybody addressed as "Colonel," and next to her a fresh-faced lad dressed as a bride, complete with veil and orange blossom. He was just down, so Gaga informed me, from the University, but had already one distinction in the mostly brightly youthful circles as a dress-designer whose creations in satin pyjamas were "simply super"!

The story ends with Gaga stretched out on a floor strewn with cigarette butts, "her arm round the waist of a young heavy-weight in horn-rims, dressed as a baby. They were listening to a hollow-eyed girl in a ballet-skirt and a man's opera hat who was singing a mournful song with the refrain, 'It's terribly thrill-ing to be wicked.' "

Punch's Lady Gaga surfaced at least one more time, a couple of years later, in a small item in the magazine's Oct 14, 1931 issue. By this time, we gather, Lady Gaga has graduated from the London demimonde to international movie stardom. In a short dispatch bylined to "Lady Gaga Gate-Crasher, Lord Turnstile's daughter," she explains her decision to retire from the silver screen: "Shortly after my début on the talkies I was inundated with letters of congratulation from millions of my public. This sort of thing is always upsetting to a girl of temperament, so I cancelled a number of contracts with Ellstree and Hollywood and am going into seclusion for a while." The title of the piece: "Why I Have Entered A Convent."

Lady Gaga, a nun? Could happen.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.