A skeleton key to "You're the Top."

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June 9 2005 4:02 PM

Bloomsday for Dummies

A skeleton key to "You're the Top."

Seven days until Bloomsday, and I still haven't read Ulysses! Every year I tell myself this is the year I'll celebrate Bloomsday as one of the Ulysses-reading elect. Every year I fail. This year, I've decided that instead of feeling bad that I can't celebrate Bloomsday, I will attempt to render Cole Porter's birthday, which falls exactly one week before—i.e., today—as a sort of Bloomsday for dummies. Happy 114th, Cole!

Instead of wrestling with Joyce's abstruse allusions to classical works and bodily functions, I propose that we dummies celebrate with a scholarly exploration of Porter's delightful word game of a song, "You're the Top." My 9-year-old daughter and I took in a production of Anything Goes last summer, and in listening to the song many times since, we've discovered that many of its topical witticisms have become, in the 71 years since its composition, obscure. "Daddy, who's Irene Bordoni?" Uh, I don't know. "A Bendel bonnet? A Brewster body?" No idea! But through the miracle of Google scholarship, I've managed to solve all but one of the song's many textual riddles. The exception is the phrase "drumstick lipstick." If you happen to know what a "drumstick lipstick" is, e-mail me at chatterbox@slate.com. No guesses, please, and no regurgitations of the lame speculation offered by Harvard Magazine's "Chapter & Verse" column (see footnote 17).

And now, without further ado:

"You're the Top."Words and music by Cole Porter, 1934. Annotations by Chatterbox, 2005. Permission to reprint lyrics courtesy of the Cole Porter Trusts.

At words poetic, I'm so pathetic
That I always have found it best,
Instead of getting 'em off my chest,
To let 'em rest
unexpressed.
I hate parading my serenading
As I'll probably miss a bar,
But if this ditty is not so pretty
At least it'll tell you
How great you are.

You're the top!
You're the Coliseum,
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet
i,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!

Your words poetic are not pathetic.
On the other hand, babe, you shine,
And I can feel after every line
A thrill divine
Down my spine.
Now gifted humans like Vincent Youmans
ii
Might think that your song is bad,
But I got a notion
I'll second the motion
And this is what I'm going to add;

You're the top!
You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're the top!
You're Napoleon Brandy.
You're the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You're the National Gallery
You're Garbo's salary
iii,
You're cellophane
iv.
You're sublime,
You're a turkey dinner,
You're the time of the Derby winner.
I'm a toy balloon that is fated soon to pop
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're a Ritz hot toddy v.
You're the top! 
You're a Brewster body vi.
You're the boats that glide
On the sleepy Zuider Zee vii, You're a Nathan panning viii
You're Bishop Manning ix,
You're broccoli!
You're a prize, 
You're a night at Coney,
You're the eyes of Irene Bordoni x.

I'm a broken doll, 
A fol-de-rol, a blop,
But if, Baby, I'm the bottom, 
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're a dance in Bali.
You're the top!
You're a hot tamale.
You're an angel, you,
Simply too, too, too diveen,
You're a Boticcelli,
You're Keats,
You're Shelley,

You're Ovaltine.
You're a boon,
You're the dam at Boulder
xi.
You're the moon,
Over Mae West's shoulder.
I'm the nominee of the G.O.P.
xii

Or GOP!

But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're an Arrow collar
xiii.
You're the top!
You're a Coolidge dollar.
You're the nimble tread
Of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You're an O'Neill drama,

You're Whistler's mama
xiv,

You're Camembert.

You're a rose,
You're Inferno's Dante.

You're the nose
On the great Durante.
I'm just in the way,
As the French would say, "de trop."
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're the Towel of Babel,
You're the top
You're the Whitney stable xv
By the river Rhine you're a sturdy stein of beer.

You're a dress from Saks's,
You're next year's taxes
xvi,
You're stratosphere!
You're my fuyst,
You're a drumstick lipstick xvii.
You're da foist
In da Irish svipstick xviii.
I'm a frightened frog that can find no log to hop

But if baby I'm the bottom
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're a Waldorf salad
xix.
You're the top!
You're a Berlin ballad.
You're a baby grand
Of a lady and a gent.
You're an old Dutch master,

You're Mrs. Astor
xx,
You're Pepsodent!
You're romance,
You're the steppes of Russia,
You're the pants
On a Roxy xxiusher.
I'm a lazy lout that's just about to stop

But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

82_horizontal_rule

iFashionable bonnet named for its designer, Henri Bendel (1868-1936). (Return to the lyrics.)

iiAmerican musical-comedy composer (1898-1946), best known today for the songs "Tea For Two" and "More Than You Know." (Return to the lyrics.)

iiiAfter the success of Flesh and the Devil (1927), Greta Garbo demanded that MGM raise her salary from $600 per week to $5,000 per week. Louis B. Mayer hemmed and hawed, so Garbo sailed to Sweden. Eventually Mayer gave in and Garbo sailed back. $5,000 per week comes to $260,000 per year, or the equivalent in today's dollars of $4.6 million per year. (Return to the lyrics.)

ivInvented by Jacques E. Brandenberger, a Swiss textile engineer, in 1908; licensed to DuPont for North American distribution in 1923; rendered moisture-proof, and therefore suitable for packaging food, in 1927. (Return to the lyrics.)

vHot water, brandy, sugar, lemon, and cinnamon sticks. (Return to the lyrics.)

viStarting about 1900, Brewster & Co., a carriage-maker located on Long Island, began building exteriors ("bodies") for luxury automobiles. (Return to the lyrics.)

viiAn inlet of the North Sea in the Netherlands. Created by a flood in 1287, it was sealed off from the North Sea (thereby rendered "sleepy"?) in 1932. Today much of it has been reclaimed for farmland and commercial use. (Return to the lyrics.)

viiiThis one really had me stumped for awhile as I searched the Web in vain for a "Nathan Panning." Then I found a version of the lyrics in which the "P" was lowercase, and all became plain. "Panning" was a verb, not a surname! George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was a famously severe theater critic for the New York Herald and Journal-American. Today he is best-remembered as co-editor (with H.L. Mencken) of the magazines Smart Set and  American Mercury. (Return to the lyrics.)

ixWilliam Thomas Manning (1866-1949) was the Episcopal bishop of New York state from 1921 to 1946. (Return to the lyrics.)

xA seductive French-born musical-comedy actress. In Porter's 1928 musical, Paris, she sang "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)," which was Porter's first hit song. (Return to the lyrics.)

xiAn engineering marvel of the 1930s, located outside Las Vegas. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover had his interior secretary rename it "Hoover Dam" in order to boost his re-election chances in 1932; Hoover wanted to be associated with the 5,000 jobs created by the dam's construction. This crude political ploy didn't work, and in 1933 Hoover's successor, Franklin Roosevelt, had his interior secretary change the name back to Boulder Dam. In 1947, a briefly Republican Congress changed the name one last time, back to Hoover Dam. (Return to the lyrics.)

xiiPorter here shows amazing prescience. Franklin Roosevelt, voted in two years earlier, would be elected to three additional terms, and the Democrats would dominate presidential politics through the late 1960s. (The only Republican elected president during these years was Dwight Eisenhower, whose warnings about the "military-industrial complex" would today make him too left-wing to win the Democratic nomination, let alone the Republican.) (Return to the lyrics.)

xiiiA line of detachable men's collars best remembered for the fantastically successful advertising campaign used to market them. The "Arrow Collar man" represented a new and rapidly growing urbanized middle class. (Return to the lyrics.)

xivAccording to some sources, these last two lines were originally, "You're Mussolini,/ You're Mrs. Sweeney." Presumably someone pointed out to Porter that it was morally repugnant to suggest that any comparison of one's beloved to a fascist dictator might constitute praise, however lighthearted. Also, the meter doesn't quite work. Mrs. Sweeney was Margaret Whigham, Duchess of Argyll (1912-1993), a notorious society femme fatale and wife to golfer Charles Sweeney. (Return to the lyrics.)

xvThe Whitney family had a thoroughbred stable that produced a remarkable string of winning racehorses. The site is now occupied by the architecture building of the New York Institute of Technology. (Return to the lyrics.)

xviFaint praise, it seems to me. Presumably, next year's taxes are preferable to this year's taxes because you don't have to pay them until … next year. (Return to the lyrics.)

xviiGoogle fails me here. Harvard Magazine took a (fairly unconvincing) whack at this puzzle in its "Chapter & Verse" column: "W. W. Rhodes suggests a possible derivation of this encomium, from Cole Porter's song 'You're the Top.' 'In the 1940s the "drumstick" was a well-known frozen confection: a rolled sugar cone filled with vanilla ice cream under a chocolate topping covered with minced peanuts. Its appearance thus resembled a chicken drumstick. Lipstick, when Anything Goes appeared, tasted mostly of the coal tar derivatives which provided the color. If the wearer of such lipstick ate a "drumstick" and shortly afterward enjoyed a kiss, imagine how surprisingly sweet that "drumstick lipstick" kiss would have been to the boyfriend concerned. Thus "drumstick lipstick," like the Eiffel Tower, the cocktail hour, and Mickey Mouse, is an example of the best in its class.' " Uh, whatever. (Return to the lyrics.)

xviiiThe Irish Sweepstakes (formally the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes) began in 1930 and continues to this day, though in 1988 it was renamed the Irish Lottery. (Return to the lyrics.)

xixA popular salad created in 1896 by the maitre d'hotel at the Waldorf-Astoria. Its principal ingredients were apples, celery, lettuce, and mayonnaise. Walnuts were added a few years later. (Return to the lyrics.)

xxThe Viscountess Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor (1879-1964), who became the first woman to serve in Parliament. An American, she married the great-great grandson of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) America's first millionaire. (Astor's great-grandson had emigrated to Britain and essentially bought himself a peerage that he passed onto his son.) Mrs. Astor is said to have famously matched wits with Winston Churchill. She: "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your coffee." He: "Up yours." No, actually, Churchill replied, "Madam, if I were your husband I'd drink it." (Return to the lyrics.)

xxiA movie palace on W. 50th St., 1927-1960, famous for its opulent floor shows and for housing not one, not two, but three pipe organs. Roxy ushers dressed in quasi-military garb and participated in military-style drills. (Return to the lyrics.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.