Farewell to (Irving) Berlin

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
June 28 2005 10:20 PM

Farewell to Berlin

More on why the composer of "God Bless America" probably didn't parody "You're the Top."

"I am virtually certain he did not write it." Thus Robert Kimball, editor of The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, weighing in on the question of whether Cole Porter wrote the famous smutty parody of "You're the Top" about which I wrote last week. All right, then; who did?

William McBrien, in Cole Porter: A Biography, reports that writing parodies of "You're the Top" was a "popular pastime" in 1934 and 1935, and that the writer Garson Kanin observed some of these to be "dirty." The musical-comedy star Ethel Merman (who introduced the song in Anything Goes) is quoted as saying, "[A]t the peak of [the song's] popularity Cole received three hundred parodies a month." That suggests almost anyone could have written the particular parody whose authorship I've been trying to establish (in homage to the good book, let's call it the King Kong version).

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On the other hand: "Porter himself wrote a parody which a radio station refused to let him broadcast." Mightn't they have refused to broadcast it because it was too lewd? McBrien further reports that Kanin once heard Porter perform the King Kong version. That, it would seem to me, puts us within shouting distance of establishing Porter's authorship.

But for some reason, McBrien insists that the King Kong version, characterized by Porter's attorney Robert Montgomery as "a fine, ribald version," was written by Irving Berlin. It isn't clear from the text or the notes whether Montgomery (whom McBrien interviewed) is McBrien's source on this, and, if he isn't, how McBrien knows Berlin to be the author.

As I noted earlier, I'm extremely skeptical that the skillful but prim Berlin was capable of writing anything as naughty and funny as the King Kong version of "You're the Top." I consulted today with the critic Wilfrid Sheed on this. Sheed, who is unimpeachable on all matters pertaining to wit, happens to be writing a book on the American popular song. "Berlin wouldn't have written that," Sheed stated matter-of-factly. "Berlin tended toward prudishness." Was Berlin even capable of being funny? Sheed said yes, he thought there were a few instances—he advised me to consult the songs Berlin wrote for Fred Astaire—but he noted that his father, the publisher Frank Sheed, thought "Doin' What Comes Naturally," an idiotic song from Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, was so unfunny that "he forbade us playing it." The song's comic conceit—you don't have to go to college to learn how to propagate the species—"got on his nerves immediately. ... He said he didn't like hearing a bad joke repeated."

Sheed told me he'd read that the King Kong version was written by somebody in Australia, "which sounds reasonable to me." That Noel Coward wrote it was possible, Sheed said, but he couldn't embrace that theory enthusiastically. Lorenz Hart? "It doesn't have his sound." Porter? "It could be. ... I guess 'high colonic' reminded me of Porter. That's his kind of ingenuity."

But our mystery remains unsolved.

"You're the Top" Archive:
June 22, 2005: "Another Porter Riddle"
June 16, 2005: " 'Drumstick Lipstick,’ Explained!"
June 9, 2005: "Bloomsday For Dummies"

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

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