Just in time for Bloomsday comes the solution to the only textual riddle in Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” that I was unable to solve last week. Multiple readers, acting independently, managed to unearth two advertisements that appeared in the New York Times in 1934. One, which appeared on March 8, was for a new product called Drumstick face powder, which “has made new recruits to add to those who already enlist our bath powder and Drumstick lipstick.” Another, which appeared on May 22, was for another new product, the Drumstick compact: “Its arrival is celebrated by smart women who will instantly invite it to join the Drumstick lipstick in their handbags.” Drumstick lipstick, then, was a particular brand of lipstick. The manufacturer was Charbert, a French cosmetics firm.
Interestingly, both ads allude to a Broadway musical, but the musical isn’t Anything Goes, which introduced “You’re the Top” that same year. It’s the Gershwin musical, Of Thee I Sing.
In addition to solving this mystery, readers offered a few additional insights about “You’re the Top”:
In my explication of
You’re the boats that glide
On the sleepy Zuider Zee
You’re a Nathan panning
You’re Bishop Manning,
I footnoted “Zuider Zee,” “Nathan panning,” and “Bishop Manning,” but assumed “broccoli” to be self-explanatory. But reader Andrew Steen chides me gently for failing to observe that broccoli would have been something of a novelty in 1934. The vegetable, of course, has been around for thousands of years, but in the United States it’s been farmed commercially only since the 1920s, and the first advertising campaign on its behalf didn’t occur until 1929—and even then, the ads were in Italian. So, in 1934, broccoli represented the culinary cutting edge, sort of like ramps do today.
In my explication of “next year’s taxes” as a superlative, I offered, tentatively, that next year’s taxes were better than this year’s taxes because one didn’t have to pay them until next year. But reader R.J. Schoettle directs me to this chart from the Tax Foundation, which documents how President Roosevelt, that famous traitor to his class, raised marginal tax rates on higher incomes through the 1930s. In 1934, “next year’s taxes” would have been the taxes you were to pay in 1935 on income earned in 1934. If your income was $90,000, then “this year’s taxes” (on income earned in 1933) would be paid at a marginal rate of 51 percent, while “next year’s taxes” (on income earned in 1934) would rise to a marginal rate of 54 percent. From the point of view of the payer, “next year’s taxes” would not be a superlative. Who wants to pay more taxes? But as a sheer numerical phenomenon, “next year’s taxes” would be impressively large compared to “this year’s taxes.”
In re “You’re Mussolini, you’re Mrs. Sweeney,” the tasteless alternative lyric to “You’re an O’Neill drama/ You’re Whistler’s mama,” the Cole Porter estate informs me that it was penned by P.G. Wodehouse—who, with Guy Bolton, wrote an early draft of the Anything Goes script—for the London production. This provides additional evidence that Wodehouse, indisputably a comic genius, was pretty dim when it came to international politics (the primary evidence being his genial Berlin broadcasts while he was held prisoner by the Nazis). Having just last autumn read Robert McCrum’s superb Wodehouse biography, I ought to have remembered this.
In my examination of
You’re the top!
You’re an Arrow collar,
You’re the top!
You’re a Coolidge dollar
I explained what an Arrow collar was, but didn’t bother with “Coolidge dollar” because I figured there must have been a silver dollar in circulation with President Calvin Coolidge’s puss on it. But my childhood friend Russell Handelman says he can find no evidence that any such dollar ever existed. Coolidge, he observes, had only died the year before the song was first performed,
and it would have been unlikely (what with the Democrats in control of the government at that point) for the Mint to have issued a commemorative dollar in time to be included in the song. Also, silver dollars were being phased out (the last ones were minted in 1935). So far as I can determine, via Google, the only silver dollars issued at that time carried the “Peace” dollar design instituted in 1921.
A numismatic mystery. But perhaps “Coolidge dollar” was meant in a more figurative and economic sense. A 1997 explication de texte for “You’re the Top” published in Playbill by Louis Botto says that the “Coolidge dollar” refers to the strength of the United States dollar during the booming 1920s prior to the 1929 stock market crash, which occurred less than a year after Coolidge left office. That sounds plausible to me.
[Update, 8:30 p.m.: A reader points out that a silver Coolidge half-dollar, apparently minted while Coolidge was still alive, is for sale here at the price of $500. Is it possible Porter just got the denomination wrong?]