You're The Top


Well, dear readers, we’re in full swing over here at Whiskers on Kittens with our second giveaway: an autographed copy of Deanna Raybourn’s A Spear of Summer Grass. (See this post for more information on how you can enter to win.)

In Monday’s post, where I went into detail regarding the plot of this book, I cited quite a few different lyrics by the inimitable Cole Porter. With a few strokes of his pen, Porter was able to capture the vitality, ennui, humor, and frivolity that abounded in the 1920s Jazz Age. After all, they had endured World War I. They were a generation which had witnessed horrors heretofore unseen. In the wake of such loss and tragedy, the only solution was a surfeit of vapid and voracious pleasures, questing after the latest and greatest, filling every thought with anything and everything that wasn’t the memories that haunted them. That was how the bright, young things coped, darlings. 

A New York socialite, Porter toasted with Manhattan’s glitterati and kicked up his heels with such international favorites as Adele and Fred Astaire. He counted most of Broadway’s theatricals among his friends and attended the poshest events on both sides of the pond. So, when he penned the lyrics to You’re the Top, he provided a cross section of the culture of the time. The lyrics are blithe and witty and they tell us quite a lot of the time in which our giveaway book is set. A Spear of Summer Grass may take place in Africa, but if Delilah Drummond were a real person, there’s a good chance Porter would have penned her into one of the lines of this song.

Cole Porter makes many allusions in the lyrics, and, as is the way with social and cultural trends, many of them are now archaic. Some of the allusions are easily explained, such as a Bendel bonnet, which references the notable fashion house of Henri Bendel or Mrs Astor, as in Gilded Age’s Society Matron- whose ballroom purportedly could hold all ‘the 400’ of fashionable New York society. Others are a little more elusive (ah, I love an elusive allusion).

The song is about wooing (Anyone out there recalling Dead Poet Society: Language was developed for one endeavor… to woo women. Oh, how I wish John Keating had been one of my professors.). At the start, the tone is one of self-deprecation, emphasizing the singer’s ineptitude when compared to his love’s pre-eminence. And that peerlessness is precisely what You’re the Top is all about. 

Ella sings Porter. How appropriate: the top sings You're the Top

What I particularly like about this song (check out the full lyrics here) is the odd juxtaposition of the things which Porter compares his love to, i.e. Botticelli, Keats, Shelley, and Ovaltine. Now, I understand the imminence of a painting by Botticelli or a poem by Keats or Shelley, but Ovaltine? Really? Yep. That’s the whimsical delight of these lyrics. How many of you love Ovaltine? I have the fondest memories of Ovaltine, especially as a child. It makes me feel warm and loved. And, isn’t that what your lady love should invoke? She’s the grandest and greatest of things, but she’s comfort and warmth and whimsy. 

Here are a few references that are my particular favorites:

Mickey Mouse

Why Mickey Mouse? Maybe because he’s cute? Well, I’m sure there’s a bit of truth to that. However, the reason I think Cole Porter cast Mickey Mouse into this superlative is because Mickey Mouse was a novelty of the time. In 1928, the first animation with synchronized sound was released, and it was Mickey Mouse. It was the dawning of a new age and everyone knew it brought with it the promise that nothing would be the same again. That’s quite the compliment there. You’ve arrive, my dear, and I can’t go back from here. (Sink me, but I’m a poet.)


Cellophane seems like a rather mundane item to catalogue as an attribute of your beloved. However, in 1934, cellophane was the new kid on the block where food preservation was concerned. It was another novelty, just like Mickey Mouse. Nothing like it had been seen before. Perhaps, even more sweet, the first things to be wrapped in cellophane here in the States were Whitman’s Chocolates. 

Brewster Body

I really love this one. It makes me smile because it’s thoroughly masculine. I don’t know about you, but the man in my life (okay, me, too) loves cars. And a Brewster body is a reference to the body of an automobile. In fact, Cole Porter himself owned a Brewster. In the early 1900s, Brewster and Co. even imported and sold Rolls Royces. It was a rather prestigious company. You know you’ve arrived as a pertinent love interest when a man compares you to his beloved car. The reference may be archaic, but some things never change. 

Nathan panning

This is perhaps my favorite allusion in the song. How many of you have heard of George Jean Nathan? It’s okay; I didn’t know who he was either. However, Nathan was a name known and spoken with reverence, and perhaps a little fear, in the theatrical world. He was a critic and held tremendous sway for the first half of the 20th century. If you gained his attention, whether good or bad, you had arrived. In fact, it’s been postulated that the character of Addison DeWitt in the highly acclaimed and awarded film All About Eve was created in Nathan’s image. It seems appropriate here to quote DeWitt’s introduction of himself from the film: 

That’s all we have time for today, but given the seemingly unending number of stanzas in this song (verses have been added over the years, by Porter and his English contemporary P.G. Wodehouse respectively), we could go on and on. I’ve counted about a dozen or so different verses, and good luck finding a song in which all of them are sung together. It appears either the talent or the producers take license and put the verses together that they like best. 

Are there any portions of You’re the Top that you don’t know? Or, perhaps, you know a little tidbit of information regarding one of Porter’s allusions in the song. Either way, please tell us. 

And, don't forget, there's still time to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn. If you like the sophistication and complexity of the bright, young things of the 1920s, then that's the book for you.