…when her robe is unfurled, she will show you the world

In 1950 Groucho Marx halted trading on the New York Stock Exchange for 15 minutes when traders all stopped to watch him sing Lydia the Tattooed Lady and tell a few jokes. Inspired by the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote the song in 1939 for the Marx Brothers’ ninth film At the Circus. For the remainder of his life, today’s selection would be one of Groucho’s signature tunes.

So let’s see what Lydia has to offer: On one side of her back is the Battle of Waterloo (the 1815 battle in which the Duke of Wellington reigned victorious and Napoleon’s rule came to an end) and beside it The Wreck of the Hesperus (a Longfellow narrative poem about a supercilious sea captain who ignores the appeals of his men in the face of a pending storm and loses his ship on the reef of Norman’s Woe near Gloucester).  And proudly above?  Why, it’s the red, white and blue!

Then for a dime you can see Kankakee (a city in Kankakee County, Illinois) and we all know about “Paree” the City of Light, and Washington Crossing the Delaware (the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze). Next we have ‘Ol Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson, riding up that hill, and the spectacular view of Niagara Falls, not to mention Alcatraz Island (aka “The Rock”) in San Francisco Bay.

Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show lasso make an appearance, followed by Mendel Picasso, whom no one seems to know (he was not an historic figure) and Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon.  Of course, the Brazilian Amazon (the second longest river in the world) is real. As for Captain Spaulding: that was Groucho’s character in the 1930 film, Animal Crackers which led to another of Groucho’s signature songs: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer…. Hooray, Hooray, Hooray!”

Moving on we have that 11th Century noblewoman of legend, Lady Godiva, who rode through the streets of Coventry naked so as to gain remission for the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband (this time with her pajamas on) and Grover Aloysius Whalen, the New York politician who opened the 1939 New York World’s Fair and unveiled the Trylon, one of two modernist structures at the center of the fairgrounds. Connected to the (180 foot in diameter) Perisphere, the 700 foot spired Trylon was the world’s longest escalator.

On the West Coast we have Treasure Island, which is a man-made island in San Francisco Bay (named after the Robert Louis Stevenson novel) that was created for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, with peace and Pacific unity among its themes.  When that didn’t work out it served as a Naval Base and since being decommissioned is a popular destination for visitors. And then there’s Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century, as well as a fleet of ships on her hips and Lydia’s Social Security Number (the Social Security Administration was established as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935).

One interesting aside, in a posting of mainly asides, is that Yip Harburg, the lyricist actually wrote different lyrics for the final stanza, which were “When she stands, the world gets lit’ler. When she sits, she sits on Hitler.” But the lines were changed because the studio feared the song would sound dated. Instead they went with “Grover Whalen unveilin’ the Trylon,” which is now much more outdated than any reference to Hitler.

Regarding the intro, Thaïs was an ancient Greek courtesan, Madame du Barry was a French countess known for her beauty and we’ve all seen the “Swedish Sphinx” Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (aka Garbo) on the silver screen…. Ole!


Yes there’s a YouTube Clip too:


Lydia, The Tattooed Lady

 My life was wrapped around the circus

Her name was Lydia

I met her at the World’s Fair in 1900

Marked down from 1940

 Ah, Lydia

She was the most glorious creature

Under the su-un.

Thaïs, du Barry, Garbo

Rolled into one

 Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?

Lydia the tattooed lady

She has eyes that men adore so

And a torso even more so

Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia

Lydia, the queen of tattoo

On her back is the Battle of Waterloo

Beside it the Wreck of the Hesperus, too

And proudly above waves the red, white and blue

You can learn a lot from Lydia

 (la la la la la la)

(la la la la la la)

 When her robe is unfurled, she will show you the world

If you step up and tell her where

For a dime you can see Kankakee or Paree

Or Washington crossing the Delaware

 (la la la la la la)

(la la la la la la)

 Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?

Lydia the tattooed lady

When her muscles start relaxin’

Up the hill comes Andrew Jackson

Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia

Oh Lydia, the queen of them all

For two bits she will do a mazurka in jazz

With a view of Niagara that nobody has

And on a clear day, you can see Alcatraz

You can learn a lot from Lydia

(la la la la la la)

(la la la la la la)

 Come along and see Buffalo Bill with his lasso

Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso

Here is Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon

Here’s Godiva but with her pajamas on

(la la la la la la)

(la la la la la la)

 Here is Grover Whalen unveilin’ the Trilon.

Over on the West Coast we have Treaure Island.

Here’s Najinsky a-doin’ the rhumba.

Here’s her social security numba’.

 (la la la la la la)

(la la la la la la)

Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia

Lydia, the queen of them all

She once swept an admiral clean off his feet

The ships on her hips made her heart skip a beat

And now the old boy’s in command of the fleet

For he went and married Lydia

 I said Lydia

He said Lydia

I said Lydia

He said Lydia


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