I brace myself for it every year.
Come December, before the first snowfall, we’ll see a flurry of articles about “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” now often called the “date-rape song.” We'll read opinion pieces and watch parodies that place this song squarely in the camp of a "no means yes" patriarchy, a story about a man who uses alcohol and coercion to make a reluctant woman stay the night.
But what if the writer of the song was actually a feminist? What if Frank Loesser, the famed lyricist of "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying," should be thought of as a progressive voice in the fight for gender equality, as a man who was ahead of his time in recognizing and calling attention to the social plight of women?
In the 1950s there was a young woman from New York City who put herself through Sarah Lawrence by working in commercials and on television shows. She spoke fluent Italian, and skated and acted in an NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame when television was still live.
One night, she went to a dance at Barnard College and a young man asked her for a turn on the floor.
“Are you here to get your M.R.S.?” he asked.
It took her several seconds to get the “joke.” Was she there to find a husband, to meet her prince? She wasn’t. She excused herself and decided to stick with her current boyfriend, a genius from Cal-Tech. He had a troubling history and was not the greatest guy ever, but his brain could keep up with hers, and she valued that above all else.
In 1961, at 25, this young performer sat in a rehearsal hall in midtown Manhattan. She was now the lead dancer in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." During breaks, she would scribble poetry in a notebook. She wrote about the man she was supposed to marry, about how maybe it wasn’t really such a good idea to leave a Broadway show, not just to marry and move cross-country to Los Angeles, but to marry this particular man, who maybe wasn’t really such a great guy, despite his massive intellect — an intellect she feared had no equal and she could not live without.
She showed some of her anxiety poems — humorous couplets about problematic men — to the lyricist of "How to Succeed." His name was Frank Loesser. He’d written the music and lyrics to "Guys and Dolls" and he was back with a show that would go on to win a Pulitzer. He liked her poems. He told her to keep writing, to hold onto her role in a hit show and not to move cross-country. And maybe not to marry that man, the one so eager to pull her from a burgeoning career.
In 1961, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" was an unexpected smash. It’s been revived bunches of times, because the music and lyrics are clever and catchy. Every time it’s revived, the show elicits head-scratching. Was Frank Loesser serious with those lyrics? Or is it — could it be? — a parody of patriarchal office culture, of the mythology of the dream of suburbia and housewifery?
Consider these lyrics, sung by the show’s heroine:
I’ll be so happy to keep his dinner warm
As he goes onward, and upward
Happy to keep his dinner warm
As he comes wearily home from downtown
I’ll be there wearing the wifely uniform
As he looks through me, right through me
Waiting to say good evening dear,
I’m pregnant. What’s new with you, from downtown?
Oh, to be loved by a man I respect
To bask in the glow
Of his perfectly understandable neglect.
Can lyrics get more farcical? Still, it’s quite early in the timeline for overt feminism. So audiences and critics scratch their heads, unsure of what Loesser was up to. But should they be unsure?
The song "Baby It’s Cold Outside" stirs up more complex controversy. Loesser wrote it with his wife. They performed the song together for friends at Christmas parties. He later sold it to Hollywood, and throughout the years the song has fallen in and out of fashion. Many now consider it an anthem for date rape; others defend it.
A staple of holiday radio, the song stirs debate about the intricacies of sexual game-playing. To many, the song advocates coercion. Just as the context of the song’s origin matters (it was a private show-piece for him and his wife, to entertain friends at parties) the context of its presentation matters. Could the song be used as a backdrop to a horrible visual? Could a person listening to the song project his own misogyny onto it? Of course — but then again, any work of art can be projected onto, re-fashioned and interpreted in numerous ways.
What disturbs so many about the song is that — like sexual fantasy — it refuses to play by our politics and values. It hits a nerve. If we enjoy the song, are we endorsing it — and what does that mean? That it might be fun to play the game the song suggests? That we acknowledge that sometimes people express ambivalence in foreplay — as part of foreplay? Worse, that we are supportive of the ancient and persistent propagation of rape culture?
Are we over-thinking this duet, penned by a husband and wife for private parties and first performed in public at a very different time? Are we trashing a song that wasn't conceived for the public, and by extension, trashing a lyricist whose politics deserve more careful examination? Luckily, he provided plenty more songs by which to judge his opinion of women. "How To Succeed" is rich in such material. But before we return to its many fascinating lyrics, I admit a personal stake in the discussion.
I have a bit of insider knowledge of Frank Loesser. Not enough to make sweeping conclusions, but enough to perhaps enlarge our understanding of his agenda.
My mother was that dancer in 1961, scribbling into her notebook, writing funny and wrenching poems that sent up her own troubled relationship to men and marriage. “Don’t give up writing,” he said. He also offered her a confidence. He never felt successful, he told her, because his parents, classical musicians, had hoped he would follow their path. His mother, he reported, told her friends that “Frank wrote dirty songs for the theater.” I guess a Pulitzer Prize isn’t enough to please some parents. He told my mother about his history of insecurities, anxieties and self-doubt. His own struggles with the expectations of others, he hoped, would be a lesson to her in holding fast to her own identity.
My mother did move to Los Angeles after her tenure in "How to Succeed." She did leave the show to get married, and to marry that guy who maybe wasn’t the greatest guy in the world. She snagged lots of work in Hollywood and in so doing helped the guy she married through medical school. She danced on variety shows in a time when Frank Sinatra could ask a producer to pile a row of bikini-clad dancers on his tuxedo-clad body and snap a photo. My mother was the only dancer that day to refuse this request. For this, she was soundly scolded by the producer.
That she managed to keep working as a performer after marriage was, in that era, a triumph. Her friend had turned down a lead in a Broadway show because her screenwriter husband said, “You can’t go to New York now! We just got married and you have a house to decorate!” My mother knew a little something about battling a power structure corroded with sexism and misogyny.
My mother is 76. Now she battles premature dementia caused by a sudden brain bleed six years ago. Listening to show tunes combats dementia, so I play a lot of music for her. My mother sits on my couch and we play all the old shows. I recently bought a copy of "How to Succeed" and put it on to surprise her. I wanted to know how much she remembered; I hoped it would at least ring a bell.
When Bonnie Scott’s operatic voice poured out of my tiny speakers, singing the opening verse of "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," my mother’s eyes sparkled; her posture changed. Neurons switched on and lit up like flood lights — synapses lining the path of her history began to fire. She traveled that path back in time.
That’s the place where the mansion will be
For me and the darling bright young man
I’ve picked out for marrying me.
“Frank Loesser was ahead of his time,” my mother said.
Thank heaven for long-term memory.
She remembered everything.
My mother and I sailed into Act II, and a song called “Cinderella, Darling.” In it, a group of female office workers beg their friend not to break off an engagement to her boss. He isn’t paying enough attention to her, but so what? She has a chance to “fly from the land of carbon paper to the land of flowered chintz”! Their pleading swells to an anthem:
How often does a Cinderella get a crack at the prince?
We were raised on you, darling, and we’ve loved you ever since
Don’t mess up a major miracle
Don’t give up the prince!
We want to see his Highness
Married to your lowness
On you, Cinderella, sits the onus
You’re the fable, the symbol, of glorified unemployment…
From today’s vantage point, it seems impossible to imagine that "Cinderella, Darling" is not biting commentary. In 2015, so many articles and books have been written about “princess culture” and Cinderella specifically that the potential insidiousness of the fairytale is a constant undercurrent of our cultural conversation, a staple of the catalogue of anxieties parents discuss while watching their female children make their first contact with strangers and their assumptions about girlhood. Weary of my own child being constantly accosted with the peculiar label of “princess” before she’d hit the age of one, I wrote of the toxic nature of the word when not a day had passed that my child wasn’t labeled one by store clerks, shop owners and strangers on the street. We’ve examined Cinderella, The Disney Costume-Industrial Complex, and the happily-ever-after mythology from about every angle imaginable.
But was anyone else taking on Cinderella in 1961? Is there any chance that riffing on the word “highness” with the word “lowness” was simply a clever play on words for its own sake? It doesn’t seem likely, does it? When you listen to the song, the growing desperation of the women’s pleas, clear in both their voices and the masterful orchestration, seems to speak volumes about how the deck was stacked for women, and how easy it was to pin hopes for a more fulfilling life on marriage, which, in the song, is expressly considered the only avenue of escape. There is no talk of love, even, only the trappings of an estate in New Rochelle, of finding meaning in decorating one’s house and getting dinner on the table. The more you listen to the song, the less it seems like parody and the more it seems like an urgent warning: "glorified unemployment" doesn't really sound glamorous.
Like everyone else, I can only guess at Frank Loesser’s politics. But I do know that he told one female dancer never to stop writing, or working, or striving. And while she was at it, he told her, stay employed — and don’t marry that jerk who wants to take you out of a Broadway hit and away from your whole life.
Every holiday season, I listen to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and I feel a tremendous warmth for the man who wrote it. He’s long gone, but the image of a lyricist and a dancer, huddled in a corner of a rehearsal studio in 1961, discussing their writing, their dreams, and their careers, remains: a haunting tableau from yesteryear. Based on the fond remembrances of my mother, I feel certain that the man who penned “The Brotherhood of Man” most certainly included women among the fraternity.