Category Archives: Where History Intersects

How a Yank Doodles his Dandy, or London’s Macaroni Clubs

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni

When I was a little girl, I always thought this song sort of silly.  Yankee Doodle.  First of all, ridiculous name.  Split it into a noun and a verb and it becomes positively mystifying.  Yank was how my Georgia-born grandfather referred to me when I asked him about the “aggressor” in the American Civil War and doodle was what I did when I absolutely, for the dozenth time, feigned total lack of spelling comprehension so I wouldn’t have to partake in the spelling bee.   

Then there’s the “A-riding on a pony” part which is just as confusing as the first bit.  I mean, come on!  What man in his right mind a-rides on a pony without losing all sense of dignity?   Exactly my point.  And feathers?  Mortifying.  Feathers belonged not to a hat but to boa wrappers and old ladies who wore magenta lipstick that smeared on their teeth when they smiled.  Calling “it” macaroni (whatever “it” was) merely exacted the mortal blow that prevented me from singing this ditty.  After all, a little girl who likes to roll unfamiliar words off her tongue can only be so careless before she’s kicking her heels against the naughty chair in detention.

But back to how Yankee Doodle gets equated with macaroni.  Late in the 18th century, an establishment called the Macaroni Club was formed wherein a London dandy could nosh on pasta, strut his affected airs, and in general, be fabulous.  Card carrying members (okay, I don’t really think there was a card) consisted of gentlemen who had gone on a continental Grand Tour and returned with a passion for all things Italian. 

Given their outrageous sartorial choices including the much caricatured club wigs with shruken Nivernois hats, the French-style red heels and striped stockings, not to mention the occasional thrown in parasol and sword garlanded with ribbons, “macaroni” quickly became a choice insult for unmanly behavior.  Homoerotic connotations abounded and gender boundaries blurred.  If a fellow was proclaimed a Macaroni, he was not only a peacock of fashion, but weak, effeminate, and altogether contrary to stereotypical masculine authority.  Perhaps worst of all, in the insular minds of proper Georgian Englishmen, he was a xenophile.  

At a time when France and Spain were aggressively encroaching on British territory and the American colonials were stirring in their breeches, possessing continental sympathies was akin to being unpatriotic. Britain didn’t become an empire by imitating Italy.  Well, actually they did.  It’s called the Roman Empire, but that’s ancient history, long forgotten, rubbish, rubbish.  Point is, stiff upper lips shuddered at what these fancy poodles were doing to their country’s reputation.

Fortunately, a solution soon arrived where dandified Londoners weren’t the lone targets of mockery.  Enter the Americans. During the Revolutionary War, British soliders ridiculed the unkempt colonials who thought it the height of fashion to stick feathers in their hats and how better to unman the enemy, I ask, than by breaking out into song? 

Yankee Doodle keep it up

Yankee Doodle dandy

Mind the music and the step

And with the girls be handy


P.S. Still wondering how a Yank doodles his dandy? Doodle, as used in the ditty, refers to a fool or simpleton. In the early 18th century, however, doodle was also a verb, as in “to swindle or make a fool of”. A derivation of the German word, dudeln, it is possibly the root for the modern American “dude”.

Marilyn Monroe, Greuze’s Reincarnation

When one considers the iconic Marilyn Monroe, images of breathy sexuality come to mind.  There’s Marilyn, demure yet daring as a rush of hot air from a subway grate lifts her pleated, white dress; Marlilyn wrapped in a cloud of snowy mink, her lips pursed and blood-red; Marilyn in a glittering sylph-skin dress, leaving nothing to the imagination as she sings her breathy rendtion of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”

The Marilyn shown in many images is the actress, laying her fame before her fans.  Sexy.  Untouchable.  Make believe.  To the curious, another tale is told, powerful in the way of fallen angels rooted in the untenable ground. 

Anyone who has delved behind the facade of her celebrity knows her public persona is the least interesting part about her.  Her world weariness, her increasing doll-like sadness and impressionable hope carve out the figure of a woman at odds with herself.  She exists in the wrong time or place, fragile against an onslaught of teetering self-perception and the need for constant improvement.  With her large, glistening eyes full of unrestrained trust and feeling, she is a throwback from another century: the 18th century.  She is, as the man who produced some of her best photographs put it, an incarnation of the famous French painter, Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

Voluptousness (Girl with Dove), Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790

The 2010 book Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters recalls a session with the legendary photgographer, Cecil Beaton:

“[He] saw her as a very paradoxical figure, a siren, a tightrope walker, a femme fatale and naive child, the last incarnation of an 18th century face in a portrait by Greuze living in the very contemporary world of nylons, sodas, jukeboxes and drive ins.”  

I can’t help but see this myself.  The reflection is somewhere in the eyes: wide, feeling pools waiting for the touch of the world–or hiding what has already been touched.  Like Marilyn, Greuze’s figures are commonly clutching something to their breasts–an animal, a ribbon–giving viewers the sense of connection and shelter, exposure and quiet fear.

Young Girl in a Lilac Tunic, Greuze

Marilyn’s favorite photograph of herself as shown in ‘The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe’ was one of honesty and vulnerability. It was taken by Beaton on February 22, 1956.  As Fragments describes it, “This photograph is . . . an improvisation.  Marilyn pulled this carnation from a bouquet to put in her mouth like a cigarette, only later lying one  sofa to place the flower on her breast in a gesture of protection and gift.”  For a woman notorious for pre-approving which photographs were available to the public, this is a surprising choice.  Like Greuze’s paintings, it is tender and idealized, nothing like the glaring (un)reality of Marilyn’s last sitting by Bert Stern.