Best Jewish Christmas song ever? Steve and Eydie and Frank (Loesser)


Marc Tracy! Marc!

We’ve never met or spoken even, but honestly, this rebuke deserves first names.

Two years running counting the best Jewish Christmas songs, and the Tablet maven keeps missing the hands-down best — "Baby It’s Cold Outside."

Frank Loesser was German Jewish progeny. He wrote the song as a party favor for his first wife, Lynn Garland, in 1944. He soon sold it, and it has become a perennial.

In this Time Magazine obituary of Loesser protege Betty Hutton, Richard Corliss casts Loesser as a tough guy rebelling against his parents cultivated Yekke (German Jewish to you bub) sensibilities. (He’s best known for his streetwise fare in "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.")

But really, the man had an enormous gift for subtlety, for the surprising twist, one entirely consistent with the German Jewish gift for packing at least three meanings into a sentence.

Baby It’s Cold Outside, a duet that Wikipedia says was cast in sheet music as "Mouse and Wolf," ostensibly is about a sweet little thing trying to escape a knowing predator’s seduction.

But listen closely, and consider who exactly is seducing whom.

The "mouse," by repeatedly invoking her potential shame ("My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious") isn’t quite fleeing — she’s exacting the price of her acquiescence: preserving her reputation. Does she want to go, or does she want her suitor to make it official?

More subtly, who is initiating what?

Twice, the wolf mentions that she’s the one who’s "dropped in," not quite realizing what this means. ("I’m lucky that you dropped in" — what a dummy.)

And then there’s this she-and-he exchange:

My sister will be suspicious

Gosh your lips look delicious

My brother will be there at the door

Waves upon the tropical shore

My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious

Gosh your lips are delicious

But maybe just a cigarette more

Never such a blizzard before

He kisses her; she stays. She rewards him for giving her exactly what she wanted — and he thinks he’s gotten away with something ("Never such a blizzard…").

His overtures at intimacy are crude and doomed to failure ("Mind if I move in closer?"); hers are barely noticeable, and doomed to success ("Say, lend me your comb.")

Of course, the humor — the subtlety — in all of this is a product of repression (and how Yekke is that?). Women in 1944 did not just come out and tell a man what they wanted, and much humor was to be mined from their machinations.

It’s a good thing that age is passed — the whole "no means yes" thing was, at its crudest, among the ugliest of assertions of male prerogative.

A good thing, except perhaps for musical theater.

The more recent versions of the standard pull the cigarette reference, and substitute another line — some by repeating a request for "half a drink more."

The most telling change substitutes a dead taboo for a live one. Lady Antebellum, a country group, changes it to "just one little kiss more," and it alters the whole tone of the song: The "mouse’s" complicity in the seduction becomes explicit.

It’s healthier, but not as funny.

No version mines the funny better than the performance Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme — both, as it happens, Jewish (although Gorme, my Sephardia landsman, is about as far from Yekke as Jewish gets.)

I know, I know about the cheesiness that attaches to "Steve and Eydie" and reviewing their YouTube offerings, I see where all the Bar Mitzvah moms got their hands-in-the-air-and-wriggle moves when I was growing up.

But listen: No other couple sings as closely together, or as knowingly.

Gorme’s reading of the line "Say what’s in this drink" is the only one I’ve heard that suggests she knows exactly what’s in the drink — she might even have handed him the vermouth. (Any other reading is creepy — date rape anyone?)

And then, the cigarette line: Hardly anyone else gets it. With Gorme, it’s not a nervous tic, as in other renditions: She’s been kissed, and she wants time to savor it.

So have fun with it. Three Jews, in 1964, just before the world changed forever, delivering the best Christmas song ever, and one that’s blessedly free of any reference to icons, pagan or otherwise.

Recommended from JTA