Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Secrets of the Knife and Fork

In The Memory Of All That I write about my grandmother's influence on George Gershwin as their friendship and then their romance deepened. She dressed him, she decorated his apartment, she taught him to ride (note the shiny new riding boots), and in countless ways she encouraged him to develop his own taste and style. They had so much fun!

Written some two years after this photo was taken of Kay and George at Bydale, the Warburg country house in Greenwich, is it possible that Jimmy Warburg's witty lyrics for Kay Swift's elegant music for the Fine and Dandy number "Etiquette" were a pointed commentary on this aspect of his wife's complex romantic involvement with George? Was this an aristocratic Warburg making a dig at George's origins and aspirations? The song is about lower class factory workers who "aspire to acquire proper etiquette," instructed by the shop foreman, Edgar Little. Here are just some of the lyrics:

"Murphys and O'Gradys, gentlemen and ladies all/they have made your life a perfect Hades/paying you a wage that was too small./You who are the masses/working lads and lasses should/live like all the so-called upper classes/You have been too long misunderstood!

I will raise your/standard of living right away/Now that I am head of the business, hear me say:

Murphys and O'Gradys, you shall join the smartest set/You shall all be gentlemen and ladies/I will teach you perfect etiquette!

Blums and Blaus and Blitzes, Steins and Lipkowitzes, you/Ought to be at home in all the Ritzes/I will show you what you ought to do/How to tell a waiter 'Bring an al-li-ga-tor pear,' how in fact you always tell a waiter/In a word, I'll teach you savoir-faire/I will teach you how you should greet a King or Queen/How to dress for wedding, divorce, and everything/Blums and Blaus and Blitzes, you shall join the smartest set/You shall all be Vans and Macs and Fitzes!/I will teach you perfect etiquette!

Chorus: What's your proposition? We have got ambition/Show us the way/to be a la-dy./Up the social ladder/how I wish we had a/friend who would help us on our way./We would like to learn the proper way to eat and talk./We would like to learn the secrets of the knife and fork/How are we to know what clothes to wear?/Tell us how to part our hair!/We long to break away from all this life of toil/We'd like to have the leisure time to study Hoyle./We should like to join the smartest set/We aspire to acquire proper e-ti-quette!"


  1. Hi Katharine,

    Have you any idea who took these Bydale photos? The photographers' identity is something I always wonder about when looking at informal snaps. They're part of the scene - and the story - but, when I ask my family about their old photos, out of sight often seems to be out of mind.

  2. I do know -- a maid with a new camera! That is the reason these photographs survived the conflagration, when my grandmother, right after George's death, destroyed, and asked Ira to destroy, all extant letters and photos. The elderly former Bydale maid visited my grandmother in the late 70's and gave her a small group of the marvelous snapshots she took that summer afternoon in 1928.

  3. Lovely detail and a great piece of luck! My great-gran was of the same generation as your grandmother and all five of her sisters were domestics at some point in their lives. If only they'd had a passion for photography...

    Am looking forward to the book being published in Britain. As a fledgling writer, it'll be interesting for me to see what fictional techniques you've used for 'life writing'.

  4. You might have a long wait, as there is no British publisher yet. You can find the American edition on

  5. The very one I meant, sorry!