Take It All Off
One of the best known, not to say notorious, celebrities of the 1920s and ‘30s was a buxom blonde actress and writer named Mae West. One of her best-known lines came in the 1933 film, I’m No Angel, in which, in a starring role, she says to her maid, “Beulah, peel me a grape,” which you might say expresses the acme of indolence.
But of course, anything with a skin can be peeled. And this applies not only to fruits and vegetables, which are the most popular targets, but also to animals (the essence of taxidermy), and even – unpleasant as it may sound – to humans. The verb for that kind of activity is “to flay” – and a horrible punishment sometimes administered in the cruelest of past ages was for the supposedly guilty party to be “flayed alive.”
A particularly notable victim of this treatment was Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus. His martyrdom is said to have taken place in Armenia, as a punishment, decreed by the King’s brother, for his having converted the King of that country to Christianity. He is now depicted, in various pieces of religious art, as actually holding his own skin, draped over his arm. One of the most striking of these works is in the form of a sculpture, still to be seen in the great cathedral of Milan, Italy (Il Duomo), which necessarily shows the skinned saint in some anatomical detail.
St. Bartholomew’s name is now commemorated in various other ways, including the names of hospitals, churches, and schools – and is also the name of a monstrous but historic Massacre which began in Paris on August 23, 1572 (which happened to be the eve of St. Bartholomew Day). It was part of the terrible religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, which lasted in Europe for generations. In this case, it was Catholics massacring Protestants.
Of course, “peeling” has many other connotations in our language, including what some consider the “art” of publicly and progressively disrobing in a sexually alluring manner, generally called “striptease,” whose most famous practitioner, in the 1920s and ‘30s in America, was a lady named Gypsy Rose Lee. In her honor, and that of her profession, H. L. Mencken, the great journalist and scholar of the American language, coined the term “ECDYSIAST.” Like Mae West, she also had some success as a writer and actress.
Then we have the British Metropolitan Police, first organized in the early Nineteenth Century, under the administration of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Inspired by his surname, the policemen were at first popularly called “Peelers.” But it was his first name which proved to have even more enduring “appeal,” and gave rise to the familiar designation of the London “Bobby.”
Getting back to natural fruit peel, probably that of the banana has had the worst reputation, because of its tendency to be slippery and, when carelessly discarded, to cause falls and other accidents. This has been so much of a problem that, when I entered a contest sponsored by the Chiquita company to write new words for the Chiquita Banana Song (which began as a radio commercial ditty in the 1940s), my prize-winning submission concluded with these words:
Life, no matter what your plan is,
Can be better with bananas.
In the morning or the night time
For bananas is the right time –
But it’s dangerous and unsightly to be careless
with the peel of a banana –
So, my proposal is disposal
In an appropriate manner.
Go go go go bananas!
During the Hippie Era of the 1960s, when I was a sort of honorary guru in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, at a time when marijuana was still highly illegal, word went around that banana skins actually had psychedelic qualities, and could be dried and smoked quite legally. Unfortunately, this turned out to be purely a beautiful myth. But while it prevailed, it inspired me to write another version of the Chiquita song:
I’m Chiquita Banana, here to testify:
Bananas are so good, and they can get you high!
So, for discreet and law-abiding gentlefolk,
There’s nothing like the fragrance of banana smoke.
It can bring you to Nirvana – but they can’t ban a banana.
You can stock it and retail it – and it’s even safe to mail it!
So, if there’s no other reason but the Law that has been keeping you angelic,
Remember, beautiful bananas can make you psychedelic.
They can’t ban a ba-na-na!