This little Cole Porter gem is one of his earlier efforts, reportedly written for his friends' entertainment but later incorporated in the 1935 musical Hi Diddle Diddle (about which I have been hard pressed to find any substantial information). It also featured in the 1946 Michael Curtiz biopic Night and Day, starring Cary Grant and strenuously avoiding any mention of Porter's homosexuality. No doubt it will make an appearance in the upcoming De-Lovely, a new and only marginally more explicit effort at Porter's biography, as it attempts to re-deploy the Moulin Rouge trick of celebrity musical performances.

This small and relatively simple ditty has proven perenially popular with vocalists over the decades. I am familiar with three renditions - by Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler and Kirsty MacColl - but many notable greats have given this number a spin, among them Cab Calloway, Fred Astaire and Rosemary Clooney.

Miss Otis regrets, she's unable to lunch today, madam,
Miss Otis regrets, she's unable to lunch today.
She is sorry to be delayed,
but last evening down in Lover's Lane she strayed, madam,
Miss Otis regrets, she's unable to lunch today.

When she woke up and found that her dream of love was gone, madam,
She ran to the man who had led her so far astray,
And from under her velvet gown,
She drew a gun and shot her lover down, madam,
Miss Otis regrets, she's unable to lunch today.

When the mob came and got her and dragged her from the jail, madam,
They strung her up on the old willow 'cross the way,
And the moment before she died,
She lifted up her lovely head and cried, madam...
Miss Otis regrets, she's unable to lunch today.

This is one of the rare songs that almost casually provide a complete snapshot of their background universe. The American South is immediately evoked by the name "Otis", the impression being rather sinisterly re-enforced by the appearance of the lynch mob. Against this backdrop a whole plethora of cultural assumptions fall into place, filling in the gaps left by the non-existant characterisation of Miss Otis. The associative image is of a Southern Belle leading a life hedged about with lofty values of chastity and honour on the one hand, and petty rituals like ladies' lunches and thank you notes on the other hand. Velvet gowns coexist with mob hangings, and a woman killing a man is a lynching offense.

The series of events in the lyric is, to a modern eye at least, ludicrous. It was probably ludicrous at the time when Porter wrote the song, although of course it is not unknown for social inferiors (blacks or women) to be dealt much harsher punishments for harming their so-called betters than it would be the other way around. (The average husband-killing woman serves a much longer sentence than the average wife-killing man in America today.) These are political issues, feminist issues almost - an unexpected depth in a shallow little musical number which I suspect has rather contributed to its enduring popularity.

The oldest rendition of the song I am familiar with, that of Ella Fitzgerald, is conventionally mournful, set in a minor key and to a slow beat. It is melancholy and pitiful more than anything else. Kirsty MacColl's modern take on the song is more angry, scored for a Scottish marching band of strident drums and wailing bagpipes. It has undertones of anger, accusation, militaristic outrage. This misses with me quite as much as the more traditional take, both of them ignoring the wider issues raised by the song in favour of the specifics (the tragedy of Miss Otis's deflowerment and death).

Bette Midler's take on this song is fast, satirical, funny; she seems to want nothing more than to ridicule a society in which a woman can go from intercourse to execution in a single day. Behind the Andrews Sisters harmonies and the major key arrangement there's a kind of snide anger, a condemnation of a woman can be her own judge and executioner and still observe the shallowest of niceties. This attitude is supported by the text, in a way: Miss Otis is the prime mover throughout the lyrics, with many active verbs used to describe her actions. The flickeringly brief appearance of the man and the mob contribute towards the balance of responsibility here falling on the victim herself. While in the spirit of the age it depicts this could have been taken to be literally true - by sinning she brings her own end on herself - this interpretation of the song subverts it in quite an interesting way, suggesting that Miss Otis is culpable in her own death through blindly following the narrow prescriptions of her social age.

Miss Otis Regrets are also a Sydney, Australia based band playing a cocktail-bar combination of jazz and soul classics. Their website can be found at:

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