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Today is Carmen Miranda’s birthday.  

The Brazilian Bombshell (or Notable Little One) would have been 101.  Born Maria do Carmo Miranda Da Cunha, she died at age 46.  As with our historic ladies I discussed yesterday, this vivacious woman, so full of life and spirit, found herself in a life that spiralled tragically downward. 

Trapped in an abusive marriage, addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and taking electic shock treatments for depression, she died of a heart attack following a performance on the Jimmy Durante Show. 

(She actually had a heart attack during her number on the show, but, ever the consummate performer, she carried on – she just came close to falling.)   After her body was taken back to Brazil for burial, the priest refused to  consecrate her soul due to her heavy make-up.  That little issue was resolved and millions of mourners lined up to see her interred at Cemitério São João Batista in Rio de Janeiro.

A hatmaker herself in her youth in Brazil (at a store called Olinda), she based her trademark towering fruit hat on the headdresses of the Baiana, the black women who sold fruit in the marketplaces of Bahia. 

While her father was not at all supportive of her musical aspirations, she became a wildly popular singer on the radio and club circuits of Brazil, and was invited to America to perform on Broadway.  She popularized the samba, which she performed in 6-inch platform shoes on stage, but she preferred to dance barefoot when she could get away with it.

Her path to stardom took her to Hollywood and the movie industry, and while it was not her first film, she attracted mass attention when she appeared as Rosita Murphy in Springtime in the Rockies.  (It’s actually the only film of hers that I’ve seen.) 

The hat, of course, came with her to LaLa Land, and at a diminutive 5-feet tall, the height of the hat no doubt heightened her image.  Talk in the town was that she refused studio chief Darryl Zanuck’s amorous overtures on principle — although I see nothing amorous about being chased around a couch by an unattractive half-naked man wanting my “tropical delicacies”.

While she retained dual citizenship in Brazil and Portugal (where she was born), her heart belonged to Brazil, and she was devastated when the Brazilian people criticized her for becoming “Americanized” when she visited in 1940.  But Brazilians can never completely fall out of love with a favorite daughter – visitors to Rio will find a museum dedicated to Carmen, as will visitors to Canaveses, Portugal, the town of her birth. 

A hot-air balloon called the “Chic-I-Boom” after one of her dance numbers, which portrayed a likeness of Carmen, was launched at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival in 1982, and Chic-I-Boom II is still floating at festivals today.

But the hat….let’s talk about the hat. 

There’s one on display in the museum in Portugal.  They inspired a line of turbans and a line of Bakelite jewelry in the 1940s that are highly collectible today. 

The hat (and the lady who wore it) became the model for the Chiquita banana logo.  

You can find online patterns for the quintessential fruit hat, which typically includes bananas (a must), apples, grapes, cherries, oranges, plums, feathers, beads, and twigs.  Carmen’s tallest hat (described by some as ten stories tall, but I have yet to determine the true height) was seen in the number “The Lady with the Tutti-Fruitti Hat” in the 1943 Busby Berleley film “The Gang’s All Here”.

The film also included hundreds of chorus girls dancing with six-foot bananas (that had to be held at waist-level rather than hip-level to reduce the phallic implications.)

Carmen has unfortunately been the object of ridicule in cartoons throughout the years,

and the inspiration for so many things that are just wrong.

I recall my Mother being quite fond of Carmen – that’s where I first learned about the fruit hat – though I never saw her samba.

So please, take a moment today and have a banana in honor of this wonderful lady.

As an aside, today is Read in the Bathtub Day!  If you’ve never done it, there’s no better time than the present. 

Just make sure you don’t drop the book.  Having lived in a bathtub one winter, I can tell you that it doesn’t enhance the quality of the experience.

February 2010


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