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  • Karl Thunemann

Lunching with Miss Otis

As I labored over my epistle on impermanence during the wee hours last month, my brain seemed to be pixelated by the meme of a song. A meme, if you will—but there was no melody, not even any lyrics—just the word Madam interspersed with other text that would not quite come into focus.

I take such events seriously. They are signs of a mysterious process still unfolding inside my much-maligned brain. So I suspended my task and began searching on the internet. At first it seemed hopeless. But as I kept adding search terms an image began to become clear. The meme must belong to the Cole Porter song, “Miss Otis Regrets.”

Ella Fitzgerald at the mic, image via

Not that I said to myself, Ah, Cole Porter, because I am no fan of Broadway musicals. But somehow this song had gotten lodged in my brain—it haunted me, even though I could not remember the lyrics or even what it was about. I only found the composer’s name on the internet. It is said to have been composed at a party in 1934, after Porter heard a cowboy’s lament on the radio. “Miss Otis” was a parody of that song, about a society woman who murders her unfaithful lover. In turn she is imprisoned, attacked by a mob, and lynched. These are her last words, a final attempt to recapture her dignity: Miss Otis Regrets She’s Unable to Lunch Today, Madam. (The full text of the song appears adjacent to this epistle.)

The song supposedly was written for a musical that never made it to stage. Instead, it was performed at the tony soirees that were settings for Porter and his cronies. A number of prominent singers, Black and white, claimed that Porter composed the song explicitly for them. Many renditions can be found on the internet. My favorites are by Ella Fitzgerald and Bette Midler.

So, this accounts for the history of the song, but what was it doing in my brain at 3 a.m.? And how did it fit into my epistle on impermanence? It didn’t take long to decide that Miss Otis was not part of the epistle at hand, but it did seem to answer a fervent prayer offered up a few newsletters ago: The desirability of giving a name to my diagnosis of “mild cognitive impairment.” Henceforth, MCI will be known as Miss Otis.

Actually, I do lunch with Miss Otis. Or I would, if not for the pandemic. Though it is not clear to me why we should observe the rules of social distancing. She is a wraith. Perhaps she could be infected. (What a headline: “Wraith diagnosed with COVID-19.”) But there is no way she could be a super-spreader.

Miss Otis is bitter. She regards herself as a victim, not a murderess. (Now there is a word that embodies a certain sort of sexism.) She feels she did nothing wrong, at least until the end. The man she killed was cruel and abusive. For that, she should be lynched?

Our lady does not see herself in the persona of mild cognitive impairment. When I explain it and tell her I have it, she turns sympathetic and touches my wrist. She asks, But why am I here? I tell her I am not certain—maybe to help me enlarge my capacity for compassion. Because, after what happened to her, she deserves compassion down through the ages. And I have to learn compassion for myself—to stop hating my impairment, and to see that it is not a hateful intrusion, but a quality I must learn to accept. She smiles, touches my wrist again, and says something supportive that I do not understand. I have not adequately explained why this condition now shares her name. Miss Otis. She does not seem to mind, and I will not try to explain the workings of my subconscious mind.

This link makes her a compelling luncheon companion—not every day, for sure, but every few weeks. I have to keep reminding myself that she deserves compassion—certainly as much as I.


Miss Otis Regrets

Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today, madam. Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today, mmmmmm. And she's sorry to be delayed, But last evening down at 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 lead her so far astray. And from under her velvet gown She drew a gun and shot her lover down (he should have seen it coming), 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 willow across 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. Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today.

Songwriter: Cole Porter


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