Hurricane Irma works its way through the Caribbean, now aiming at Florida. There’s nothing useful I can do at this distance, so I’ve been frittering away my time recalling the famous Irmas of my world — your list might well be different — namely Irma S. Rombauer, the Irma of Irma la Douce, and, top of the list, the Irma of My Friend Irma, the apotheosis, oh alas, of the Dumb Blonde stereotype in American popular culture.

In the kitchen. Irma S. Rombauer is the Irma of The Joy of Cooking.  From Wikipedia:

(#1) ISR with The Book

Irma Starkloff Rombauer (October 30, 1877 – October 14, 1962) was an American cookbook author, best known for The Joy of Cooking (1931), one of the world’s most widely read cookbooks. Following Irma Rombauer’s death, periodic revisions of the book were carried out by her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, and subsequently by Marion’s son Ethan Becker. The Joy of Cooking remains in print, edited by members of the Rombauer–Becker family, and more than 18 million copies have been sold.

(My own copy is a well-worn and falling-apart 1946 edition, originally Libby Walcutt Daingerfield’s, passed on to her daughter Ann Walcutt Daingerfield (later Ann Daingerfield Zwicky).)

In the bedroom. From Wikipedia:


Irma la Douce is a 1963 romantic comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, directed by Billy Wilder. It is based on the 1956 French stage musical Irma La Douce by Marguerite Monnot and Alexandre Breffort.

Irma la Douce [“Irma the Sweet”] tells the story of Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), an honest cop, who after being transferred from the park Bois de Boulogne to a more urban neighborhood in Paris, finds a street full of prostitutes working at the Hotel Casanova and proceeds to raid the place. The police inspector, who is Nestor’s superior, and the other policemen, have been aware of the prostitution, but tolerate it in exchange for bribes. The inspector, a client of the prostitutes himself, fires Nestor, who is accidentally framed for bribery.

Kicked off the force and humiliated, Nestor finds himself drawn to the very neighborhood that ended his career with the Paris police – returning to Chez Moustache, a popular hangout tavern for prostitutes and their pimps. Down on his luck, Nestor befriends Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine), a popular prostitute. He also reluctantly accepts, as a confidant, the proprietor of Chez Moustache, a man known only as “Moustache.” In a running joke, Moustache (Lou Jacobi), a seemingly ordinary barkeeper, tells of a storied prior life – claiming to have been, among other things, an attorney, a colonel, and a doctor, ending with the repeated line, “But that’s another story.” After Nestor defends Irma against her abusive pimp boyfriend, Hippolyte, Nestor moves in with her, and he soon finds himself as Irma’s new pimp.

And then things get complicated.

My Friend Irma I’ll take up in a while. First, some stereotype-talk.

Female stereotypes. From Wednesday’s birthday posting, signaling the content of this posting:

the catastrophic hurricane, Irma S. Rombauer, Irma la Douce, My Friend Irma. Stereotype time [respectively]: the Femme Fatale, the Good Wife, the Prostitute With a Heart of Gold, the Dumb Blonde (and the Dumb Blonde’s best female friend the Smart Dame)

Several of these have already been mentioned on this blog, in a 10/2/14 posting “Female archetypes in the movies”, about Sunwoo Jeong’s Stanford qualifying paper on “Iconicity in Suprasegmental Variables:
The Case of Archetypal Hollywood Characters of the 1940s-50s”, covering:

several distinctive film genres, featuring highly stylized female characters, emerged as important cultural phenomena: femme fatales in film noir, independent brunettes in screwball comedies, and dumb blondes in musical comedies.

The Femme Fatale, the Smart Dame, and the Dumb Blonde.

From NOAD2:

noun femme fatale: an attractive and seductive woman, especially one who will ultimately bring disaster to a man who becomes involved with her. ORIGIN early 20th century: French, literally ‘disastrous woman.’

Hurricane Irma is the Femme Fatale in this posting. My Friend Irma is the Dumb Blonde, and her best female friend Jane Stacy is the Smart Dame. The Smart Dame is on the whole a positive stereotype, though she is typically in competition with a man (think Katharine Hepburn vcontending with Spencer Tracy).

Irma la Douce is the Prostitute With a Heart of Gold, and Irma S. Rombauer is The Good Wife, a complex stereotype with some positive content, though it confines women to the spheres of domestic life and moral enforcement (Kinder, Küche, Kirche) and to obedient submission to male authority (St. Paul, in Ephesians 5:22 (KJV): “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord”). As the moral enforcer (monitoring her children’s behavior, speech, and hygiene), the Good Wife also represents the mother figure that American boys are supposed to rebel against to achieve true masculinity.

At the office. Then there’s the Dumb Blonde, a scatterbrained female ditz in a stereotypically female social role (housewife, mistress, secretary, waitress), not necessarily blonde, sometimes given to physical as well as verbal comedy: Gracie Allen as foil to George Burns, Lucille Ball in her various Lucy incarnations, the Joan Davis of I Married Joan, Judy Holiday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker in All in the Family, Beth Howland as Vera in Alice. But the great manifestation of the stereotype was by Marie Wilson as stenographer Irma Peterson in My Friend Irma. From Wikipedia:

(#3) Dumb Blonde and Smart Dame: Marie Wilson and Cathy Lewis in the radio studio

My Friend Irma, created by writer-director-producer Cy Howard, is a top-rated, long-run radio situation comedy that spawned a media franchise. It was so popular in the late 1940s that its success escalated to films, television, a comic strip, and a comic book. Marie Wilson portrayed the title character, Irma Peterson, on radio, in two films and the television series. The radio series was broadcast on the Columbia network from April 11, 1947 to August 23, 1954.

Dependable, level-headed Jane Stacy (Cathy Lewis — and Joan Banks during Lewis’ illness in early 1949) began each weekly radio program by narrating a misadventure of her innocent, bewildered roommate, Irma, a scatterbrained stenographer from Minnesota. The two central characters were in their mid-twenties. Irma had her 25th birthday in one episode; she was born on May 5. After the two met in the first episode, they lived together in an apartment rented from their Irish landlady, Mrs. O’Reilly (Jane Morgan, Gloria Gordon).

Irma’s boyfriend Al (John Brown) was a deadbeat, barely on the right side of the law, who had not held a job in years. Only someone like Irma could love Al, whose nickname for Irma was “Chicken”. Al had many crazy get-rich-quick schemes, which never worked. Al planned to marry Irma at some future date so she could support him. Professor Kropotkin (Hans Conried), the Russian violinist at the Princess Burlesque theater, lived upstairs. He greeted Jane and Irma with remarks like, “My two little bunnies with one being an Easter bunny and the other being Bugs Bunny.” The Professor insulted Mrs. O’Reilly, complained about his room, and reluctantly became O’Reilly’s love interest in an effort to make her forget his back rent. In 1953, Conried dropped from the cast and was replaced by Kenny Delmar as his cousin, Maestro Wanderkin.

Irma worked for the lawyer, Mr. Clyde (Alan Reed). She had such an odd filing system that once when Clyde fired her, he had to hire her back again because he couldn’t find anything. Useless at dictation, Irma mangled whatever Clyde dictated. Asked how long she had been with Clyde, Irma said, “When I first went to work with him he had curly black hair, then it got grey, and now it’s snow white. I guess I’ve been with him about six months.”

Irma became less bright and more scatterbrained as the program evolved. She also developed a tendency to whine or cry whenever something went wrong, which was at least once every show. Jane had a romantic inclination for her boss, millionaire Richard Rhinelander III (Leif Erickson). Another actor in the show was Bea Benaderet [who later achieved fame in a series of tv situation comedies].

Irma in a comic book:


And in the first of her two movies, in which a pair of comics — Martin and Lewis — were introduced on screen:

(#5) The 1949 movie


4 Responses to “Irmas”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Sim Aberson on Facebook:
    Sorority Girls from Hell! … stupid, ugly Irma!

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I would argue that Edith Bunker was actually a counter-stereotype: She was a lot smarter than she seemed.

  3. Ellen Says:

    I wonder why the poster uses the Italian “la Dolce” rather than the French “la Douce”?

    (I believe that unlike “dolce,” “douce” is more often soft, gentle, or mild — not “sweet.”

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