Mrs Robinson by Simon and Garfunkel, from the album Bookends (1968) is famous for its inclusion in the movie The Graduate (1967) and has become inseparable from the character in the film. However, the roots of Mrs Robinson came from a song completely unrelated to the movie that Paul Simon had written called Mrs Roosevelt, about Eleanor Roosevelt.
In the years previous to The Graduate, Simon & Garfunkel had risen to national fame in the United States touring colleges and releasing a string of hit singles and albums. At the same time, director Mike Nichols was in the early stages of making his movie, The Graduate. Nichols had become an instant fan of the duo, listening to them constantly before and after filming. So infatuated with the duo was Nichols that he met with Columbia Records chairman Clive Davis to ask permission to use their music in his new film. Davis saw the idea as potentially lucrative and envisioned a best-selling soundtrack album. Paul Simon, however, was dubious, considering movie soundtracks to be selling out. After careful consideration and being impressed by Nichols’ wit and script, the songwriter agreed to write at least one or two songs for the film.
After a few weeks, Simon presented two new tracks, Punky’s Dilemma and Overs, neither of which particularly impressed Nichols. Nichols asked the duo whether they had any more songs to offer, and after a break in the meeting, they returned with an early version of what would become Mrs Robinson, then still named Mrs Roosevelt. Nichols was instantly ecstatic about the song and could envision its use in the film instantly.
Of the song’s content, the “dee de dee dee de dee dee dee” section of the introduction of the song occurred when Simon and Garfunkel presented the unfinished song to Nichols and didn’t have lyrics to sing over the music. Nichols suggested that this should be part of the finished song and Simon used it in the introduction. Similarly nonsensical is the inclusion of the “coo-coo-ca-choo” phrase in the chorus, which is Simon’s homage to The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus, which was also released in 1967.
Parts of the song are very much still in line with the original subject matter of the song, Eleanor Roosevelt. Wife to US President Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt survived an orphaned and loveless childhood, a faithless husband and domineering mother-in-law, emerging as an independent personality after her husband was paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921. Due to her husband’s paralysis and the many bouts of ill health which he had suffered from birth, the First Lady was transformed from shy wife into an autonomous public leader due to having to serve as her disabled husband’s eyes and ears. This triumph of what women were capable of in a time when women were expected to be subservient to men came into even fuller effect in 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death and was sustained through worldwide acclaim until her death in 1962.
In the first verse, lines such as “We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files, We’d like to learn to help you help yourself” could refer to Eleanor Roosevelt in conversation with her psychiatrist. Eleanor Roosevelt suffered from depression throughout most of her life, mostly stemming from her tragic childhood. Her mother had died from diphtheria when Eleanor was just 8 years old and her brother Elliott Jr died from the same disease just 5 months afterwards. Her father was an alcoholic who was confined to a sanatorium and died just two years after Eleanor’s mother after he jumped out of a window during a fit of delirium tremens. He survived the fall but died after suffering a seizure shortly afterwards. Similarly, the lines “Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes, Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home” represent Eleanor Roosevelt being at a mental health facility with the workers and patients worrying for her.
The second verse, “Hide it in the hiding place where no one ever goes, Put it in your pantry where no one ever goes, Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes, It’s a little secret, just the Robinsons’ affair, Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids” are reference to Eleanor living in a time where strong women had to repress their feelings and emotions, hiding them away completely out of sight. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had many marital problems, with Franklin having many affairs. Women who he allegedly had affairs with include Princess Martha of Sweden, his secretary, Missy and Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. These affairs would eventually lead to the couples’ separation and ended any intimacy in their relationship. There are also rumours that Eleanor was a lesbian and had a relationship with Lorena Hickock.
In the third verse of the song, “Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon, Going to the candidates’ debate, Laugh about it, shout about it, When you’ve got to choose, Every way you look at it you lose”, Eleanor watches her husband’s debate in which he won he presidential election. Due to her husband’s paralysis and ill health, Eleanor did most of the work. Eleanor therefore would have been more than capable of running for the presidency herself but could not because she is a woman.
The song’s chorus could be read in many ways. The references to “Jesus”, “Heaven” and “God” could be suggestive of mourners at Eleanor’s funeral or simply Eleanor being prayed for by those with the “sympathetic eyes” mentioned in the first verse of the song. When used on the film’s soundtrack, the chorus takes on a new meaning, telling the listeners that Mrs Robinson should not cheat and sin on her daughter’s boyfriend and encouraging Mrs Robinson to become a holy and moral person.
The final verse of the song is perhaps the most talked about verse of the entire song. The lyrics, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, What’s that you say Mrs Robinson, Jolting Joe has left and gone away”. In the context of a song about Eleanor Roosevelt, lines about a New York Yankees Major League Baseball centre-fielder may appear to be slightly out of place when analysing the lyrics. However, Joe DiMaggio is referenced in the song as he represented traditional American values with the lines being a tribute to his unpretentious heroic stature in America in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes. It is widely known that Paul Simon was a huge fan of baseball player Mickey Mantle and when asked during an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970 why he chose to talk about Joe DiMaggio instead, Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Dick. It’s about how many beats there are”. DiMaggio initially had reservations about his name being used in the song, wondering why Simon had written the line, “Joltin Joe has left and gone away” when he hadn’t gone anywhere. DiMaggio soon dropped his complaint after Simon explained what the lines meant. In a New York Times op-ed in March 1999, shortly after DiMaggio’s death, Simon said of the DiMaggio reference: “In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence”. Simon later performed Mrs Robinson at Yankee Stadium in honour of DiMaggio a month after his death.
After its inclusion in The Graduate, Mrs Robinson was awarded two Grammy Awards at the 11th Annual Grammy Awards in 1969. It became the first rock song to win Record of the Year and was also awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary-Pop Performance – Vocal Duo or Group. The duo declined to perform the song at the ceremony, instead shooting a video which consisted of them at the Yankee Stadium in reference to the song’s final verse about Joe DiMaggio. Mrs Robinson was ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Original Song because as a nominee, a song must have been written exclusively for the film in which it appeared.
The song has also seen the accolade of being covered several times, including by Frank Sinatra on his 1969 album My Way. Sinatra’s version of My Way changes a number of lines, including replacing the word “Jesus” with “Jilly”, perhaps motivated by the refusal of some radio stations to play a song including the word “Jesus”. Sinatra’s version also includes a new verse directly referring to The Graduate. These changes make for a rather odd version of the song and is not one of Sinatra’s more successful covers.
More successful was The Lemonheads’ cover of Mrs Robinson, recorded to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the release of The Graduate in 1992 and featured on their 1992 album It’s A Shame About Ray.