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Where Harlem Flits: A Look at 1920s Harlem Through the Original Lyrics of Puttin’ on the Ritz

Zhané Lloyd


“Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a popular song in American pop culture and has become part of the general cultural lexicon. The most familiar version of the song is the one recorded in 1982 by the Indonesian-Dutch artist Taco, who happened upon the tune while watching Fred Astaire’s performance in the 1946 film “Blue Skies.” Even still, the song’s origins go back even further to 1930, when it was originally sung by Fred Astaire. Written by Irving Berlin, the lyrics are a jab at the poor Black residents of Harlem who dressed in fancy clothing when going out, appearing as if they were going The “Ritz” – the famous Ritz Carlton hotel. To be “puttin’ on the ritz” meant to “dress, decorate, or do something in a fancy or expensive way.” The phrase had been used colloquially prior to Berlin’s song, but it grew in popularity afterwards.

Ritz Carlton Hotel in Battery Park. Source: Wikimedia

Lyrics (Differences highlighted in bold)

(Original 1930)

Have you seen the well to do
Up on Lenox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and colored collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where Harlem flits?
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levy, all misfits
Putting’ on the Ritz

That’s where each and every Lulu Belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin’ elbows

Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Boys, look at that man puttin’ on that Ritz
You look at him, I can’t


(Modified 1946)

Have you seen the well-to-do
up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare,
with their noses in the air
High hats and Arrow collars
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a day coat
Pants with stripes
And cutaway coat, perfect fits
Puttin’ on the ritz

Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper (super-duper)
Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks
Or “umbrellas” in their mitts
Puttin’ on the ritz

Fred Astaire, who sang both versions of the song. Source: Wikimedia

Have You Seen the Well-To-Do?

“Puttin’ On The Ritz” is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of working class Harlemites who dressed as the upper class. However, Harlem did in fact have upper-middle-class Black people living, or making a living, in the area. Gladys Bentley, for example, was a popular performer at The Clam House on 133rd Street and Lenox Avenue. She was so successful that, at her peak, Bentley could afford to rent an apartment for $300 (today’s equivalent is approximately $5,000) on Park Avenue. A’Lelia Walker, daughter of self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker, had a mansion in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem on 108- 110 136th Street where she threw lavish parties often attended by Harlem’s upper middle class.

A'Lelia Walker (left) and Gladys Bentley (right). Source: Wikipedia

Up On Lenox Avenue

If it happened in Harlem, there was a high chance it happened on Lenox Avenue. That area was such a popular location for nightlife that a map was created showcasing clubs on Lenox and 7th Avenues between 131st and 136th Street. There is a particular stretch of clubs between Lenox and 7th Avenue on 133rd Street referred to as “Jungle Alley”.

Map of nightclubs and speakeasies along Lenox and 7th Avenues. Source: Yale Beinecke Library

Spending Every Dime, For a Wonderful Time

For a lot of Harlemites, the clubs were not accessible to them as patrons. This was either because they could not afford them or, like the Cotton Club, Black people were only permitted to work there. Instead, working class Harlemites often attended rent parties: private gatherings held in apartments where the collected revenue often went towards the host’s rent. Parties were often held on Saturday because it followed a pay day and there was no work on Sunday. Most of the popular jazz musicians (such as Thomas “Fats” Waller) and dance crazes (such as the Lindy Hop) of the time period emerged from Harlem rent parties.

Hosts of rent parties would pass out invitations like this on the street or in train stations. Source: Yale Beinecker Library

Spangled Gowns Upon the Bevy of High Browns

Another popular event in Harlem, particularly for its queer community, was the masquerade (drag) ball: an event where normally closeted queer community came out to celebrate and have fun. One of the most popular balls was the annual Hamilton Lodge Masquerade Ball at Rockland Palace on West 155th Street. “High browns” is a reference to lighter skin, an advantage at the drag balls. Female impersonator (the term used at the time for drag queen) Bonnie Clark claimed racial bias at the balls – except for the ones that took place in Harlem – where judges would arrange for White contestants to win.

Female impersonators (drag queens) at a ball. Source: Danny Ashkenasi

That’s Where Each and Every Lulu Belle Goes

“Lulu Belle” was a play on Broadway produced by David Belasco, starring Lenore Ulric – in blackface– as the titular character. Because of how Lulu Belle challenged notions of traditional femininity, she was appropriated by the queer community and re-branded as an inspiration. There was even a club on 127th Street named Lulu Belle that was frequented by queer folks in the area. Also because of this characterization, “Lulu Belle” was a name given to single, working class Black women whose “sexual unrestraint” was seen as detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Black middle class. The character Lulu Belle was rumored to be based upon legendary performers Florence Mills and later Josephine Baker.

Lenore Ulric (left), who starred as Lulu Belle in the play of the same name. Florence Mills, star of the play Shuffle Along (1921), who was rumored to be the original inspiration for the character. Source: Wikimedia (Ulric), New York Amsterdam News (Mills)

Come With Me and We’ll Attend Their Jubilee

The success of Lulu Belle, combined with the acclaim for the novel “Nigger Heaven” by Carl Van Vechten, sparked interest in Harlem for White people, particularly White queer people. As homosexual activity was illegal in the country, White queer folks found a safe space in Harlem. In addition, they felt a kinship to the residents of Harlem, who also experienced discrimination.

Carl Van Vechten, author of the best-selling novel Nigger Heaven. His novel caused a great divide of opinion among Harlemites. Source: Wikimedia


Genius. n.d. “Puttin’ On The Ritz: Irving Berlin.” Genius.

—. n.d. “Putting On The Ritz: Fred Astaire.” Genius.

Pareles, Jon. 1983. “Irving Berlin is Back on the Pop Charts.” New York Times. September 19.

Russonello, Giovanni. 2019. “Gladys Bentley: A gender-bending blues performer who became 1920s Harlem royalty.” New York Times.

Wilson, James F. 2010. ““That’s the Kind of Gal I Am”: Drag Balls, “Sexual Perversion,” and David Belasco’s Lulu Belle.” In       Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, by James F. Wilson,     79-111. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

-. “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”: Parties, Performances, and Privacy in the “Other” Harlem Renaissance(s).” In     Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, by James F.   Wilson, 11-42. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Writing Explained. n.d. “What Does Putting on the Ritz Mean.” Writing Explained.


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Zhané Lloyd is an aspiring narrative designer from Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not dreaming up her own worlds or questioning why there aren’t more Black women as video game protagonists, she coaches and judges policy debate at the high school and college level.