Pocketful of Daisies
A CultureMap®
by Andrew Miller
Published on 8/2/13

Unfairly excluded from the classic children’s rhyme in favor of showier red roses and blue violets, daisies are plain, perhaps, but they inspire. To paraphrase an axiom from geometry class, not all flowers are daisies, but not all daisies are flowers. Daisies and their womanly namesakes turn up throughout cultural history. As heroine, ingenue, provocateur and peace symbol, they have entranced authors, screenwriters, lyricists and copywriters—not to mention botanists—for centuries.

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“Daisy Bell”  (song | Henry Dacre)
to  Daisy Dukes

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage.
I can’t afford a carriage.
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

These days it is customary to wear shorts when riding a bicycle. Olympians wear spandex so tight it would be hard to slide a butter knife between fabric and thigh, and recreational cyclists sport khaki or madras. But short-shorts are not recommended for riding a velocipede of any kind—racer, boneshaker, unicycle or otherwise. They chafe. In her tiny cutoffs, Daisy Duke, from TV sitcom The Dukes of Hazzard, is no doubt more comfortable riding around Georgia in her Jeep or the General Lee, her cousins Bo and Luke Duke’s 1969 Dodge Charger.

No, it is Daisy Bell—heroine of the American popular song of the same name, written by Henry Dacre in 1892—whom her paramour imagines looking sweet on the seat of that bicycle built for two. Turn-of-the-century women wore dresses covering their ankles—less practical for bike riding than shorts, but certainly more comfortable than Daisy Duke’s signature hot pants, now known simply as daisy dukes.

Daisy Dukes
to  Princess Daisy  (fictional character | Mario video games)

Last name notwithstanding, Daisy Duke is no royal. Royalty dress with dignity. Princesses wear gowns and tiaras, not cutoffs and midriff-revealing tops. Would Princess Grace of Monaco have worn daisy dukes? No more than novelist Madame de La Fayette’s character the Princesse de Clèves would have traded cake for bread at the French court. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Princess Daisy of Sarasaland, a playable character in Nintendo’s series of Mario video games, is most often attired in an orange-and-yellow bodice and hoopskirt befitting her station.

Yet Princess Daisy is also a tomboy who dons attire more sportif—including a miniskirt and, yes, tight-fitting short-shorts (though they are orange and of an indeterminate fabric, not the daisy dukes’ blue denim)—to ski, play tennis and golf.

Although she reigns in Sarasaland, Daisy has shifted her residence to the Mushroom Kingdom. The type of mushrooms in this realm remains ambiguous, but certainly the experience of playing these games is a tad hallucinatory. And though her costume would have shocked old Louis Quatorze—in whose kingdom women did not play, let alone dress for, sports—no one in the Mushroom Kingdom blinks an eye at Daisy’s postmodern butt huggers.

Daisy Dukes
to  Daisy Miller  (fictional character | Daisy Miller)

Daisy Duke: slightly slutty sidekick or Southern belle? Just as in Dukes of Hazzard reruns, the two personalities coexist in more than a handful of cross-dressing queens named Daisy Duke. Featuring the eponymous, iconic short-shorts, these reverential homages to Catherine Bach’s TV character are ubiquitous at drag shows in gay bars below the Mason-Dixon Line. Does Bach, whose Daisy Mae Duke veered between brainy temptress and naif, know of or appreciate such fans?

Henry James’s titular protagonist Annie “Daisy” Miller is a bit of a wanton ingenue herself, flirting her way across the Alps while hoping to transform from middle-class to upper-crust. What would Henry J. think of Daisy D.? One may as well ask what Hillary Clinton thinks of Ryan Seacrest: just so much pretty fluff aspiring to something substantial. Or would he think that? Fascinated with contrasts between the classes, the sexes, the Old World and New, the canonical author might have winked appreciatively at a character who, like his own Daisy, hovers between pre- and postfeminism.

The similarities end there. Daisy Miller dies of malaria in Rome. Daisy Duke and her shorts abide on posters in teenage boys’ bedrooms across the Deep South and beyond.

Princess Daisy  (fictional character | Mario video games)
to  Daisy Miller  (fictional character | Daisy Miller)

One should not speak of Princess Daisy, but rather of Princesses Daisy. There’s the 1980 Judith Krantz romance novel Princess Daisy and its 1983 film adaptation, in which the title role—and that of her mentally challenged twin—is played by Danish model Merete Van Kamp. A young Rupert Everett plays Daisy’s half-brother, the rapist Ram Valensky. Even Ringo Starr makes an appearance.

The protagonist of Henry James’s 1879 novella Daisy Miller, whose plot is as straightforward as Krantz’s is circuitous, can metaphorically be described as a princess—and would likely think of herself as one. She’s a legend in her own mind, if you will. Not a royal or even a blue-blood, the upstate New York native nonetheless aspires to the upper strata of American, if not European, aristocracy.

A real-life royal Daisy, the British princess of Pless, became a peace activist prior to World War I, a nurse during the war and a celebrated memoirist afterward. But perhaps today’s best-known Princess Daisy is neither flesh-and-blood nor literary, but rather pixelated. A star of Japanese video-game impresario Shigeru Miyamoto’s Mario series, she presides over Sarasaland or the Mushroom Kingdom, depending on which game you play.

Daisy Miller  (fictional character | Daisy Miller)
to  Daisy Girl  (fictional character | TV ad)

With a protagonist named Daisy and a love interest whose name is homonymous with winter born, can Daisy Miller fail to end in tragedy? Another tragic protagonist named—or at least referred to as—Daisy, appears in the brief “Daisy Girl” commercial made for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential election campaign. It begins with a little girl plucking petals from a daisy and ends with a nuclear holocaust. Daisy Miller may be an unfortunate figure, but the Daisy Girl portends global annihilation.

“Daisy Girl” ran only once, like the celebrated Orwellian Apple Computer commercial that made its debut and swan song during the 1984 Super Bowl. The Los Angeles Raiders won that game by a record-breaking 29 points, and in the following months, Apple’s sales soared. Twenty years prior, the Daisy Girl had helped Johnson win the Electoral College by an incredibly wide margin, 486 to 52. (To be fair, these probably seem like tragedies to you only if you’re a Redskins fan, prefer Windows to Macintosh or voted for Barry Goldwater.) Daisy Miller has landed on American Lit curricula across the English-speaking world—a victory for all.

Daisy Miller  (fictional character | Daisy Miller)
to  “Pull My Daisy”  (Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie (dirs.) | short film | 1959)

Gay was not good in mainstream cinema prior to the end of the 20th century. Same-sex lovers were transgressors and met tragic deaths in movies from The Children’s Hour (1961) to Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Although decidedly heterosexual, Henry James’s Daisy Miller was a transgressor too, a girl from Schenectady out of her depth among the high society of Geneva and Rome. James gave Daisy a fatal dose of Roman fever—an anti-Italian slur for malaria if ever there was one. James’s comrade-in-arms Edith Wharton later used the title “Roman Fever” for her own short story about upper-class American dalliance abroad.

In American counterculture, gay, if not exactly good, was not so bad, either. The short 1959 film “Pull My Daisy” celebrates homosexuality, gender-bending and other things gasp-inspiring. Based on part of the play Beat Generation by Jack Kerouac (straight), the film starred Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, his long-suffering poet boyfriend Peter Orlovsky, artist and musician Larry Rivers (bi) and poet Gregory Corso (gay-friendly). If James was a writer of his time, Kerouac was a writer far ahead of his, but both received their due. “Pull My Daisy” was enshrined in the Library of Congress in 1996.

Daisy Girl  (fictional character | TV ad)
to  “Pull My Daisy”  (Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie (dirs.) | short film | 1959)

“Pull my daisy” seems an innocent enough request. Pastoral, even, if slightly ambiguous. But something lurks behind the title of this film, which was taken from a poem cowritten in the late 1940s by Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. We’re not talking about pulling anyone’s leg, here. Questions abound. Where is one’s daisy? What should one do with it? Let’s read the poem’s first few lines:

Pull my daisy
tip my cup
all my doors are open
Cut my thoughts
for coconuts

Clear? Probably not. The poem also exhorts the reader to “bone my shadow,” “lick my rocks,” “whore my door” and do many other things that are seemingly metaphorical but, frankly, not all that difficult to parse and that cannot be printed here. Does this clarify things?

But pulling daisies need not be so vulgar. In “Daisy Girl,” the infamous television ad exhorting viewers to return Lyndon Johnson to office as U.S. president, an innocent two-year-old girl stands in a meadow pulling the petals off a daisy until the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion ends this pastoral for good. Perhaps, like war, pulling someone’s daisy is always vulgar after all.

Daisy Girl  (fictional character | TV ad)
to  Flower Power

“We must either love each other, or we must die.” It sounds like a lyric by peacenik singer Judy Collins. In fact, it’s from a TV commercial for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. No pacifist the likes of Collins, Johnson was still far to the left of his opponent, Republican Barry Goldwater, whose ass he kicked in the 1964 election. Many would say the “Daisy Girl” TV ad—in which a little girl counts the petals she picks off a daisy, after which a man’s voice counts down the seconds to the detonation of a nuclear bomb—was responsible for Johnson’s victory. It embodied the fears of a generation and successfully painted Goldwater as a warmongering lunatic who would blow that little girl to bits, and the continental United States along with her.

Hippie flower children were the would-be protectors of Daisy Girl. They sported posies—daisies among them—on their clothes and in their hair and offered them to the military police who arrived to quash their antiwar demonstrations. Flower power would ultimately prevail, of course, but not for years. The Vietnam war was ended not by Johnson but by his successor, Richard Nixon.