More than six months after the film that inspired it premiered, “Mrs. Robinson” reached Number 1 on the Billboard pop chart in June 1968, where it stayed for three weeks. The single by Simon and Garfunkel expanded—and, in many ways, fundamentally recast—the lyrics used in a shorter version in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Starting as a fragmentary salute to a former First Lady, it had undergone a metamorphosis into a wistful reflection on the loss of American values and role models.
According to Peter Ames Carlin’s 2016 biography of Simon, Homeward Bound, Nichols had seen Simon and Garfunkel’s last LP, Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme, as reflective of the same sort of malaise afflicting the emotionally confused protagonist of his film. Nichols’ pitch to the duo had an additional element that must have surely appealed to their ambition: creating a score that, unusually for this period, would be rock ‘n’ roll based.
But Paul Simon did not have an easy time of it. Not only was he mired in a bad case of writer’s block, but he also had to deal initially with rejection. After turning down “Punky’s Dilemma” and “Overs,” Nichols asked Simon what else he had. The songwriter, perhaps feeling slightly chagrined over Nichols' coolness toward his initial original efforts, said he just had a few chords, nothing else.
It was Art Garfunkel who later divulged to the director that there was at least somewhat more. It had a catchy “de-de-de-de-de” section, and even an opening line: “Here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt.”
Nichols, initially struck by the surname so similar to the seductress in his film, urged the duo to develop what they had quickly so he could sneak it into the movie, now in its late production stage. It would be the final piece in a soundtrack that, without being plot-specific, fit the sense of malaise and alienation besetting title character Benjamin Braddock: “Scarborough Fair,” “April, Come She Will” and “The Sound of Silence.”
While able to complete the music for the song, Simon could only manage to finish one verse, a shortfall that Nichols bridged by having the duo sing that de-de-de-de-de as the connective tissue across several scenes toward the end. That sparse version appeared in the film and the bestselling soundtrack that capitalized on it, but Simon was not through with it.
The lines that Simon came up with, for the duo’s LP Bookends, while striking, are also something of a satiric collage, reflecting his working method. He tended to obsess over songs, tinkering with words and chord changes, before returning to his notebook to pull out a line here or there that he could slip in somewhere.
The version of “Mrs. Robinson” that appeared as a single and on Bookends feels less like a direct commentary on the character than a speculation on her life, before and after the events of the film.
“We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files” is the kind of seemingly innocent statement that the administrators of a mental health or substance-abuse facility might make to a new entrant. “We’d like to help you learn to help yourself,” continuing in the same vein, sounds even more sinister, a way to anesthetize the pain of the bored, cynical woman with little interesting to think of besides revenging herself on her husband with his business partner’s son. Alcohol abuse and a loveless marriage have combined to bring her to a bad pass—most likely after Ben and daughter Elaine have contrived to run away,
Thus, “going to the candidates’ debate” had nothing to do with any plot point in the film. Mrs. Robinson doesn’t evince the slightest interest even in voting, let alone listening to politicians hash over issues.
So, why this reference? It might be a leftover from the inspiration for the song, Mrs. Roosevelt, who sat through all kinds of debates during her life. But 1968 was an election year, and a few months after the release of Bookends occurred a very important debate between Democratic Presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, which would play a pivotal role in the California primary.
In what way can “Mrs. Robinson” be thought of as the theme for The Graduate? Leave aside the title and it becomes trickier. The closest the song comes in the second verse, referring to a period before Benjamin may even be born: “Hide it in a hiding place where no one ever goes/Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes.”
What is being hidden could be a liquor bottle, or what The Rolling Stones called “Mother’s Little Helper”: a pill to calm her down when she gets to feel “What a drag it is getting old.”
Mrs. Robinson has more than a few reasons to feel this way. As a result of an affair, she became pregnant, then was forced to leave college and enter a loveless marriage. It is not merely “a little secret, just a Robinson affair,” but a relationship leaving vast wreckage, big enough so she feels the need to “hide it from the kids.”
In a year marked by social cleavage among Americans, it was not surprising that even the sports world was affected. The most significant sign of this was the greater division within sports itself, with Muhammad Ali, for instance, exciting controversy with his defiance of the draft because he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
Through his father, Paul Simon had been raised as a diehard Yankee fan and especially franchise cornerstone Joe DiMaggio. By the time he came to write “Mrs. Robinson,” however, the cultural landscape that had once cheered the 56-game hitting streak of “The Yankee Clipper” as a momentary release from a world engulfed by war had changed utterly.
Casting about for a hero in a simpler time, Simon thought of childhood idol Joe DiMaggio. The reference that incorporated this—“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”—attracted an unusual amount of attention, perhaps surpassed only by Jimmy Webb’s startling image in “MacArthur Park”: “Someone left the cake out in the rain.”
Actually, only one person was really discombobulated by Simon’s lyric: DiMaggio himself. “‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’” the slugger remarked plaintively to friends, quoting the song’s line before remarking, in a tone as puzzled as it was annoyed: “But I never went away.”
But many other listeners knew instinctively what Simon meant because of the line that immediately followed: “A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” An earlier verse had asked Mrs. Robinson to contemplate the “sympathetic eyes” all around her.
Intentionally or not, with that subtle change of an adjective, Simon had captured the sense that America was now losing traction. The mood by the late Sixties had shifted under the pressure of events—violence, changing sexual mores, and the campus unrest that leads Ben to be briefly but ludicrously suspected of radicalism. By this time, Americans felt that time is out of joint, with the middle-aged wondering what had ever happened to their hope of happiness and the young feeling confused about a future whose promise consists of a single word: “plastics.”
Some time after the song’s release, Simon and DiMaggio ran into each other in a restaurant, and the aging Hall of Famer finally got to vent about his consternation about the reference to himself. Simon responded, “I don't mean it that way...I meant, where are these great heroes now?” Hearing this, DiMaggio “was flattered once he understood that it was meant to be flattering," Simon recalled years later.
The baseball legend must have been very flattered indeed. In 1999, to honor this player so used to obeisance that he would only be introduced last at Old Timers Day as “the greatest living Yankee,” the organization prevailed on Simon to play “Mrs. Robinson” as part of a tribute on “Joe DiMaggio Day,” the last time the ailing hero would hear the roar of the crowd.