Dorothy Parker? An old farmer? A young newspaper editor? Bennett Cerf?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently when a friend delivered a clever retort I told her it was worthy of Dorothy Parker, but she did not recognize the name. I love Parker’s witticisms and am sad that her fame is going into eclipse. The prominent publisher and joke collector Bennett Cerf told an anecdote about Parker on a cruise ship that I relayed to my friend [BCDP]:
A drunk on the boat developed an unrequited passion for her; Dorothy referred to him as a “rhinestone in the rough.” On one occasion he assured her, “I simply can’t bear fools.” “Apparently,” said Miss Parker, “your mother did not have the same difficulty.”
My skeptical friend wondered if these quips were created by Dorothy Parker. I assumed that they were. Could you look into these jests?
Quote Investigator: The cleverness of Parker was attested to by many admirers, and she may have delivered the lines in Cerf’s anecdote. But the two jokes have a long history, and she did not craft either of them.
The famous short story writer O. Henry used the phrase “rhinestone-in-the-rough” which is a comical twist on the phrase “diamond in the rough” in a tale in “McClure’s magazine” in 1904. Since Parker was only born in 1893 she was too young to be the originator of the expression. A version of the joke about bearing fools was told decades earlier in the periodical “Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion” in 1858.
Here are two citations for the rhinestone phrase followed by a chronological sequence of selected cites for the other quip. In 1904 renowned author O. Henry published a story titled “A Tempered Wind” about confidence men orchestrating a stock swindle. The scheme requires opening an office in the Wall Street neighborhood of New York staffed with a small group of imposters. One of the grafters does not wish to portray a polished individual, and he states the following [ORIR]:
“I’m a plain man,” says I, “and I do not use pajamas, French, or military hair-brushes. Cast me for the role of the rhinestone-in-the-rough or I don’t go on exhibition. If you can use me in my natural, though displeasing form, do so.”
In 1917 the same jocular locution occurs in the novel “The End of the Flight” [KRIR]:
“Who is going to take you home, Sylvia? Not that fellow Irvin Crist, surely!”
“He’s a very nice boy.”
“A Rhinestone in the rough! … Well, I don’t care, so long as it isn’t Andy Penning.”
The earliest cite located by QI for the riposte concerning fools is dated 1858 and appears in a short article with a collection of gags under the title “Joker’s Budget” [BBF]:
A small chap on the street with a big hat on, stranger sees him and cries out—”Hallo, hat, where are you going with that boy?”
A lady fixed the following letters in the bottom of her flour barrel, and asked her husband to read them, O I C U R M T.
One pedant speaking of another says, “He can’t bear a natural fool;” whereupon the other replies, “Unfortunately your mother could.”
In 1867 an instance of the quip occurs on the other coast of the United States in a San Francisco, California newspaper. Multiple jokes are grouped together in a column titled “Surface Diggings and Siftings” [CBF]:
A pedant said to an old farmer that he could not bear a fool; he replied, ‘Your mother could.’
‘She only wore a single rose,’ according to the song. Rather a light costume. Wind wasn’t probably east that day.
A considerably more elaborate anecdotal version of the joke appears in 1887. The setting of this popular tale is Maine, but it appears in a New Jersey paper and is reprinted in a Los Angeles paper [LBF] and a Chicago paper [IOBF]. The article titled “Wide-Awake Boy Editors” transfers the wisecrack from the domain of farmers to journalists:
Newark Journal: “The proposed visit of Senator Frye to this city reminds me of a good story,” said a gentleman well known about the court-house this morning. “I was living at Poland, Me., a number of years ago and became acquainted with two boys who were editing a little sheet at Auburn, known as the Clipper, and printing it themselves on a broken-down Franklin press. The boys were sharp as needles, and have since made positions for themselves. The boy editors were bright and fearless, and tackled popular subjects without gloves.
“William P. Frye was then running for Congress for the first time, his home being on the opposite side of the river from Auburn. For some reason, the editors of the Clipper made up their minds to go for ‘Billy,” as he was called and they raked up all his failings and weaknesses and displayed them to the readers of their paper in the most startling manner.
“An old and highly respectable citizen of Lewiston and a relative of Mr. Frye wrote to the young editors and berated them in strong terms for criticizing the action of so great a man as Mr. Frye. The irate citizen concluded his epistle by the trite expression, ‘I could never bear a fool.’
“In the next issue of the Clipper the communication was published in full, with only the following added:
["The writer's mother evidently could and did.--EDS"]
The sequence of selected cites now jumps forward many years to 1941. In that year the Reader’s Digest published a version of the jest that credited Dorothy Parker. This is the earliest year containing a cite located by QI that attributes the gag to Parker [RDGW]:
A very affected young man who had been holding forth at great length remarked, “I simply can’t bear fools!”
“How odd,” chimed in Dorothy Parker. “Apparently your mother could.” — Contributed by Olga Swanson
In conclusion, the two jests in the 1944 anecdote of Bennett Cerf were not formulated by Dorothy Parker. Both were pleasing enough to be repeated for decades beforehand. It is possible that Parker used the jokes, but it is also possible that the quips were linked to her with inadequate justification. QI thanks you for this question and believes that your inquisitiveness shows that you are not a born fool.
[BCDP] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 112, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
[ORIR] 1904 August, McClure’s Magazine, A Tempered Wind by O. Henry, Page 354, S.S. McClure Company, New York. (HathiTrust full view) link
[KRIR] 1917, The End of the Flight by Burton Kline. Page 29, John Lane Company, New York [Plimpton Press, Norwood, Massachusetts]. (Google Books full view) link
[BBF] 1858 February 20, Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Joker’s Budget, Page 127, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodical Series)
[CBF] 1867 October 6, The Golden Era, Surface Diggings and Siftings, Page 7, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Google News archive) link
[LBF] 1887 November 28, Los Angeles Times, Wide-Awake Boy Editors, Page 5, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[IOBF] 1887 November 13, The Daily (Sunday) Inter Ocean, Wide-Awake Boy Editors, Page 11, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (19th-Century U.S. Newspapers Gale Cengage)
[RDGW] 1941 June, The Reader’s Digest, Party Chatter, Page 49, Volume 38, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)