Dorothy Parker? Walter Winchell? Fictional? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I gave a close friend a book as a gift, and on the accompanying card I included a quotation that Dorothy Parker once used in a book review:
This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.
After reading about so many false attributions on this website I decided to check this quote. Initially, I was happy to discover that several texts agreed that Dorothy Parker employed the quip while reviewing a work by Lucius Beebe called “Shoot If You Must”. But mystification followed because the book does not exist. There are two books titled “Shoot If You Must”: one written by Richard Powell and another written by C. D’W. Gibson. Lucius Beebe never wrote a book with that title.
A precise citation for Dorothy Parker’s book review was not given in any of the places I looked. There is an online database for The New Yorker magazine, and I searched it because that is where Parker published many of her book reviews; however, I could not find the saying. Is this another fake Dorothy Parker witticism?
Quote Investigator: Your quest for accuracy is admirable and QI sympathizes because he encountered similar difficulties while exploring the history of this saying. Lucius Beebe did write a book that was reviewed by Dorothy Parker. But the title used wordplay, and it was called: “Snoot If You Must” and not “Shoot If You Must”. In the December 11, 1943 issue of the “Saturday Review of Literature” Parker ended her review with this comment [SRB]:
I see that Mr. Beebe’s “Snoot If You Must” (it is surely some dark, dark masochism that makes me say that title again) is widely advertised for the Christmas trade. It must be what I believe is known as a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Parker’s review was noticed by influential commentator Walter Winchell who repeated the quip in his widely-read column in January 1944 [WWP]:
D. Parker in the Sat. Review cracks down on Luke Beebe’s tome, which she tags a gift book. “That is to say,” Dotty sabers, “a book you wouldn’t take on any other terms.”
The quote given in Winchell’s article was slightly streamlined by the deletion of the word “which”. This modification may have been performed by a newspaper editor and not Winchell. Parker’s remark also caught the eye of the publisher and joke compiler Bennett Cerf who included it in his 1944 book “Try and Stop Me” [BCD]:
Of Lucius Beebe’s Shoot If You Must, she commented, “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.”
Cerf replaced Parker’s somewhat clumsy phrase “It must be what I believe is known as a gift book” with the more concise “This must be a gift book.” He also changed the name of the book under review by replacing “Snoot” with “Shoot”. This error was reproduced in other volumes containing the quotation for decades.
For example, a 1968 book about the Algonquin roundtable titled “The Algonquin Wits” incorporated the following passage [AWD]:
Reviewing a book on science, Mrs. Parker wrote, “It was written without fear and without research.”
Commenting on Lucius Beebe’s Shoot If You Must, Mrs. Parker declared, “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.”
The same mistaken book title appears in the introduction to a 1996 collection of Parker’s poems [LPD]:
Shoot if You Must: “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.” Mistress of Mellyn: “It is derived from Jane Eyre as painstakingly as a fingerprint is taken from the butt of a gun.”
In conclusion, Dorothy Parker did bare her fangs and Lucius Beebe did feel her venom. But this was unusual venom with paradoxical life-giving properties. As author Somerset Maugham noted [VPD]:
Helen could make a scholar immortal with a kiss; she (Dorothy Parker) can make a fool immortal with a jibe.
(Here Maugham is contrasting Helen of Troy as depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus with Parker.)
Thanks for your question. The answer is free, the terms expected by QI’s readers.
[SRB] 1943 December 11, Saturday Review of Literature, The Trough of Plenty by Dorothy Parker, [Book Review of "Snoot If You Must" by Lucius Beebe], Page 11, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
[WWP] 1944 January 3, Herald-Journal, Walter Winchell: Notes of an Innocent Bystander by Walter Winchell, Page 4, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News archive)
[BCD] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 111, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
[AWD] 1968, The Algonquin Wits edited by Robert E. Drennan, Page 114, Citadel Press, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper) link
[LPD] 1996, Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker compiled by Stuart Y. Silverstein, Footnote 56, Page 37, Scribner, New York. (Verified on paper)
[VPD] 1944, Dorothy Parker: The Viking Portable Library by Dorothy Parker, Introduction by Somerset Maugham, Page 11-12, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)