Robert Benchley? Mattie Barwick? David Niven?
Dear Quote Investigator: You might enjoy looking into this confusing question. I have been searching newspaper databases for a project involving the Venice canals. The following humorous note appeared in a newspaper called the Miami News on October 30, 1958 [MNGB]:
Word comes from European traveler, Mattie (Mrs. George) Barwick who is abroad with Mrs. William H. Walker, Jr.
Says she. “Just arrived in Venice. Find all streets flooded. Please advise.”
I recognized this as a restatement of a memorable joke telegram sent by Robert Benchley. Nowadays with the water problems in Venice the quip is less amusing.
I checked some quotation references to find out when Benchley came up with this clever comment. My puzzlement stems from the fact that Benchley is first credited with the joke in 1968, and this is ten years after the Miami News article. Benchley died in 1945. Do you think he is being given credit for something he never said?
Quote Investigator: A version of this message is attributed to Benchley in the Yale Book of Quotations [YBRB], the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [ODRB], the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations [PMRB] and many other references. The YBQ contains the best citation information, and it refers to the 1968 book “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan [AWRB]:
On a summer vacation trip Benchley arrived in Venice and immediately wired a friend:
“STREETS FLOODED. PLEASE ADVISE.”
QI has located a version of the anecdote and the telegram text under the title “Bulletin from Benchley” in the October 1958 issue of The Reader’s Digest, and this should help to resolve the riddle [RDRB]:
David Niven tells about the time he and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., planned a European itinerary for humorist Robert Benchley: “I made arrangements for him to visit some friends of mine in Venice. The day Benchley got there he sent us a cable which read:
STREETS FULL OF WATER. ADVISE.
—As told to Dean Jennings in The Saturday Evening Post
The Reader’s Digest was typically released before the date on its cover, and the issue of the Saturday Evening Post containing the words attributed to Benchley must have been available before that time. Hence the joke was widely disseminated before it appeared in the Miami News at the end of October in 1958.
Here are some additional select citations in chronological order.
In 1955 a quip on the same theme appeared in a popular column of the Chicago Tribune called “A Line O’ Type or Two” [CTSF]:
OVERHEARD while watching Katharine Hepburn in the film, “Venice”: “My sakes alive, look at them streets all flooded with water!” M. H. G.
By 1958 the tale appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and The Reader’s Digest as indicated above. In 1962 the story appeared in a Schenectady, New York newspaper. The message in the telegram was slightly altered with the addition of the word “please”. Also, Benchley was supposedly sending a message to a magazine and not to a friend [SNRB].
We laughed at Robert Benchley. Remember when a magazine sent him on an assignment to Venice and he wired back: “Streets full of water. Please advise.”
In 1968 a book by Robert E. Drennan about the Algonquin Round Table was published, and as noted above, a version of the Benchley telegram was included. This work was reviewed in the Christian Science Monitor and the telegram was singled out and reprinted [CMBR].
In 1972 the Academy Award winning actor David Niven wrote a memoir titled “The Moon’s a Balloon” and he discussed the message he received from his friend Robert Benchley [MBRB]:
Benchley was one of the wittiest men alive, but unlike most people full of funny things to say, he was rather retiring. … Benchley disappeared to Europe. I made him promise to go to Venice, which he had never before visited. One day he cabled me, and in view of the address he used, the fact that it was delivered was flattering enough:
STREETS FULL OF WATER. ADVISE
The date of the telegram was not given in the book. In the chapter Niven discussed the filming of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Dawn Patrol (1938) before the incident, and he discussed rejoining the British military in 1939 after the telegram incident. But there is no guarantee that events were presented in exact temporal order.
Jumping forward to 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle published a version of the quotation [SFRB]:
“Streets full of water. Please advise,” was humorist Robert Benchley’s famous telegram to the New Yorker magazine after arriving in Venice. It was a joke about the canals, but in winter it’s frequently true — as is well known by visitors wading through Piazza San Marco and other flooded sites.
In conclusion, there is evidence that Robert Benchley did send a witty telegram about Venice to the prominent actor David Niven probably in the late 1930s. This event was described by Niven in The Saturday Evening Post by 1958. The most common modern versions are stated differently than the original text.
Thanks for your question, and QI hopes that the massive flood control project under construction for Venice is a success.
[MNGB] 1958 October 30, Miami News, On the Party Line: Europe Wig and Car Too Much by Margaret Acer, Caught in a Flood, Page 3B (GN Page 18), Miami, Florida. (Google News archive)
[YBRB] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Robert Benchley, Page 53, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
[ODRB] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Robert Benchley, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2011 April 17)
[PMRB] 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: Venice, Page 260, Column 1, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper)
[AWRB] 1968, The Algonquin Wits edited by Robert E. Drennan, Page 45, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
[RDRB] 1958 October, The Reader’s Digest, Bulletin from Benchley, Page 52, Volume 73, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
[CTSF] 1955 November 4, Chicago Daily Tribune, A Line O’ Type or Two, Page 16, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[SNRB] 1962 October 20, Schenectady Gazette, The Return of the Square by Charles H. Bower, Page 18 (GN Page 10), Schenectady, New York. (Google News archive)
[CMBR] 1968 May 16, Christian Science Monitor, Crumbs from the Round Table: Book Review, Page 11, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[MBRB] 1972, The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven, Pages 233-234, G.P Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper; Second impression)
[SFRB] 2005 October 2, San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Checks, San Francisco, California. (SFGate Online archive; Accessed 2011 April 20) link