Tennis, Anyone?

Humphrey Bogart? George Bernard Shaw? W. Somerset Maugham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Before Humphrey Bogart played iconic tough and sophisticated characters he appeared in drawing room comedies on Broadway. Supposedly in his first scene as a young actor he came striding onto the stage swinging a racquet and saying:

Tennis anyone?

Later this line became a cliché that was parodied by comedians. But recently I read that Bogart never said it. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: For years researchers have attempted to uncover evidence that Bogart spoke this piece of dialogue in a stage production. Some theater goers indicated that they heard Bogart deliver the line, but this type of testimony is not reliable. In multiple interviews Bogart denied that he said it.

But QI has found a 1948 interview with him in the syndicated newspaper column of Hollywood gossip Erskine Johnson that helps to explain the existence of this assertion. Bogart himself stated that he used a nearly identical line “Tennis anybody?” earlier in his career [EJHB]:

Bogart laughed. “I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: “Tennis anybody?” It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way I come in with a gun and bump ‘em off.”

According to the language columnist William Safire the story told by Bogart was somewhat different in 1951. In that year Safire interviewed Bogart for the New York Herald Tribune. The text from a yellowed clipping of the resulting article was reprinted by Safire in the New York Times in 1990 [WSHB]:

”People forget how I used to look on Broadway,” the actor reminisced. ”There would be a crowd of charming and witty young blue bloods gathered in the drawing-room set, having tea, while the hero and the heroine get into a petty squabble. The writer couldn’t think of any other way of getting excess characters off the stage, so the leads could be alone – and that’s where I would appear in the doorway, in my flannels, hair slicked back, sweater knotted jauntily about my neck, four tennis racquets under my arm, breathing hard as I said my line: ‘It’s 40-love out there. Anyone care to come out and watch?’ ”

Safire asked Bogart directly about the disputed line and received a denial [WSHB]:

”The lines I had were corny enough, but I swear to you, never once did I have to say Tennis, anyone?”

Reconciling these pronouncements from Bogart is possible if one assumes that the phrase “Tennis anybody?” was not supposed to be a literal description of words in a script. Instead, Bogart was giving a representational or generic phrase that his character type was assigned. Nevertheless confusion is understandable.

The expression occurs frequently enough that lexicographers have created an entry for it in the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary. Two phrasal variations are listed together with a definition [OEDT]:

anyone for tennis?, who’s for tennis?, etc., a typical entrance or exit line given to a young man in a superficial drawing-room comedy, used attrib. of (someone or something reminiscent of) this kind of comedy.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1891 the influential British humor magazine Punch featured a story mentioning tennis. In one scene two male characters are discussing their relationships with women. In the next scene one solitary character presents a monologue. The scene change is accomplished by a line of dialogue reminiscent of the modern phrase [TCPU]:

I’m going to see if there’s anyone on the tennis-court, and get a game if I can. Ta-ta!

Several reference works point to the 1910 play by George Bernard Shaw titled “Misalliance”. This drama contained a line similar to the one under investigation spoken by a “young business man of thirty or less” [MGBS]:

LORD SUMMERHAYS. Reading is a dangerous amusement, Tarleton. I wish I could persuade your free library people of that.

TARLETON. Why, man, it’s the beginning of education.

LORD SUMMERHAYS. On the contrary, it’s the end of it. How can you dare teach a man to read until you’ve taught him everything else first?

JOHNNY. [intercepting his father’s reply by coming out of the swing and taking the floor] Leave it at that. That’s good sense. Anybody on for a game of tennis?

BENTLEY. Oh, let’s have some more improving conversation. Wouldn’t you rather, Johnny?

JOHNNY. If you ask me, no.

In 1917 a short story published in “The Smart Set” magazine used a version of the expression to shift between scenes [AGSS]:

Laura felt it past her power to effect a gradual transition to another subject. She simply broke in on the polite wrangle with:

“Is anybody playing tennis this afternoon? It’s not too late to play on dirt courts.”

The men jumped at the suggestion.

In 1921 W. Somerset Maugham published a comic play called “The Circle” containing a entrance line about tennis. The setting was a country house and the following scene took place in a “stately drawing-room” with “fine pictures on the walls and Georgian furniture” [SMTC]:

[Edward Luton shows himself at the window. He is an attractive youth in flannels.]

Teddie. I say, what about this tennis?

Elizabeth. Come in. We’re having a scene.

Teddie. [Entering.] How splendid! What about?

Elizabeth. The English language.

Teddie. Don’t tell me you’ve been splitting your infinitives.

In 1942 a version of the line was used in a short story in the New Yorker magazine. However, the writer’s intention was not to shift the scene but to help illustrate the character of the speaker [NYJP]:

“How about some tennis?” the little fellow said.

“I couldn’t,” I said. “I’m too tired.”

“I can probably find somebody around the clubhouse,” he said, beginning to appraise the other men in the grillroom.”

In 1947 a newspaper article presented the phrase “Tennis anyone?” as an archetypal element in the script of an “English high comedy”. The columnist Harry A. McCrea was discussing the scoring-term “love” in the context of tennis [CHM1]:

A whole school of English high comedy has been built on the double meaning of the word. Plays such as “Let Us Be Gay,” in which the scene is laid at an English country house where a weekend party is in progress. Soda is fizzing, butlers are buttling and monocles are popping when a robust babe makes her mis-en-scene and asks: “Tennis anyone?” Right away you see the playwright is building up to a two-pronged epigram about love.

In June 1948 the same columnist, McCrea, used “Anyone for Tennis?” as the title of a newspaper article. He outlined a scene very similar to the entrance described by Bogart, but the stereotyped youthful role was played by a different actor [CHM2]:

I first saw Reginald Calthorpe many years ago when I attended a Lonsdale play, He had the role of a callow young Oxonian weekending at an English country house. Rigged out in a tennis outfit and languidly swinging a racket, he oozed onto the stage and asked in his best Balliol accent, “Anyone for tennis?”

In September 1948 Bogart indicated that he once spoke the line or something similar to it. This citation was mentioned at the beginning of this post [EJHB]:

Bogart laughed. “I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: “Tennis anybody?”

In 1950 the phrase was described as a cliché in films; however, the article suggested that the actor speaking the words was sometimes a blond unlike Bogart [STHH]:

A few years ago towheaded actors invariably were called on to enact the fops, cads and weak-willed juveniles. Closest a blond got to an athletic role was the character who’d bounce into a living room in white ducks and a blazer and ask, “Tennis, anyone?”

In 1951 William Safire interviewed Bogart who denied that he spoke the phrase. This cite was discussed earlier in this post [WSHB]:

”The lines I had were corny enough, but I swear to you, never once did I have to say Tennis, anyone?”

In 1952 the columnist Robert C. Ruark gave further evidence that the shopworn query about tennis was considered comical [EPRR]:

Tennis, as a sport, is erroneously supposed to be a rich man’s plaything and extremely social. This calls for all sorts of silly words and ceremonies. The top cliché, “Anyone for tennis?” has become a satirical utterance denoting complete fatuous foolishness.

In 1957 the influential British-American commentator Alistair Cooke writing in The Guardian newspaper claimed that Bogart said “Tennis anyone?” during a performance in 1927, but no specific play was named [ACHB]:

Thirty years ago, towards the end of the first act of one of those footling country house comedies that passed in the 1920s for social satire, a juvenile in an Ascot and a blue blazer loped through the french windows and tossed off the immortal invitation: “Tennis anyone?” Possibly he did not coin the phrase but he glorified the type, if wooden young men with brown eyes and no discoverable occupation can ever be said to go to glory, on stage or off.

This young man, whose performance the late Alexander Woolcott said “could be mercifully described as inadequate,” yet seemed to be cast by fortune for the role of a Riviera fixture.

In the 1965 biography “Bogey: The Good-Bad Guy” a comment from Bogart on this topic was printed [EGHB]:

I appeared in seven smash hits, among them ‘Cradle Snatchers’ and ‘It’s a Wise Child’ as a juvenile. “Contrary to legend, as a juvenile I never said ‘Tennis, anyone?’ just as I never said ‘Drop the gun, Louie,’ as a heavy.

In 1968 the 14th edition of the major reference work “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” attributed the phrase to the actor [BFHB]:

HUMPHREY BOGART 1900-1957

Tennis, anyone?

His sole line in his first play

In 1975 Nathaniel Benchley published a biography of his good friend Humphrey Bogart. The book discussed this disputed topic [NBHB]:

Richard Watts, Jr., recently retired critic for the Post, swears that he heard Humphrey, wearing a blue blazer and carrying a tennis racket, come onstage and speak the immortal line, “Tennis, anyone?” as the playwright’s device for getting unwanted characters off the stage, but he cannot now remember the name of the play. Others tend to doubt that the words were ever spoken; they maintain they were symptomatic of the kinds of part rather than any one part itself, and Humphrey gave a different version every time the subject came up. Once he said his line was, “It’s forty-love outside — anyone care to watch?”

In 2003 the controversial author of “The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart” suggested that an original script for the 1920s era comedy “Hell’s Bells” directed by John Hayden had been discovered. The author claimed that a line of dialog had been modified to read “Tennis anyone?” for Bogart to deliver [SLHB]:

The line about it being “forty-love outside” was indeed in the script as Bogie later claimed. But before opening night, Hayden had crossed over the line and written, “Tennis anyone?

In conclusion, in 1948 Bogart stated that when he was a young actor he said “Tennis anybody?” on the stage. But later he denied saying the similar line “Tennis anyone?” Several researchers and biographers were unable to locate compelling evidence that the line was present in the script of a play featuring Bogart as the speaker. One author thinks the line was used in a production of Hell’s Bells. By the 1940s and 1950s the line was considered hackneyed and subject to satire.

Update history: On February 18, 2012 the citation dated 2003 was added.

(Many thanks to Fred Shapiro whose original inquiry inspired the construction of this question and provided impetus for this exploration.)

[EJHB] 1948 September 16, Portsmouth Herald, Erskine Johnson: In Hollywood, Page 12, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (NewspaperArchive)

[WSHB] 1990 July 01, New York Times, Drop the Gun, Louie by William Safire, Page SM6, New York. (ProQuest)

[OEDT] Oxford English Dictionary, Entry: tennis, noun, Sense 2.b., Second edition, 1989 [Online edition December 2011] (Accessed online February 11, 2012)

[TCPU] 1891 November 28, Punch, The Travelling Companions: No. XVI, Page 256, Column 1, Published at the Office of Punch, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books full view) link

[MGBS] 1914, Misalliance, The dark lady of the Sonnets, and Fanny’s first play; with a Treatise on Parents and Children by Bernard Shaw, [Misalliance 1910], Page 28, Brentano’s, New York. [The University Press, Cambridge] (Google Books full view) link

[AGSS] 1917 September, The Smart Set, The Crucifixion of Anne Gilbert by Richmond B. Barrett, Volume 53, Number 1, Ess Ess Pub. Co., New York. (HathiTrust)

[SMTC] 1921, The Circle: A Comedy in Three Acts by William Somerset Maugham, Act 1, Page 11, Baker International Play Bureau, Boston. (Google Books full view) [Thanks to Bernie Kane for pointing to this cite.] link

[NYJP] 1942 December 26, The New Yorker, Little Fellow by James Reid Parker, Page 37, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)

[CHM1] 1947 July 06, Canton Repository, So I’m Told by Harry A. McCrea, Page 6, [GA Page 14], Column 7, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[CHM2] 1948 June 15, The Canton Repository, “Anyone for Tennis?” by Harry A. McCrea, Page 6, Column 4, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[STHH] 1950 July 16, Seattle Daily Times, Hollywood Tip-Offs: Film Fans Prefer Blond Gentlemen by Harold Heffernan, [North American Newspaper Alliance], GA Page 60, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)

[EPRR] 1952 June 20, El Paso Herald-Post, Tennis Is Sillier Than Golf Since Ball Never ‘Arrives’ by Robert C. Ruark, Second Section, Page 15, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[ACHB] 1957 January 16, The Guardian (UK), Art and the Age of Violence by Alistair Cooke, Online GuardianCentury archive. (Accessed at century.guardian.co.uk on February 13 2012) link

[EGHB] 1965, Bogey: The Good-Bad Guy by Ezra Goodman, Page 31, Lyle Stuart Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[BFHB] 1968, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Fourteenth Edition, Edited by Emily Morison Beck, Humphrey Bogart, Page 1046, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified with scans)

[NBHB] 1975, Humphrey Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley, Page 30, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper)

[SLHB] 2003, The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart: The Early Years (1899-1931) by Darwin Porter,  Page 78, Georgia Literary Association, Staten Island, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)

One thought on “Tennis, Anyone?

  1. It seems to me that I remember seeing, years ago, a movie in which Robert Cummings came bounding into a living room where there were several people discussing something, and saying “tennis, anyone?” I cannot remember the movie’s title nor the plot.

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