The ‘t’ Is Silent, as in Harlow

Margot Asquith? Margot Grahame? Apocryphal?

Mrs Herbert Asquith, later Countess of Oxford and AsquithDear Quote Investigator: According to a Hollywood legend there was a pointed verbal encounter between the movie siren Jean Harlow and the sharp-tongued English aristocrat Margot Asquith. When Harlow attended a party given by Asquith, the movie star presumptuously referred to the hostess by her first name, and she repeatedly mispronounced it as “Margott”, i.e., she pronounced a “t” at the end of the name. Eventually, Asquith responded with a squelcher:

No, no, Jean. The ‘t’ is silent, as in Harlow.

Do you think this wordplay on “harlot” occurred during an actual conversation or was this dialog constructed afterwards by a comedian? I have seen a citation in 1974, but that date is very late.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a newspaper gossip column in August 1934. The article discussed a rising young movie actress who used the single name “Margo”. (This Margo was unrelated to Harlow or Asquith.) The title of the article was “Name is ‘Margo’ Without a ‘T’” and it had two meanings. The first meaning was simply a reference to the new actress. The second meaning was a sly allusion to the punchline of the joke under examination.

The gossip columnist did not directly recount the comical anecdote involving Harlow and Asquith because of the censorial sensitivities of the 1930s, and because the reporter was dependent on the good will of movie studios. However, the final sentence of the column shown below established the fact that the joke was in circulation: 1

Apropos Margo, who is discussed in this column, get Fred McFadden, Palace press agent, to tell you the story of Jean Harlow at Margot Asquith’s party.

The second earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a letter dated October 4, 1934 that was located by top-notch researcher Sam Clements. For many years the famous jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the diplomat Lewis Einstein exchanged correspondence. A note from Einstein included a version of the anecdote which he may have heard from Margot Asquith directly. The term “Lady Oxford” in the following passage referred to Asquith who was the Countess of Oxford: 2

By way of pleasantry I must relate to you one of our mutual friend Lady Oxford’s latest. Having met Jean Harlow (the original platinum blonde) at a party the latter exuberantly began to call her Margott stressing the final t. Margot (severely) — ‘The final “t” in my christian name is silent, unlike your family name’.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

More than a decade later, in 1945, a version of the humorous tale was included in a profile of Margot Asquith that was printed in a Massachusetts newspaper: 3

There was also the story, possibly apocryphal but certainly characteristic, of her visit to Hollywood. She was described as encountering a popular young screen actress of the period who insisted on addressing her as “Margot,” ignorantly pronouncing the final letter. After this had happened several times Lady Asquith riposted, “My dear, the final ‘t’ is silent as in Harlow.”

In 1948 George Leveson-Gower, a British politician and civil servant, printed a version of the story with an extended dialog in his book titled “Mixed Grill”: 4

JEAN HARLOW, a pretty young film star, was a friend of Anthony Asquith, who is a film producer. She asked Margot to call her “Jean”, and presently asked whether she might call her “Margot”, (rhyming to forgot”). “Certainly not!” “But why not? Of course I know that you are older than me and more important; but still—as you call me ‘Jean’ . . .” “That’s not the reason.” “But, then, what is it?” “Because it’s not my name.” “But I see you everywhere described so.” “Yes, but not pronounced so. It should be ‘Margo’, without the ‘t’; just as your own name is ‘Harlow’.”

In 1965 the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons recounted a version of the anecdote which he labeled a legend: 5

One of the Jean Harlow legends in London is about her being introduced to Margot Asquith. Miss Harlow immediately starting addressing her by her first name, and mispronounced it as “Margott.” It was, “Believe me, Margott,” and “I tell you. Margott.” The British lady resented this informality and said: “It’s Margo. The ‘t’ is silent — as in Harlow.”

An alternative version of the anecdote emerged in the 1980s when a former movie actress named Margot Grahame stated that she interacted with Jean Harlow. Grahame contended that she actually filled the role that was usually assigned to Margot Asquith in the tale: 6

If you must know, I was a platinum blond bombshell before Jean Harlow was. I went to Hollywood [from England], and there I met Miss Harlow. Now, my first name is pronounced Margo, but twice Miss Harlow mispronounced it Margott, with a t. I really had nothing against her, but I must have been irritated, for I said, “It’s pronounced Margo. The t is silent—as in your last name….”

—Margot Grahame

Top quotation expert and BBC broadcaster Nigel Rees included the Asquith-Harlow anecdote in his compilation “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”. In addition, Rees discussed the alternative story featuring Margot Grahame. 7

In conclusion, the two citations in 1934 indicate that an instance of the anecdote featuring Jean Harlow and Margot Asquith was in circulation by that year. The dialog varied but the gist of the punchline was preserved in the myriad versions recounted over the decades. QI thinks that this Hollywood legend has evidentiary support. However, the specific details of the time and place are still unknown.

Notes:

  1. 1934 August 28, Dallas Morning News, Notes On The Passing Show: Name is “Margo” Without a “T” by J. R. Jr. [John Rosenfield, Jr.], Page 6, Column 3, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1964, The Holmes-Einstein letters: Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Lewis Einstein: 1903-1935, Edited by James Bishop Peabody, (Letter dated October 4, 1934 from Lewis Einstein to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes), Start Page 358, Quote Page 359, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London. (Verified on paper; Great thanks to Sam Clements for providing this citation)
  3. 1945 July 31, Springfield Republican, Lady Asquith, Page 6, Column 3, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1948, Mixed Grill by Sir George Leveson Gower, [Second and enlarged edition 1948; first edition was 1947], Page 52, Frederick Muller Ltd., London. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1965 June 03, San Mateo Times, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Page 32, Column 2, [GNB Page 38], San Mateo, California. (GenealogyBank) (The original text does use “starting” instead of “started”)
  6. 1995, Hollywood Babble On: Stars Gossip About Stars by Boze Hadleigh, Page 52, Birch Lane Press Book of Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Bitchery, Page 57, Column 2, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)