George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan? Anatole France and Isadora Duncan? Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe? Albert Einstein and a chorus girl? George Bernard Shaw and a strange lady in Zurich?
Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly there was famous exchange between the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw and the glamorous dancer Isadora Duncan on the topic of producing a child together. Duncan stated that Shaw had a magnificent brain and she had a glorious beauty; the combination would yield a remarkable child. Shaw replied with regret that he feared the result would embody his beauty and her brains.
Recently, I read this same tale, but the dialog was between two other people: the playwright Arthur Miller and the icon Marilyn Monroe. Is this anecdote genuine? Who were the participants?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence matching the template of this story located by QI was published in the Boston Globe newspaper in 1923. The two supposed participants were the Frenchman Anatole France who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 and the acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan. The spelling “Isadore” was used by the paper: 1
In all probability the conversation between Isadore Duncan and Anatole France, who were discussing eugenics, came to a sudden stop when Isadore said: “Imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!” and Anatole responded: “Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!”
A version of the anecdote featuring George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan was in circulation during the same time period. Here is an instance from an Interfraternity Conference held in New York in 1925 where the communication between Shaw and Duncan was via letters instead of spoken. This tale was presented by Oswald C. Hering, a noted architect. The spelling “Isidora” was used in the following passage: 2
It reminds me of the story going around about the letters interchanged by Isidora Duncan and Bernard Shaw. Miss Duncan wrote Mr. Shaw as follows: ‘My dear Mr. Shaw: I beg to remind you that as you have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body, it is our duty to posterity to have a child.’ Whereupon Mr. Shaw replied to Miss Duncan: ‘My dear Miss Duncan: I admit that I have the greatest brain in the world and that you have the most beautiful body, but it might happen that our child would have my body and your brain. Therefore, I respectfully decline.’
This popular story was disseminated internationally, and George Bernard Shaw was asked directly about the anecdote by the editor of the German periodical Sächsisches Volksblatt because of a controversy involving a writer named Max Hayek. A short story by Hayek shared similarities with the anecdote, and he was accused plagiarizing an instance of the tale featuring Shaw and Duncan that was published in the Italian periodical Milan Corriere della Sera.
On March 3, 1926 Shaw sent a letter in which he strongly denied the Italian story about his interaction with Duncan and remarked on the unreliability of newspaper accounts in general: 3
… No beautiful American dancer has ever proposed marriage to me, on eugenic or any other grounds. The Italian journalist invented the dancer and her proposal; stole the witty reply from Herr Max; and chose me for the hero of his tale because newspapers always buy stories about me. 99% of these stories are flat falsehoods. 1/2% are half true. The remaining 1/2% are true, but spoilt in the telling.
Strikingly, Shaw made additional intriguing comments on this topic in 1931. He claimed that he once received a comparable “strange offer” from a “foreign actress”, and his reply was analogous to the one in the famous anecdote. The details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations and commentary.
In 1928 a syndicated newspaper column about parenting called “Your Boy and Your Girl” printed an instance of the Shaw-Duncan tale: 4
You remember that it was Isadora Duncan, the dancer, who said to Bernard Shaw, “Would it not be wonderful if we could have a child who had your brains and my beauty?” His reply was, “Yes, but supposing it had your brains and my beauty!”
Also in 1928 a report about municipal government in New York City included the following instance: 5
Here the same caution must be taken as was observed by the noted playwright who, when a famous danseuse suggested that they should mate to perpetuate his brains and her beauty, remained unmarried on the ground that their union might propagate his beauty and her brains.
In 1931 “Hear the Lions Roar” by the journalist, novelist, and playwright Sewell Stokes was published. The volume recorded Shaw’s answer to Stokes questioning about the tale. Shaw claimed that he did make the clever reply, but he was not responding to Duncan: 6
Now — with Shaw in an excellent mood, sitting opposite to me — was the time to settle once for all the question of that celebrated anecdote so often repeated about the dramatist and Isadora.
According to this anecdote, Isadora, at a time when her figure was considered by sculptors and artists to be one of the most graceful in the world, wrote to Shaw asking him if he would consent to have a child by her. She was supposed to have said: ‘You have the greatest brain in the world, I have the most graceful body. Let us, then, produce the perfect child.’ To which Shaw is said to have replied: ‘But what if the child turned out to have my body and your brain?’
‘Actually,’ said Shaw, ‘it was not Isadora who made that proposition to me. The story has been told about me in connexion with several famous women, particularly Isadora Duncan. But I really received the strange offer from a foreign actress whose name you wouldn’t know, and which I’ve forgotten. But I did make that reply.’
Her romances continued, too. Once she wrote to Bernard Shaw suggesting that he come and visit her, hinting that a heritage of her beauty and his brains would be incomparable. But Shaw declined the invitation, telegraphing her that he feared the heritage might combine his beauty and her brains instead.
In 1942 a biography of Shaw was published by Hesketh Pearson who knew Shaw well and used information from him to guide his writing. Pearson offered the following version involving an anonymous Zürich woman: 10
A strange lady giving an address in Zürich wrote him a proposal, thus: “You have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body; so we ought to produce the most perfect child.” Shaw asked: “What if the child inherits my body and your brains?” This story has been foisted on to Isadora Duncan, who was not the lady.
In 1953 a Washington columnist reported a variant tale featuring Albert Einstein and a chorus girl: 11
“The trouble with Ike,” remarked one Republican friend, “is that he’s been like the chorus girl who proposed to Dr. Einstein. ‘With your brains and my beauty,’ she said, ‘think what children we could have.’
“‘But,’ replied Einstein, ‘suppose they had my looks and your brains.’
In 2009 the Daily Mail of London reviewed a book titled “The Genius and the Goddess” about the relationship between the prominent playwright Arthur Miller and the superstar Marilyn Monroe. The reviewer presented a variant anecdote but quickly labeled it “probably apocryphal”: 12
The other story is of Marilyn saying dreamily to Miller: ‘We should have a child, Arthur. Imagine a baby with your brains and my looks.’ To which Miller retorted: ‘Yes, but what if it got your brains and my looks?’
In conclusion, this tale is a joke about eugenics and various couples have been substituted into the template over time. Evidence indicates that the anecdote featuring Bernhard Shaw and Isadora Duncan is apocryphal. Yet, the origin of the comic story is uncertain. It is possible that Shaw crafted the punch line while making a response to a woman in Zurich, but this letter has not been found. Alternatively, Shaw may have employed a pre-existing comical remark of anonymous origin.
(Great thanks to Dennis Lien for obtaining scans of the 1925 cite and for locating background information about Oswald C. Hering.)
- 1923 December 7, Boston Globe, Editorial Points, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1925, Minutes of the Seventeenth Session of the Interfraternity Conference, (Held at New York on November 27th and 28th, 1925), Report of Committee on Chapter House Architecture, Quote Page 111, Publisher: National Interfraternity Conference, New York. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system) ↩
- 1988, Bernard Shaw Collected Letters: 1926-1950, Edited by Dan H. Laurence, Volume 4 of 4, (Letter from George Bernard Shaw to The Sächsisches Volksblatt, Zwickau, dated March 3, 1926), Quote Page 16 and 17, Viking, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1928 April 11, State Times Advocate, Your Boy and Your Girl by Arthur Dean, (The Parent Counsellor), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1928, Reporting Municipal Government by Wylie Kilpatrick, Quote Page 13, Published by Municipal Administration Service, New York City. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1990, Shaw: Interviews and Recollections, Edited by A.M. Gibbs, Section: Tea with Isadora, (Excerpt from “Hear the Lions Roar” (1931) by Sewell Stokes, Published by Harold Shaylor, London), Start Page 417, Quote Page 419, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1932 December 4, Boston Herald, Isadora Duncan Took the World by Surprise, Section: B, Page 7 (GNB Page 55), Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1932 December 4, Times-Picayune, Tragic Sirens: She Took the World by Surprise, Section: Everyweek Magazine, Page 5 (GNB Page 63), Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1932 December 4, Seattle Sunday Times (Seattle Daily Times), Tragic Sirens: She Took the World by Surprise, Section: Rainbow, Page 2 (GNB Page 38), Column 5, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1942, Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 310 and 311, Collins, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1953 November 9, Aberdeen Daily News, Drew Pearson: Washington Merry-Go-Round, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 2009 March 27, Daily Mail (London), The Egghead & the Hourglass; Book of the Week, (Book review of The Genius and the Goddess by Jeffrey Meyers), Page 61, London, United Kingdom. (Questia Gale) ↩