She Runs the Gamut of Human Emotion from A to B

Dorothy Parker? Katharine Hepburn? Apocryphal?

hepburn02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famously severe criticism that was aimed at an inexpressive theater performer or movie star in the 1930s. Here are two prototypes:

This performer ran gamut of human emotion all the way from A to B.

This thespian runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Can you tell me who spoke this line and who was being criticized?

Quote Investigator: This quip is usually credited to the notable wit Dorothy Parker, and she reportedly was attacking the skills of the movie star Katharine Hepburn. But there is some uncertainty about when Parker made the remark. The earliest evidence in the 1930s is not directly from Parker; in fact, the information appears to be thirdhand. Finally, in a 1971 book the movie director and writer Garson Kanin stated that he asked Parker about the gibe, and she acknowledged that it was hers, but she also extolled Hepburn’s artistry.

In January 1934 a columnist in The New York Sun newspaper stated that Parker spoke the jest at a cocktail party. The columnist also referred negatively to Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the film “Christopher Strong”: 1

Which calls to mind the latest sweetly venomous remark of Miss Dorothy Parker anent Miss Hepburn (the Miss Hepburn principally of the lamentable “Christopher Strong”). It was delivered as Miss Parker swept or lolled recently into a cocktail party:

“Come,” she said, “let’s all go to see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotions from A to B!”

On February 16, 1934 an article in a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana ascribed the barb to Parker and suggested that the precipitating event was a Broadway show: 2

When Katharine Hepburn appeared in a play on Broadway, ’tis said that Dorothy Parker cracked: “Miss Hepburn ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.”

On February 19, 1934 Time magazine discussed the joke and gave a precise location. According to the periodical Parker delivered the line during an intermission period of “The Lake” which was a Broadway production that ran from December 26, 1933 to February 1934. Hepburn had a primary role in this play, but the show and her efforts were not well-received: 3 4

During an intermission of The Lake, Dorothy Parker remarked to others in her party: “Well, let’s go back and see Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of human emotion from A to B.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On February 21, 1934 a Canadian newspaper in Winnipeg repurposed the gag and applied it to the political domain: 5

The House last night listened to itself going through the gamut of human emotions from A to B. Emotion A was despair and emotion B was hope, but the effect on the spectators—of whom many were on hand in the galleries to get some value for their gas tax—was grief and pain.

On February 24, 1934 a popular columnist named O. O. Mclntyre expressed irritation. He suggested that the words ascribed to Parker were actually an old joke that had been used by a critic named William Winter many years earlier: 6

A mot accredited to Dorothy Parker reported Katharine Hepburn running the gamut of emotion from A to B in her stage play .. . It was fresher when William Winter, a gentler critic, pulled it on an actress of 30 years ago . . . Most Algonquin gags are that way.

In March 1934 a newspaper in Greeley, Colorado printed a version of the remark. But the paper praised Hepburn’s acting ability, and noted that her work in recent films was being embraced by moviegoers: 7

That Katherine Hepburn is featured in two of the medal pictures will surprise many. Her return to the stage in The Lake, not a very good play, was a flat failure. It inspired the barbed comment of Dorothy Parker, “Now we’ll see Katherine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

In April 1934 “The Boston Herald” newspaper of Massachusetts presented a different tale. According to the paper “The Lake” did not trigger the rebuke from Parker; instead, Hepburn’s appearance in the film “Little Women” provoked the gibe: 8

The celebrated Dorothy Parker, mistress of the wise crack and high priestess of the bon mot, got off a snide wallop at Katharine Hepburn’s film histrionics—or at least she’s so credited in a current monthly. Having witnessed La Hepburn’s performance in “Little Women,” Miss Parker is reputed to have observed, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Which is certainty a peach of a line, but it still ain’t doing right by our Kath—or do they call her Kit?

In May 1934 the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest included the joke and asserted that it was in a movie review written by Parker: 9

Reviewing the motion picture, Little Women, Dorothy Parker writes of Katherine Hepburn’s acting: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

In June 1934 the top columnist Walter Winchell spoke to the humorist Irvin S. Cobb, and he was told that the quip had a long history going all the way back to Jonathan Swift: 10

Oh, yes—talking about tracing quips and gags—Cobb also told me that Dorothy Parker was accused of uttering: “She runs the gamut of human emotion from A to B” (Speaking of Hepburn in “The Lake”), but William Winter, the critic, wrote it in a notice years ago—and that Dean Swift said it in the seventeenth century!

In December 1934 a version of the anecdote was reported in a London periodical: 11

Dorothy Parker was asked her opinion of a popular and over-praised actress: ‘O! What do I think of her? She runs the gamut of emotion from A to B.’

In 1934 Alexander Woollcott published “While Rome Burns” which included a chapter profiling Dorothy Parker. He and Parker were both members of the Algonquin Round Table. Woollcott presented a version of the statement credited to Parker. However, it is difficult to place this citation into a chronological ordering because it is not certain when in 1934 Woollcott wrote the following: 12

And more recently she achieved an equal compression in reporting on The Lake. Miss Hepburn, it seems, had run the whole gamut from A to B.

The writer and movie director Garson Kanin was a close friend of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In 1971 he published “Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir” which revealed the personal knowledge he had gained through his friendship.

The book also described an interesting episode during which he questioned Dorothy Parker. Kanin knew about the harsh remark credited to Parker, and he was surprised when she recommended Hepburn for an acting assignment: 13

“I thought you didn’t like her,” I said.

Those great brown eyes became greater and browner.

“Me?” said Dottie, “I don’t think there’s a finer actress anywhere.”

“But what about ‘all the way from A to B’?” I reminded her. “Or didn’t you say it? Or do you think she’s improved?”

Dottie sighed. “Oh, I said it all right. You know how it is. A joke.” She looked distressed. She shrugged and swallowed. “When people expect you to say things, you say things. Isn’t that the way it is?”

In conclusion, this popular barb has been ascribed to Dorothy Parker and there is substantive evidence supporting the ascription. Katharine Hepburn was the target of the criticism, but perceptions are labile, and Hepburn went on to a magnificent career.

A similar comment may have been made earlier, and some individuals credit the joke to William Winter, but QI has not yet located a supporting citation.

Update: On September 27, 2013 the 1971 citation was added and some sections were rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1934 January 6, New York Sun, The Talking Pictures by John S. Cohen, Jr., Quote Page 9, Column 1, New York, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1934 February 16, Times-Picayune, Up and Down the Street by the Want Ad Reporter, Quote Page 27, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. Website: IBDB Internet Broadway Database, Entry: The Lake, Martin Beck Theatre, 1933, Website description: “IBDB (Internet Broadway Database) archive is the official database for Broadway theatre information. IBDB provides records of productions from the beginnings of New York theatre until today.” (Accessed ibdb.com on September 26, 2013) link
  4. 1934 February 19, Time, “The Theatre: New Plays in Manhattan: Feb. 19, 1934”, Time Inc., New York. (Accessed time.com on September 26, 2013; Time magazine online archive)
  5. 1934 February 21, Winnipeg Free Press, Under the Dome, Quote Page 13, Column 7, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1934 February 24, Daily News Standard, Fannie Brice Is Missing Meal a Day, Reports O. O. Mclntyre, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1934 March 17, Greeley Daily Tribune, Some Movie Medals, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Greeley, Colorado. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1934 April 30, Boston Herald, The Cinema and Such by Neal O’Hara, Quote Page 14, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1934 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 24, Number 145, Barbed Amenities, Quote Page 38, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1934 June 9, Syracuse Journal On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Syracuse New York. (Old Fulton)
  11. 1934 December, Life and Letters, Volume 11, Number 60, Overheard, Quote Page 347, Column 1, Published by Life & Letters, London. (Verified on paper in 1967 reprint edition from Kraus Reprint Corporation of New York)
  12. 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter: “Some Neighbors: IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Quote Page 147, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1971, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir by Garson Kanin, Quote Page 17, Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)