Category Archives: Alexander Woollcott

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

parker08Dear Quote Investigator: William Shakespeare memorably wrote that:

Brevity is the soul of wit.

The wordsmith Dorothy Parker famously transformed the Bard’s phrase into a humorous and erotic remark:

Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

Several quotation references list Parker’s statement, but the earliest citation I’ve seen is indirect; a friend named Alexander Woollcott attributed the quip to her in 1934. Would you please help me to find better evidence?

Quote Investigator: In October 1916 “Vogue” magazine published a lengthy profusely illustrated article titled “Vogue Pattern Service”. One page displayed drawings of models wearing nightgowns and chemises together with the following caption in capital letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

FROM THESE FOUNDATIONS OF THE AUTUMN WARDROBE, ONE MAY LEARN THAT BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF LINGERIE

Dorothy Parker was employed at “Vogue”, and QI believes she crafted the caption; indeed, a few years later she used the quip again. By 1919 she had moved to “Vanity Fair”, and the magazine printed a comical piece she composed titled “Our Office: A Hate Song: An Intimate Glimpse of Vanity Fair—En Famille”. She leveled light-hearted criticisms at each department of the publishing enterprise: 2

I hate the office;
It cuts in on my social life.

There is the Art Department;
The Cover Hounds.
They are always explaining how the photographing machine works.
And they stand around in the green light
And look as if they had been found drowned.

When Parker mocked the editorial group she employed the adage under investigation:

Then there is the Editorial Department;
The Literary Lights.
They are just a little holier than other people
Because they can write classics about
“‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie’, said this little chemise to itself”;
And “Here are five reasons for the success of the Broadway plays”.
They are all full of soul;
Someone is forever stepping on their temperaments.
They are constantly having nervous breakdowns
And going away for a few weeks.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1916 October 1, Vogue, Vogue Pattern Service, Start Page 89, Quote Page 101, Conde Nast, New York. (ProQuest Vogue Archive)
  2. 1919 May, Vanity Fair, Volume 11, Number 3, Section: Domestic Products, Our Office: A Hate Song: An Intimate Glimpse of Vanity Fair—En Famille by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6 and 8, Conde Nast, New York. (HathiTrust) link

Horticulture Pun

Dorothy Parker? The Virginia Spectator? The Daily Standard of Sikeston, Missouri? Alexander Woollcott? Anonymous?

garden11Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was famous for her coruscating wit, and she once employed a notoriously bawdy pun based on the word horticulture. Was she responsible for originating this pun?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker created the horticulture pun while she was participating in a word game at a party. She may have spoken it during a meeting of the famed Algonquin Round Table. These gatherings were held regularly by a group of columnists, playwrights, actors and other bright individuals at lunch within the Algonquin Hotel in New York City between roughly 1919 and 1929.

The earliest evidence, however, appeared several years later in 1935 in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell. The actual pun was too taboo to print in a newspaper in the 1930s; hence, Winchell’s comment was curiously cryptic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Dorothy Parker can make up a sentence containing the word “Horticulture,” but hardly here.

A month later another gossip columnist named Harrison Carroll printed an elliptical comment that also linked Parker to the pun without sharing with readers the details of the witticism: 2

What was Dorothy Parker’s priceless offering when the gang at the James Gleason party were playing one of those “make a sentence with a word” games and someone suggested “horticulture”?

Special thanks to top researcher Bill Mullins who located the two citations given above.

The earliest account presenting a full version of Parker’s remark that QI has located was published in 1962 in a magazine of arts and literature called “Horizon”. An article by the prominent drama critic John Mason Brown referred to two puns. The first quip was based on the word “meretricious”, and an exploration of its provenance is available in another entry here. The second jest was ascribed to Parker. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Frank Adams’s solving the problem of building a sentence around “meretricious” with “Meretricious ‘n’ a Happy New Year,” and Mrs. Parker’s solving the same problem with “horticulture” by coming up with “You may lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think”—these and a hundred others of their kind may by now have become enfeebled by familiarity. But they were born of a moment, and meant for that moment, and at that moment they were triumphant.

In addition to wordplay with “horticulture” Parker cleverly refashioned a very old English proverb about stubbornness: You may lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. As noted previously, when Parker delivered her joke it was too racy to be reprinted in contemporaneous books or periodicals published for a wide audience.

Interestingly, the first full instance of the pun known to QI was printed in 1952 embedded within a different sentence in a student periodical at the University of Virginia. The joke was not credited to Parker; details are given further below. Social mores have changed over the decades, and in 1990s protesters argued that the jest was insulting to sex workers.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1935 March 1, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1935 April 19, Bradford Era Friday, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Behind the Scenes in Hollywood by Harrison Carroll, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1962 July, Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 4, Number 6, High Spirits in the Twenties by John Mason Brown, Start Page 32, Quote Page 38, Column 1, American Heritage Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

This Just Shows What God Could Do If He Had Money

Wolcott Gibbs? George Bernard Shaw? Margaret Case Harriman? Alexander Woollcott? Ivor Brown? Frank Case? Peter Fleming? Brooks Atkinson? George S. Kaufman? Anonymous?

hearst08Dear Quote Investigator: A wit once travelled to the opulent country estate of a friend and was shown the surrounding grounds which were well-manicured and extensively landscaped. Several large trees had been transplanted to provide shade. The humorist was asked for a candid appraisal and said:

Well, it just goes to show you what God could do if he had money.

A remark of this type has been attributed to both George Bernard Shaw and Alexander Woollcott. Shaw supposedly said it while visiting the estate of William Randolph Hearst in California. Woollcott reportedly said it while visiting the country mansion of playwright Moss Hart. Is either of these anecdotes accurate?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence located by QI was printed in June 1933 in a London periodical called “The Fortnightly Review”. An article by drama critic Ivor Brown discussed the spectacular productions of Shakespeare plays staged by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The critic was particularly impressed by the simulation of a storm in “The Tempest”. Brown employed a version of the saying and credited an unnamed wag. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Tree’s storm might vulgarly be described as “a corker”. A wit, when asked what he thought of Long Island, said, “It’s what God would have done with Nature, if He had had the money”. My memory suggests that the remark perfectly fitted Prospero’s island as conceived by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

In the above passage the joke was not applied to a specific estate; instead, an entire region of the U.S. known for expensive property and impressive homes was named.

Earlier indirect evidence of the quip also exists. In 1974 a biography of Peter Fleming by Duff Hart-Davis was released. Fleming was a British travel writer who was the brother of famed spy-thriller author Ian Fleming. Peter Fleming was credited with using the saying in a letter dated 1929. If this date was accurate then Fleming either crafted the comical remark, or he was relaying a witticism that was already circulating on Long Island. The name “Rupert” in the following referred to Fleming’s friend Rupert Hart-Davis who was a publisher: 2 3

‘Long Island represents the Americans’ idea of what God would have done with Nature if he’d had the money,’ Peter wrote to Rupert on September 29th, 1929 from the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, where he spent the first weekend of his stay in America

The joke has been ascribed to a variety of sharp individuals in addition to Fleming, including: Wolcott Gibbs, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and George Bernard Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1933 June, The Fortnightly Review, New Series Volume 139, Old Series Volume 139, Producing Shakespeare by Ivor Brown, (Footnote for article: A paper recently read before the Shakespeare Association at Kings College, London), Start Page 759, Quote Page 760, Published by Horace Marshall & Son, London. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1974, Peter Fleming: A Biography by Duff Hart-Davis, GB Page 67, Jonathan Cape, London. (Google Books Snippet View; not yet verified on paper; the quotation credited to Peter Fleming with the same date is listed in an entry of the 1989 edition of “The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations”)
  3. 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: United States, Quote Page 585, Column 1, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

Excuse My Dust

Dorothy Parker? Hudson Six Owner? Alexander Woollcott? Apocryphal?

dust11Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker was once asked to create an epitaph for her tombstone. Apparently, she crafted several different candidates for inscription over the years:

1) Excuse My Dust

2) Here Lies the Body of Dorothy Parker. Thank God!

3) This Is On Me

4) If You Can Read This You’ve Come Too Close

5) Wherever She Went, Including Here, It Was Against Her Better Judgment

Are these really from the pen of Dorothy Parker?

Quote Investigator: QI plans to examine the five Parker attributed epitaphs listed above. As each analysis is completed the corresponding quotation will be converted into a link. Clicking the link will lead to the matching analysis. This article will discuss only the phrase “Excuse My Dust”, and separate articles will be written for other statements.

In 1925 artists, writers, and other prominent figures were asked by the periodical “Vanity Fair” to compose their own epitaphs for publication in the June issue. Parker complied, and her response was depicted together with other replies: 1

parkerepi07QI believes that many of the expressions in the article were meant to be comical and were not serious suggestions for inscription on memorials. In fact, some of the sayings may have been constructed as spoofs instead of being supplied by celebrities themselves. Fascinatingly, the words of Parker were included in a marker at her resting place as indicated further below.

The origin of the phrase selected by Parker was surprising to QI. The statement was already being used in the burgeoning realm of motorized transport in the 1910s and 1920s where it was affixed to the back of vehicles. Parker humorously repurposed the expression and shifted its semantics.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1925 June, Vanity Fair, A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs, Start Page 50, Quote Page 51, Column 3, (Dorothy Parker tombstone epitaph illustration), Conde Nast, New York. (Verified on microfilm)

It Seems As If Anything I Like Is Either Illegal, Immoral, or Fattening

Alexander Woollcott? W. C. Fields? Frank Rand of St. Louis? Anonymous?

woollcott02Dear Quote Investigator: The candor of my favorite saying makes it wonderfully humorous. Here are three versions I have seen:

  • All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.
  • Anything in life that’s any fun is either immoral, illegal or fattening
  • Everything good in life is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.

Can you track this down?

Quote Investigator: In the past, this saying has been attributed to the noted wit Alexander Woollcott who was an influential columnist in The New Yorker magazine and a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table. Now QI has found a significant piece of new evidence indicating that Alexander Woollcott was not the coiner of this popular phrase, but he was an important locus for its popularization.

On September 16, 1933 the Albany Evening News of Albany, New York published a column called “As I Hear It” by “The Listener” which reported on the content of recently broadcast radio programs. The columnist stated that Alexander Woollcott could be heard on the WOKO radio station on Wednesday and Friday nights at 10:30 PM.

The program began with a cry of “Hear ye! Hear ye!” and the ringing of a bell according to “The Listener”. Indeed, Woollcott’s CBS radio show “The Town Crier” used precisely that introduction. Fortunately for 21st century researchers, the columnist decided to record some of the remarks made by Woollcott over the air: 1

As for instance quoting Woollcott’s story about the Mr. Frank Rand of St. Louis who in the interest of his girth was lunching on bouillon cubes and undressed lettuce.

“Do you eat that stuff because you like it?” someone asked Rand.
“No, I hate it,” he replied. “But it seems as if anything I like is either illegal or immoral or fattening.”

Hence, the first known instance of the expression occurred in an anecdote told by Woollcott to his radio audience, and the words were credited to a person named Frank Rand. Top-notch researcher Suzanne Watkins identified “The Listener” as Mary A. O’Neill based on an engagement notice in the Albany Evening News in February 1934 that stated she was the writer of the “As I Hear It” column. 2

The second earliest citation appeared in the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest in December 1933 where the saying was directly credited to Woollcott: 3

All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening. — Alexander Woollcott

The saying was printed on a page titled “Patter” which listed a collection of fourteen unrelated miscellaneous quotations. No precise source was given for the Woollcott attribution. QI hypothesizes that the phrase was derived from the radio broadcast, but a process of simplification and elision resulted in the omission of Frank Rand’s name.

Here are additional comments and selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1933 September 16, Albany Evening News, “As I Hear It” by The Listener, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1934 February 19, Albany Evening News, “Mary O’Neill Engaged to Warren H. Flood; Alliance Tea Wednesday Announcement of Coming Wedding by Parents of Bride-to-Be”, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton) (Text identifying The Listener as O’Neill: “She is employed in the State Department of Audit and Control and is also the writer of the “As I Hear It” column of The Knickerbocker Press.”)
  3. 1933 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 24, Patter, Quote Page 109, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Who Said the Quote? Dorothy Parker? Richard Henry Little? Alexander Woollcott?

Who was the Polyglot? Winifred Stackville Stoner? Merle Oberon?

Dear Quote Investigator: My question differs from most. Here is a quotation of admiration with a stinger that I would like you to investigate:

That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say “No” in any of them.

Dorothy Parker receives credit for this quip in multiple reference books. What interests me is the identity of the polyglot woman. Can you figure out who Parker was talking about?

Quote Investigator: Like many of the sayings assigned to Parker that have persisted in the cultural milieu this phrase is risqué. The earliest attribution of the quote to Parker located by QI occurs in 1933.

But QI has also found an earlier citation for a close variant of this joke in 1931 that is not credited to Parker. The witticism was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist, Richard Henry Little, who was writing about a former child prodigy named Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. The text of the article reveals a different interpretation to the notion of saying “No”. Little’s gag is not focused on promiscuity; instead, it refers to multiple marriages [RLWS]:

… it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.

It is possible that Little heard a joke from Parker and then modified it to create a less provocative version that applied to Winifred Stackville Stoner. Alternatively, Little’s jest may have been modified to create a ribald version that fit the wisecracking persona of Parker.

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Legend: The Vanishing Lady and the Vanishing Hotel Room

Alexander Woollcott? Karl Harriman? Marie Belloc-Lowndes? Nancy Vincent McClelland? Kenneth Herford?

Dear Quote Investigator: I recently watched an excellent British film from the 1950s called “So Long at the Fair” and was fascinated by the plot [SLW] [SLI]. When I searched the net I discovered that I was not the only person intrigued by the story. It is a famous contemporary legend under the name “The Vanishing Lady” and “The Vanishing Hotel Room”. The central plot existed several decades before the film was made, and the tale is so compelling that it has been retold many times.

The great Snopes website that specializes in urban legends has a page dedicated to the yarn [VLSN]. Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The End of Her Honeymoon contains the tale. Ernest Hemingway told a version in his 1926 work The Torrent of Spring. The anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” televised the story in 1955. In 2002 the plot was recounted as a “true story” on the TV program Beyond Belief

I was hoping that you would be able to follow the evidence uncovered by Alexander Woollcott the famed writer for The New Yorker magazine. He composed his own account of the legend for the “Shouts and Murmurs” section of the periodical in the 1920s, and he then attempted to track down the origin. He found a very important clue that he described in his book While Rome Burns [WRB]:

… the entire story had been dashed off by Karl Harriman one hot summer night in 1889 to fill a vacant column in the next morning’s issue of the Detroit Free Press.

Unfortunately, no one has ever found this article in the Detroit Free Press. Does this article really exist? I know that you usually investigate quotations and not legends, but maybe the research techniques that you use could be employed to help solve this mystery.

Quote Investigator: The trail of clues offered by Woollcott is somewhat cold since his book was published in 1934. Yet, QI is captivated by this question and will try to discover something for you. But perhaps this task is too large for QI alone.

The brilliant urban-legend researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake and QI worked together on this difficult investigation. She is an expert in this area and had already made progress on this puzzle when QI joined her.

The earliest instance of the legend located by Taylor-Blake and QI was not written by Karl Harriman.

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