Category Archives: W. Somerset Maugham

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.

Continue reading

None of This Nonsense about Women and Children First

Noël Coward? Winston Churchill? W. Somerset Maugham? Joe Drum? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: After major news events people often start exchanging jokes related to the subject matter. The recent tragic cruise ship accident has caused two versions of a comical anecdote to enter circulation. The punch line has been attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill and to the playwright Noel Coward. Examples of this joke are visible now [on January 21, 2012]  when one searches for the phrase “women and children” on Twitter. Here is an example credited to Coward:

I only travel on Italian ships. In the event of sinking, there’s none of that ‘women and children first’ nonsense!

Could you explore this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke found by QI appeared in a Missouri newspaper in 1917. A travel writer, Henry J. Allen, described leaving a Paris railroad station and attempting to obtain transport in a taxicab; however, the number of taxicabs available was inadequate. The writer was reminded of a joke that he attributed to a “New York traveler” [KCNY]:

When we reached the outside our trouble began. There were some thirty or forty women from the train and as we watched the scramble for the very small number of taxicabs and 1-horse vehicles we were reminded of the reason a New York traveler once gave for traveling on a French liner: He said, “there is no foolishness about women and children first.”

Early instances of this barb were aimed at French vessels and crew and not Italian vessels. In March 1932 the name Joe Drum was attached to the tale by the syndicated gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre. But the fame of Joe Drum has faded with time, and today he is largely unknown [OOJD]:

Drum was sailing one day on a French ship. “I choose to cross with the gallant chevaliers of France,” he said, “where there is no hanky-panky about women and children first.”

In 1932 the saying was also credited to a more prominent individual, Noël Coward. Over the decades the attributions and embellishments have changed. By 1946 a more elaborate variant that mentioned food and drink was credited to an American Rear-Admiral. By 1985 the quip was ascribed to W. Somerset Maugham, and by 1993 an ornate version was credited to Winston Churchill.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

You Cannot Persuade Her with Gun or Lariat, To Come Across for the Proletariat

Dorothy Parker? W. Somerset Maugham? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was at a party where guests were challenging one another to complete poems based on a few starting lines, or so the story goes. Parker was given the following two lines:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

After a moment to gather her thoughts she finished the verse with the following lines:

You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

I thought Parker’s lines were hilarious when I was told this story. But I have never been able to find any details about this anecdote. When and where did this party take place? Who challenged Parker? Could you explore this tale and quotation?

Quote Investigator: The lines of poetry that you give are accurate, but the surrounding anecdote is not quite correct. The story first appeared, QI believes, in the introduction written by W. Somerset Maugham to the 1944 edition of “The Viking Portable Library: Dorothy Parker” [SMDP]. Maugham described attending a Hollywood dinner party at the invitation of Miss Fanny Brice. Other guests included the writers Aldous Huxley and Dorothy Parker. During the course of the party Maugham and Parker were seated together, and after some discussion on miscellaneous topics Maugham ventured a request:

“Why don’t you write a poem for me?”
“I will if you like,” she replied. “Give me a pencil and a piece of paper.”

Maugham did not have either, so he requested both from their waiter who was “gone a long time” on the errand. At last he returned with paper and a blunt pencil:

Dorothy Parker took it and wrote:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

“Yes, I’ve always liked those lines,” I said.
She gave a thin, cool smile and without an instant’s hesitation, added:

You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

With this brilliant rhyme she gathered Higgledy Piggledy into the august company of Jove’s Eagle, Sindbad the Sailor’s Roc, the Capitoline Geese, Boccaccio’s Falcon, Shelley’s Skylark, and Poe’s Raven.

In Maugham’s anecdote Parker was not challenged with a pair of lines and told to create a quatrain; instead, she supplied the entire set of lines.

Here are a small number of additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading