If You Can’t Say Something Good About Someone, Sit Right Here by Me

Dorothy Parker? Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Earl Wilson? Robert Harling? Anonymous?

longworth10Dear Quote Investigator: The most trenchant comment pertaining to gossip that I have ever heard is often attributed to the wit Dorothy Parker. The quip is based on altering the following conventional instruction on etiquette:

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Here are three versions of the twisted variation:

If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.
If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.
If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me.

These words have also been credited to Alice Roosevelt Longworth who was the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt and a long-time Washington socialite known for adroit remarks. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a magazine profile of Alice Roosevelt Longworth titled “The Sharpest Wit in Washington” published in “The Saturday Evening Post” issue of December 4, 1965. Interestingly, the expression was not spoken; instead, it was embroidered on a pillow. Also, the word “good” was used instead of “nice”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

We walked to Mrs. Longworth’s upstairs sitting room, where she often reads until six o’clock in the morning. Books were piled everywhere on the tables and on the floor, and contemporary newspaper clippings were strewn on the side tables. Coyote skins were lying on the backs of two large, comfortable chairs, and on one of the chairs was a pillow with the words, IF YOU CAN’T SAY SOMETHING GOOD ABOUT SOMEONE, SIT RIGHT HERE BY ME.

Longworth definitely popularized the expression, and she may have crafted it. There is no substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker employed the saying though it has been attributed to her in recent decades.

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  1. 1965 December 4, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 238, Issue 24, The Sharpest Wit in Washington by Jean Vanden Heuvel, (Interview with Alice Roosevelt Longworth), Start Page 30, Quote Page 32, Column 3, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Academic Search Premiere EBSCO)

How Can They Tell?

Dorothy Parker? Wilson Mizner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

parker07Dear Quote Investigator: Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, and his highly reserved character in social settings led to the nickname “Silent Cal”. A few years after his death in 1933 two similar anecdotes began to circulate about the spoken reaction to the news of Coolidge’s demise. Reportedly, when the wit Dorothy Parker was notified she said:

How can they tell?

Also, when the raconteur Wilson Mizner was told he said:

How do they know?

What evidence is there for these two tales?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the 1936 book “Enjoyment of Laughter” by Max Eastman in a chapter about the use of exaggeration in humor: 1

…Dorothy Parker’s remark when told that Calvin Coolidge was dead: How can they tell?

In 1937 a review of Eastman’s book was printed in “The Glasgow Herald” of Scotland, and the remark ascribed to Parker was reprinted 2

But here one gives the prize to Dorothy Parker, that vitriolic lady who “can’t read Wodehouse.” When told that President Coolidge was dead all she said was, “How can they tell?”

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  1. 1936, Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman, Quote Page 155, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1937 May 13, The Glasgow Herald, American Humour (Book Review of Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman), Quote Page 2, Colum 4, Glasgow, Scotland. (Google News Archive)]

Written Without Fear and Without Research

Dorothy Parker? Carl L. Becker? Thomas Reed Powell? Charles A. Beard? Anonymous?

parker06Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker wrote book reviews containing memorable zingers. When she examined a scientific volume she reportedly wrote the following:

This work was written without fear and without research.

I have not been able to determine when she wrote this. Nor have I figured out the title of the excoriated book. Would you be willing to help?

Quote Investigator: In 1944 the quotation and anecdote collector Bennett Cerf published “Try and Stop Me” which included a section dedicated to the sayings of Dorothy Parker. Cerf presented the following instance of the quip: 1

She polished off one scientific volume with the dictum, “It was written without fear and without research.”

QI has been unable to locate evidence of a linkage to Parker before this date. Also, QI has not found the joke directly in a review written by Parker. Interestingly, the expression was in circulation for decades before Cerf’s ascription.

The “Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1912″ included an article by Carl L. Becker who was at that time a Professor of History at the University of Kansas. Becker reviewed several history texts and singled out one work for harshly comical analysis. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

The great books, however, are not the only ones that enlist the attention of the critical reviewer. It sometimes happens that a slight book is significant for what it points to. I have in mind, for example, the little volume of Mr. A. M. Simons entitled “Social Forces in American History;” not perhaps a very wise performance; written, it must be confessed, without fear and without research; written nevertheless with profound conviction, and significant because it is representative of what probably passes for history among militant socialists, but significant above all because in the next 50 years many histories of the United States, and better ones than this, will doubtless be written from the same point of view.

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  1. 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 111, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1914, Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1912, The Reviewing of Historical Books by Carl Becker (Professor at University of Kansas), Start Page 127, Quote Page 133, Submitted to the Congress of the United States by Smithsonian Institution for the American Historical Association, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link

The Only “Ism” in which Hollywood Believes Is Plagiarism

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

parker03Dear Quote Investigator: From Fascism, Marxism, and Anarchism to Consumerism, Materialism, and Postmodernism the world has been infatuated by and convulsed by “isms”. The famous wit Dorothy Parker reportedly spoke the following line while she was writing screenplays in Hollywood:

The only “ism” Hollywood really believes in is plagiarism.

Did she really say this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1941 book “Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers” by Leo C. Rosten. The political stances of individuals in Hollywood have often attracted controversy. Yet, in the past the community was also criticized for being too apolitical or apathetic. Rosten wrote the following of Hollywood in the 1920s and early 1930s. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The harsher view found Hollywood politically indifferent, innocent, and ignorant, populated by rich children who lolled in an Arcadia of swimming pools and bonbons. The only “ism” in which Hollywood believed, Dorothy Parker remarked, was plagiarism.

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  1. 1941 copyright, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten, Quote Page 133, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Facsimile produced on demand in 1973 by University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan)(Verified on paper in facsimile)

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 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.”

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  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)

He’s a Writer for the Ages—For the Ages of Four to Eight

Dorothy Parker? George Jean Nathan? Anonymous?

gjnathan01Dear Quote Investigator: The trenchant prose of Dorothy Parker has always impressed me. Reportedly she once lacerated a writer who was receiving a superfluity of undeserved accolades with the following:

He is a writer for the ages — the ages of four to eight.

Is this Parker’s joke? When was this written?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of a remark matching this template appeared in the ‘Patter’ section of “The Reader’s Digest” in 1938. The age limits were different, and the barb was aimed at a playwright, but the core joke was the same. In addition, the words were not attributed to Dorothy Parker; instead, another wit named George Jean Nathan was credited. Here are two examples from the ‘Patter’ section: 1

When the Critics Crack the Quip

Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank. —John Mason Brown in N.Y. Post

Mr. ———— writes his plays for the ages — the ages between five and twelve —George Jean Nathan

A decade later, in 1948 the anecdote and quotation collector Bennett Cerf published the volume “Shake Well Before Using”, and he included an instance of the saying ascribed to Parker: 2

Miss Parker was asked another time to express an opinion of an overpraised novelist. She remarked, “He’s a writer for the ages—for the ages of four to eight.”

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  1. 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 32, Patter, Quote Page 19, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1950, Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 219, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Reprint of 1948 Simon and Schuster edition; Verified on paper in 1950 Garden City Books edition)

This Is Not a Novel To Be Tossed Aside Lightly. It Should Be Thrown with Great Force

Dorothy Parker? Sid Ziff? Bennett Cerf? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

parkerbook02Dear Quote Investigator: The most scathingly hilarious quip about a novel is credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker who reportedly included it in a book review:

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Unfortunately, no one seems to know when this line was written or spoken. Also, I have not been able to determine the name of the book that was being slammed. Could you explore this?

Quote Investigator: Multiple researchers have attempted to locate this joke in the writings of Dorothy Parker and have been unsuccessful. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest in February 1960. The phrasing was slightly different, and the words were not ascribed to Parker: 1

From a book review: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.”
—Sid Ziff in Los Angeles Mirror-News

Based on current information QI believes that Sid Ziff was the most likely creator of this humorous expression. Yet, the joke was reassigned to Dorothy Parker within a few years by Bennett Cerf who specialized in collecting and popularizing quotations. Cerf included the saying in his widely-syndicated newspaper column in October 1962: 2

FROM A BOOK REVIEW BY DOROTHY PARKER: “This is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

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  1. 1960 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 76, On the Critical Side, Quote Page 180,  The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1962 October 10, Lewiston Evening Journal, Try And Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 15, Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. (Google News Archive)

The Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language Are “Check Enclosed”

Dorothy Parker? Douglass Malluch? Douglas Malloch? Henry James? Credit Man for a New York Hat House? Anonymous?

parkerchk04Dear Quote Investigator: During a recent discussion with friends we tried to construct a list of great jokes that will be obsolete within a few decades. Here is one that is credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker who worked as a freelance writer and received payments via the mail:

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘cheque enclosed’.

With the growth of electronic payments and the reduction in mail delivery this quip may become anachronistic. I was unable to find a good citation. Could you tell me when Parker wrote this?

Quote Investigator: In 1932 an Associated Press article reported on a list of words compiled by Wilfred J. Funk, the president of the dictionary company Funk & Wagnalls. The list presented Funk’s conception of the “10 most beautiful words in the English language”: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody. Many commentators criticized the collection and when the reporter queried Parker she suggested an alternative: 1

Dorothy Parker, poet, said she considered cellar-door the most beautiful word but that those she liked to see best were cheque and enclosed.

Note that Parker did not actually claim that cheque and enclosed were beautiful words. She simply indicated that she liked to see them. Nevertheless, by 1958 Parker’s name was attached to the common modern version of the quip. Here is an example in the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor”: 2

DOROTHY PARKER, when asked for the two most beautiful words in the English language: “Check enclosed.”
—Bernardine Kielty in Book-of-the-Month Club News

Many years before Parker’s 1932 remark several versions of the basic joke were already in circulation. In December 1903 the monthly trade publication The American Hatter published an instance. The adjective “sweetest” was used instead of “most beautiful” and the key phrase was four words instead of two: 3

A good story is being told of a prominent credit man for a New York hat house which runs thus: A Philadelphia magazine having offered a prize for the best answer to the question “Which are the four sweetest words in the English language?” our friend the credit man secured the prize by sending in a slip on which he wrote these words: “Enclosed please find check.”

This same witticism about the “four sweetest words” was further disseminated in the Washington Post on December 10, 1903 and in other newspapers. 4 5 Special thanks to Andrew Steinberg who identified and located this early version of the joke.

In March 1906 the Boston Globe of Massachusetts printed a version which used three words for the key phrase: 6

The sweetest words of typewriter or pen: “Inclosed find check.”

In the same month of 1906 the quip was presented in a short poem format in a Maryland paper which acknowledged a Wisconsin paper: 7

I love to get letters,
But the sweetest, by heck,
Are the ones that begin with:
“Inclosed please find check.”
Milwaukee Sentinel.

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  1. 1932 December 12, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Poet’s ’10 Most Beautiful Words’ Start an Argument, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Quote Page 362, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1903 December, The American Hatter, (Freestanding short article), Quote Page 54, Column 1, The Gallison & Hobron Company, 13 Astor Place, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1903 December 10, Washington Post, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1903 December 31, The Warren Republican (Williamsport Warren Republican), (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Williamsport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1906 March 4, Boston Sunday Globe (Boston Globe), Editorial Points, Quote Page 36, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) (The newspaper image shows “Inclosed”)
  7. 1906 March 23, Baltimore American, In the Best of Humor, Quote Page 8, Column 8, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)

Hogamous, Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous, Hogamous, Woman is Monagamous

William James? Dorothy Parker? Ogden Nash? Mrs. Amos Pinchot? Alice Duer Miller? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I read a wild story about William James, the prominent psychologist, educator, and philosopher. One night he experimented with the psychoactive gas nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. While experiencing a reverie James became convinced that he had developed a profound insight into the universe. The next day when he examined the paper on which he scrawled his precious wisdom he read this bit of doggerel:

Hogamous, Higamous,
Man is polygamous,
Higamous, Hogamous,
Woman is monagamous.

Could this comical tale about the famous psychologist be correct?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. This poem has been attributed to Mrs. Amos Pinchot, William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and others. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in 1939 and credited Pinchot, but a cite in 1942 claimed that she denied the attribution. No decisive candidate for authorship has yet emerged in QI’s opinion.

William James did experiment with psychoactive agents, but his name was not connected to this verse until many years after his death. The earliest attribution to James located by QI was dated 1953, yet his life ended in 1910.

The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article “Thanksgiving Nightmare” by Claire MacMurray discussed dreams and not drugs. MacMurray presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot [APCM]:

She dreamed one night that she had written a poem so beautiful, so wise, so close to the ultimate truth of life that she was immediately acclaimed by all the peoples on the earth as the greatest poet and philosopher of all the ages. Still half asleep as the dream ended, she stumbled out of bed and scribbled the poem down, realizing that she must take no risk of forgetting such deathless lines. She awoke in the morning with the feeling that something wonderful was about to happen—oh, yes! Her poem.

She clutched the precious paper and, tense with excitement, read the words she had written. Here they are:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

The spelling and wording of this poem do differ from the most common modern versions, but QI believes that the words above likely correspond to the ancestral verse. The dream state is certainly an altered state, and it does generate insights, both genuine and spurious. But it is a relatively conventional mental excursion.

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“Age Before Beauty.” “Pearls Before Swine.”

Dorothy Parker? Clare Boothe Luce? Sheilah Graham? Snooty debutante? Little chorus girl?

Dear Quote Investigator: I think Dorothy Parker should be credited with the wittiest comeback ever spoken. She was attempting to go through a doorway at the same time as another person and words were exchanged. According to the story I heard the other person was the glamorous socialite and playwright Clare Boothe Luce.

“Age before beauty” said Luce while yielding the way. “And pearls before swine,” replied Parker while gliding through the doorway. Is this quotation accurate and is this tale true?

Quote Investigator: There is more than one version of this story, and the earliest description does not refer to Clare Boothe Luce by name. However, the second oldest version does identify her and Dorothy Parker as the antagonists. Further, this version was written by the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham who claimed that she heard it directly from Parker in 1938.

In 1941 The New Yorker magazine referred to the supposed interchange as an “apocryphal incident”. In addition, Boothe has denied the skirmish occurred. QI thinks that there is strong evidence that Parker created the quip, and she spoke it. Yet, it is not completely clear whether she was addressing Boothe.

In this article Clare Boothe Luce will sometimes be referred to as Boothe. Confusion is possible because two names: Clare Boothe and Clare Boothe Luce are both used in media accounts. Clare Boothe married the powerful publisher Henry Luce in 1935, and the name Luce was added to her appellation. Both names have continued in use.

Here are the two earliest citations found by QI. On September 16, 1938 The Spectator, a London periodical, published this passage: 1

It is recorded that Mrs. Parker and a snooty debutante were both going in to supper at a party: the debutante made elaborate way, saying sweetly “Age before beauty, Mrs. Parker.” “And pearls before swine,” said Mrs. Parker, sweeping in.

Boothe was born in 1903 and was 35 when this article was published; hence, she probably would not have been referred to as a debutante. Yet, the article does not specify a date of occurrence, and the event may have happened several years before 1938.

On October 14, 1938 the Hartford Courant printed the celebrity gossip column of Sheilah Graham containing this tale: 2

Dorothy Parker tells me of the last time she encountered Playwright Clare Boothe. The two ladies were trying to get out of a doorway at the same time. Clare drew back and cracked, “Age before beauty, Miss Parker.” As Dotty swept out, she turned to the other guests and said. “Pearls before swine.”

Additional selected citations in chronological order and some background information are presented below.

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  1. 1938 September 16, The Spectator, Best Sellers and the Atlantic by John Carter, Page 446, Column 2, London, England. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1938 October 14, Hartford Courant, Errol Flynn Plans Second Honeymoon by Sheilah Graham, Page 10, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)