Tag Archives: George S. Kaufman

Your Bald Head Feels as Smooth as My Wife’s Cheek

Marc Connelly? Nicholas Longworth? S. H. Hale? Franklin P. Adams? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

barber08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a list of the funniest ripostes, but it did not include the squelcher that I believe is the best. An unhappy card player wished to embarrass a bald man who was excelling. The disgruntled man placed his hand on the winner’s gleaming dome and said, “Hey, this feels smooth and soft exactly like my sweet wife’s behind.”

In response the man touched his glabrous scalp thoughtfully and said, “That is curious. You know; you’re right.”

The punchline of this anecdote was been attributed to the playwright Marc Connelly who was a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table and to Nicholas Longworth who was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Would you explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published version of this tale found by QI was set in a barber shop and was less risqué. In July 1924 “The Roswell Daily Record” of Roswell, New Mexico printed the following. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

S. H. Hale tells this one on a fresh young barber he had working for him several years ago. This particular barber thought he would kid a bald-headed man.

“Don’t you know,” he said, rubbing the bald spot, “your head feels just like my wife’s cheek”.

The customer reached up and stroked his head for a moment and then said: “By golly it does, doesn’t it.”

The word “cheek” presented a double-entendre, but QI believes that the Roswell newspaper editor in 1924 probably expected readers to think of the face and not the buttocks.

The joke was bawdy, and it suggested cuckoldry; hence, coarser instances probably circulated only via the spoken word initially. Newspapers in the 1920s printed a version with the phrase “my wife’s cheek”, and periodicals in the 1950s printed a variant referencing “my wife’s leg”. By the 1960s a biography printed an instance with “my wife’s bottom”, and a memoir printed an instance with “my wife’s behind”.

Privately printed literature was more candid. In 1934 a limited edition collection of taboo humor included an instance with “my wife’s ass”. The rejoinder was attributed to Mark Connelly.

Nicholas Longworth was Speaker of the House from 1925 to 1931, i.e., after the barber shop version of the anecdote was circulating. He died in 1931. The earliest citation found by QI crediting the punchline to Longworth was published in a 1968 book about Washington politics. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1924 July 12, The Roswell Daily Record, Local Snap Shots (Contributed), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Roswell, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)

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)

Combining the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Telescopes Still Won’t Be Enough

George S. Kaufman? Eddie Fisher? Clifton Fadiman? Dick Cavett?


Dear Quote Investigator: Many, many years ago I saw an old clip on TV of George S. Kaufman and he was replying to a question submitted by a listener/viewer/audience member. For the sake of example let’s say it was a woman complaining about her husband’s smoking habit. I don’t recall his exact words, but they went something like this:

In California, I believe on Mount Palomar, there is a powerful telescope that can see to the edges of our solar system. They are constructing a new one which will let us see far beyond our own system into other universes. [More details and punch line omitted.]

My question is: Do you know which program this was, what year and what the actual quote was?

Quote Investigator: The readily available and searchable records for early television programs are poor. But there is a report of a joke delivered by Kaufman during an episode of the television program “This is Show Business” shown on the CBS network that conforms to your outline. The earliest account QI has located appeared in a memoir by the talk-show host and television personality Dick Cavett.

George S. Kaufman was a panelist on “This is Show Business” at least twice during its initial run, and the Internet Movie Database indicates that the series was first televised between 1949 and 1954 [IMSB]. Guest stars visited the show and sang, danced, or performed in some way. In addition, they were supposed to present a personal problem for the panelists to discuss. The singing sensation Eddie Fisher stated that the difficulty he faced stemmed from girls that refused to go out with him because of his youth. The following elaborate response from Kaufman is in Cavett’s 1983 book [ECGK]:

Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope.

The Mount Palomar telescope is an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope.

Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.

Cavett indicated that he was using his memory to reconstruct the wording used by Kaufman decades earlier. Unsurprisingly, human memory is imperfect. In 2010 Cavett retold the anecdote in a New York Times online article, and the quotation attributed to Kaufman is quite similar; however, the wording differs in several places.

Unless a transcript is discovered QI thinks that the exact phrasing is probably lost. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Meretricious and a Happy New Year

Gore Vidal? Franklin P. Adams? George S. Kaufman? Mary Horan? Chico Marx? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is here, and I have a question about a pun. A critic once told Gore Vidal that one of his novels was meretricious and Gore pointedly replied:

Really? Well, meretricious and a happy New Year to you too!

This anecdote is set in the 1970s and when I read about it recently I was reminded of stories about the Algonquin Round Table. The group members used to play a game in which a word was selected and a participant was challenged to create a clever sentence using it. I think meretricious was one of the words chosen, and the result was the quip used by Gore Vidal many years later. Could you check into this?

Quote Investigator: The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, a top-notch reference that is enjoyable to browse, lists this anecdote of verbal jousting under the name of Gore Vidal. But the entry also mentions some instances of the pun as early as 1933 credited to The Marx Brothers and Franklin P. Adams [ODHM].

The earliest instance located by QI was published in December 1929 by the famous columnist Walter Winchell who referred to the sentence construction activity as a “parlor diversion.” Winchell presented two examples of puns which he attributed to the actress Mary Horan. The third example used meretricious, but the joke was not credited to a specific person.

The second earliest citation was published in December 1930. Once again Walter Winchell described the sentence construction activity as a “parlor pastime.” The example using meretricious was deemed “one of the cleverest”. Winchell mentioned several members of the Round Table: Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and Dorothy Parker, but he did not provide a name for the originator of the wordplay for meretricious in 1929 or 1930.

Twelve years later in 1942 Winchell credited the pun to the playwright and Round Table member George S. Kaufman. In 1945 a biographer of Alexander Woollcott assigned the joke to Franklin P. Adams. In modern times the wordplay is often attributed to Gore, Adams, and The Marx Brothers .

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up

Groucho Marx? Walter Winchell? George S. Kaufman? George Jean Nathan?

Dear Quote Investigator: When a friend asked me my opinion of a terrible play that I saw recently I answered:

I did not like it, but perhaps this judgment is unfair. I saw it under adverse conditions — the curtain was up.

Eventually she coaxed me into admitting that this joke is from Groucho Marx. However, my memory is imperfect so I decided to check with a Google search, and I found that a playwright named George S. Kaufman is also listed as the originator. Could you determine if this is a real Groucho quote or a fake one? Also, can you ascertain which show was being ridiculed?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Groucho did utter a version of this quote in 1931 to Walter Winchell who promptly reported it in his widely-read and highly-influential newspaper column. The confusion about the attribution arises because Groucho gave credit to the playwright and humorist George S. Kaufman for the quip when he told it to Winchell. In fact, the initial newspaper report in 1931 mentions only Kaufman’s name.

The target of the jest was a show called “Vanities” by the major Broadway producer Earl Carroll, and he was not happy to hear the mocking comment. His anger was primarily directed at Winchell, but there were repercussions over a period of years including: strained relationships, publicly traded insults, and a theater attendance ban.

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