Tag Archives: Lillian Hellman

Every Word She Writes Is a Lie, Including “And” and “The”

Mary McCarthy? Lillian Hellman? Apocryphal?

thegroup07Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest caustic condemnation of a prevaricator that I have ever heard was delivered by the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. The result was a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit filed by the famous playwright Lillian Hellman who was the target of the criticism. Would you please examine precisely what was spoken?

Quote Investigator: In 1978 a journalist named Joan Dupont interviewed Mary McCarthy for a short-lived English-language periodical called “Paris Metro”. Dupont explored the topic of rivalry between women intellectuals and asked McCarthy’s opinion of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. McCarthy said she greatly admired Arendt and felt no competitiveness toward her. When Dupont asked McCarthy about the playwright Lillian Hellman the response given with a smile was savage and comically hyperbolic. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“I can’t stand her. I think every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but.'” Her steady smile has grown into a full grin.

This version of McCarthy’s comment is not well-known because “Paris Metro” did not circulate widely. But McCarthy decided to reuse her bon mot in October 1979 during her appearance on a public television talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. When Cavett asked her to name overrated authors she referred to Hellman, and she attempted to recall her previous quip. She produced an altered remark that achieved wide distribution: 2

FROM THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE DICK CAVETT SHOW,
OCTOBER 18, 1979, TAPING

MCCARTHY: The only one I can think of is a holdover like Lillian Hellman, who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and dishonest writer, “but she really belongs to the past, to the Steinbeck past, not that she is a writer like Steinbeck

CAVETT: What is dishonest about her?

MCCARTHY: Everything. But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1991, Conversations with Mary McCarthy, Edited by Carol Gelderman, (Collection of Mary McCarthy interviews from miscellaneous publications), Series: Literary Conversations Series, Chapter: Mary McCarthy: Portrait of a Lady, Author/Interviewer: Joan Dupont, (Reprinted from February 15, 1978 issue of The Paris Metro), Start Page 157, Quote Page 164, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2000, Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan, Chapter 25: The Hellman Suit, Quote Page 673, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

Cocaine Isn’t Habit-Forming. I Should Know. I’ve Been Using It for Years

Tallulah Bankhead? Lillian Hellman? Dashiell Hammett? Apocryphal?

tall09Dear Quote Investigator: The most obtuse quotation I know of was uttered by the actress Tallulah Bankhead whose erratic behavior caused Dashiell Hammett, the well-known author of popular detective novels, to complain about her drug use. Bankhead reportedly defended herself with the following parodic remark:

I tell you cocaine isn’t habit-forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.

Was this really spoken by Bankhead?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 “Tallulah: My Autobiography” was released by the movie star, and she wrote about her experiences with heroin and cocaine. Bankhead stated that when she was young she wished to shock people, but she was not really an addict. For example, when she was offered a drink at a party she sometimes responded with: 1

“No, thank you. I don’t drink. Got any cocaine?” Thus did I start the myth that I was an addict.

Eventually, in the 1920s, she did tentatively experiment with drugs. She snorted heroin which she was told incorrectly was cocaine, and it made her extremely ill. Because or her bad experience she stated: 2

I’ve never touched either since except medicinally.

Indeed, she did use cocaine therapeutically to maintain her voice according to her own account. Her desire to appear scandalous led her to formulate the comical and infamous quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

In London, when I had one of my frequent attacks of the actor’s nightmare, laryngitis, Sir Milson Reese, the King’s doctor, sprayed my throat with a solution laced with cocaine. It stimulated my larynx, relieved strain on my vocal chords, reduced my chances of becoming mute during a performance.

At Boots, the London chemists, where I presented the prescription, I was given a bottle of pale little lozenges, labeled “Cocaine and Menthol.” Obsessed with the desire to shock people, I whipped the vial out at every opportunity. I’d hold it out to my friends: “Have some cocaine?” “Tallulah, isn’t it habit-forming?” “Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I’ve been using it for years.”

A different story about the quotation has been told by Bankhead’s one-time-friend Lillian Hellman who was a notable Broadway playwright. Hellman’s account was given in the 1973 memoir “Pentimento” which is excerpted further below. The dramatist suggested that Bankhead did have a serious drug dependency.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 98, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 101, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 100 and 101, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)

If You Can Read This, You’ve Come Too Close

Dorothy Parker? Lillian Hellman? Ford Model T Label? Frank Sullivan? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

close07Dear Quote Investigator: The witty author Dorothy Parker was once asked to suggest an epitaph for her tombstone. Over the years she crafted several different candidates, and I am interested in the following saying which can be expressed in multiple ways:

If you can read this you are too close.
If you can read this you’ve come too close.
If you can read this, you are standing too close.

Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI plans to examine at least five different epitaphs that have been attributed to Dorothy Parker. Here is a link to a webpage that will have pointers to the five separate analyses when they are completed.

There is evidence that Dorothy Parker did present this saying as an epitaph for herself. This information emanated from Lillian Hellman who was a long-time friend of the writer, and who acted as her controversial literary executor. Hellman delivered a memorial speech after Parker’s death during which she asserted that Parker desired a gravestone with the following message:

If you can read this you’ve come too close.

Hellman’s remark was discussed in publications in 1968 and 1969 and in her own memoir. Detailed citations are given further below.

The origin of the phrase chosen by Parker was intriguing to QI. The statement was used as a comical cautionary sign appearing on the back of Ford Model T automobiles during the 1920s. Parker humorously repurposed the expression and shifted its semantics. She performed the same alchemy on the statement “Excuse My Dust” as discussed here.

In January 1925 a newspaper in Portland, Oregon reported on a sign that had been seen in Pennsylvania. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A Novel Warning.

A driver of a motor car In Washington, Pa., while trailing a small coupe, noticed very small letters on the spare tire covering. Anxious to know what was being advertised, he drove close enough to read the inscription, which said: “If you can read this you are too darn close.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1925 January 11, The Sunday Oregonian (Oregonian), Section 7, A Novel Warning, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)

“It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Who Said It? Samuel Goldwyn? Robert Benchley? Gracie Allen? Alva Johnston? Anonymous?

foxes07Who or What Was Caustic? The Little Foxes? Jim Tully? An Unnamed Actor? Mr. Rosenblatt? An Unnamed Script? An Unnamed Writer? Sidney Howard? Moss Hart?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining legend about the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn has been amusing people for decades. “The Little Foxes” was a major Broadway hit in 1939 and Goldwyn was considering purchasing the rights to create a film based on the story. He asked his top advisor to see the play and report to him. Here is what the aide supposedly told Goldwyn together with his reply:

“Sam, it’s a great drama, but it might be a little too caustic.”
“I don’t care what it costs, I want it.”

This is my favorite anecdote about Goldwyn, and it is supported by the fact that he did buy the rights and made a classic movie starring Bette Davis. Could you research this quotation?

Quote Investigator:Thanks for sending in this fun story. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the timeline that makes this tale unlikely. In January 1930 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell reported a version of the joke based on the misconstrual of the word “caustic” that was being disseminated by the popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley. Thus, the core joke was in circulation about nine years before the premiere of “The Little Foxes”.

The tale centered on two movie magnates who began their careers in the garment business. This biographical detail matched Samuel Goldwyn who was a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood. The maladroit line was spoken by one of the magnates. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They were in conference trying to save a new picture that lacked, what critics usually call, “a wallop.”
“If we could only get someone to fix it up,” said one.
“Why don’t you get Jim Tully?” suggested an executive.
“Jim Tully is too caustic!”
“Oh,” thundered one of the magnates, “the hell with the cost, get him!”

The writer Robert Benchley constructed many humorous stories, and it was possible that he simply invented this anecdote to entertain friends. Alternatively, he may have been present at a meeting when the line was spoken. Special thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation given above.

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)