Gary Cooper? Lee Neuwirth? Henry Miller? Moses Hadas?
Dear Quotation Investigator: I was told that a prominent journal editor would sometimes write a rejection letter to an author that said his or her “paper fills a much-needed gap”. Is this true?
QI: This post continues the investigation of the phrase “much needed gap”, restarting in 1956, and considers this new question. Here is a link to part one if you missed it.
When legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper asks movie star Gary Cooper about the new star Grace Kelly in 1956 he says that “she fills a much needed gap in motion pictures” [GC]. Misunderstanding is still prevalent.
Evidence of a writer who deploys the phrase with conscious wit appears in a second-hand story about an editor in the pages of the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 1960 [NAT]. This story answers the questioner above, but the evidence is not direct:
Dr. T. H. Osgood (U.S. Embassy) said that in his American experience, the insensitivity of some authors to shades of meaning lent credibility to the story told by a fellow editor that occasionally his letters of rejection took the form: “Dear Sir, Although your paper fills a much-needed gap in the literature, I regret that it cannot be accepted for publication”.
Next in the timeline of our examination is an origin story for the phrase that dates to 1960 although the recounting appears much later in a mathematical journal in 1997 [AMS]:
Snide reviews form part of the folklore of Mathematical Reviews. The most famous one is as sublimely succinct as it is damning: “This paper fills a much needed gap in the literature.”
Though well known, this sentence never actually appeared in a review. Its origins were explained in a letter from Lee Neuwirth to Gerald Janusz, who looked into the matter when he served as executive editor from 1990 to 1992. Around 1960, when he was an instructor at Princeton, Neuwirth began a review of an article by Hale Trotter with the infamous sentence. Unaware of what he had done, Neuwirth showed the review to his colleague Ralph Fox, who “roared with laughter.” Fox rewrote the review, and it eventually appeared, without the sentence, under Fox’s name (MR 24 (1962), 683, number A3645). It appears that Fox told the story about the sentence to others, but in the telling he left out the names of Neuwirth and Trotter.
So, based on the evidence collected so far the lawyers in 1950 were quicker to catch on to the joke than the mathematicians or the scientists in 1960. Another curious appearance of the phrase occurs in a 1961 article about the gastronome Angelo Pellegrini who wrote a book titled “The Unprejudiced Palate”. The book is “acclaimed by critics without dissenting voice” says the article which goes on to mention a letter from a well-known author [HNM]:
The most flattering of all was from the writer, Henry Miller, who called it “a veritable gospel … that fills a much-needed gap.”
Skipping forward to the 1980s, the phrase appears in a collection of quotations compiled by Robert Byrne. Mr. Byrne created several collections which grew in size over the years: “The 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”, “The 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”, and “The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”. Byrne attributes the quip to the classical scholar Moses Hadas [BYR]:
This book fills a much needed gap.
Moses Hadas (1900-1966) in a review
QI has been unable to discover a review by Hadas containing the phrase and has been unable to establish a connection between Hadas and the quote before the 1980s. But he is the most commonly credited individual in online databases of quotes such as Thinkexist and Quotationspage.
In conclusion, QI hopes that you have enjoyed these two blog posts and that they have helped fill an unneeded gap of ignorance while retaining a much-needed gap of entertainment and relaxation in your busy day.
[GC] 1856 January 8, The Springfield Sunday Republican, Looking Over Hollywood by Hedda Hopper, Page 8C, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
[NAT] 1960 July 9, Nature, Influence of Editors by D. Richter, Page 121, Macmillan. (Checked on microfilm)
[AMS] 1997 March, Notices of the AMS, “Chinese Acrobatics, an Old-Time Brewery, and the ‘Much Needed Gap’: The Life of Mathematical Reviews” by Allyn Jackson, Page 330, Vol. 44, Number 3, American Mathematical Society. link
[HNM] 1961 December 10, Seattle Times, This Professor Whets Appetites by Dorothy Brant Brazier, Page 6 S (GB Page 89), Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
[BYR] 1988, 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Page 108, Random House, Inc. (Google Books limited view) [There is a match in the 1983 edition “637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” but QI has not verified this on paper and GB offers no preview] link