Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? Frank Sullivan?
Dear Quote Investigator: The writer Dorothy Parker was famous for her clever and barbed witticisms. Her remarks were often aimed at others, but sometimes she laughed at herself with a self-deprecating comment. I particularly enjoy the statement she made when asked about her fame:
Yes, I once was the toast of two continents: Greenland and Australia.
I laughed when I heard this, but then I began to wonder. Greenland is not really a continent, and Parker must have known this fact. Maybe this picayune detail is irrelevant, but maybe it shows that this quote is a fake. Perhaps Dorothy Parker never said it. Would you please investigate this quote?
Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will examine this saying for you. It is true that Greenland is not a continent, but it is the largest island that is not a continent, and QI still thinks that the joke is funny. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Parker originally told a different version of this joke. Specifically, Parker is quoted in 1956 stating that she was the toast of two continents. But the two continents that she names differ from the two geographical regions mentioned in the quotation above.
The two phrases “famous on two continents” and “the toast of two continents” were primarily used to describe performers who were successful in both Europe and the United States. Parker’s remark was playfully twisting the denotation of this phrase which was well-known to many of her listeners. Here is an example with the conventional meaning in 1933 in an article about a jockey who was famous in the U.S. and the U.K. [TSTC]:
One of the most bizarre and colorful careers in the entire history of the turf came to a sorry close Thursday when Tod Sloan, greatest jockey of all time, once worth $2,000,000, the playmate of English royalty, the hero of American millionaires, the toast of two continents, died penniless and almost forgotten by the sport for which he did so much.
The earliest example of the humorously modified expression located by QI appears in a syndicated newspaper column by Leonard Lyons where it is attributed to Dorothy Parker. Here is the quotation in the Dallas Morning News in 1956 [DPTC]:
Dorothy Parker said: “I once was the toast of two continents, Asia and Africa.”
The landmasses mentioned in the most common current version, Greenland and Australia, are not used in this early version. Instead, Asia and Africa are used and happily both are continents. The joke is more coherent from the standpoint of geographers. By 1970 the words attributed to Parker refer to Greenland and Australia [JKTC]:
I was the toast of two continents: Greenland and Australia.
In 1971 confusion about who should be credited with the quip is expressed by quotation collector Bennett Cerf [BCTC]:
Both Benchley and Parker have been credited with the line, “Yes, I once was the toast of two continents: Greenland and Australia,” but I think it was Frank Sullivan who said it first.
Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Frank Sullivan were all members of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s. But the earliest citation currently known for the jape is in the 1950s. Since Parker is mentioned in the first cite she receives the credit for now. Thanks for your question.
[TSTC] 1933 December 22, Milwaukee Journal, Tod Sloan’s Death Recalls His Amazing Career, Page 6, Column 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News archive)
[DPTC] 1956 October 15, Dallas Morning News, Heard in New York: Turntables Give Welles a Turn by Leonard Lyons Page 15, Column 3, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
[JKTC] 1970, “You Might As Well Live: Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats, Simon and Schuster, New York. [Listed in the Yale Book of Quotations]
[BCTC] 1971 March 18, Lewiston Evening Journal, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 14 (GN Page 8), Column 4, Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. (Google News archive)