I Would Rather Go To Bed With That Woman Stark Naked Than With Ulysses S. Grant in Full Military Regalia

Mark Twain? James Montgomery Flagg? William Dean Howells?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I discovered your blog I knew just the right word to describe it: Quotesmanship. That word was used in the New York Times in 1980 to describe the desire to determine and use correct attributions for quotations [NYQM]. The author of the Quotesmanship article was proud of his ability to properly give credit for quotations, but there was one saying attributed to Mark Twain that confounded him:

And nowhere to be found (by me, at least) is the dandy one that goes: “I would rather go to bed with Lillian Russell stark naked than with Ulysses S. Grant in full military regalia.”

I doubt you will be able to find these words in the corpus of Mark Twain either, but maybe you will be able to trace it to someone else.  Could you give it a try?

Quote Investigator: This quote is rather risqué for the time period of Mark Twain. Nevertheless, QI will attempt to discover something for you.

Lillian Russell was one of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 19th century. But the evidence located by QI indicates that the saying initially referred to another glamorous lady of the stage named Adelina Patti. She was an operatic superstar in the 19th century and Twain reportedly attended at least one of her performances.

Remarkably, the private notebooks of Mark Twain contain a passage about Patti written between 1889 and 1890 that is a variant of the quotation under investigation. In addition, an autobiography by the prominent illustrator James Montgomery Flagg who knew Twain personally includes an anecdote in which Twain is overheard telling the quip to a companion while attending an opera performance by the selfsame Adelina Patti.

Scholars have studied the original papers of Mark Twain’s estate to create a multi-volume series under the title “Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals”. The third volume “provides a continuous record of Samuel Clemens’ activities in the years from 1883 to 1891.” The passage of interest is dated between May 1889 and August 1890 [MTN3]:

“He said he would rather sleep with <Adelini>Adelina Patti without a stitch of clothes on than with General Grant in full uniform.”

Angle brackets are used as part of a notational convention by the editors. Specifically, Clemens’ cancellations are included in the text enclosed in angle brackets. The editor’s text also contains a footnote pointing to a later autobiography by James Montgomery Flagg that corroborates and illuminates the notebook entry.

Flagg was a famous illustrator who created an iconic Uncle Sam recruitment poster with the caption “I Want You For U.S. Army”. In 1946 he published his life story as “Roses and Buckshot”. Flagg knew Mark Twain and painted a portrait of him, but he did not directly witness the anecdote that he reported that features the quote. William Dean Howells is the full name of Twain’s companion in the anecdote [RBMT]:

Maisie La Shelle, years later, told me the best story about Mark Twain. Mark and Howells were in the front row at the old Academy hearing Adelina Patti in some opera. Howells noticed the wicked leer in Mark’s eye and questioned him. Mark, heaving a big sigh, said through his teeth in Howell’s (sic) ear:

“I would rather sleep with that woman stark naked, than with General Grant in full uniform!”

But that was not the only comment on this theme in circulation in the 1940s. Another version features Lillian Russell, the star mentioned in the original question to QI. A theater critic reviews a burlesque production staged in 1942 and pronounces a variant saying about seeing and not sleeping with Russell [LRTB]:

Mark Twain may have been right when he remarked that he would rather look at Lillian Russell stark naked than at General Grant in his full uniform.

Here are some additional selected citations in chronological order. In 1975 a variant of the saying with Lillian Russell appears in the Wall Street Journal [LRWJ]:

Presidents must indeed make some weighty decisions, Mr. Barber conceded, but a great many more decisions aren’t nearly as tough to make as Presidents would like the public to believe. It reminds him, he said, of Mark Twain’s comment that “given the choice, I’d rather sleep with Lillian Russell stark naked than Ulysses Grant in his full-dress uniform.”

In 1978 Evan Esar included the joke about Adelina Patti in his “Comic Encyclopedia” [APEE]:

A century ago the prima donna Adelina Patti was the conquering idol of the public. A great artist with a great voice, everywhere she went she caused tremendous demonstrations. … Patti was the Marilyn Monroe of her time, and there were Patti gags much like the stag gags about Monroe, but not so risque. An oft-repeated one was:

“What do you think of Patti?”

“I’d rather lie down with Patti naked any time than with General Grant in full uniform.”

In 1989 the saying appears in a compendium of quotations thought to be incorrect called “They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes and Misleading Attributions”. The version deemed fake is about Lillian Russell and QI‘s research also suggests that this variant is not correct [LRTN]:

LILLIAN RUSSELL QUOTE “I would rather go to bed with Lillian Russell stark naked than with Ulysses S. Grant in full military regalia.”

This remark, unfortunately, can be found nowhere in Twain’s writings.

Lastly, in 1998 a book about the writers of San Francisco portrays Mark Twain giving a Banquet speech and telling a version of the joke [LRRG]:

Most of these were all-male affairs, and he could let his humor loose with such antics as thumping on the table and shouting, “I assure you, gentlemen, I care nothing for ostentation—why I’d rather get into bed with Lillian Russell stark naked than with General Grant in full military regalia!”

In conclusion, Mark Twain wrote down a version of the joke featuring Adelina Patti in one of his personal notebooks. It is possible that he heard this quip and did not construct it himself. A second-hand anecdote describes Mark Twain telling the joke to a friend. The substitution of Lillian Russell for Adelina Patti appears to be a later modification.

QI thanks you for this stimulating question and hopes that you are lucky in love and/or collecting regalia.

[NYQM] 1980 August 10, New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, “On Language: Quotesmanship” by Richard Hanser, Page SM3, New York. (ProQuest)

[MTN3] 1979, Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, Volume III (1883-1891) edited by Frederick Anderson, Robert Pack Browning, Michael B. Frank,  and Lin Salamo, Pages 537 and 538, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. (Google Books limited view; Verified on paper) link

[RBMT] 1946, Roses and Buckshot by James Montgomery Flagg, Page 169, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[LRTB] 1971 (Reprint of a collection of reviews copyrighted 1943), “Theatre Book of the Year, 1942-1943” by George Jean Nathan, Review of “Wine, Women and Song. September 28, 1942”, Page 75, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Rutherford, New Jersey. (Google Books preview; Verified on paper in 1971 edition) link

[LRWJ] 1975 November 7, Wall Street Journal, “Politics & People: Advising Presidents” by Alan L. Otten, Page 16, New York, New York. (ProQuest)

[APEE] 1978, The Comic Encyclopedia by Evan Esar, Page 561, Column 2, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[LRTN] 1989, They Never Said It by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, Page 123, Oxford University Press, New York.

[LRRG] 1998, “Realms of Gold: The Colorful Writers of  San Francisco, 1850-1950” by George Rathmell, Page 125, Creative Arts Book Co. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link