Who Said the Quote? Dorothy Parker? Richard Henry Little? Alexander Woollcott?
Who was the Polyglot? Winifred Stackville Stoner? Merle Oberon?
Dear Quote Investigator: My question differs from most. Here is a quotation of admiration with a stinger that I would like you to investigate:
That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say “No” in any of them.
Dorothy Parker receives credit for this quip in multiple reference books. What interests me is the identity of the polyglot woman. Can you figure out who Parker was talking about?
Quote Investigator: Like many of the sayings assigned to Parker that have persisted in the cultural milieu this phrase is risqué. The earliest attribution of the quote to Parker located by QI occurs in 1933.
But QI has also found an earlier citation for a close variant of this joke in 1931 that is not credited to Parker. The witticism was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist, Richard Henry Little, who was writing about a former child prodigy named Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. The text of the article reveals a different interpretation to the notion of saying “No”. Little’s gag is not focused on promiscuity; instead, it refers to multiple marriages [RLWS]:
… it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.
It is possible that Little heard a joke from Parker and then modified it to create a less provocative version that applied to Winifred Stackville Stoner. Alternatively, Little’s jest may have been modified to create a ribald version that fit the wisecracking persona of Parker.
Here are selected citations in chronological order. The long-lived Chicago Tribune column called “A Line O’ Type Or Two” was written by different journalists over the years. In 1931 Richard Henry Little was the author and each column ended with his initials, R. H. L. Below is the text of the short note about Stoner who had recently left her third husband [RLWS]:
WINIFRED STACKVILLE STONER II., now twenty-nine and who is reported in the public press as having just left her third, was renowned at the age of six, when she wrote a book, as a child genius. And a few years later, with her hair still in pigtails, it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.
A couple years later in 1933 the famed New Yorker magazine commentator Alexander Woollcott wrote a profile of Dorothy Parker titled “Our Mrs. Parker” for a periodical called Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan. This is the location of the first known ascription of the gibe to Parker [HCTL]:
But Mrs. Parker carries—as everyone is uneasily aware—a dirk which knows no brother and mighty few sisters. “I was so terribly glad to see you,” she murmurs to a departing guest. “Do let me call you up sometime, won’t you, please?” And adds, when this dear chum is out of hearing, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say No in any of them.”
In 1934 Woollcott published the same words in his collection of essays “While Rome Burns” [WRDP]. Two important reference works: The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [ODHDP] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YQDP] both cite Woollcott’s crediting of Parker.
Jumping forward several decades to 2003, the film critic Gene Shalit presents a version of the joke in the “Great Hollywood Wit” that implies a film star known for her exotic appearance was the target of Parker’s barb [HWMO]:
Merle Oberon speaks eighteen languages and can’t say no in any of them.
DOROTHY PARKER, writer
Summarizing, Richard Henry Little and Dorothy Parker are the two earliest known users of versions of this clever remark. QI has not found any other names associated with the crafting this quotation. Polyglot Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. is a solid candidate for the object of the jest. QI thanks you for your question, and also says merci, gracias, and danke.
[RLWS] 1931 September 8, Chicago Daily Tribune, “A Line O’ Type Or Two” by Richard Henry Little, Page 12, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[HCTL] 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, [Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan], “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Page 90, Column 1, International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies; Great thanks to the helpful librarians)
[WRDP] 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors: IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Page 149, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
[ODHDP] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Women and Woman’s Role, Page 353, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books preview; Verified on paper) link
[YQDP] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Dorothy Parker, Page 580, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
[HWMO] 2003, “Great Hollywood Wit: A Glorious Cavalcade of Hollywood Wisecracks” by Gene Shalit, Page 36, St Martin’s Griffin Edition, New York. (Google preview) link
Update history: On April 16, 2011 the 1933 Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan citation was added. The text was modified to reflect this new information.