Cary Grant? Gar Wood? Mark Clark? Tom Ferris?
Dear Quote Investigator: I love the movies from the golden age of Hollywood. I think the stars were more glamorous in the past, and the stories about the stars were wittier. The quotation I would like you to investigate was written by Cary Grant for a telegram that he sent.
Telegram delivery was halted in the 1980s, so some of your blog readers may not know much about them. They were text messages that were sent long-distance via radio or wire and then delivered using messengers. They were expensive in the 1930s and 1940s, and to save money telegram messages were often very short. Words such as “is” and “are” were often deleted from messages to obtain greater brevity.
A classic anecdote begins with a journalist who is working on a story about Cary Grant with a tight deadline. He needs to gather some background information, so he sends a telegram to the publicist of Cary Grant asking about the age of the star:
HOW OLD CARY GRANT?
But Cary Grant intercepts the message and decides to send his own reply:
OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?
I love this story, but I know that Hollywood studios during the golden age sometimes concocted fun stories about stars and planted them in newspapers. Could you investigate whether this quotation is genuine?
Quote Investigator: Thanks for this entertaining tale. Yes, QI will look into this telegram legend for you. Cary Grant directly denied the story in a newspaper interview in 1978. This humorous yarn has been told with at least three different people in the leading role. Cary Grant was the third. While the version featuring Grant is probably apocryphal there is evidence supporting a version featuring the motorboat racer Gar Wood and the writer Tom Ferris.
A 1957 report says that a journalist who was covering a speedboat race was badgered by a managing editor to obtain the age of a participant named Gar Wood. The exasperated journalist finally sent a telegram of this type to the editor. An account in 1959 says that a cable like this was sent regarding the age of General Mark Clark. Also in 1959 the comedienne Celeste Holm joked that a movie studio sent a reply wire of this sort about Cary Grant’s age.
The earliest citation for this story was found by the outstanding researcher Sam Clements and reported on the blog of the Visual Thesaurus website by the brilliant lexicographer and writer Ben Zimmer who is now the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
In the first known version of the tale a perfectionist managing editor had a habit of sending telegrams to one of his reporters requesting additional trivial pieces of information. Late one night the editor sent a telegram to his reporter who was covering a speedboat regatta featuring Gar Wood. Here is a description of the receipt of the message and the reply [AGW]:
He had filed his story and just managed to get to sleep on the heartless hotel bed mattress when a knock came to the door. It was a bellboy with another of those telegrams.
“How old Gar Wood?” it inquired bluntly. Shortly thereafter, the managing editor found himself confronted with this succinct reply: “Old Gar Wood fine. How you?”
The teller of this tale was the newspaper man who sent the humorous answering telegram. But this journalist was not named, and the story was recounted by a columnist named Barbara Hodge Hall. Although the topic of the telegram was Gar Wood he was not directly involved in the anecdote.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. In 1957 this yarn also appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine. Interestingly, the acknowledgement for the origination of the tale was granted to the Minneapolis Tribune [RDGW]:
A crusty old newspaperman, who has worked all over the world, has one pet hate. It is editors who don’t bother to check handy reference sources, but instead wire last-minute queries to far-flung reporters. Some years ago he was covering a Florida speedboat race in which Gar Wood was participating. Our boy had filed his story, but late at night he got a telegram from his editor that read: “How old Gar Wood?” The reporter wired back: “Old Gar Wood fine. How you?”
– “Almanac” in Minneapolis Tribune
QI has not yet been able to obtain a copy of the corresponding article in the Minneapolis Tribune. The archives for the Minneapolis newspaper in the year 1957 apparently have not yet been digitized. In 1958 the anecdote appeared in the pages of an Oakland, California newspaper. The account closely followed the version in the Reader’s Digest and an acknowledgment was given to the Minneapolis Tribune [OTGW].
In September 1959 the legend developed a new permutation in the column of famed show business chronicler, Earl Wilson. Gar Wood was replaced by General Mark Clark. The three letter acronym INS in the following excerpt stands for International News Service, a one-time competitor to the AP and UPI news services [EWMC]:
NEWSPAPER TALE: Once in the old days at INS, a Rome correspondent doing a feature story on Gen. Mark Clark didn’t know his age. He cabled the NY office: “How old Mark Clark?” An editor in NY thought the cable needless, and cabled back: “Old Mark Clark fine. How you?”
In November 1959 the legend changed again and moved closer to its most common modern form. The comedienne Celeste Holm told a version in which Gar Wood and Mark Clark were replaced by Hollywood star Cary Grant. In Holm’s version the telegram was not intercepted by Grant, instead the studio produced the comical telegraphic response [CHCG]:
She recalled the time a reporter interviewed Cary Grant and found out everything she wanted to know except his age, which she felt was too delicate a question to ask. So she sent the following wire to his studio: “How old Cary Grant?” … She got a reply right away, said the comedienne. The studio wired: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”
In 1961 another variant of the legend appeared in the newspaper column of George Dixon. The topic of the telegram was again Gar Wood, but this recounting of the tale is interesting because names are given for the two individuals communicating via telegram. Dixon claimed that a friend of his named Tom Ferris was responsible for sending the famous reply telegram. Ferris was working in Florida as a press agent (not a journalist) for a boss named Steve Hannagan who was based in Manhattan. Hannagan had a “limitless budget for telegrams” [GDGW]:
He shot telegrams at his hireling from morning till night, often requesting information he could have obtained by consulting “Who’s Who.” One of these inconsequential telegrams read:
“Please wire me how old Gar Wood is.” Mr. Ferris wired back: “Old Gar Wood is fine.
Dixon’s intriguing version of the story also featured novel phrases. The request telegram contained the verb “to be” which is typically omitted. The reply also used the “is” form of the verb “to be”. Grammatically, the joke worked even with this phraseology.
The prominent science writer and documentary film maker Timothy Ferris, the son of Tom Ferris, provides support for an account featuring Gar Wood and his father. He heard this story within his family [TFE]:
As I recall the matter, my father quoted the telegram as reading, “Please wire how old Gar Wood is.” The awkward phrasing, ending as it does in a preposition, may have irritated him. Anyhow he replied, “Old Gar Wood fine. How you?”
In 1962 the legend appeared in the mass-circulation magazine Time. The periodical’s account depicted Cary Grant himself sending the reply wire [TMCG]:
In his studio office, he keeps three tremendous photographs of his wives and numberless mementos of his long and lofty career. “The good old days are now,” he grins amiably. A short time ago, a magazine editor wired him: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? And he wired back: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?
Skipping forward to 1978, the Los Angeles Times published a profile of Cary Grant, and the reporter asked him about the well-known anecdote. He denied it [LTCG]:
“That story has been attributed to various people over the years,” he says. “I wish I could say it was true, but it’s not.”
Most actors, I have discovered, encourage anecdotes about themselves, even if they’re apocryphal. Not Cary Grant.
In conclusion, the telegram story about Cary Grant is apocryphal. The imitative account concerning General Mark Clark also does not have strong evidentiary support. The variants of the tale featuring Gar Wood are intriguing, and the reader can decide if the facts are convincing. The testimony of Timothy Ferris provides strong complementary evidence for the version of the tale featuring Gar Wood and Tom Ferris. QI hopes that the Minneapolis Tribune reference will be found in the future, and thanks you for your question.
Update History: On July 16, 2015 the statement about the affiliation of Ben Zimmer was changed from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.
[AGW] 1957 December 14, The Anniston Star, “Saturday Notes” by Barbara Hodge Hall, Page 2, Column 2, Anniston, Alabama. (NewspaperArchive)
[RDGW] 1957 December, The Reader’s Digest, News Beat, Page 119 (GN Page Number 117 is incorrect), Volume 71, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper)
[OTGW] 1958 September 15, Oakland Tribune, The Jester, Editorial Page, NA Page 42, Column 6, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
[EWMC] 1959 September 29, The Evening Standard, That’s Earl for Today by Earl Wilson, Page 12, Column 1, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
[CHCG] 1959, November 8, St. Petersburg Times, Betty Beale’s Washington Letter to Gloria Biggs, Women’s Editor: Capital’s Crowded With Comments, Cut-Ups, Page 17-E (GN Page 47), St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)
[GDGW] 1961 November 1, Cumberland Evening Times, “Capital Scene” by George Dixon, Page 8, Column 7, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
[TFE] Personal communication, Email to Garson O’Toole from Timothy Ferris dated January 25, 2011. [Timothyferris.com is the Official website of the science writer Timothy Ferris.] (Accessed February 24 2011) link
[TMCG] 1962 July 27, Time, “Hollywood: Old Cary Grant Fine”, Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of Time magazine) link
[LTCG] 1978 June 11, Los Angeles Times, “Cary Grant: Doing What Comes Naturally” by Roderick Mann, Page Q39, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)