You Cannot Persuade Her with Gun or Lariat, To Come Across for the Proletariat

Dorothy Parker? W. Somerset Maugham? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was at a party where guests were challenging one another to complete poems based on a few starting lines, or so the story goes. Parker was given the following two lines:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

After a moment to gather her thoughts she finished the verse with the following lines:

You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

I thought Parker’s lines were hilarious when I was told this story. But I have never been able to find any details about this anecdote. When and where did this party take place? Who challenged Parker? Could you explore this tale and quotation?

Quote Investigator: The lines of poetry that you give are accurate, but the surrounding anecdote is not quite correct. The story first appeared, QI believes, in the introduction written by W. Somerset Maugham to the 1944 edition of “The Viking Portable Library: Dorothy Parker” [SMDP]. Maugham described attending a Hollywood dinner party at the invitation of Miss Fanny Brice. Other guests included the writers Aldous Huxley and Dorothy Parker. During the course of the party Maugham and Parker were seated together, and after some discussion on miscellaneous topics Maugham ventured a request:

“Why don’t you write a poem for me?”
“I will if you like,” she replied. “Give me a pencil and a piece of paper.”

Maugham did not have either, so he requested both from their waiter who was “gone a long time” on the errand. At last he returned with paper and a blunt pencil:

Dorothy Parker took it and wrote:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

“Yes, I’ve always liked those lines,” I said.
She gave a thin, cool smile and without an instant’s hesitation, added:

You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

With this brilliant rhyme she gathered Higgledy Piggledy into the august company of Jove’s Eagle, Sindbad the Sailor’s Roc, the Capitoline Geese, Boccaccio’s Falcon, Shelley’s Skylark, and Poe’s Raven.

In Maugham’s anecdote Parker was not challenged with a pair of lines and told to create a quatrain; instead, she supplied the entire set of lines.

Here are a small number of additional citations in chronological order.

In 1970 John Keats recounted the episode in the biography “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker”. Keats hewed closely to the version given by Maugham in 1944 [JKDP].

By 1971 a modified version of the poem was in circulation. An editorial in a Michigan newspaper contained the altered poem, and the words were attributed to Dorothy Parker [REDP]:

Even chickens can be class-conscious. This is brought to mind by the aristocratic hen immortalized in rhyme by the late Dorothy Parker:

“Higgledy, Piggledy, my fine hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen,
But she won’t, by gun or lariat,
Come across for the proletariat.”

In 2000 “Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes” presented the stimulating variant of the tale in which Parker was called upon to add lines to a couplet [BADP]:

Dorothy Parker once attended a party with Somerset Maugham where the guests challenged each other to complete nursery rhymes. Somerset Maugham presented Mrs. Parker with the lines: “Higgledy, piggledy, my white hen / She lays eggs for gentlemen.”

Dorothy Parker added the following couplet: “You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat / To come across for the proletariat.”

In conclusion, Dorothy Parker crafted this clever poem, but she did not do so during a demanding test based on concatenation. She showed the poem to W. Somerset Maugham at his request. The amount of time she used to compose the quatrain is not clear. She had a long period of time to think while the waiter was retrieving writing implements. Indeed, she may have thought about or constructed the poem before she even attended the party. Thanks for your question.


[SMDP] 1944, The Viking Portable Library: Dorothy Parker, Introduction by W. Somerset Maugham, Page 12-14, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[JKDP] 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Page 183, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified in paper)

[REDP] 1971 September 03, Record-Eagle, Editorials: The Territorial Imperative by David Averill, Page 4, Traverse City, Michigan. (NewspaperArchive)

[BADP] 2000, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, General editors Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard, Dorothy Parker section, Page 426, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper) [The story also appeared in the 1985 edition “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes”]