Dorothy Parker? Clare Boothe Luce? Sheilah Graham? Snooty debutante? Little chorus girl?
Dear Quote Investigator: I think Dorothy Parker should be credited with the wittiest comeback ever spoken. She was attempting to go through a doorway at the same time as another person and words were exchanged. According to the story I heard the other person was the glamorous socialite and playwright Clare Boothe Luce.
“Age before beauty” said Luce while yielding the way. “And pearls before swine,” replied Parker while gliding through the doorway. Is this quotation accurate and is this tale true?
Quote Investigator: There is more than one version of this story, and the earliest description does not refer to Clare Boothe Luce by name. However, the second oldest version does identify her and Dorothy Parker as the antagonists. Further, this version was written by the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham who claimed that she heard it directly from Parker in 1938.
In 1941 The New Yorker magazine referred to the supposed interchange as an “apocryphal incident”. In addition, Boothe has denied the skirmish occurred. QI thinks that there is strong evidence that Parker created the quip, and she spoke it. Yet, it is not completely clear whether she was addressing Boothe.
In this article Clare Boothe Luce will sometimes be referred to as Boothe. Confusion is possible because two names: Clare Boothe and Clare Boothe Luce are both used in media accounts. Clare Boothe married the powerful publisher Henry Luce in 1935, and the name Luce was added to her appellation. Both names have continued in use.
Here are the two earliest citations found by QI. On September 16, 1938 The Spectator, a London periodical, published this passage: 1
It is recorded that Mrs. Parker and a snooty debutante were both going in to supper at a party: the debutante made elaborate way, saying sweetly “Age before beauty, Mrs. Parker.” “And pearls before swine,” said Mrs. Parker, sweeping in.
Boothe was born in 1903 and was 35 when this article was published; hence, she probably would not have been referred to as a debutante. Yet, the article does not specify a date of occurrence, and the event may have happened several years before 1938.
On October 14, 1938 the Hartford Courant printed the celebrity gossip column of Sheilah Graham containing this tale: 2
Dorothy Parker tells me of the last time she encountered Playwright Clare Boothe. The two ladies were trying to get out of a doorway at the same time. Clare drew back and cracked, “Age before beauty, Miss Parker.” As Dotty swept out, she turned to the other guests and said. “Pearls before swine.”
Additional selected citations in chronological order and some background information are presented below.
The phrase “pearls before swine” is a biblical allusion to a verse in the Gospel of Matthew. The King James Version of Matthew 7:6 states: 3
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
There is a long tradition of spoken rejoinders to the phrase “age before beauty.” In 1896 the book “What They Say in New England” described this interaction: 4
When two boys in school go for a drink to the waterpail at the same time, number one hands the glass to number two and says, “Age before beauty.” Number two takes it, and says, “Men before monkeys.” Number one finishes the dialogue and keeps up his end by responding, “The dirt before the broom.”
In 1904 the humor magazine Life presented repartee between Falstaff and a Prince: 5
“Age before beauty,” said Falstaff, as he attempted to enter before the Prince.
“No! Grace before meat,” said the Prince, gently, as he pushed him from his path.
On September 16, 1938 The Spectator printed a version of the story featuring Dorothy Parker’s witticism. On October 14, 1938 the Hartford Courant published a version. The specifics for both these cites were presented earlier in this post.
In January 1941 the New Yorker magazine ran a long profile of Clare Boothe. The article described the purported incident with Parker but cast doubt on its accuracy by labeling it apocryphal: 6
Mrs. Parker’s disinclination for Miss Boothe is said to have sprung from the familiar but apocryphal incident of the two ladies’ happening to enter a restaurant at the same time, several years ago. “Age before beauty,” said Miss Boothe to Mrs. Parker, according to this tale. “And pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker replied sweeping ahead.
In May 1941 the columnist Sheilah Graham repeated the anecdote and claimed that she heard it directly from Parker: 7
Dorothy Parker was invited to the Clare Booth-Henry Luce talk-on-China. “I accepted, but didn’t go,” said Dotty, whose feud with Miss Boothe reached its climax some years ago when the two girls came face to face in a New York restaurant, and Clare, drawing back, said sweetly “Age Before Beauty.” And Dorothy, sweeping in, cracked, “Pearls Before Swine!” This is the only story of the myriads credited to her, which I have ever heard Miss Parker tell herself.
In 1944 the inveterate quotation collector Bennett Cerf included a statement of the story in his compilation “Try and Stop Me” in a section about Dorothy Parker. The playwright character in the following is a transparent reference to Boothe: 8
At a society dinner she entered the dining room alongside a beautiful and catty lady-playwright. The playwright stepped aside. “Age before beauty,” she said sweetly. “Pearls before swine,” responded Miss Parker, just as sweetly, and sailed in to as hearty a dinner as ever she ate.
In 1970 a biography titled “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats was published. The author contacted Boothe and asked her about the supposed interaction with Parker. Boothe stated that the event never occurred: 9
I met her only once, perhaps thirty-five years ago, at the home of our mutual friends, Herbert and Maggie Swope. …
… Dorothy Parker was then in her prime as a young poetess and wit. All I remember of that occasion is that I was, of course, delighted to make her acquaintance. The ‘Age before beauty’ story is completely apocryphal. Certainly no such remark by me or rejoinder by her was made on this occasion.
In 1990 the collection “American Literary Anecdotes” by Robert Hendrickson presented a version of the tale in which the encounter between Parker and Boothe occurred in the lobby of the Vanity Fair magazine office. The reference noted that Boothe denied the story. In addition, the book reported the testimony of a possible witness who stated that a “little chorus girl” was the target of the barb: 10
Recalled Mrs. Robert Benchley when she was 80 years old: “I was right there, the time in the Algonquin, when some little chorus girl and Dottie were going into the dining room and the girl stepped back and said, ‘Age before beauty’ and Dottie said very quickly, ‘Pearls before swine.’ I was right there when she said it.”
In conclusion, starting by 1938 Dorothy Parker was credited with the riposte “pearls before swine”. No one else has been credibly connected to the creation of this gibe. There is also indirect evidence that Boothe was the butt of this humor since Sheilah Graham claimed that Parker told her the story in 1938.
Yet, the only witness located does not name Boothe, and she has denied the tale. So, QI believes that the originator of the joke is Parker, but the circumstances are ambiguous. Thanks for your question.
Update History: On November 26, 2012 the 1970 and the May 1941 citations were added to the article.
- 1938 September 16, The Spectator, Best Sellers and the Atlantic by John Carter, Page 446, Column 2, London, England. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1938 October 14, Hartford Courant, Errol Flynn Plans Second Honeymoon by Sheilah Graham, Page 10, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- King James Bible, Matthew 7:6, Biblos: Online Parallel Bible Project. (Biblos.com website; Accessed 2011 June 29) link ↩
- 1897, What They Say in New England: A Book of Signs, Sayings, and Superstitions, Collected by Clifton Johnson, Tricks and Catches, Page 172, Lee and Shepard Publishers, Boston. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1904 September 1, Life, Repartee, page 219, Volume XLIV, Published at the Life Office, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1941 January 4, The New Yorker, “Profiles: The Candor Kid – Part 1” by Margaret Case Harriman, Page 22, Column 2, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩
- 1941 May 2, The Hartford Courant, Hollywood Today by Sheilah Graham, Quote Page 10, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 112, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Quote Page 49, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified in paper) ↩
- 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Page 173-174, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩