Winston Churchill? W. C. Fields? Robinson? Dr. Tanner? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous anecdote featuring Winston Churchill and the British politician Bessie Braddock that I think is fictional. Supposedly Braddock encountered an intoxicated Churchill and said “Sir, you are drunk.” He replied:
And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.
Websites disagree about Churchill’s exact words. But I think this whole story was concocted based on a scene in a W. C. Fields film that was released in the 1930s. The film is called “It’s a Gift” and in the script a character hostile to Fields says to him “You’re drunk.” His sharp rejoinder is:
Yeah, and you’re crazy, n’ I’ll be sober tomorrow n’ you’ll be crazy for the rest of your life.
Do you think that someone invented the Churchill tale after seeing this movie?
Quote Investigator: Your skepticism is understandable, but there is some evidence discussed later in this post in the form of testimony from Churchill’s bodyguard that there was an exchange with Braddock.
Nevertheless, this basic joke has a very long history, and the earliest version located by QI is more than one hundred and twenty-five years old. The English raconteur Augustus John Cuthbert Hare kept a diary and the entry dated July 16, 1882 recounts an incident involving a member of the House of Parliament identified only by the initials A.B. [AJCH]:
The great A.B. was tremendously jostled the other day in going down to the House. A.B. didn’t like it. “Do you know who I am?” he said; “I am a Member of Parliament and I am Mr. A.B.” – “I don’t know about that,” said one of the roughs, “but I know that you’re a damned fool.” – “You’re drunk,” said A.B.; “you don’t know what you’re saying.” – “Well, perhaps I am rather drunk to-night,” said the man, “but I shall be sober to-morrow morning; but you’re a damned fool tonight, and you’ll be a damned fool to-morrow morning.”
This general anecdote was retold numerous times with different individuals in the roles during subsequent years. Eventually W. C. Fields and then Churchill inhabited the role of the quipster. Here are selected citations in chronological order.
The diary entry of July 16, 1882 was printed in a work called “The Story of My Life” by Hare that was published in 1900. The tale about parliamentarian A.B. was told by Sir Stafford Northcote to Hare and others in a small gathering. But the story did not remain private because a version was presented in a multiple newspapers one month later.
Here is the version from The Daily Republican-Sentinel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August 1882 [DRSW]:
A Conservative member of the House of Commons, who talks much on foreign affairs, but not wisely, was passing last week through palace yard, when a man ran against him. “Do you know, sir, who I am?” said the member, “I am Mr. —-, M.P.” “What?” irreverently answered the man, “are you Mr. —-, the greatest fool in the House of Commons?” “You are drunk,” exclaimed the M.P. “Even if I am,” replied the man, “I have the advantage over you – I shall be sober to-morrow, whereas you will remain the fool you are to-day.”
In 1890 the account was creatively reimagined for a new setting on a street in Broadway [ASTL]:
It is said that a lady and a gentleman the other day entered a Broadway surface road car at the same moment, the former by the rear door, the latter by the front. There was only one seat vacant and the gentleman at once took it, but it happened to be next to one occupied by a man who evidently “had a load on.” This man at once arose and, offering his seat to the lady, said: “Madam, take my seat; I am drunk to-day, but to-morrow I shall be sober.” Then pointing to the one who had just sat down, he added: “But that man is a hog to-day and he’ll be a hog to-morrow!”
In 1892 a London periodical printed a version of the tale with a pair of parliamentarians named Brown-Jones and Robinson [PMBJ]:
Two M.P.’s meet in the Lobby, one an ardent —- the other an equally ardent —-. One has dined “not wisely, but too well,” and salutes the other with: “You’re a fool, Brown-Jones, a downright fool.”
He is met with the reply: “Now, now, Robinson, you’re drunk.” To which the retort is given: “Well, if I am drunk (hic) I shall be sober to-morrow morning (hic), but a fool is a fool (hic) through all his life.”
In 1904 the anecdote was retold with the familiar House of Commons backdrop. This time the antagonists were Dr. Tanner and Sir Ellis Ashmead Bartlett [RILA]:
The indifference of a drunken man to subsequent consequences was rather quaintly shown by that weird individual Dr. Tanner, when he went up to Sir Ellis Ashmead Bartlett in the lobby of the House of Commons, and abruptly observed :—
‘You’re a fool.’
Sir Ellis fixed him with his eyeglass, and, in disgusted tones replied :—
‘I suppose so,’ retorted the Irishman, ‘but then I’ll be sober to-morrow’—in the most plaintive tone, then in a crescendo of scorn—’whereas you’ll always be a fool.’
In 1911 the joke was told with generic Irish and English participants [LSIL]:
It is related of an Irish member of Parliament that he once walked up to an Englishman in the lobby of the House of Commons and said, without provocation, “You’re a fool.”
“Sir,” said the Englishman, “you must be drunk.”
“I may be,” said the Irishman, “but I’ll be sober to-morrow, whereas you’ll be a fool then too.”
Also in 1911 a concise version was printed in the jokes section of a paper [OPSN]:
JONES (after argument) – “Sir, you’re a fool!”
MAJOR FIERY – “You’re drunk sir!”
JONES – “P’r’aps I am; but I’ll be sober tomorrow, and you’ll still be a fool!”
In 1932 the politician Dr. Tanner who appeared in the 1904 version of the anecdote reappeared. This time his adversary was named De Lisle [CAEM]:
As De Lisle was leaving the House, Dr. Tanner flung himself in his way, and said, “De Lisle, you’re a bloody fool.” De Lisle, who was a big man, took him by the neck and flung him away. “Go away, Dr. Tanner,” he said, “you’re drunk.” Tanner was not short of a repartee. “Yes,” he said, “that’s true, but, don’t you see, I’ll be sober to-morrow, but you’ll still be a bloody fool.”
In 1934 the joke was used in the W. C. Fields film titled “It’s a Gift” as stated at the beginning of this post. Fields portrayed a character named Harold Bissonette and the scene with the quip occurred near the end of the film.
Churchill quotation expert Richard Langworth was told that the exchange with Braddock did occur in 1946 by a bodyguard who claimed that he was present. Family members are unconvinced. The vignette is included in “Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations” [CHDQ]:
Bessie Braddock: Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.
Winston Churchill: Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.
In conclusion, this popular story has been told in various permutations for more than a century. QI believes that most of the retellings are fictional even the versions that purport to be non-fiction. If Churchill did deliver the famous rejoinder he was likely influenced by the long series of previous jokes involving members of the House of Commons.
[AJCH] 1900, The Story of My Life: Volume V by Augustus J. C. Hare, [Diary entry dated July 16, 1882], Page 362, George Allen, London. (Google Books full view) link
[DRSW] 1882 August 05, The Daily Republican-Sentinel, His Advantage, Page 5, Column 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (19th Century U.S. Newspapers Gale)
[ASTL] 1890 March 27, The American Stationer, Roundabouts by The Trade Lounger, Page 745, Column 1, Howard Lockwood & Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link
[PMBJ] 1892 December 17, Pick-Me-Up, Page 183, Column 1, Volume 9, Number 220, Published at the Office of Pick-Me-Up, London. (Google Books full view) link
[RILA] 1904, The Reminiscences of an Irish Land Agent: Being Those of S. M. Hussey [Samuel Murray Hussey], Compiled by Home Gordon, Page 112, Duckworth and Company, London. (Google Books full view) link
[LSIL] 1911, The Lighter Side of Irish Life by George A. Birmingham, Page 254, T. N. Foulis, London. (HathiTrust)
[OPSN] 1911 September 2, Our Paper, Sense and Nonsense, Page 420, Column 2, Massachusetts Reformatory, Concord Junction, Massachusetts (Google Books full view) link
[CAEM] 2005, Carson the Advocate by Edward Marjoribanks, [Reprint of 1932 Macmillan Company edition], Page 161, Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, Montana. (Google Books preview) link
[CHDQ] 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations edited by Richard Langworth, Page 550, PublicAffairs, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)