George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Groucho Marx? Max Aitken? Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Bertrand Russell?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous story about sex and money that I have heard in myriad variations. A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:
She: What kind of woman do you think I am?
He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.
This joke is retold with different famous individuals filling the roles. Often Bernard Shaw is mentioned. Did anything like this ever happen? Who was involved?
Quote Investigator: The role of the character initiating the proposal in this anecdote has been assigned to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson and others. However, the earliest example of this basic story found by QI did not spotlight any of the persons just listed. In addition, the punch line was phrased differently.
In January 1937 the syndicated newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre printed a version of the anecdote that he says was sent to him as a newspaper clipping. This tale featured a powerful Canadian-British media magnate and politician named Max Aitken who was also referred to as Lord Beaverbrook [MJLB]:
Someone sends me a clipping from Columnist Lyons with this honey:
“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ She said she would. ‘And if be paid you five pounds?’ The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”
Note that this newspaper version does not use the blunt phrase “sleep with”. Instead, a more oblique expression, “live with”, is employed to conform to the conventions of the period.
Top-researcher Barry Popik has performed very valuable work tracing this tale, and we have incorporated some of his discoveries in this article. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
O. O. McIntyre’s column containing the Lord Beaverbrook anecdote was printed in multiple newspapers including the Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune of Iowa [MJLB] and the Rockford Morning Star of Illinois which ran it the next day [MSLB]. In April 1937 a humor magazine called “Gargoyle” which was operated by the students of the University of Michigan published a closely matching version of the tale [GMLB]. The short article ended with an acknowledgement to the periodical “Exchange”.
Seven years later in 1944 the story was still being propagated. Coronet magazine printed the following version which substituted “famous actress” for “visiting Yankee actress” and contained a few minor syntactic modifications [CRLB]:
They’re telling this story about Lord Beaverbrook and a famous actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady, “Would you live with a stranger if he paid you a million pounds?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“And if he paid you five pounds?”
The irate lady fumed, “What do you think I am?”
“We’ve already established that,” returned Beaverbrook. “Now we’re trying to determine the degree.” —The U. of California Pelican
By August 1945 a novel variant of the story was printed in a trade publication called “Excavating Engineer”. The anecdote was relocated to a courtroom and the main roles were filled by an anonymous lawyer and a “pretty defendant” [EEPD]:
“Would you live with a stranger if he paid you $100,000?” the lawyer asked the pretty defendant.
“Would you live with him if he paid you only $25?”
“Certainly not! What do you think I am?”
“We’ve already established what you are,” came back the lawyer. “Now we are trying to establish to what extent.”
In October 1945 the gag was printed in the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest. This version was very similar to the instance that was printed in Coronet the year before, and it retained the acknowledgment to the University of California Pelican, a humor magazine.
In May 1946 the tale was published in a magazine for lawyers called “Case and Comment”. This version was the same as the one given in “Excavating Engineer”, but an acknowledgement to a periodical called “Tax Topics” was appended [CCPD].
By 1955 the story schema was known widely enough that QI believes it could be alluded to without describing the full scenario. During a subcommittee hearing of the United States House of Representatives a member used a modified version of the punch line to express disapproval [CHFA]:
Mr. FASCELL. You know the words, it is like the old story, “We have established what it is, we are just haggling about the price.”
Phrases such as “just haggling about the price”, or “just haggling over the price”, or “simply haggling about the price” became frequent in later retellings of this tale. Here is an example in 1961 in a volume by a sociologist [PVPB]:
To put this in a different way, all our actions have a price. It is we who decide at what point we agree to be bought. As in the story of a conversation between a very sophisticated gentleman and a very respectable lady at a party. They are talking about prostitution, “Well,” says the gentleman, “just for the sake of our argument, suppose I offered you $1000—would you spend the night with me?” The lady, smiling coquettishly: “Who knows—I might very well!” The gentleman: “Now suppose I offer you $10 for the night?” The lady: “But what do you think I am?” The gentleman: “We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”
In 1962 a letter to the editor of the Nevada State Journal expressed unhappiness with a group that was circulating a recall petition and was paying cash to obtain signatures. The writer alluded to the joke by only presenting the punch line which he credited to the statesman Winston Churchill [NJWC]:
This reminds me of Winston Churchill’s observation that “We have established what you are—we are simply haggling about the price.”
In 1965 a version of the tale was presented in the book “The War-Peace Establishment”. The author identified it as an “old joke” [WPAH]:
I tell them the old joke about the man who asks a girl if she will sleep with him for a million dollars. Of course, she says yes. He then offers her two dollars and she slaps his face, saying, ‘What do you think I am?’ He answers, ‘I know what you are. We are just haggling over the price.’
In 1968 the volume “Rationale of the Dirty Joke” by Gershon Legman noted that many versions of the tale were already in circulation. The setting of the following variant was a charity event [RDGL]:
A story that has been told of almost every modern celebrity beginning with President Wilson and H. G. Wells: A famous man at a charity banquet asks the beautiful young woman next to him, “Assuming that we gave the money to charity, would you sleep with me for ten thousand dollars?” After some thought she says, “Yes.” “And would you for two dollars?” “Why, what do you think I am!” “We’ve already decided that. Now we’re just haggling about price.”
Skipping forward, in 1985 a book about humor and philosophy titled “I Think, Therefore I Laugh” included an instance of the story. The author deliberately changed the identity of the person filling the primary role [GMJP]:
The following is an old story due to George Bernard Shaw. It seems more appropriate with Groucho however.
GROUCHO (to woman seated next to him at an elegant dinner party): Would you sleep with me for ten million dollars?
WOMAN (giggles and responds): Oh, Groucho, of course I would.
GROUCHO; How about doing it for fifteen dollars?
WOMAN (indignant): Why, what do you think I am?
GROUCHO: That’s already been established. Now we’re just haggling about the price.
In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that this anecdote began as a fictional tale that was intended to be humorous with an edge of antagonism. The story was retold for decades. Famous men were substituted into the role of the individual making the proposition. Occasionally, the individual who received the proposition was also described as famous, but typically she remained unidentified.
(Many thanks to Tracy Longbons whose email inspired the construction of this question and provided impetus for this exploration.)
[MJLB] 1937 January 02, Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune As O. O. McIntyre Sees It (Syndicated), Page 3, Column 3, Muscatine, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
[MSLB] 1937 January 03, Rockford Morning Star, O. O. McIntyre ‘s Column, Page 8, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
[GMLB] 1937 April, Gargoyle [Humor magazine], Page 3, Published by the students of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Verified on paper by a librarian at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan; Many thanks to the library and its staff)
[CRLB] 1944 August, Coronet, Analysis, Page 88, Esquire, Inc., [David A. Smart, President], Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)
[EEPD] 1945 August, Excavating Engineer, Not in the Contract, Page 468, Column 2, Volume 39, Number 8, Excavating Engineer Pub. Co. [The name of this periodical was changed to Excavating Contractor at a later date] (Verified with images from Texas A&M University; Great thanks to the librarian at Texas A&M) link
[RDLB] 1945 October, Reader’s Digest, [Freestanding anecdote], Page 24, [Acknowledgment to University of California Pelican], Volume 47, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
[CCPD] 1946 May-June, Case and Comment: The Lawyers’ Magazine, Volume 51, Number 3, Labeled But Not Priced, Page 8, Lawyers Co-operative Pub. Co., Rochester, New York. (Verified on paper)
[CHFA] 1956, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives: Eighty-Fourth Congress: First Session, Effect of Administrative Acts and Policies of Department of Interior and Rural Electrification Administration on Rural Electric Cooperatives, Public Bodies, and Municipal Electrics, [Hearing date: October 12, 1955], Page 1393, Printed for Committee on Government Operations, Government Printing Office, Wasington, United States. (HathiTrust) link link
[PVPB] 1961, The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks At Social Fictions And Christian Faith by Peter L. Berger, Page 94, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Internet Archive) link
[NJWC] 1962 January 20, Nevada State Journal, Letters to the Editor, [Paid Circulators: Letter from Peter Echeverria], Page 4, Column 7, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive)
[WPAH] 1965, The War-Peace Establishment by Arthur Herzog, Page 79, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
[RDGL] 2006, “Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor” by Gershon Legman, Page 249, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York. (Reprint of 1968 Grove Press edition) (Google Books preview)
[GMJP] 1985, I Think, Therefore I Laugh: An Alternative Approach to Philosophy by John Allen Paulos, Page 140-141, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified on paper in 1985 edition) (Also in second edition in 2000; Google Books Preview) link