How Can They Tell?

Dorothy Parker? Wilson Mizner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, and his highly reserved character in social settings led to the nickname “Silent Cal”. A few years after his death in 1933 two similar anecdotes began to circulate about the spoken reaction to the news of Coolidge’s demise. Reportedly, when the wit Dorothy Parker was notified she said:

How can they tell?

Also, when the raconteur Wilson Mizner was told he said:

How do they know?

What evidence is there for these two tales?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the 1936 book “Enjoyment of Laughter” by Max Eastman in a chapter about the use of exaggeration in humor:[ref] 1936, Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman, Quote Page 155, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

…Dorothy Parker’s remark when told that Calvin Coolidge was dead: How can they tell?

In 1937 a review of Eastman’s book was printed in “The Glasgow Herald” of Scotland, and the remark ascribed to Parker was reprinted[ref] 1937 May 13, The Glasgow Herald, American Humour (Book Review of Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman), Quote Page 2, Colum 4, Glasgow, Scotland. (Google News Archive)][/ref]

But here one gives the prize to Dorothy Parker, that vitriolic lady who “can’t read Wodehouse.” When told that President Coolidge was dead all she said was, “How can they tell?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a kindred tale featuring Wilson Mizner appeared in a profile published in “Esquire” magazine in 1938. The writer and former vagabond Jim Tully described the response of Mizner, and the caustic remark was identical to the one ascribed the Parker. Coolidge died in January 1933, and Mizner died shortly afterward in April 1933:[ref] 1938 July, Esquire, California Playboy (Wilson Mizner) by Jim Tully, Start Page 45, Quote Page 176, Publisher by Arnold Gingrich, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)[/ref][ref] 1992, Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by Ralph Keyes, Page 121 and 234, HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

The telephone rang. My secretary returned with the announcement that Calvin Coolidge was dead. “How can they tell?” Mizner asked, without looking up.

In 1942 a multi-part profile of Wilson Mizner by Alva Johnston in “The New Yorker” magazine included a slightly different version of the comment credited to Mizner:[ref] 1942 October 10, The New Yorker, “Profiles: Legend of a Sport – Part I” by Alva Johnston, Quote Page 21, Column 1, F-R Publishing Corporation , New York. (New Yorker online archive)[/ref]

As a wit, Mizner belonged to two distinct schools—the scientific and the O. Henry. His scientific method consisted of bringing a calm spirit of inquiry to bear on boiling emotion. When an excited man rushed up to him exclaiming, “Coolidge is dead,” Mizner asked, “How do they know?”

In 1944 the anecdote and quotation collector Bennett Cerf printed the tale in his book “Try and Stop Me”, and he ascribed the punch line to Parker:[ref] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 261, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

When Dorothy Parker heard that Calvin Coolidge was dead, she remarked cruelly, “How can they tell?” Clarence Darrow spoke his perfect epitaph: “The greatest man who ever came out of Plymouth Corner, Vermont!”

In Summer 1956 “The Paris Review” printed an interview with Dorothy Parker conducted by Marion Capron. The introduction to the colloquy included an instance of the story specifying a theater setting:[ref] Periodical: The Paris Review, Article title: Interviews – Dorothy Parker, The Art of Fiction No. 13, Interview conducted by Marion Capron, Date specified on website: 1956 Summer, Website description: Digital archive of literary magazine. (Accessed on July 4, 2014) link [/ref]

She seemed able to produce the well-turned phrase for any occasion. A friend remembered sitting next to her at the theater when the news was announced of the death of the stolid Calvin Coolidge. “How can they tell?” whispered Mrs. Parker

In conclusion, based on current evidence the acerbic remark in the 1936 citation should be credited to Dorothy Parker. There is some evidence that Wilson Mizner employed the same jape, and he may have constructed it independently.

Image Notes: Calvin Coolidge photo by John Garo via Wikimedia Commons. Book cover of The Fabulous Wilson Mizner. Dorothy Parker image via Wikimedia Commons.

(Special thanks to the ADS discussants on the thread for this topic and related topics in July 2010 including Fred Shapiro, Victor Steinbok, Wilson Gray, Sam Clements, Dan Goodman, George Thompson, Jonathan Lighter, George Thompson, and Joel S. Berson.)

Update History: On March 2, 2015 the 1938 citation in Esquire was updated.

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