Beatrice Lillie? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The story of a snobbish person experiencing a comeuppance has been the template of many entertaining and satisfying anecdotes. Are you familiar with the tale of the actress Beatrice Lillie and the imperious wife of a wealthy Chicago meat-packer? Was this incident genuine or apocryphal?
Quote Investigator: Beatrice Lillie was a popular performer on stage and screen in Britain and United States. She married Sir Robert Peel in 1920, and thus on appropriate formal occasions the name Lady Peel was applicable.
The earliest evidence of this anecdote located by QI appeared in the widely-syndicated gossip column of Walter Winchell in 1931. Lillie and two members of her theatrical group visited a Chicago dress shop for a fitting according to Winchell. The “wife of a stock yard prince” became unhappy when she entered the fitting room. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
“Oh,” she oh’d haughtily. “I did not know show girls were here for a fitting or I would certainly have made my appointment for some other time.”
La Lil’e burned up, but went in for her fitting. As she ankled out of the shop, she meowed within the haughty one’s hearing: “Tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peel has been fitted and she may go in now.”
Several different versions of this story began to circulate during the following decades. The last name of the meat-packer’s wife was not specified by Winchell, but other anecdotes mentioned both Armour and Swift. Beatrice Lillie recounted the tale in her 1972 autobiography “Every Other Inch a Lady”, and the details for this important instance are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1933 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” newspaper published an instance in which the name of the actress was not divulged: 2
One socialite stormed because there wasn’t a dressing room available for her and had to wait for a certain English actress to complete a fitting. The woman, who is a prominent meat packer’s wife, let herself be heard concerning the matter, but the actress, with good humor, plus sarcasm, in an equally loud voice said. “Tell the butcher’s wife than Lady _____ is finished!”
In 1935 a North Carolina newspaper presented an instance set in a “Chicago beauty shop” instead of a dress shop. The wealthy irritated customer was unable to obtain service from her favorite attendant: 3
“And with whom,” Mrs. Armour demanded, was her attendant so busy? With Miss Beatrice Lillie, she was told.
“Humph,” snorted Mrs. Armour, “this is some establishment if Mrs. Ogden Armour has to wait for a common vaudeville actress.” So saying, she plopped into a chair to wait.
A few minutes later the svelte, well-groomed star appeared. Ignoring Mrs. Armour completely, she addressed her icy parting remark to the manager: “You may tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peele has finished.”
In 1939 “Collier’s” magazine published a version set in a Chicago hairdressing salon where Lillie had made an appointment: 4
While she was in a booth being worked upon by Pierre or Andre or Henri she heard the angry voice of the wife of a newly rich meat packer outside.
“It is disgusting,” the angry voice said, “that I have to wait because my favorite hairdresser is engaged with some music-hall performer.”
About then Bea finished and she said in a calm but far-reaching voice, “Tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peel is finished now and could the butcher’s wife spare Lady Peel a flitch of bacon until the weather clears?”
In 1944 the publisher Bennett Cerf included the anecdote in his bestselling book “Try and Stop Me”. Cerf named Mrs. Swift instead of Mrs. Armour as the affronted person: 5
Years later Bea Lillie was being fitted for a number of dresses by a leading Chicago modiste. A lady who had married into the Swift hierarchy was next on the appointment calendar, and fussed and fumed because she was being kept waiting. “Tell that actress in there,” she said very loudly, “that she is delaying Mrs. Swift!”
This tactic, of course, resulted only in Miss Lillie’s taking a half hour longer in the fitting room. Finally she tripped blithely out and, as she passed the fuming Mrs. Swift, said airily to the modiste, “Tell that butcher’s wife that Lady Peel has finished now.”
In 1964 a newspaper in Cumberland, Maryland printed a variant in which Beatrice Lillie had to wait for a hairdresser instead of the reverse: 6
She had a hairdressing appointment at some plush haircombing salon and heard an imperious voice in a booth say: “Tell that actress that when Mrs. ______ is finished, she can have this operator.”
Utterly undestroyed, Miss Lillie replied with aplomb: “Please tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peel is being kept waiting.” The butcher’s wife, as she put it, was the wife of one of the more renowned Chicago meat packers.
In 1972 Beatrice Lillie published a book about her life titled “Every Other Inch a Lady”, and she recounted the anecdote: 7
We were playing in Set to Music at the Shubert Theatre when, one afternoon, I set off to keep an appointment to have my hair done at Elizabeth Arden’s. When I arrived, I found that some girls from the company were also being processed.
In my little cubicle, the coiffeuse had almost finished coiffeusing me when a very uppity female voice came floating over the partition: “Oh, if I’d known there would be chorus girls here today, I never would have come.”
I could hear the good lady being persuaded to wait a minute or two, and I asked who she was. I learned she was a certain Mrs. Armour, of the celebrated meat-packing brand. Now I was ready to leave, feeling certain that I looked rather well. In the waiting room, saying au revoir to the manageress, the chance came to say: “You may tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peel has finished.”
In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that an incident featuring Beatrice Lillie and a pretentious wealthy woman did occur, and Lillie delivered a humorous counterstroke. Details have varied in the multiple retellings. The version directly from Lillie appeared more than forty years after the event, and memories are not always reliable. Nevertheless, Lillie’s description was the single most important recounting.
Image Notes: Armour’s Oval Label which has appeared on several food products. Cropped Photo of Beatrice Lillie by Yousuf Karsh from Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Benjamin Dreyer who told QI about this incident and pointed to Lillie’s 1972 book “Every Other Inch a Lady”.)
- 1931 December 18, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 August 6, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Section: B-C, Contemporary Comment, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 March 6, The Daily Tar Heel, Casual Correspondent by Nelson Lansdale, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 October 21, Collier’s Weekly, Queen Bea: The Life and Times of Lady Peel by Robert Minton, Start Page 21, Quote Page 65, Column 1, The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Unz) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 9 and 10, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1964 October 29, Cumberland Evening Times, Glancing Sideways by Whitney Bolton, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1972, Every Other Inch a Lady by Beatrice Lillie, Aided and abetted by John Philip, Written with James Brough, Quote Page 56, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩