“She Is Always Kind to Her Inferiors” “But Where Does She Find Them?”

Dorothy Parker? Mark Twain? Samuel Johnson? Sidney Skolsky? Margaret Case Harriman? Anonymous?

parker08Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating wit Dorothy Parker once listened to an enumeration of the many positive attributes of a person she disliked. Below is the final statement of praise together with Parker’s acerbic response:

“She is always kind to her inferiors.”
“And where does she find them?”

The humor hinges on the possible non-existence of the inferiors. Is this tale accurate? Who was the person being discussed?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this anecdote located by QI was printed in the Hollywood gossip column of Sidney Skolsky in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At lunch the other day, a group were discussing a prominent actress and a person said: “She’s only kind to her inferiors.” Whereupon Dorothy Parker remarked: “Where does she find them?”

In January 1941 “The New Yorker” magazine printed an article by Margaret Case Harriman that profiled the fashionable author and playwright Clare Boothe Luce, and it included an oft-repeated version of the tale in which Clare Boothe Luce was the target of the barb from Parker.

Interestingly, the playwright was not known for her evanescent pursuit of acting. Her initial fame was primarily based on the Broadway hit she wrote titled “The Women” which debuted in December 1936, and QI believes that the columnist Sidney Skolsky would not have referred to Clare Boothe Luce as a “prominent actress” in June 1937.

There was another woman named Claire Luce who was a well-known actress in the time period. Conceivably, the names were confused. It was also possible that the entire story was simply concocted by someone to provide entertainment. Precursor tales and jibes have been circulating since the 1700s. Mark Twain employed a fun variant.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1770 the esteemed dictionary maker and man of letters Samuel Johnson was asked to compose a funeral sermon according to his biographer James Boswell. The following passage from “Boswell’s Life of Johnson” contained an early version of the joke: 2

. . . he naturally enquired into the character of the deceased; and being told she was remarkable for her humility and condescension to inferiours, he observed, that those were very laudable qualities, but it might not be so easy to discover who the lady’s inferiours were.

Please note that the word “condescension” now has a negative connotation, but in the text above from the 1700s the word “condescension” referred to the treatment of inferiors with kindness and courtesy, without regard to their station.

In 1867 the first volume of a long series of didactic books of moral instruction featuring the popular character Elsie Dinsmore was published by the writer Martha Finley. The following excerpt defined Dinsmore’s personality and revealed the traits that were being extolled to the large audience of readers.

This text about superiors and inferiors does not closely match the humorous remark under investigation. The excerpt is included here to provide an example of the types of statements that were being lampooned by Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker: 3

. . . very diligent in her studies, respectful to superiors, and kind to inferiors and equals; and she was gentle, sweet tempered, patient, and forgiving to a remarkable degree.

In 1882 Mark Twain delivered a speech titled “Advice to Youth”, and he comically subverted the conventional guidance concerning the treatment of superiors. His variant jest questioned the existence of “superiors” instead of “inferiors”: 4

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any; also to strangers, and sometimes to others. If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick.

In 1903 “The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness” printed another version of the joke as a filler item. In this instance “inferior” people were not to be treated kindly; they were to be ignored: 5

Some men who claim they never speak to an inferior, probably never met one.

In 1916 the line was reprinted in the periodical with a single word added. The most significant change did not occur in the jest, but in the subtitle of the publication: “The Smart Set: The Magazine for the Civilized Minority”. 6

Some men who claim that they never speak to an inferior probably never met one.

In 1937 the remark ascribed to Dorothy Parker was printed by the columnist Sidney Skolsky as mentioned previously in this article: 7

At lunch the other day, a group were discussing a prominent actress and a person said: “She’s only kind to her inferiors.” Whereupon Dorothy Parker remarked: “Where does she find them?”

In January 1941 the anecdote appeared in the pages of “The New Yorker” magazine with the claim that the incident had occurred “last year”, i.e., in 1939 or 1940. But the clever punchline had already been assigned to Dorothy Parker by June 1937. Perhaps Parker employed the quip more than once, but a setup line was required which would suggest that the repartee might have been collaborative: 8

At a dinner in Hollywood last year, at which Dorothy Parker was present, Miss Boothe’s name was mentioned, and a woman friend of hers at the table found herself in the familiar, bristling position of defence. She spoke at length of Miss Boothe’s generosity, of the way she often helped less gifted people with money and with letters of introduction to her own influential acquaintances, and she ended, not too happily, by declaring, “Clare Boothe is always kind to her inferiors.” Mrs. Parker looked up wanly. “And where,” she inquired, “does she find them?”

In 1941 excerpts from “The New Yorker” article were reprinted in several newspapers such as “The Milwaukee Journal” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin 9 and the “Evening World-Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska. The story with Parker and Luce was further disseminated. 10

In 1946 an instance was published in “The Castilian” of Castile, New York. The jibe was re-aimed to point at an anonymous “Miss Smith”: 11

Dorothy Parker’s reputation for penetrating wit is well founded.
“Miss Smith has no commendable qualities,” someone remarked.
“I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly,” defended another in the group.
“Miss Smith is really generous and kind to her inferiors.”
“Where,” cracked Mrs. Parker, “does she find them?”

In 1956 an instance was printed in which all the participants were anonymous: 12

The two women were discussing a third. Said one, “well, you have to admit she’s awfully kind to her inferiors.” After a pause, the other retorted, “But where does she find them?”

In conclusion, this joke was linked to Dorothy Parker by 1937. The initial target of mockery was an anonymous actress. The version aimed at Clare Boothe Luce emerged by 1941, but the primary supporting passage in “The New Yorker” was not very convincing because the chronology offered was inconsistent.

Entertaining precursors and variants have been circulating since the 1700s.

Image Notes: Picture of Dorothy Parker cropped from a picture showing several members of the Algonquin Round Table circa 1919. Image form Wikimedia Commons. Bust of Samuel Johnson by Joseph Nollekens from the Yale Center for British Art via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Clare Boothe Luce by Carl Van Vechten circa 1931 from the Library of Congress. Photo of Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley circa 1907. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Special thanks to Nigel Rees whose 2001 reference work “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” mentioned the pertinent passage in Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. Great thanks to Joel Berson for advice about the meaning of the word “condescension” during the era of Samuel Johnson. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1937 June 23, Milwaukee Sentinel, Section: Peach, Page 3, Column 6, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  2. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 1 of 2, Time period specified: 1770, Quote Page 340, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1867, Elsie Dinsmore by Martha Farquharson (Martha Finley), Quote Page 36, Published by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Speech: Advice to Youth, Location: Saturday Morning Club, Boston, Year: 1882 (On the manuscript a note in Mark Twain’s hand says that it was given “About 1882”), Start Page 169, Quote Page 169, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1903 March, The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, Volume 9, Number 3, (Filler item), Quote Page 94, Published by The Ess Ess Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1916 April, The Smart Set: The Magazine for the Civilized Minority, Volume 48, Number 4, (Filler item), Quote Page 138, Published by Smart Set Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1937 June 23, Milwaukee Sentinel, Section: Peach, Page 3, Column 6, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  8. 1941 January 4, The New Yorker, Profiles: The Candor Kid – Part I, Start Page 21, Quote Page 22, Column 2, Final Page 29, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  9. 1941 January 15, The Milwaukee Journal, It Seems Dorothy Parker Doesn’t Like Clare Boothe, (Acknowledgement to Maragaret Case Harriman in the New Yorker), Quote Page 14, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  10. 1941 February 28, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), Amiable Ladies, (Acknowledgement to Maragaret Case Harriman in the New Yorker), Quote Page 26, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1946 April 4, The Castilian, Gags: Best Laughs of the Week, Bottom Layer, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Castile, New York. (Old Fulton)
  12. 1956 June 21, The Whitewright Sun, The Spice of Life: Inferiority Complexities, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Whitewright, Texas. (Newspapers_com)