Dorothy Parker? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker was a friend of Alexander Woollcott, a notable writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. When Woollcott’s ancient cat developed a serious malady he was told by a veterinarian that the animal would have to be put to sleep. Uncertain of how to proceed, he consulted with Parker who said, “Have you tried curiosity?”
I offer my apologies to cat lovers for retelling this anecdote. Would you please examine the veracity of this incident?
Quote Investigator: To understand Parker’s quip the reader must be aware of an odd piece of proverbial wisdom that was in circulation by the 1800s:
Curiosity killed the cat.
A precursor proverb using the same template employed the word “care” instead of “curiosity”; the term “care” referred to worry and anxiety. For example, Shakespeare wrote in “Much Ado About Nothing” circa 1599:
What! courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.
The earliest instance of the Parker quip located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1966. This version of the tale did not involve Woollcott, and the incident described occurred one week before the publication of the column when Dorothy Parker visited the residence of the actor Zero Mostel. Boldface has been added to excerpts. Ellipses were present in the original text: 1 2
Ian Hunter also was among the guests, and Mostel asked him about his cat — which terrorizes everyone: “Have you killed that cat yet?” … “No, I haven’t,” Hunter said. “Frankly, I can’t afford it — to pay the fee for killing my cat.” … Mrs. Parker suggested: “Have you tried curiosity?”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1968 “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan was released, and it included a variant abbreviated account with an “ailing cat” and a differently worded punchline: 3
Dorothy Parker gave the following advice to a friend whose ailing cat had to be put away; “Try curiosity.”
Also in 1968 the musician and comedian Oscar Levant published a memoir titled “The Unimportance of Being Oscar” which included the following remark ascribed to Parker: 4
To an upset friend who had to get rid of a cat: “Have you tried curiosity?”
In 1990 the reference work “American Literary Anecdotes” by Robert Hendrickson printed a version of the story in which Alexander Woollcott approached Parker for advice. His cat was old and suffering, and he was considering euthanasia: 5
“But I don’t know how to go about it,” he told Dorothy Parker one afternoon at the Algonquin. “Try curiosity,” she advised.
In conclusion, QI believes that Dorothy Parker originated this jest. The scenario presented by Lyons has the best evidentiary basis.
Image Notes: Inquisitive cat from KaKnogler at Pixabay. Photo of Dorothy Parker circa 1910s via Wikimedia Commons.
(Special thanks Charles Doyle who noted the existence of the proverb using the word “care”. Also, thanks to Laurence Horn and other discussants on this topic.)
- 1966 August 6, Morning Advocate, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 2A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1966 August 6, The Times-Picayune, The Lyons Den: Coach Meets Pope by Leonard Lyons, Section two, Quote Page 12, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Section: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 112, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968, The Unimportance of Being Oscar by Oscar Levant, Quote Page 90, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Section: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 179, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩