Dorothy Parker? The Virginia Spectator? The Daily Standard of Sikeston, Missouri? Alexander Woollcott? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was famous for her coruscating wit, and she once employed a notoriously bawdy pun based on the word horticulture. Was she responsible for originating this pun?
Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker created the horticulture pun while she was participating in a word game at a party. She may have spoken it during a meeting of the famed Algonquin Round Table. These gatherings were held regularly by a group of columnists, playwrights, actors and other bright individuals at lunch within the Algonquin Hotel in New York City between roughly 1919 and 1929.
The earliest evidence, however, appeared several years later in 1935 in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell. The actual pun was too taboo to print in a newspaper in the 1930s; hence, Winchell’s comment was curiously cryptic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Dorothy Parker can make up a sentence containing the word “Horticulture,” but hardly here.
A month later another gossip columnist named Harrison Carroll printed an elliptical comment that also linked Parker to the pun without sharing with readers the details of the witticism: 2
What was Dorothy Parker’s priceless offering when the gang at the James Gleason party were playing one of those “make a sentence with a word” games and someone suggested “horticulture”?
Special thanks to top researcher Bill Mullins who located the two citations given above.
The earliest account presenting a full version of Parker’s remark that QI has located was published in 1962 in a magazine of arts and literature called “Horizon”. An article by the prominent drama critic John Mason Brown referred to two puns. The first quip was based on the word “meretricious”, and an exploration of its provenance is available in another entry here. The second jest was ascribed to Parker. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3
Frank Adams’s solving the problem of building a sentence around “meretricious” with “Meretricious ‘n’ a Happy New Year,” and Mrs. Parker’s solving the same problem with “horticulture” by coming up with “You may lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think”—these and a hundred others of their kind may by now have become enfeebled by familiarity. But they were born of a moment, and meant for that moment, and at that moment they were triumphant.
In addition to wordplay with “horticulture” Parker cleverly refashioned a very old English proverb about stubbornness: You may lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. As noted previously, when Parker delivered her joke it was too racy to be reprinted in contemporaneous books or periodicals published for a wide audience.
Interestingly, the first full instance of the pun known to QI was printed in 1952 embedded within a different sentence in a student periodical at the University of Virginia. The joke was not credited to Parker; details are given further below. Social mores have changed over the decades, and in 1990s protesters argued that the jest was insulting to sex workers.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1952 “The Virginia Spectator” printed the pun as the culminating punchline of an elaborate three paragraph setup. The overall gag was distinct from Parker’s version. The comical tale began with a woman described as a “glamour gal” accepting an invitation from a handsome man to see orchids in his apartment although her underlying intentions were libidinal: 4
Sure enough, the room was full of Orchids. “Well I’ll be damned,” she exclaimed. “Do you like orchids?” he asked. “I suppose so,” she replied, wondering when he’d get down to business. “If you do,” the fellow said happily, “I’ll show you my bedroom—there’s some really beautiful ones in there.” “This is it,” thought the girl.
She eagerly entered, and lo and behold, orchids again. She exploded. “Listen, you jerk, if you must know, I didn’t come up here to look at orchids.”
All of which just goes to prove that you can’t lead a horticulture.
In 1953 “The Daily Standard” newspaper of Sikeston, Missouri printed another instance of the pun: 5
A horticulturist invited a babe up to his place to look at his plants. (not etchings this time) Upon arriving, he endeavored to impart to her in technical terms the names and virtues of each beautiful specimen. Disgustedly she said: “Bub, let’s cut out this stuff. You didn’t bring me up here to look at these plants.” Which goes to prove you can’t lead a horticulture.
In 1962 “Horizon” magazine ascribed the following statement to Dorothy Parker as noted previously:
You may lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.
In 1963 Jan Harold Brunvand published an article in “The Journal of American Folklore” that proposed “A Classification for Shaggy Dog Stories”. Nowadays, Brunvand is best known as an expert on urban legends who has published a series of books on the topic. Brunvand created a category called “Stories with Punning Punch Lines” to contain the tale under examination: 6
You Can’t Lead a Whore.
A man offers to show a beautiful girl he has met his rare flower which he keeps in his bed. She thinks she is being seduced and leaves when she sees that there really is a flower in the bed. The moral: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t lead a whore-to-culture.” (Or “You can lead a whore-to-culture, but you can’t make her think.”)
In 1963 a Symposium on Educational Research was held at the University of Illinois, and the proceedings were released in 1964. One author invoked the words of Dorothy Parker: 7
The real problem comes in the Dorothy Parkerism that “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” It consists of the urgent and real problem of somehow breaking through the shells of young people to the point where the quantity and quality of subjective enjoyment is advanced.
In 1965 John Mason Brown published a biographical work titled “The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times 1896-1939” about the playwright and screenwriter who was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Text from Brown’s 1962 “Horizon” article was reprinted in the book including the passage with the pun; hence, the ascription to Parker was further disseminated. 8
In 1968 a compilation of anecdotes and quips gathered by Robert E. Drennan was published under the title “The Algonquin Wits”, and the following was included: 9
Playing “I-Can-Give-You-A-Sentence” with the word horticulture, Mrs. Parker said: “You may lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
The 1970 biography “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats also included the pun: 10
When it came to word games, the gentlemen discovered they had met a master. Challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence, Mrs. Parker immediately replied, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
A review of Keats’s volume in “The New York Times” reprinted the pun and described it as one of Parker’s best: 11
The best Parkerisms sound so inevitable—so easy—they seem to have been thought up collectively by the race. “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” It writes itself.
In 1974 a variant statement was selected as a contest winner by a columnist in a Chicago, Illinois newspaper: 12
You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her read.
Thanks Daniel Yurgaitis
We hope that you are pleased that you are winner of a crisp five dollar bill for submitting your thoughtful saying for today’s column.
In 1976 the playwright Marc Connelly who was a member of the Algonquin Round Table reminisced about his experiences with other participants such as Parker. Connelly presented an intriguingly different story about the circumstances that engendered the pun: 13
Connelly recalled the endless word games in which a difficult word was thrown at a player, who had to respond quickly by using it in a sentence, or in which a situation was outlined to a player, who had to sum up the situation in one word.
Two of Mrs. Parker’s: Given the word “paroxysm,” she thought a moment and then said, “Paroxysm agnificent city.” Given the description of a prostitute who refused to go out with two men one night because she was leaving for Vassar the next day, Mrs. Parker responded with “horticulture.”
In 1987 the reviewer of a television documentary about the Algonquin Round Table called “The Ten-Year Lunch” attributed a variant remark to Alexander Woollcott instead of Parker: 14
Observed Woolcott: “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t lead her to drink.” And unlucky-in-love Parker noted after another failed affair and an abortion: “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”
In 1990 “The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust” in Pennsylvania sold T-shirts emblazoned with the bawdy saying ascribed to Parker as a fund raising measure. The Associated Press reported that a letter of complaint was sent to the organization: 15
“It is insulting to women who earn or have earned their living as prostitutes, implying that they are unintelligent, unthinking, unappreciative of culture,” their letter said.
In conclusion, QI believes that Dorothy Parker did create the horticulture pun sometime before March 1935. Indeed, there is no substantive evidence supporting alternative authorship. Whether she delivered the pun during the 1920s heyday of the Algonquin Round Table is not clear to QI.
It is possible that she used the quip more than once. Some of the jokes told at the Round Table were prepared in advance. The testimony of Round Table member Marc Connelly suggested an alternative genesis for the pun.
The variant jokes that emerged in the 1950s may have been derived from the oral transmission of Parker’s pun.
Image Notes: Picture of the Gardens of Versailles in France from alexandria at Pixabay. Picture of Dorothy Parker via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized
(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, who inquired about this pun on the ADS mailing list which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to knowledgeable discussant Jonathan Lighter. Special thanks Bill Mullins for locating early pivotal citations. Many thanks to the wonderful staff of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. QI was only able to supply partial information about the important 1952 “The Virginia Spectator” citation to the librarians. The page number specified by the Google Books database was inaccurate. Staff members were able to systematically search for the passage containing the pun and determine its precise location.)
Update History: On November 23, 2015 citations in March and April 1935 were added. The conclusion was rewritten.
- 1935 March 1, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1935 April 19, Bradford Era Friday, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Behind the Scenes in Hollywood by Harrison Carroll, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1962 July, Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 4, Number 6, High Spirits in the Twenties by John Mason Brown, Start Page 32, Quote Page 38, Column 1, American Heritage Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1952 December, The Virginia Spectator, Volume 114, Number 3, (Untitled comical tale), Quote Page 5, Column 1, Published by Virginia Spectator Inc., Charlottesville, Virginia. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia) ↩
- 1953 November 3, The Daily Standard, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Sikeston, Missouri. (The word “horticulturist” was misspelled as “horticulturiest” in the original text) (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 January-March, The Journal of American Folklore, Volume 76, Number 299, “A Classification for Shaggy Dog Stories” by Jan Harold Brunvand, Start Page 42, Quote Page 60, Published for the American Folklore Society by Houghton, Mifflin and Co. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1964, Education and the Structure of Knowledge, Fifth Annual Phi Delta Kappa Symposium on Educational Research, Sponsored by Phi Delta Kappa, Pi Campus Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, College of Education, University of Illinois, Chapter 3: The Structure of Knowledge in the Arts by Harry S. Broudy, Start Page 75, Quote Page 112, Published by Rand McNally, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1965, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times 1896-1939 by John Mason Brown, Chapter 10: The Algonquin Group, Start Page 139, Quote Page 150, Published by Harper & Row, New York.(Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Chapter: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 121, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Quote Page 46, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified in paper) ↩
- 1970 October 11, New York Times, Writing was torture but not writing was worse torture by Arlene Croce, (Book Reviews of John Keats’s “You Might as Well Live” and Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader”), Start Page 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1974 January 24, The South End Review (Chicago South End Review), The $5 Line, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1976 May 4, Los Angeles Times, Reminiscences of the Algonquin by Dave Smith, Start Page F1, Quote Page F4, Los Angeles California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1987 September 28, Centre Daily Times, TV Tonight by Judy Flander, Quote Page D8, Column 1, State College, Pennsylvania. (The original text misspelled “Woollcott” as “Woolcott”)(GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1990 December 26, Altoona Mirror Wednesday, Parker’s bawdy pun irks women’s group (Associated Press), Quote Page A5, Column 1, Altoona, Pennsylvania. 9NewspaperArchive) ↩