“I Bet I Could Get Three Words Out of You.” “You Lose.”

Calvin Coolidge? Frank B. Noyes? Apocryphal?

cool07Dear Quote Investigator: President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because of his extraordinarily laconic speech. A famous anecdote tells of a dinner party during which the person sitting adjacent to the Coolidge said: “Mr. President I’ve made a large bet that I would be able to make you say more than two words.” Coolidge considered this proposition carefully and then replied slowly and emphatically, “You lose.”

Would you please explore the veracity of this comical tale?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in several newspapers in April 1924 which were reporting on a short speech of introduction delivered at the annual luncheon of the Associated Press news service by Frank B. Noyes who was the President of the organization. The introduction was for the main speaker at the event, President Calvin Coolidge. Noyes told a story about an unnamed “very high official”, and his audience knew that the tale was supposed to be about Coolidge. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . let me be reminded at this point of a story current in Washington last year.

“A very high official had a really undeserved reputation of extreme reticence, and it is related that at a dinner the lady on his right opened the conversation by saying that her neighbor had it in his power to lose or win a wager for her as she had made a bet that however reserved he might have been with others that he would talk with her. Then came a measurable pause, followed by ‘You lose.’

This version of the tale did not mention a specific number of words, e.g., “more than two words” or “at least three words”. Hence, it was not quite as funny as later instances of the anecdote.

“The New York Times” published an article about the luncheon which included the response given by Coolidge immediately after the humorous story was presented. He completely denied its accuracy. The term “President” in the following remark by Coolidge might be somewhat confusing; the term referred to Frank B. Noyes, President of the Associated Press, and not to Coolidge. 2

“Your President has given you a perfect example,” said Mr. Coolidge, “of one of those rumors now current in Washington which is without any foundation.”

The audience laughed, and then Mr. Coolidge went ahead with his prepared speech.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The June 1925 issue of “McClure’s Magazine” published a profile titled “The President!: A Study of Calvin Coolidge” by Myron M. Stearns which included an instance of the story in which the unlucky wagerer was male instead of female. Also, the limit was expressed using the phrase “say three words” instead of “more than two words”. Stearns admitted that the fanciful yarn was second-hand: 3

One story tells of a bet made between two men, one of whom was to sit next to the president at a large dinner, that he would not say three words during the entire meal. Towards the end of the evening, getting desperate because Mr. Coolidge had not yet spoken at all, the man next him told of the bet, ending: “He bet ten dollars you wouldn’t say three words, but I bet you would.” Mr. Coolidge, according to the story, considered the matter for some moments, then turned a little towards his companion. “You lose,” he said.

Magazines were often distributed a week or more before the date specified on the cover. Hence, the June 1925 issue of “McClure’s Magazine” was available near the end of May, and a writer in the “The Monroe News-Star” of Monroe, Louisiana referred to the article about Coolidge and repeated the anecdote on May 29, 1925. 4

In 1928 a biographical work titled “The Legend of Calvin Coolidge” by Cameron Rogers was released. The author asserted that the social hostesses of Washington had a difficult time when attempting to converse with Coolidge, and the anecdote was recounted by an unidentified hostess: 5

One confessed that, as a possibly successful gambit, she had opened her campaign by saying brightly:

“Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet—quite a large one—that I can make you say three words.”

Stunned, she had heard her partner’s voice, that voice like a harp string uncouthly plucked, reply, “You lose.”

In May 1928 an article in the “Buffalo Evening News” of Buffalo, New York discussed the biography above. The journalist repeated the anecdote and said it took place while Coolidge was Vice President, i.e., between 1921 and 1923: 6

It became a sort of a game among Washington hostesses to see who would be the first to make Coolidge indulge in conversation.

One night his partner at dinner, a woman known the country over, said: “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet—quite a large one—that I can make you say three words.”

“You lose,” answered the then vice president.

In November 1928 a newspaper in Quanah, Texas printed the following instance: 7

Coolidge is a splendid talker, but never speaks when there is nothing to be said. He is always sparing of words. He has at the same time a great sense of humor. One of the stories told of him is that a lady next to him at a dinner once turned toward him and said:

“I bet someone that I could make you say three words.”
“You lose,”
answered the President, solemnly.

In 1962 a biography of Coolidge’s wife titled “Grace Coolidge and Her Era” was published, and the biographer stated that Grace enjoyed recounting a version of the anecdote: 8

She liked to tell the story of his encounter with an important hostess who opened their dinner-table conversation with a direct challenge:

“You must talk to me, Mr. Coolidge. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.”

“You lose,” said the Vice-President with a poker face, and let it go at that.

In conclusion, determining the veracity of this anecdote was difficult. A version of the tale was circulating by 1924 which was during the proper time period. But, the details were variable. For example, the individual talking to Coolidge was sometimes female and sometimes male. Also, the testimony was not from a direct participant. Grace Coolidge reportedly told the story, but this claim was also indirect via a biography. Calvin Coolidge, himself, denied the tale in 1924. QI would provisionally label the anecdote apocryphal, but future researchers may discover more evidence.

Image Notes: US postage stamp depicting Calvin Coolidge issued in 1938; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Coolidge political campaign button of unknown provenance; accessed via a historical memorabilia website.

(Thanks to quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro’s reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” which pointed to the important “New York Times” citation dated April 23, 1924.)

Notes:

  1. 1924 April 23, The Hartford Courant, President Favors New Parley for Further Limitation of Arms, Quote Page 22, Column 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  2. 1924 April 23, New York Times, Coolidge for a New Arms Conference; Demands Constructive Federal Thrift; Favors Participation in German Loan: Sees Hope in Dawes Plan, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1925 June, McClure’s Magazine, Gentlemen, The President!: A Study of Calvin Coolidge by Myron M. Stearns, Start Page 44, Quote Page 54 and 55, Published by S.S. McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive)
  4. 1925 May 29, The Monroe News-Star, Our Frugal President, Quote Page 4, Column 2 and 3, Monroe, Louisiana. (ProQuest)
  5. 1928, The Legend of Calvin Coolidge by Cameron Rogers, Quote Page 155 and 156, Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1928 May 18, Buffalo Evening News, Biographer Writes of Coolidge Silence Quote Page 20, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1928 November 27, Quanah Tribune Chief, The Outgoing and Incoming Presidents, Quote Page, Column 2, Quanah, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1962, Grace Coolidge and Her Era: The Story of a President’s Wife by Ishbel Ross, Chapter 3: Midnight at Plymouth Notch, Quote Page 67, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)