Change One Letter in That Phrase and You Have My Life Story

Dorothy Parker? Ben Hecht? Corey Ford? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker apparently constructed a risqué quip when she observed people ducking for apples at a party. Would you please explore this topic?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of Parker’s jest located by QI appeared in the 1957 book “Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by Ben Hecht. MacArthur and Hecht were successful writing partners who created popular plays such as “The Front Page” and “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Dorothy Parker was Hecht’s friend and MacArthur’s lover. The book recounted the following anecdote. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

At a subsequent Halloween party, Miss Parker spoke one of her wryest sentences. Asked to join a group of merrymakers who were “ducking for apples,” Dorothy said, “Change one letter in that phrase and you have my life story.”

The change probably referred to the transformation of “ducking” into a synonym for fornication.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order




In 1967 the tale appeared in “The Time of Laughter” by Corey Ford. The following version of Parker’s remark was rather different: 2

The quotations could go on endlessly. There was the night that Mrs. Parker arrived at a Halloween party given by Herbert Bayard Swope, and inquired what the guests were doing. “They’re ducking for apples,” her host explained. Mrs. Parker shook her head sadly. “There, but for a typographical error,” she sighed, “is the story of my life.”

In November 1967, Ford’s book was discussed by the author and magazine columnist Cleveland Amory in the pages of the “Saturday Review”. Oddly, Amory recounted an expurgated version of the anecdote: 3

Finally, our favorite story of many a month appeared in a marvelous book, The Time of Laughter, by Corey Ford. Among other gems, Mr. Ford writes of the night Dorothy Parker arrived at a Halloween party given by Herbert Bayard Swope. Seeing guests in an odd position—obviously partaking of a new fad-Miss Parker asked what they were doing. “They’re ducking for apples,” Mr. Swope explained. Miss Parker shook her head. “There,” she sighed, “is the story of my life.”

In 1968 Robert E. Drennan published a compilation of bright sayings attributed to members of the Algonquin Round Table under the tile “The Algonquin Wits”. The following passage occurred in the section devoted to Parker. “Bayard” was misspelled as “Baynard”: 4

One evening Mrs. Parker arrived late to a party given by Herbert Baynard Swope, and observed the guests engaged in some sort of group amusement. Swope explained that the guests were “ducking for apples,” and Mrs. Parker reflected, “There, but for a typographical error, is the story of my life.”

In 1971 the prominent actress and playwright Ruth Gordon presented the tale during an interview: 5

Once the Swopes gave a great Halloween party and all the big nobs were ducking for apples. Dotty came down the steps and said, ‘There but for a typographical error, is the story of my life.’ She was the only person living in the States that Somerset Maugham asked about when we met him in the South of France.

In conclusion, substantive evidence supports the ascription of this joke to Dorothy Parker; however, the precise phrasing is uncertain. The first citation from Ben Hecht in 1957 did not use the locution “typographical error”. Corey Ford’s version of Parker’s quip did use the expression in 1967.

Image Notes: Painting “Halloween” by Howard Chandler Christy which depicts ducking for apples or bobbing for apples from the January 1916 issue of “Scribner’s Magazine”. Portrait of Dorothy Parker from the 1910s or early 1920s. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro who asked about a collection of sayings attributed to Dorothy Parker. His inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1957, Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur by Ben Hecht, Quote Page 99, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with hard copy)
  2. 1967, The Time of Laughter by Corey Ford, Quote Page 53, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified with hard copy)
  3. 1967 November 4, Saturday Review, First of the Month by Cleveland Amory, Quote Page 6, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Quote Page 120, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1971 May 22, Democrat and Chronicle, Now People: Ruth Gordon, A Rare Bird by Brenda Badolato (D&C – Women’s Wear Daily), Start Page C1, Quote Page C2, Column 5 and 6, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)(“Halloween” was misspelled “Holloween” in the original text)