An Empty Taxi Arrived and Clement Attlee Stepped Out of It

Winston Churchill? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Critics of U.K. Prime Minister Clement Attlee viewed him as an insubstantial and dull figure. The following quip apparently circulated during the 1940s:

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it.

These words are often attributed to Winston Churchill. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill strongly denied that he employed this quip. See the citation further below. The anonymous barb was aimed at Attlee by 1948 as recorded by the widely-syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The Upper Classes are at the government because the inheritance tax laws prevent them from shooting pheasants, so they have retaliated with this joke: An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.

This joke template has a very long history. In 1879 the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt who was notably thin was the subject of the following: 2

. . . only yesterday, says a correspondent, you may read in the same paper a fragment of conversation as follows: “An empty carriage stops and who is it who steps out? Sarah Bernhardt.”

In 1882 a similar remark was aimed at Alexander H. Stephens who was a U.S. Senator for the State of Georgia. Stephens was short and slight: 3

. . . the late Senator Carpenter’s description of Stephens. He said: “An empty coach rolled up in front of one of the Departments and Alexander H. Stephens alighted from it.”

A separate article focused on these nineteenth century jokes is available here. This article continues with additional selected citations from the twentieth century in chronological order.

In 1938 another U.S. Senator bore the brunt of the quip printed in a Wisconsin newspaper: 4

Now they’re saying that on a recent occasion an empty taxi pulled up to the capitol in Washington and out stepped Senator Bilbo.

In 1939 “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania published a profile of the popular comedian John Florence Sullivan who was best known by his pseudonym Fred Allen. The anecdote below referred to “The Lambs Club”, a New York City social club for people in show business. Fred Allen was knowledgeable about the history of jokes: 5

One day Fred came upon two prominent comedians at the Lambs. The boys were squaring off—screaming imprecations at each other. One was accusing the other of stealing his gag and using it at Loew’s State. Fred stepped in as arbiter.

The purloined joke was: “An empty taxicab pulled up at the Astor Hotel today and out of it stepped Milton Berle.”

Fred settled the argument then and there explaining to the boys that many years ago Eugene Field wrote in a Denver newspaper: “An empty carriage pulled up at the Tabor Grand last night and out of it stepped Sarah Bernhardt.”

In 1940 a St. Louis, Missouri newspaper described a feud between the actor Ben Bernie and the powerful columnist Walter Winchell: 6

“A few days later Winchell had the following item in his column:
“‘I didn’t even know the old mousetrap was in town, but yesterday an empty taxi pulled up in front of the Lambs’ Club and Ben Bernie got out.’

In 1945 “The Decatur Herald” of Decatur, Illinois printed an instance of the jibe: 7

It seems that one day an empty taxi-cab drew up at the capitol in Washington and Senator Tom Heflin got out.

In 1948 the popular columnist Leonard Lyons printed an instance aimed at Attlee as mentioned previously in this article:

An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.

In 1965 the Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” printed a True-False quiz about statements attributed to Churchill. One item concerned the “empty taxi” remark: 8

Said of his political opponent Prime Minister Clement Attlee: “An empty taxi stopped in Downing Street, and Clement Attlee got out of it.”

FALSE. This is a time-honored wheeze of American vaudeville days. It has often been attributed to Fred Allen, but in truth it goes back at least to 1900. Aurélien Scholl, a Paris journalist, wrote that “an empty barouche drove up before the Comédie Française, and Sarah Bernhardt got out.”

In 1982 Kenneth Harris published a biography titled “Attlee” which included a statement from Winston Churchill about the quip. The statement was relayed by John Colville to the biographer and subsequently printed in “The New York Times”: 9

. . . Churchill’s private secretary came to him with a story men were guffawing over in the London clubs: “An empty taxi drew up outside Number Ten, Downing Street, and when the door opened, Attlee got out.”

Churchill did not smile. There was an “awful” pause before his reply. “Mr. Attlee,” he said, “is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anybody who does.”

In 2006 quotation expert Nigel Rees in “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” traced the jibe back to the time of Sarah Bernhardt. Rees also pointed to the statement of denial by Winston Churchill. 10

In conclusion, this barb was aimed at Clement Attlee during the 1940s, but Winston Churchill did not use it, and he disagreed with the sentiment. The joke template has a very long history, and it was employed to criticize the thin actress Sarah Bernhardt in the 1870s. The jest evolved over time and was used to attack numerous politicians and individuals in the public eye.

Image Notes: Photograph of former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee circa 1957. Public domain image accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of model car depicting a London taxi from bykst at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Alex Marklew, Paul Waugh, and Patrick Kidd whose twitter exchange about the remark aimed at Clement Attlee led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. QI also created a separate entry focused on the Sarah Bernhardt barb.)

Notes:

  1. 1948 February 23, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Lyons Den by Frederic Wakeman (substituting for Leonard Lyons), Quote Page 26, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers.com)
  2. 1879 May 31, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882 August 12, Daily State Gazette (Green Bay Press-Gazette), (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1938 March 3, Wausau Daily Record-Herald, The Office Grouch, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Wausau, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1939 November 21, The Pittsburgh Press, Laughter Off Stage: Fred Allen, ‘Genealogist,’ Traces ‘New’ Wisecracks Back To Old Wheezes by H. Allen Smith (Special to The Pittsburgh Press), Section 2, Quote Page 25, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1940 October 27, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Section: The Everyday Magazine, Two Stars: One New, the Other Slightly Used, Quote Page 2H, Column 3, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1945 June 11, The Decatur Herald, Second Thoughts by David V. Felts, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1965 April 11, The Des Moines Sunday Register, Section: This Week Magazine, Charlie Rice’s Punchbowl: Sir Winston: What He Did and Didn’t Say, Quote Page 5, Column 1 and 3, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1983 August 28, New York Times, Modern Britain’s Chief Architect by Godfrey Hodgson, (Book Review of “Attlee” by Kenneth Harris), Quote Page BR8, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Winston Churchill, Quote Page 141, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)