The Face of Venus, the Figure of Juno, the Brains of Minerva, the Memory of Macaulay . . . Above and Beyond All, the Hide of a Rhinoceros

Ethel Barrymore? Madge Kendal? J. H. Ellis? Lilian Braithwaite? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous actress Ethel Barrymore was asked to list the requirements for success in the theater. She specified remarkable qualities such as the beauty of Venus and the intelligence of Minerva. The final crucial precondition was an ability to ignore criticism. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI revealed that this statement was employed by the prominent English actress Madge Kendal before it was used by Ethel Barrymore. In 1933 Kendal published her autobiography “Dame Madge Kendal, By Herself” which was reviewed in newspapers such as “The Leeds Mercury” in England[ref] 1933 October 31, The Leeds Mercury, Dame Madge Kendal: How She Chose Her Epitaph, Quote Page 6, Column 4, County: West Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref] and the “Dundee Courier and Advertiser” in Scotland.[ref] 1933 October 31, Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 80 Years of the Stage: How Madge Kendal Chose Her Own Epitaph, Quote Page 6, Column 4, County: Angus, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref] These papers reprinted the following entertaining remark. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

She sums up the qualifications of a young woman for a successful career on the stage as “The face of Venus, the figure of Juno, the brains of Minerva, the memory of Macaulay, the chastity of Diana, the grace of Terpsichore, but, above and beyond all, the hide of a rhinoceros.”

Ethel Barrymore received credit for a very similar statement by 1937 as shown further below. Interestingly, many years earlier in 1900 Madge Kendal employed a comparable trope although she listed a somewhat different set of requirements for an actress.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Interesting precursors of the quotation appeared during the previous decades. For example, in 1877 the weekly London periodical “Truth” printed a passage referring to Alexander Selkirk who was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s fictional castaway in the novel “Robinson Crusoe”. The passage included a sequence of three qualities that also occurred in the quotation:[ref] 1877 August 23, Truth: A Weekly Journal, (Fiction) Intercepted Letters: New Invention—The Age of Appreciation, Letter Date: August 2, 1877, Letter From: Miss Ella Graham of New York, Quote Page 241, Column 1, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The grandest scenery soon palls, if unassociated with humanity, and much as I dote on “Robinson Crusoe,” I wouldn’t have been in Alexander Selkirk’s shoes for the beauty of Venus, the brains of Minerva, and the grace of Terpsichore. Of what use are these gifts without an audience? Who wants to talk to one’s self, or seek for a lover in a looking-glass. . .?

Madge Kendal was an acclaimed actress by the end of the nineteenth century, and she received letters from aspirants requesting advice. In March 1900 “The Pittsburg Post” of Pennsylvania printed a version of the letter that Kendal sent to inquirers:[ref] 1900 March 15, The Pittsburg Post (Pittsburgh Daily Post), News and Gossip of the Theaters, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Dear Miss:—Nothing is so easy as to become an actress. You only require the following qualifications:

Health of a lion,
Temper of an angel,
The sensitiveness of a flower,
The magnetism of genius,
The genius of magnetism,
The beauty of a rose,
The figure of a goddess
and the skin—of a rhinoceros.

And there you are. Yours very truly, Madge Kendal.

In May 1900 “Werner’s Magazine” reported on a commencement speech delivered by Kendal at “The American Academy of the Dramatic Arts” in New York. She presented a variant list of requirements for an actress:[ref] 1900 May, Werner’s Magazine, Volume 25, Number 3, School Doings: The American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, (Madge Kendal’s speech was delivered at The American Academy of the Dramatic Arts commencement on March 27, 1900), Start Page 303, Quote Page 303, Edgar S. Werner Publishing & Supply Company. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

As to the qualifications for a successful dramatic career, Mrs. Kendal recited her advice to a young American girl who had written her asking what she needed to become an actress. The reply was:

“Why, it is the easiest thing in the world, the very easiest. You only require the following things: The imagination of a poet, the strength of a horse, the figure of a Greek statue, the temper of an angel, the face of a god, and the skin of a rhinoceros.”

In 1901 a newspaper in Gloucester, England reported on another speech by Kendal containing a list of desired attributes for performers:[ref] 1901 June 14, The Citizen (Gloucester Citizen), The Passing Hour, Quote Page 3, Column 6, County: Gloucestershire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

Speaking at a meeting, on Thursday, in connection with the Girls’ Friendly Society, Mrs. Kendal enumerated the chief qualifications requisite for success on the stage as the face of a goddess, the strength of a lion, the figure of a Venus, the voice of a dove, the temper of an angel, the grace of a swan, the agility of an antelope—and the skin of a rhinoceros.

In 1909 a newspaper in Devon, England printed remarks from a Town Clerk named J. H. Ellis who spoke about the ideal properties of a corporate officer working for a town. He ended with a reference to a thick skin:[ref] 1909 June 26, The Totnes Times, The Perfect Corporate Officer, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Devon, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

To be perfect they should have the industry of the bee, the courtesy of a courtier, the patience of Job, and the wisdom of Solomon. They should also have the hide of a rhinoceros.

The 1915 book “The Crown of Life” by Gordon Arthur Smith also mentioned a sequence of three qualities appearing in the quotation. Yet, this 1915 instance referred to Diana instead of 1877’s Terpsichore:[ref] 1915, The Crown of Life by Gordon Arthur Smith, Quote Page 290, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I suppose it is because they plague us until, in self-defense, we tell them we love them. And then we hope that, when we have assured them that they have the beauty of Venus and the brains of Minerva and the grace of Diana and that we love them and worship them, that we dream of them by day and by night—although, of course, we don’t do anything of the sort. . .

In 1919 “The Saturday Evening Post” published a piece by theatrical producer David Belasco who was asked about the requisites of an actress. He referred to the words of an unnamed English thespian:[ref] 1919 August 30, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 192, Number 9,The Beginner on the Stage by David Belasco, Start Page 29, Quote Page 29, Column 1, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

To the first of those questions I am sometimes tempted to answer, after the manner of a great English player: “To possess the face and figure of a Greek goddess, the voice of an angel, the temper of a dove, the disposition of a saint, the energy of a dynamo, the digestion of an ostrich, the strength of an elephant and the hide of a rhinoceros!”

In 1928 a newspaper in Nottingham, England reported on a speech delivered at a civic organization about the assets needed to become an actress; a thick skin was mentioned:[ref] 1928 December 14, The Nottingham Journal, The Budding Actress: Wants Courage, a Thick Hide and Arctic Endurance!, Quote Page 4, Column 3, County: Nottinghamshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

Miss Lilian Braithwaite told members of the Soroptimist Club at their luncheon yesterday in London that the qualities required by a girl who wanted to become an actress were:

The courage of lion;
The hide of a rhinoceros;
The endurance of Arctic explorer;
A good home to which she could go when she was out of an engagement.

In 1933 a close match to the modern quotation was written by Madge Kendal as mentioned previously:

She sums up the qualifications of a young woman for a successful career on the stage as “The face of Venus, the figure of Juno, the brains of Minerva, the memory of Macaulay, the chastity of Diana, the grace of Terpsichore, but, above and beyond all, the hide of a rhinoceros.”

In 1934 the influential English theatre critic James Agate humorously transmuted two qualities required for success in London:[ref] 1934 September 19, The Tatler, The Cinema: An Exciting Occasion by James Agate, Quote Page 524, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

A godson once said to me that he supposed the best equipment with which a young man could face London was a fine mind and a hide like a rhinoceros. To which I answered that he would probably do a great deal better if he provided himself with a fine skin and a mind like a rhinoceros.

In 1937 syndicated columnist George Ross reported that Ethel Barrymore used a version of the quotation within a form letter:[ref] 1937 August 3, Reading Times, In New York by George Ross, Quote Page 4, Column 8, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

When Ethel Barrymore receives a letter from a stage-struck gal, asking her advice on how to crash the theatre, she replies with a form letter. As follows:

“For an actress to be a success, she must have the face of a Venus, the brains of a Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of a Macauley, the figure of a Juno — and the hide of a rhinoceros.”

In 1953 George Jean Nathan published “The Theatre in the Fifties”, and he attributed the saying to Barrymore:[ref] 1953, The Theatre in the Fifties, George Jean Nathan, Chapter: Appendix, Quote Page 30, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

“For an actress to be a success,” says Ethel Barrymore, “she must have the face of a Venus, the brains of a Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of a Macaulay, the figure of Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros.”

If the charming Miss Barrymore will forgive an old friend and admirer, that is the richest dab of nonsense that has been spoken since Jean Cocteau last opened his mouth.

In conclusion, by 1900 Madge Kendal was presenting a demanding list of qualifications to aspiring theater participants. Her 1933 autobiography contained a close match to the stylish modern version of the quotation. Ethel Barrymore also employed the expression, but apparently she did not create it. Combinations of phrases such as “the brains of Minerva” and “the grace of Terpsichore” were circulating in the 1800s.

(Great thanks to K whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Nigel Rees who included the 1933 Madge Kendal autobiography citation in “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations” and to A. K. Adams who included the 1953 Ethel Barrymore citation in “The Home Book of Humorous Quotations”. Many thanks to William D. Mullins and Peter Reitan who located early versions of Madge Kendal’s advice in 1900 and other valuable precursors.)

Update History: On August 30, 2017 the 1919 citation was added. On September 2, 2017 citations dated March 15, 1900; May 1900; and June 14, 1901 were added. The picture of Ethel Barrymore was replaced by a picture of Madge Kendal.

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