Robert J. Casey? Bennett Cerf? Grady Clay? Dwight Marvin? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Misprints and incorrect headlines in major periodicals have caused havoc in the past. One egregious tale shared by journalists is about a caption containing the word “eyesore” that was transposed with another caption. Are you familiar with this story? Is it genuine or apocryphal?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1943 book “Such Interesting People” by Robert J. Casey who worked for the “Chicago Daily News” for many years. Casey stated that large newspapers employed lawyers to help minimize the damage from the publication of garbled news stories. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Some of these experts earn their fees as, for instance, in the case of the Fort Smith (Arkansas) newspaper that went to press hurriedly on the day that the mayor’s wife died and the old ice house burned. The lady’s portrait was two columns wide on the first page and over it was a startling tribute: “Old Eyesore Gone At Last.”
QI has been unable to locate the newspaper front page displaying this text over a portrait. Electronic databases remain incomplete, and this tale might still be authentic. Alternatively, Casey might have transmitted a tall-tale concocted or embellished by colleagues. A 1995 citation presented further below states that the unfortunate headline appeared in “The Record” newspaper of Troy, New York instead of an Arkansas paper.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In November 1943 Casey’s book was reviewed by a columnist in the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois, and the vivid anecdote achieved wider distribution: 2
Most of the tales are too long to tell in this telephone-booth-like space, but here is one about the transposed captions on the pictures of the wife of the mayor of Fort Smith, Ark., just deceased, and of an old icehouse which had burned down . . . over the portrait of the late Mme. Mayor there appeared, “Old Eyesore Gone at Last.”
Also, in November 1943 Casey’s book reviewer in the “Boston Traveler” of Massachusetts relayed the story: 3
He learned a good deal about libel laws at both first and second hand, and quotes the famous story of the Arkansas paper which printed a picture of the mayor’s newly deceased wife the morning after the broken-down icehouse burned with the scrambled caption: “Old Eyesore Gone at Last.”
In 1944 publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf included the anecdote in his book “Try and Stop Me” within a section that acknowledged Robert Casey: 4
In Fort Smith, Arkansas, the mayor’s wife died and the old icehouse burned on the same day. The local gazette printed a two-column portrait of the deceased lady on page one with a caption that made the issue a rare collector’s item: “Old Eyesore Gone at Last!”
The following year, in 1945, Cerf placed the tale into his widely syndicated newspaper column. 5
In 1995 “An Embarrassment of Misprints: Comical and Disastrous Typos of the Centuries” by Max Hall printed a version of the story, but the guilty newspaper was in a different location: 6
Grady Clay, a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky, sent me a fine specimen. Here is his description of a headline switch of more than fifty years ago in The Record, a newspaper in Troy, New York:
During World War II when the paper was short-staffed, two important events happened the same day: a historic ice-house on the banks of the Hudson River burned to the ground; and a most prominent local social figure, the wife of a well-known businessman, died. Unfortunately, the headline over the lady’s picture belonged over the picture of the ice-house. It read: “OLD EYESORE GONE AT LAST.”
Hall mentioned that Grady wrote a letter on this topic in the Sept.-Oct. 1993 issue of “Harvard Magazine”. Hall also attempted to trace the anecdote by directly contacting Clay; however, the result was unsatisfactory:
Grady Clay had heard the “Old Eyesore” story from Dwight Marvin, a long-ago editor and publisher of the Troy newspaper. I asked Clay if he could provide the date of the mix-up. He queried the newspaper and was told that retrieval at this late date was next to impossible.
In conclusion, the “Old Eyesore” anecdote was popularized by Robert J. Casey in 1943. Direct contemporaneous evidence within the pages of an Arkansas or New York newspaper has not yet been located. Hence, the veracity of the story remains uncertain.
Image Notes: Pictures of icicles on the side of a house from HoliHo at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to the anonymous journalist whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1943, Such Interesting People by Robert J. Casey, Chapter 3: Fantasy Among the Magnolias, Quote Page 47, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1943 November 21, Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago Tribune), The Literary Spotlight by Fanny Butcher, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1943 November 24, Boston Traveler, Books: Editors and Men of Great Dailies by Alice Dixon Bond (Book Review of “Such Interesting People” by Robert J. Casey), Quote Page 9, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Chapter 7: Powers of the Press, Quote Page 196, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1945 September 5, Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 8, Column 3 and 4, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1995, An Embarrassment of Misprints: Comical and Disastrous Typos of the Centuries by Max Hall, Chapter 3: Ouch! Misleading and Hurtful, Quote Page 9 and 10, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado. (Verified with scans) ↩