Winston Churchill? Hugh Hampton Young? Bennett Cerf? John Barrymore? Jacob Potofsky? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to a bawdy anecdote, British statesman Winston Churchill once attended a ceremony during which a sculpture of his likeness was unveiled. A beautiful woman approached him, and their provocative exchange included a pun on the word “bust”. Would you please explore the authenticity of this tale?
Quote Investigator: Historian and Churchill quotation expert Richard M. Langworth discussed this anecdote in his compilation “Churchill By Himself” within an appendix called “Red Herrings: False Attributions”. Langworth remarked that ribald statements were often incorrectly ascribed to Churchill, but they did not fit his character. In the following excerpt “WSC” abbreviated the full name Winston S. Churchill. Emphasis added by QI: 1
One example will suffice: a curvaceous female admirer who meets WSC at the unveiling of his sculpture says: “I got up at dawn and drove a hundred miles for the unveiling of your bust”; WSC supposedly replies, “Madam, I would happily reciprocate the honour.” In reality, Churchill simply was not given to salacious remarks, and nearly always treated the opposite sex with Victorian courtesy.
The earliest match for this comical tale located by QI appeared in the 1940 book “Hugh Young: A Surgeon’s Autobiography” by Hugh Hampton Young who was a prominent urologist and medical researcher. The doctor’s long record of accomplishments was celebrated at the University of Virginia during a ceremony which included the inaugural display of a bust created by the notable English sculptor Claire Sheridan. Young described his attendance at the event: 2
They insisted on my being present, and I sat through the ordeal while Dr. John H. Neff made a meticulous analysis of my contributions to medicine. When at long last the function was over, a young woman came up and said, “I hope you appreciate that I have come fifty miles to see your bust unveiled.” Whereupon, with a bow, I said, “I would go a thousand to see yours.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The tale achieved wide distribution when it appeared in the mass-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest” in July 1942: 3
DR. HUGH HAMPTON YOUNG, eminent surgeon, attended the unveiling of a bust of himself at the University of Virginia. After the ceremonies a young woman came up to him. “I hope you appreciate,” she said, “that I have come 50 miles to see your bust unveiled.” Whereupon, with a bow, Dr. Young replied, “I would go a thousand miles to see yours.”
— Adapted from Hugh Young: A Surgeon’s Autobiography (Harcourt, Brace)
In the same month “The Sikeston Standard” of Missouri printed the anecdote featuring Young. The text matched the version printed in the “Reader’s Digest” although the newspaper provided the curious acknowledgment “Stolen”. 4
The publisher and energetic quotation collector Bennett Cerf wrote a column called “Trade Winds” for the “Saturday Review of Literature”. In 1943 he relayed a version of the story obtained via “Maggie O’Flaherty, of Chicago”: 5
Dr. Hugh Hampton Young, eminent surgeon, attended the unveiling of a bust of himself at the University of Virginia. After the ceremony, a fluttery Southern belle came up to him and remarked: “Doctah, ah hope you appreciate that ah’ve come fifty miles in a station wagon to see your bust unveiled.” The gallant doctor replied: “Madame, I would gladly return the compliment.”
In 1944 Cerf published a collection of quotations and anecdotes under the title “Try and Stop Me”, and the story above was reprinted. 6
By 1948 a variant story was circulating about the well-known actor John Barrymore: 7
A famous sculptor once made a bust of John Barrymore. The night it was unveiled, an attractive society matron who was wearing a decollete gown, gushed to the actor: “I want you to know, Mr. Barrymore, that I traveled one hundred miles to see your bust unveiled.”
Barrymore’s eye turned to the low cut gown. “And to think, madam,” he sighed, “that I don’t have to move a step to repay the compliment.“
In 1949 a newspaper in Iowa printed an advertisement from a hardware company that included a version of the anecdote centered on an unnamed “eminent statesman” instead of a doctor or an actor: 8
An eminent statesman attended the unveiling of a bust of himself at a university. A young woman came up to him and said: “I hope you appreciate that I have come 50 miles to see your bust unveiled.” Whereupon the statesman replied: “I would go 1,000 miles to see yours.”
In 1964 a syndicated columnist reported on the comments of Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg who presented a version of the tale featuring union leader Jacob Potofsky: 9
“This reminds me of an unveiling of the bust of my old friend Jake Potofsky of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers,” said Goldberg.
“After the unveiling ceremony a lady, well endowed, rushed up to Potofsky and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Potofsky, I’ve come a hundred miles to see your bust unveiled.‘
“’Madame,’ replied Jake, ‘I’d be glad to do the same for you.’”
In 1980 “Churchill: Speaker of the Century” by James C. Humes reassigned the story and the punchline to Churchill: 10
During a visit by Churchill to Richmond, a memorial sculpture to the wartime prime minister was dedicated. A southern lady of Rubenesque proportions gushed to Churchill when she met him in a receiving line.
“Mr. Churchill, I want you to know I got up at dawn and drove a hundred miles for the unveiling of your bust.”
“Madam,” replied Churchill, gazing at her amply endowed figure, “I want you to know that I would happily reciprocate the honor.”
In conclusion, current evidence indicates that Hugh Hampton Young first presented this anecdote. Its authenticity depends on the veracity of Young. QI conjectures that subsequent variations of the tale were constructed to entertain readers and listeners and are probably fictive.
Image Notes: Image showing an angel and several busts from travelspot at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to the person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. That person wishes to remain anonymous. That person saw the Churchill attribution and disbelieved it.)
- 2013 (Kindle Edition), In His Own Words: Churchill By Himself by Winston S. Churchill, Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings: False Attributions. (Kindle Location 19563) ↩
- 1940, Hugh Young: A Surgeon’s Autobiography by Hugh H. Young, Chapter 29: Bob, Quote Page 509, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1942 July, Reader’s Digest, Volume 41, Pert and Pertinent, Quote Page 35, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1942 July 24, The Sikeston Standard, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Sikeston, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1943 December 25, Saturday Review of Literature, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (The original text contained the misspelling “glady” instead of “gladly” (Unz) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 259, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1948 February 20, The Brownsville Herald, Famous Fables, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Brownsville, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949 June 2, The Altoona Herald, Porter Hardware Co. News (Advertisement for Porter Hardware Company of Altoona, Iowa), Quote Page 12, Column 6, Altoona, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1964 December 29, Winona Daily News, The Washington Merry-Go-Round: Guard-Reserve Merger Backed by Goldwater by Drew Pearson, Quote Page 6, Column 4 and 5, Winona, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1980, Churchill: Speaker of the Century by James C. Humes, Appendix II: Escapades and Encounters, Quote Page 292, Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩