Like the Feather Pillow, He Bears the Marks of the Last Person Who Has Sat on Him

Quotation Said By: David Lloyd George? Douglas Haig? Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook? Susan Riley? Alan Walters?

Barb Aimed At: Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby? John Turner? John Major?

Dear Quote Investigator: The opinions and responses of some people are easily swayed by domineering individuals with emphatic goals. Suggestable people may shift viewpoints repeatedly. Here are three pertinent expressions employing vivid similes:

(1) He’s like a feather pillow who always bears the imprint of the last person who has sat on him.

(2) She was like a cushion who bore the impress of the most recent person who sat on her.

(3) He’s like a bean-bag chair; he bears the impression of the last person who sat on him.

A statement of this type has been attributed to WWI British Field Marshal Douglas Haig and U.K. Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1918 Douglas Haig wrote a letter to his wife which included a remarkably harsh assessment of Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby 1

I am still corresponding with Derby over Trenchard. D. is a very weak-minded fellow I am afraid, and, like the feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat on him! I hear he is called in London “genial Judas”!

In 1952 the letter above was published together with other personal material in the collection “The Private Papers of Douglas Haig: 1914-1919”. The introduction to the book mentioned Haig’s caustic remark and noted that it was not publicly released until decades later: 2

He could use a cutting phrase even about someone whom he normally admired. “Lord Derby”, he once wrote in a moment of irritation, “like a feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat on him”. Such phrases were kept for the privacy of his letters or his diary. To all his guests, even those whom he knew to be enemies, he displayed the same unfailing courtesy.

Thus, the book contained two slightly different versions of the quotation. The phrase “like the feather pillow” appeared in the letter text, and the phrase “like a feather pillow” appeared in the introduction.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1952 “The Manchester Guardian” printed excerpts from Haig’s newly published private papers. The “feather pillow” comment was included; therefore, it achieved wider distribution: 3

D. is a very weak-minded fellow, I am afraid, and, like the feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat on him! I hear he is called in London “genial Judas” (14/1/18)!

Haig’s evaluation of Derby was not uniformly negative, and “The Manchester Guardian” also printed a positive remark from the book: 4

Lord Derby is a fine honest Englishman. I wish we had more like him in the Government at this time of crisis.

In 1963 Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook released a memoir titled “The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George”. Beaverbrook was a powerful newspaper publisher who also sometimes held high-level positions in the British government. He described an episode during which he attempted to influence the political stance of Lord Derby on a trade agreement. Yet, Beaverbrook found that Derby had completely changed his stance after meeting with another politician. Beaverbrook reprinted in his book Haig’s harsh remark about Derby: 5

Haig wrote, “Derby . . . like the feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat upon him.” Haig’s pillow failed me. Instead of triumph or even a stalemate, complete defeat was the result of that fatal interview . . .

In May 1963 Beaverbrook’s book was reviewed in “The Leader-Post” of Regina, Canada. The reviewer printed a thumbnail sketch of Lord Derby that included without ascription the “feather pillow” remark. Some readers may have assumed that the statement was the opinion of Lloyd George: 6

Derby, influential, all pomp and circumstance, anxious for power and popularity, never sure where to perch and like a feather pillow which bore the impression of the last person who sat upon him.

In 1978 “The Listener”, a BBC periodical, printed a piece about a radio show hosted by John Grigg which discussed the career of David Lloyd George. Grigg attributed to Lloyd George a version of the saying with “cushion” instead of “feather pillow”: 7

. . . Lord Derby was “like a cushion who always bore the impress of the last man who sat on him”.

In 1988 columnist Susan Riley writing in “The Ottawa Citizen” criticized Canadian politician John Turner and employed a simile using “bean-bag chair”: 8

Once the media starts laughing back, a candidate is dead. The word is out on Turner. He’s like a bean-bag chair; he bears the impression of the last person who sat on him.

In 1991 the “Evening Herald” of Dublin, Ireland printed an instance aimed at British politician John Major: 9

. . . Major decided as far back as 1986 that the top job could be his as long as he steered a middle course and made no enemies. However in so doing Major, in the eyes of Thatcher economist Sir Alan Walters, has become like a cushion, “bearing the imprint of the last person who sat on him.

In conclusion, Douglas Haig deserves credit for the feather pillow simile he crafted in 1918. The similes using a cushion and a bean-bag chair were probably derived from Haig’s simile. There is no strong evidence that David Lloyd George employed a version of this saying.

Image Notes: Picture of pillows from KakaduArt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Roy Allen whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University for accessing the scans of “The Listener”.)

Notes:

  1. 1952, The Private Papers of Douglas Haig: 1914-1919, Edited by Robert Blake, Chapter 16: The Fall of Robertson, Date: January 14, 1918, Letter from: Douglas Haig, Letter to: Lady Haig, Quote Page 279, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London. England. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1952, The Private Papers of Douglas Haig: 1914-1919, Edited by Robert Blake, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page 29, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London. England. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1952 November 21, The Manchester Guardian (The Guardian), Douglas Haig’s Diary: The F.-M. Writes Himself Down, Quote Page 6, Column 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1952, The Private Papers of Douglas Haig: 1914-1919, Edited by Robert Blake, Chapter 6: Plans for the Somme, Date: March 8, 1916, Quote Page 135, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London. England. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1963, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George by Lord Beaverbrook, Chapter 11: Bonar Law–Prime Minister, Quote Page 211, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1963 May 18, The Leader-Post, This week I read by Kathleen Graham (Book Review of “The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George by Lord Beaverbrook), Quote Page 11, Column 3, Regina, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1978 September 7, The Listener, Out of the Air: Giant-killer, Start Page 305, Quote Page 306, Published by British Broadcasting Corporation, London. (The Listener Archive: Gale NewsVault)
  8. 1988 October 9, The Ottawa Citizen, Wimplash: what’s so funny ’bout sensitive guys in bowties? by Susan Riley (Citizen staff), Quote Page A10, Column 3, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1991 April 16, Evening Herald, TV Guide: A very minor Major?, Quote Page 25, Column 5, Dublin, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)