Dorothy Parker? Tallulah Bankhead? Edith Gwynn? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The 1948 war novel “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer employed the euphemism “fug” (“fugged”, “fugging”) instead of the four-letter word for intercourse. According to a popular literary legend, a witty woman who was introduced to Mailer shortly after the release of the book said:
Oh! You’re the man who can’t spell.
This line has been ascribed to the actress Tallulah Bankhead and the writer Dorothy Parker. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared as a short item in the Hollywood gossip column of Edith Gwynn in April 1950. “Tallulah” was misspelled as “Talullah” in the newspaper text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
When Talullah Bankhead was introduced to Norman Mailer, who authored “The Naked And The Dead,” she exploded, “Oh—you’re the man who can’t spell!”
This citation provides substantive evidence that the episode did occur; however, it is not definitive. Publicity agents have been known to feed fictitious stories to columnists to help their clients maintain high public profiles. Hence, it is possible that the incident did not occur.
Norman Mailer’s comments on the topic have varied. On one occasion he said it was an invented incident. On another occasion he told the prankster satirist Paul Krassner that he had uttered a harsh rejoinder.
The ascription to Dorothy Parker was probably the result of a faulty memory. Additional selected citations are given below.
In 1965 “The Guardian” newspaper in London published a book review that discussed euphemisms for intercourse, and remarked that the prominent short story writer Sherwood Anderson used the word “it”. In the following passage, the reviewer used dashes to avoid the taboo word: 2
Mailer at least advanced the cause by one letter, with the expletive in “The Naked and the Dead” that made Tallulah Bankhead blink with dawning recognition when she was introduced to Mailer at a party and exclaim : “I know, you’re the man who can’t spell f—.”
In 1967 a book reviewer in a Wilmington, Delaware newspaper criticized the work of best-selling novelist James Jones. “Tallulah” was misspelled as “Tallullah”: 3
Jones’ language is basically dull, his imagery poor. He makes frequent use of that famous four-letter word that was condensed to three shocking letters in “The Naked and the Dead,” — which led to Tallullah Bankhead’s priceless remark to Mailer, “You’re the one who can’t spell.”
In 1968 “The Realist” of New York City published the transcript of a recently broadcast television program from Toronto. Critic Bob Fulford moderated a discussion panel on the topic of obscenity with Norman Mailer as a participant. Fulford asked Mailer about his use of “fug”: 4
The word has been a source of great embarrassment to me over the years because, you know, Talullah Bankhead’s press agent, many years ago, got a story in the papers which went . . . “Oh, hello, you’re Norman Mailer,” said Talullah Bankhead allegedly, “You’re the young man that doesn’t know how to spell . . .” You know, the four-letter word was indicated with all sorts of asterisks and, you know, I became a sort of household joke. It was the first of my notorieties. And I regretted it. I was inflamed with Miss Bankhead for years as a result. I thought she should have hired a publicity man who had a better sense of fair play.
Thus, Mailer denied that the incident with Bankhead had taken place. “The Realist” was edited by prankster Paul Krassner, yet the transcript excerpted above apparently was genuine. It was reprinted in the 1988 academic collection “Conversations with Norman Mailer” and the editor obtained the permission of the television station and moderator. 5
In 1969 a columnist in “The Guardian” retold the colorful episode: 6
In the novel Mailer changed that four letter word to a three letter one that rhymed with tug, and became so well known for it that the outspoken actress Tallulah Bankhead, introduced to Mailer at a cocktail party, said “Oh, so you’re the young man who can’t spell . . . .”
Also, in 1969 researcher Gershon Legman published a large collection of bawdy limericks. One of the verses used the word “fug”, and Legman included a note referring to the incident which he dated to 1951: 7
Joke (1951) on Tallulah Bankhead being introduced to Norman Mailer, in whose war novel, The Naked and the Dead, “fug” is the euphemism-of-choice: “Mailer? Mailer? Oh yes, dahling—you’re the boy that can’t spell fuck!”
In 1980 Denis Brian published “Tallulah, Darling: A Biography of Tallulah Bankhead”. He researched the famous anecdote by contacting Mailer who denied it. Brian did not mention testimony from Bankhead who had died in 1968, more than a decade before his work was published: 8
I tracked down and demolished one apocryphal tale. She did not say to Norman Mailer after he published The Naked and the Dead, which, in those more evasive days, was full of “fug” and “fuggin”: “Are you the young man who can’t spell fuck?” When they met, says Mailer, they merely smiled and said hello.
In 1983 Bruce Pollock published “When the Music Mattered: Rock in the 1960’s” which included a section about Tuli Kupferberg who cofounded the rock band “The Fugs”. Kupferberg claimed that he selected the band name. He also tentatively and incorrectly assigned the punchline under examination to Dorothy Parker: 9
Tuli claims authorship of the controversial name. “It was from Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said when she first met Mailer, ‘Oh, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.'”
In 1993 Paul Krassner published “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture”. Krassner recounted a meeting with Mailer from before 1961 during which Mailer asserted that he replied to Bankhead with a zinger: 10
At our first encounter in Lyle Stuart’s office, I asked Mailer if it was true that when he met actress Tallulah Bankhead she had said, “So you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.” With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he had replied, “Yes, and you’re the young woman who doesn’t know how to.” I saw Mailer again in 1961 at City Hall Park.
It is possible that the testimony of Krassner, the satirist, was unreliable. It is also possible that Mailer made the remark, but he was joking.
In 1995 lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower published “The F-Word” which contained an introduction by author Roy Blount Jr. A book reviewer in “The Boston Globe” was intrigued to the anecdote retold by Blount: 11
In his F-word-dotted introduction to “The F-Word,” humorist Roy Blount Jr. notes that when Mailer was first introduced to the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker she exclaimed: “So this is the young man who can’t spell . . .”
In conclusion, Norman Mailer’s book containing “fug” appeared in 1948. The earliest evidence of the anecdote occurred in 1950. Tallulah Bankhead reportedly spoke the comical line when introduced to Mailer. QI is uncertain whether this tale is apocryphal. Mailer denied it during a television show in 1968. Yet, he may have stated that the tale was genuine while conversing with Paul Krassner. The attribution to Dorothy Parker is spurious.
Image Notes: Illustration of letter blocks used in typesetting from Free-Photos at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Luther Mckinnon whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to researcher Nigel Rees and the volunteer editors of Wikipedia and Wikiquote.)
- 1950 April 26, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Edith Gwynn’s Hollywood by Edith Gwynn, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965 August 20, The Guardian, Men with a standing quarrel by M. G. McNay (Book Review of “Letters from Bohemia” by Ben Hecht), Quote Page 7, Column 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1967 April 6, The Morning News, Books in the News: Scuba diving in Jamaica by Harry F. Themal, (Book Review of “Go To the Widow-Maker” by James Jones), Quote Page 13, Column 1, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968 October, The Realist, Issue Number 83, Edited by Paul Krassner, Article: Mailer, McLuhan and Muggeridge: On Obscenity, (“The Realist” contained the following editor’s note: Following is the transcript of a program entitled “The Way It Is” which was broadcast recently over station CBLT-TV in Toronto. The panel consisted of Norman Mailer, Marshall McLuhan and Malcolm Muggeridge. The moderator was critic Bob Fulford), Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, New York, New York. (The Realist Archive Project at ep.tc) link ↩
- 1988, Conversations with Norman Mailer by Norman Mailer, Edited by J. Michael Lennon, Chapter: Mailer, McLuhan and Muggeridge: On Obscenity, (Transcript published in “The Realist” of October 1968 on pages 5 to 12; note in book says that the article was reprinted with the permission of CBLT-TV, Toronto, Robert Fulford, and Corinne McLuhan), Start Page 116, Quote Page 117, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1969 July 10, The Guardian, Television: Norman Mailer by Stanley Reynolds, Quote Page 10, Column 5, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1969, The Limerick: 1700 Examples, with Notes, Variants, and Index, Edited by G. Legman (Gershon Legman), Section: Notes & Variants, (Note for limerick number 1708 which contains the word “fug”), Quote Page 467, Bell Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1980, Tallulah, Darling: A Biography of Tallulah Bankhead by Denis Brian, Chapter 2: Darling Tallulah, Quote Page 18, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1983, When the Music Mattered: Rock in the 1960’s by Bruce Pollock, Chapter 6: Dope, Sex, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Quote Page 186, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1993, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture by Paul Krassner, Chapter 4: Queen Jeanne, Quote Page 83, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1995 November 29, The Boston Globe, Don’t Buy This Book for Your Mom (Continuation title: Turning a 4-letter word into 232 pages) by William A. Davis (Globe Staff), Start Page 37, Quote Page 42, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩