Oh—You’re the Man Who Can’t Spell

Dorothy Parker? Tallulah Bankhead? Edith Gwynn? Roy Blount Jr.? 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:[ref] 1950 April 26, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Edith Gwynn’s Hollywood by Edith Gwynn, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

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!”

The citation above indicated that the episode did occur; however, Norman Mailer strongly denied the tale in a private letter he wrote in 1954:[ref] 2014, The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, Edited by J. Michael Lennon, Letter Number 130, Letter To: Basil Mailer, Letter Date: November 17, 1954, Start Page 181, Quote Page 182, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

It’s not true. I never met her. But I hear the story everywhere. Probably her press agent put it out. In irritation (because the story has me by implication shifting my feet and blushing to the ears) I spread a counter rumor. The new legend (all mine) has it that I retorted, “Yes, and you’re the young lady who doesn’t know how to.”

Thanks to linguist Jesse Sheidlower, author of “The F-Word”, who told QI about Mailer’s 1954 missive.

The recipient of the letter was Basil Mailer who was the son of Norman Mailer’s uncle. The letter appeared in the 2014  collection “The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer”.

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.

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:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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”:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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”:[ref] 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 [/ref]

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 publicly 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.[ref] 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) [/ref]

In 1969 a columnist in “The Guardian” retold the colorful episode:[ref] 1969 July 10, The Guardian, Television: Norman Mailer by Stanley Reynolds, Quote Page 10, Column 5, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

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:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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:[ref] 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 [/ref]

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:[ref] 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 [/ref]

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:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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.

The passage above supports Mailer’s assertion within his 1954 letter that he attempted to propagate a fictitious counter-narrative in which he delivered a sharp rejoinder to Bankhead.

In 1995 humorist Roy Blount Jr. retold the anecdote and assigned the quip to Dorothy Parker:[ref] 1995, The F Word, Edited by Jesse Sheidlower, Foreword: Enough to Perpetuate the Race by Roy Blount Jr., Quote Page ix, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

It’s our worst word, at least of one syllable, and maybe our strongest. Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain never used it, at least in print. Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead (1948) had to render it as fug. Which led Dorothy Parker to tell the young novelist, when she met him at a party, “So you’re the man who can’t spell fuck.”

In conclusion, Norman Mailer’s book containing “fug” appeared in 1948. The earliest evidence of the anecdote occurred in a gossip column in 1950. Tallulah Bankhead reportedly spoke the comical line when she was introduced to Mailer. However, in 1954 a private letter from Mailer claimed that the encounter was fictitious. Mailer suggested that the tale was invented by a press agent. The situation remains uncertain, but QI leans toward accepting Mailer’s account. 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. Many thanks to Jesse Sheidlower who told QI about the 1954 letter in “The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer”.)

Update History: On August 8, 2022 the citation for the 1954 letter was added to the article. Also, the 1995 citation was updated, and the article was partially rewritten.

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