Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Bettina Borrmann Wells? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and the wife of politician Nicholas Longworth III. For decades she was a well-known socialite in Washington D.C. who experienced praise and condemnation for her sharp wit which was sometimes caustic. Calvin Coolidge who became the U.S. President in 1923 occasionally displayed a sour disposition. Longworth apparently told a journalist:
Coolidge was weaned on a pickle.
Did she actually say this? Did she originate this insult?
Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Longworth did make a remark of this type in 1924; however, she disclaimed its creation in her 1933 autobiography. In addition, the core of the insult was circulating by the 1860s. See details provided below via selected citations in chronological order.
In 1864 comedian William B. Brown booked a venue in Montpelier, Vermont. The local newspaper published effusive praise for his forthcoming performance and guaranteed that even dejected individuals would enjoy the levity. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
. . . Mr. Brown has taken the largest Hall in Montpelier, it will undoubtedly be crowded with as happy a congregation of mortals as ever assembled within its walls, for if any man can make a poor, miserable, dyspeptic, weaned-on-a-pickle curmudgeon laugh till his sides ache, Brown is the man.
In 1908 a New York newspaper printed an article about suffragist Bettina Borrmann Wells who posited that many women should work outside of their homes for a salary. She employed exaggeration when expressing her belief that some mothers did not know how to properly care for their babies: 2
You know very well that if the $8 a week mother remains at home she weans the baby on dill pickles and beer. Far better for her to continue her work and for the child to spend eight hours in a State nursery, where competent nurses would give it proper food and attention.
In June 1924 “The San Francisco Examiner” in California indicated that the phrase of derision was already being applied to Calvin Coolidge. Yet, the paper did not link Longworth to the insult: 3
Marion L. Burton was president of Smith College years ago, and Smith College is in Northampton, where Calvin Coolidge was also a citizen. Burton knows the President. He admires him. To him Coolidge is not the cold figure “weaned on a pickle,” nor is he the man who is silent because he lacks positive opinions.
On August 13, 1924 a newspaper in Buffalo, New York printed information from a journalist who was formerly based in the city. He heard Longworth apply the phrase to Coolidge. The paper did not directly name Longworth; instead, she was identified via an unmistakable description: 4
Among the famous women was the wife of one famous politician and the daughter of another, distinguished herself for tartness of tongue. To this woman, according to one of his stories, was addressed the question “What do you think of Coolidge?” This was the answer. “Coolidge! Oh, he’s all right. The only trouble with Coolidge is that he was weaned on a pickle.”
On August 21, 1924 a newspaper in Nebraska ascribed a second version of the quotation to Longworth: 5
Raymond Lonergan, that prince of Washington newspaper writers, gives an illustration of the Teddy-like speech of Mrs. Longworth. He says some one recently asked her what she thought of Coolidge, to which she replied: “There is nothing wrong with Coolidge, except he was weaned on a pickle.”
On August 22, 1924 a newspaper in Kansas ascribed a third version of the quotation to Longworth: 6
Mrs. Alice Longworth, daughter of the redoubtable “Teddy” Roosevelt, is reported as showing a good bit of the spirit of her father in the terse manner in which she describes persons, places and things. For instance: She was asked what she thought of President Coolidge. “He is a very nice fellow,” she replied, “only he was weaned on a pickle.”
On September 9, 1924 a newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota printed a variant with “dill pickle”: 7
Asked for her estimate of the president, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wife of the republican floor leader of the lower house, exclaimed “The trouble with Coolidge is, he was weaned on a dill pickle.”
In 1928 a newspaper in Decatur, Illinois printed a variant with a “sour pickle”: 8
If it is true, as Mrs. Alice Longworth says, and many are prepared to believe, that Calvin Coolidge was weaned on a sour pickle, whatever do you suppose the D. A. R. chairman of blacklists was weaned on?
In 1933 Longworth released her autobiography, and a reviewer noted that she disclaimed credit for the pickle remark: 9
She tells how certain rumors concerning her gained credence and explains many of them away. For instance, she went to her dentist one day and he told her what the previous patient had said of Coolidge–how he looked as if he had been weaned on a pickle. She repeated the story later, with much glee, always prefacing it by mentioning its origin; but it was attributed to her, and she could not escape the consequences.
In 1981 Michael Teague published “Mrs. L.: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth”, and he also stated that Longworth disclaimed credit: 10
She never repeated any of her witticisms, even though countless others did. And she took delight in attributing some of her more famous epigrams to others. She had merely given them credence, she maintained. For instance, she claimed the quip about President Coolidge looking “as if he had been weaned on a pickle” was actually said by her dentist …
In conclusion, Alice Roosevelt Longworth did employ this expression by 1924, but she did not craft it. She heard if from her dentist who relayed it from another unnamed patient. The phrased “weaned on a pickle” was in use by the 1860s to refer to grouchy individuals. The identity of the person who first applied the phrase to Coolidge remains unknown.
Image Notes: Picture of pickles together with other ingredients of a sandwich from RitaE at Pixabay. Image has been resized, retouched, and cropped.
(Thanks to previous researchers including Barry Popik, Ralph Keyes, Nigel Rees, and Fred Shapiro who located valuable citations.)
- 1864 March 7, Walton’s Daily Journal, That Comical Brown, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Montpelier, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1908 July 25, The Evening World, Any Wife Should Work for a Salary Who Can Better Her Home and Her Children by Doing So, Says Mrs. Borman Wells by Nixola Greeley-Smith, Quote Page 3, Column 2, New York, New York. (Chronicling America) link ↩
- 1924 June 13, The San Francisco Examiner Coolidge Nomination Declared Unanimous by Norman Hapgood (Editor of “Hearst’s International Magazine”) (Continuation title: Coolidge Named in Stampede), Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 5, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1924 August 13, The Buffalo Enquirer, Sparing a Lady, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1924 August 21, The Columbus Daily Telegram, Truth and Other Things, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Columbus, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1924 August 22, Kansas Trades Unionist, Weaned On a Pickle, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1924 September 9, Minneapolis Daily Star, Mrs. Longworth Slighted, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1928 April 19, Decatur Herald, Editorials, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 November 18, The San Francisco Examiner, A Number of Things by Charles Hanson Towne, Quote Page 15, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1981, Mrs. L.: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Michael Teague, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page xiv and xv, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩