This Is the Only Place Where I Can Avoid Seeing the Damned Thing

Speaker: William Morris? Guy de Maupassant? Alexander Hadden? Elliot Paul? Gillian Widdicombe? Adlai Stevenson? Anonymous?

Landmark: Eiffel Tower? National Theatre in London? Palace of Culture in Warsaw? Empire State Building?

Dear Quote Investigator: Cultural critics have lamented that some massive structures dominating city skylines are unsightly, e.g., the Eiffel Tower, the National Theatre in London, and the Palace of Culture in Warsaw.

A popular anecdote states that a well-known literary figure frequently visited one of these ugly monuments. An acquaintance who found the luminary gazing out across the metropolis from the observation deck of the landmark inquired about motivation:

“As a regular visitor to this site, do you find this structure beautiful?”
“Of course not! This is the only place in the city where I can look out and avoid seeing this hideous thing.”

Would you please explore this acerbic tale?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1914 report from the Manchester Literary Club of England. The brief note described a meeting of the club during which a member named Alexander Hadden presented a paper about the city of Paris. The following passage about prominent writer and activist William Morris included a punchline that was spoiled by a typo. The word “can” was supposed to be “can’t”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1914, Report and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary Club for the Session 1913-14 with Rules and List of Members, Article Date: January 12, 1914, Comment on article titled: Paris by Alex. Hadden, Quote Page 434, Sherratt and Hughes, Manchester, England. (HathiTrust) link [/ref]

Incidentally it was mentioned that William Morris was a frequent visitor to Paris, and when there his friends noticed that he spent a considerable part of his time high upon the Eiffel Tower. When asked the reason for this he replied, “That is the only place where you can see the damned thing.”

Morris died in 1896, so the citation above provides imperfect evidence. Nevertheless, Morris is the leading candidate for crafter of this quip. This anecdote has been difficult to trace because of its multiplicity of embodiments.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The story about the Eiffel Tower was reassigned to prominent French short story author Guy de Maupassant by 1975, but he died many years earlier in 1893. Thus, this evidence was not substantive.

Maupassant did empathically express hostility toward the enormous wrought iron structure, and this may have led someone to substitute his name into the anecdote. For example, in 1893 Maupassant penned the following passage in his travel book “La Vie Errante” (“The Wandering Life”):[ref] 1890, La Vie Errante par Guy de Maupassant, Treizième édition (Thirteenth edition), Chapter 1: Lassitude, Quote Page 1, Paul Ollendorff, Éditeur, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

J’ai quitté Paris et même la France, parce que la tour Eiffel finissait par m’ennuyer trop. Non seulement on la voyait de partout, mais on la trouvait partout, faite de toutes les matières connues exposée à toutes les vitres, cauchemar inévitable et torturant.

The text above may be translated as follows:[ref] 1903, Works of Guy de Maupassant, Au Soleil or African Wanderings; La Vie Errante or In Vagabondia, Volume 12, La Vie Errante, Chapter 1: Weariness, Quote Page 3, St. Dunstan Society, Akron, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I left Paris and France also, because, for one thing, I was weary to death of the Eiffel Tower. Not only could I see it from every direction, but I found it everywhere, copied in all kinds of known materials, exhibited in every show-window, a perpetual racking nightmare.

In 1914 a member of the Manchester Literary Club attributed the comical remark about the Eiffel Tower to William Morris as noted previously in this article.

In June 1921 “The Manchester Guardian” of England printed a lengthy version of the tale starring William Morris:[ref] 1921 June 6, The Manchester Guardian, Miscellany, Quote Page 5, Column 3 and 4, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

An ardent disciple inquired whether the awful rumour were true that when he was in Paris “the Master” spent most of his time at the Eiffel Tower. “Yes,” said Morris, “quite true. I have my meals there, I write my letters there. I see visitors there, and I’d sleep there if there were any beds.”

“Ah,” said the disciple, anxious to be on the right side, “I suppose you are so impressed by that feat of engineering skill, its balance, its poise, its soaring aloft to the ethereal blue, its cloud-capped summit,” and much more of the same kind of thing, which Morris allowed to run on till it ran dry. Then he turned on the disciple with a grim gaze and a savage thump on the table. “No, sir,” said Morris, “no such rot. When I’m in Paris I go to the Eiffel Tower because it’s only when I’m there that I can’t see the damned thing.”

A few days later a similar version of the Morris anecdote appeared in the “Dundee Evening Telegraph” of Dundee, Scotland.[ref] 1921 June 9, Dundee Evening Telegraph, Story of Wm. Morris, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Dundee, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

In December 1923 architect Gustave Eiffel died, and “The Nottingham Evening Post” of England published a piece about his celebrated eponymous tower. An instance of the Morris tale was included:[ref] 1923 December 29, The Nottingham Evening Post, The Lighter Side: The Eiffel Tower, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Nottinghamshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

One of the most bitter things said of it was by William Morris. He used to have his meals in the Eiffel Tower restaurant, and regretted he couldn’t work and sleep there.

“Impressed with the tower?” inquired a startled friend. “Impressed!” said Morris. “No such rot. I go there when I’m in Paris because it’s only when I’m there that I can’t see the damned thing!”

In the same month the tale reappeared in “The Manchester Guardian”:[ref] 1923 December 31, The Manchester Guardian, Morris’s “Blind Spot”, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

William Morris was once in a company of artists who were heartily abusing the Eiffel Tower. To their surprise, Morris asserted that he never failed to climb the tower when in Paris. Asked indignantly for an explanation, Morris replied to this effect:

“When you are on top you are on the only spot in Paris where you can’t see the damned thing.”

The tale continued to circulate in 1941 when Max Herzberg’s book “Insults: A Practical Anthology of Scathing Remarks and Acid Portraits” printed this entry:[ref] 1941 Copyright, Insults: A Practical Anthology of Scathing Remarks and Acid Portraits, Edited by Max Herzberg, Chapter 19: Mixed Grill, Quote Page 221, The Greystone Press, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust Full View) [/ref]

When the English poet, Utopian, and arts and crafts pioneer, William Morris, was in Paris, he usually spent most of his time in the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, eating and doing his work there. “You must like the Tower very much,” someone commented. “Like it!” said Morris. “I stay there because it is the only place in Paris where I can avoid seeing the damned thing!”

In 1944 publisher and anecdote gatherer Bennett Cerf published the compilation “Try and Stop Me”. Curiously, Cerf presented a new version of the yarn with Morris replaced by journalist and author Elliot Paul:[ref] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Chapter 3: The Literary Life, Quote Page 116, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Before the war, Elliot Paul maintained an apartment in Paris. One day his friends learned that he had rented desk space in the restaurant on the first landing stage of the Eiffel Tower. An incredulous reporter from the Paris Herald found him there, typing away contentedly on a story. “Well,” said the reporter, “you certainly must be attached to the Eiffel Tower!” “Attached to it!” snorted Paul. “This is the only place in Paris where I can avoid seeing the damn thing!”

In 1945 “Modern Humor for Effective Speaking” by Edward Frank Allen printed an instance with the following dialog containing the minced oath “blasted” instead of “damned”:[ref] 1945, Modern Humor for Effective Speaking by Edward Frank Allen, Section 8: Climate and Places, Entry Number 758, Quote Page 140 and 141, Dover Publications, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

“You must be very much impressed by the Tower.”
“Impressed nothing!” exclaimed Morris. “I spend my time here because it’s the only place in Paris where I can avoid seeing the blasted thing.”

In 1958 U.S. politician Adlai Stevenson wrote a newspaper piece discussing Poland that included an instance of the tale based on a different landmark:[ref] 1958 October 1, The Scranton Times, Divided Red Satellites Provide Major Problem for Soviet Leaders at Kremlin by Adlai E. Stevenson (North American Newspaper Alliance), Start Page 1, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Political anecdotes are rife, like the one about the monstrous Palace of Culture that Stalin built in the middle of Warsaw: The best view of Warsaw, they say, is the one from the Palace, because it is the only place in Warsaw from which you can’t see the Palace. As we drove past it one time an amused official murmured to me: “Small but in good taste, don’t you think?”

In 1967 “The Modern Handbook of Humor” compiled by Ralph L. Woods published an instance based on a building in New York:[ref] 1967, The Modern Handbook of Humor, compiled by Ralph L. Woods (Ralph Louis Woods), Section: From the Cities, Sub-Section: Manhattan Madness, Quote Page 388, Column 1, The McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

“If you don’t like the Empire State Building, why have you got your office in it?”
“It’s the only way I can avoid seeing the damned thing,” said the tenant.

In 1975 the “Los Angeles Times” of California printed a version referring to Guy de Maupassant instead of William Morris:[ref] 1975 April 25, Los Angeles Times, Section 4: View, The Book Report: A Tower Called Eyesore by Some by Robert Kirsch (Times Book Critic), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

. . . Guy de Maupassant. The latter remained the most consistent enemy of “this tall, skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton . . .” It was said that he frequently dined in the restaurant of the tower because from there he could not see it in its entirety.

In 1980 the Associated Press published an instanced referring to Maupassant:[ref] 1980 January 1, Democrat and Chronicle, Eiffel now people’s tower; New Year gift to Parisians (Associated Press), Quote Page 8A, Column 2, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Author Guy de Maupassant, it was said, so hated the tower that he preferred to dine in the restaurant on its upper level because from there he could not see “this giant and disgraceful skeleton.”

In 1982 “The Observer” of London published a piece by arts journalist Gillian Widdicombe who shared a quip about the National Theatre:[ref] 1982 February 28, The Observer, Section: Observer Review, What’s on at the Barbican by Gillian Widdicombe, Quote Page 25, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

. . . the bon mot that the best view of London is from the National Theatre, because from there you can’t see the National Theatre.

In conclusion, this family of humorous stories and quips began to circulate by 1914. The initial incarnation credited William Morris with a remark about the Eiffel Tower. Many years later Elliot Paul and Guy de Maupassant received credit for the same comment about the Eiffel Tower. A comparable joke about the Palace of Culture in Warsaw with an anonymous attribution was circulating by 1958, and a similar jest about the National Theatre in London was circulating by 1982.

Image Notes: Painting of the “Seine and Eiffel Tower in the Sunset” by Henri Rousseau circa 1910.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Nigel Rees who deftly explored this topic in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” (2001) and his July 2020 newsletter. Rees presented a 1939 citation referring to William Morris and the Eiffel Tower; a 1959 citation referring to the Palace of Culture in Warsaw; a 1979 citation referring to Guy de Maupassant; and a 1985 citation referring to National Theatre in London.)

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