Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Marie Corelli? Jane Burr? Rose Guggenheim Winslow? Nancy Hale? Ruth Hanna McCormick? Walter Winchell? Ethel Barrymore? Grace Hodgson Flandrau?
Dear Quote Investigator: A U.S. politician running for president was once described as a “little man on a wedding cake” and a “bridegroom on the wedding cake”. This ridicule harmed his campaign, and he lost the race. The remark has been attributed Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, although on several occasions she denied authorship. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Alice Roosevelt Longworth did use this expression when describing presidential aspirant Thomas Dewey in July 1944, but she was not the first. The phrase “little bridegroom on every wedding cake” was intended as a compliment when it was applied to Dewey in June 1944. This vivid saying can be traced backwards at least a few more decades. It has been used with both positive and negative connotations.
In 1904 the novel “God’s Good Man: A Simple Love Story” by Marie Corelli employed a wedding-cake-topper simile positively to portray a new wife: 1
“But ’ere was we all a-thinkin’ she’d be a ’igh an’ mighty fashion-plate, and she ain’t nothin’ of the sort, onny jest like a little sugar figure on a weddin’-cake wot looks sweet at ye and smiles pleasant…”
In 1908 a serialized work in a Washington D.C. newspaper titled “Letters From a New Congressman’s Wife” described a party during which a connubial couple waited stiffly for the arrival of a dignitary. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2
Of course, it was rather strained while the Secretary and his plump little wife stood up like the bride and groom figures on a wedding cake, waiting for the great guest of honor to arrive . . .
In 1921 Jane Burr published the novel “The Passionate Spectator”. According to the “Handbook of Pseudonyms and Personal Nicknames” Jane Burr was a pseudonym for Rose Guggenheim Winslow. 3 The book wielded the phrase to disparage a fictional character: 4
Dr. Leighton was little and homely, with a voice like a ’cello. In his prim black clothes he reminded me of a candy groom on a wedding cake.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1942 “The Prodigal Women” by Nancy Hale included the saying. Hale was a popular writer whose stories had appeared in “The New Yorker” magazine and other periodicals. The phrase was clearly complimentary because it was combined with the adjective dapper: 5
An undersized brown hand was laid on the edge of the backgammon table, and they both looked up, startled. A small man stood smiling down. He was dapper, like a little bridegroom on a wedding cake. He wore glasses attached to a black ribbon that hung slantwise across his starched white shirt.
In June 1944 the expression was applied to politician Thomas Dewey in “The Baltimore Sun”. The phrase was intended to be flattering, but the journalist introduced a satirical edge: 6
Among the party dignitaries gathered to greet him at the airport was Arizona’s national committeewoman, Mrs. Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms, who enthusiastically called Dewey “the little bridegroom on every wedding cake.” He wore, however, none of the formal toggery associated with such sugary figurines. His garb instead was a neat gray business suit, white shirt and dark red tie.
On July 2, 1944 a journalist in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri reported that a woman used the expression to praise Dewey, but her companion warned her not to use the description: 7
Out in the hall an energetic woman with two Dewey badges and an elephant on her chest was twittering to a man: “I just say to people that he’s so smart to be so cute and doesn’t he look just like the bridegroom on a wedding cake? I didn’t think that up myself, of course. Somebody in the lobby was saying it last night and—what?”
The man was looking grim and shaking his head. “I do not think I would repeat that if I were you, Helen. No.”
On July 10, 1944 “Time” magazine reported that Alice Roosevelt Longworth was helping to popularize the saying during the Republican convention. The periodical implied that Longworth did not coin the phrase, but she was disseminating it with negative connotations: 8
Alice Longworth, the knife-tongued wit of the Old Guard gave currency to the mot of the Convention: “How can you vote for a man who looks like the bridegroom on a wedding cake?”
On July 31, 1944 powerful syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell asserted that the expression had been employed in 1940 by “Paul Revere II”. That was a Winchell pseudonym: 9
Mrs. Nicholas Longworth is widely credited with: “I’m not voting for anyone who looks like the bridegroom on a wedding cake!” . . . Paul Revere II wrote that in 1940.
In 1946 popular syndicated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper credited the remark to Longworth: 10
But then, Alice can be mighty naughty at times. She did Tom Dewey a great deal of harm when she called him “the little man on the wedding cake.”
Interestingly, in 1947 Hedda Hopper changed the attribution from Longworth to Ethel Barrymore: 11
While Alice got credit for the crack about Thomas Dewey looking like the little man on the wedding cake, it was actually Ethel Barrymore who said it. But Alice gave it national circulation.
In 1951 Walter Winchell again claimed credit for crafting the derisive saying. The ellipsis is in the original newspaper text: 12
In Saturday’s Daily News, Columnist Ruth Montgomery again credits Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth with the famed crack describing Presidential Candidate Governor Dewey as “the little man on the wedding cake” . . . We are tired of seeing that one credited to Alice and the other characters in her Wonderland. It originated here.
In 1955 columnist Leonard Lyons published a disclaimer from Longworth in which she credited Ethel Barrymore for the remark: 13
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was credited with the crack about Dewey, in the ’44 campaign: “He looks like the bridegroom on the wedding cake.” “Ethel Barrymore said it first,” Mrs. Longworth concedes, “and I, fortunately, have been getting the credit”
In 1960, Longworth at age 76 was interviewed by the newspaper columnist Inez Robb. She again denied creating the wedding cake wisecrack about Dewey and instead attributed it to Ethel Barrymore: 14
I asked her if she had any sharp bon mots up her sleeves, comparable to the famous comparison of Thomas E. Dewey, when a presidential candidate, to the man on the wedding cake.
“You know, I never said that,” Mrs. Longworth said, with an impish smile. “It was really Ethel Barrymore who said that. But somehow I got the credit. About a year after it had been in circulation, I saw Ethel and she asked me what I was doing with her story!
“It really was Ethel’s bon mot and not mine, but no matter how much I disclaim it, I still get the credit.”
In 1968 Walter Winchell returned to the topic and stated that he applied the remark to Dewey in the newspaper “P.M”. QI has not yet been able to access “P.M” to verify this claim: 15
Alice Longworth and many others were credited with its coinage. “Dewey, the Little Man On The Wedding Cake” was auth’d by “Paul Revere, II,” in P. M., a New York pro-Democrat newspaper. . .Mr. Paul Revere, II, was not the name-de-ploom of Harold Ickes, but of WW, then under contract to the N.Y. Mirror, which was pro-Dewey. (Catch on?)
In 1972 journalist William Safire published the second edition of “The New Language of Politics”. Safire contacted Longworth to learn more about the saying, and Longworth credited her friend Grace Hodgson Flandrau: 16
“Thanks for your letter. I did not coin the phrase ‘little man on the wedding cake’. The first time I heard it Mrs. Flandrau remarked ‘Dewey looks like the bridegroom on the wedding cake.’ I thought it frightfully funny and quoted it to everyone. Then it began to be attributed to me. To everyone who asked if I originated it, I said no and told just what I have written here, though I did admit that ‘I gave it currency.’”
In conclusion, this type of comparison was circulating by the early 1900s. In June 1944 the remark was applied in a complimentary manner to Thomas Dewey by Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth popularized the saying with a negative slant in 1944; however, by 1947 she was disclaiming credit and attributing the remark to Ethel Barrymore. In 1972 Longworth credited Grace Hodgson Flandrau. In July 1944 Walter Winchell stated that he applied the saying to Dewey in 1940.
(Thanks to previous researchers Ralph Keyes, Fred R. Shapiro, and Nigel Rees. Special thanks to Victor Steinbok who located the 1921 citation and other helpful citations. Also, thanks to Pete Morris who located the 1904 citation, and thanks to David Daniel for notifying QI about a typo.)
Update History: On August 18, 2021 the 1904 citation was added.
- 1904, God’s Good Man: A Simple Love Story By Marie Corelli, Chapter 10, Quote Page 172, Methuen & Company, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908 February 16, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: Sunday Magazine, Letters From a New Congressman’s Wife (Continuation title: Congressman’s Wife), Start Page 9, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1972, Handbook of Pseudonyms and Personal Nicknames, Compiled by Harold S. Sharp, Volume 1: A to J, Quote Page 524, The Scarecrow Press Inc., Metuchen, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1921, The Passionate Spectator by Jane Burr, Chapter 11, Quote Page 89, Thomas Seltzer, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1942, The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, Chapter 49, Quote Page 406, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1944 June 29, The Baltimore Sun, Dewey Hailed Upon Arrival by Paul W. Ward, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1944 July 2, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, G.O.P. Campaign To Be Handled by Smooth Trio by Jean Lightfoot Coghlan (Post-Dispatch Staff), Quote Page 4B, Column 1, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1944 July 10, Time magazine, U.S. At War: The Man They Loved, Time Inc., New York. (Time online archive at time.com; Accessed December 18, 2010) ↩
- 1944 July 31, Chillicothe Gazette, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Chillicothe, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1946 June 6, Los Angeles Times, Looking at Hollywood by Hedda Hopper, Quote Page A3, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1947 November 6, Chicago Daily Tribune, Looking at Hollywood by Hedda Hopper, Quote Page 35, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1951 May 22, Washington Post, Walter Winchell: In New York, Quote Page B13, Column 2, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1955 March 5, Long Beach Independent, The Lyons Den: First Lady by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1960 July 27, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Conventions Great Fun For Alice by Inez Robb, Quote Page 4A, Column 2, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1968 August 22, Martinsville Daily Reporter, WW by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Martinsville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1972, The New Language of Politics by William Safire, Second Edition, Topic: Man On the Wedding Cake, Quote Page 373, Collier Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩