H. L. Mencken? Jack Dempsey? Peg Bracken? Bennett Cerf? Alexander Woollcott? Stewart Holbrook? William Safire? Apocryphal?
Dear Sir (or Madam ),
You may be right.
Would you please help me to determine the name of this columnist and locate a citation?
Quote Investigator: The earliest citation QI has found for this tale appeared in a letter dated November 23, 1942 which was sent from U.S. drama critic Alexander Woollcott to U.S jurist Felix Frankfurter. Woollcott described a tactic he had acquired from prominent journalist H. L. Mencken of Baltimore, Maryland. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1944, The Letters of Alexander Woollcott by Alexander Woollcott, Edited by Beatrice Kaufman and Joseph Hennessey, Letter to: Felix Frankfurter, Date: November 23, 1942, Location: New York City, Start Page 382, Quote Page 383, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
However, I learned from H. L. Mencken a happy formula for answering all controversial letters. He invented one which is final, courteous and can be employed without reading the letter to which it replies. He merely says: “Dear Sir (or Madam): You may be right.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. The 1964 citation further below is particularly intriguing because it provides strong support for this tale.
H. L. Mencken was the co-founder and editor of “The American Mercury”. In 1933 the journal published a piece about champion heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey by Jim Tully which revealed that the pugilist embraced a life strategy similar to the one suggested by the Mencken anecdote:[ref] 1933 August, The American Mercury, Jack Dempsey by Jim Tully, Start Page 395, Quote Page 395, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Unz) [/ref]
In conversation he never directly challenges a statement. He says, “You may be right,” or, if in some doubt, “I don’t know about that.”
He never says yes or no with emphasis. He loves laughter, gayety, noise, the blare of the band, the climax of a melodrama, the touch of women.
The 1942 letter mentioned above appeared in “The Letters of Alexander Woollcott” in 1944.
Also, in 1944 publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf authored “Try and Stop Me”, and he included a instance of the anecdote:[ref] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Chapter 3: The Literary Life, Quote Page 137, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]
Henry L. Mencken has evolved a happy formula for answering all controversial letters. He doesn’t even have to read the blast to which it replies. “Dear Sir ( or Madam ),” he types. “You may be right.”
In 1949 “Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader’s Digest Wit and Humor” included a compressed excerpt from Woollcott’s letter:[ref] 1949, Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader’s Digest Wit and Humor, Section: This Way Out, Quote Page 229, The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]
H. L. Mencken invented a happy formula for answering all controversial letters. It is final, courteous, and can be employed without reading the letter to which it replies. He merely says: “Dear Sir (or Madam): You may be right.”
— Alexander Woollcott, Letters (Viking)
In 1963 John Ciardi of “The Saturday Review” described a cablegram he had received form an irate reader together with his response:[ref] 1963 January 19, The Saturday Review, Manner of Speaking by John Ciardi, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) [/ref]
The text read: YOU, SIR, ARE A DAMNED FOOL.
I am having the cable framed to hang over my desk at SR. For my reply I borrow happily from H. L. Mencken one of his favorite form letters:
Dear Sir or Madam:
You may be right at that.
In 1964 humorist Peg Bracken published “I Try to Behave Myself: Peg Bracken’s Etiquette Book”. She described a scenario in which one’s letter to the editor of a newspaper was printed, and the voluminous response included notes from offended individuals:[ref] 1966 (Copyright 1964), I Try to Behave Myself: Peg Bracken’s Etiquette Book, Chapter 7: Dear Sir, or Madam, as the Case May Be, Quote Page 86 and 87, Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Connecticut. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
The solution to this, or to any situation in which you’re getting too much mail, some of it angry, is printed post cards. You have a gross printed as follows:
Dear Sir or Madam,
You may be right at that.
(Whatever your name is)
In the following footnote Bracken explained the source of the post card text. Interestingly, as shown above, the message was slightly longer than the version given by Woollcott and Cerf:
Stewart Holbrook, the well-known historian, uses these cards and told me their origin. In the early 1930’s, when H. L. Mencken was editing The American Mercury, Mr. Holbrook was in Mencken’s office, telling him and George Jean Nathan about some of the insulting mail he’d been getting, and that it bothered him. Mencken frowned and said, “Got a pencil? Now take this down. Be sure you get it right or don’t use it at all.” Stewart Holbrook got it right and has used it ever since.
In 1989 “Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice” compiled by William Safire and Leonard Safir contained this entry:[ref] 1989, Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice, Compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, Topic: Letters, Quote Page 218, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]
A formula for answering controversial letters (without even reading the letters):
Dear Sir (or Madame):
You may be right.
—H. L. Mencken
(quoted by Alexander Woollcott in a letter to Felix Frankfurter)
In conclusion, QI believes that this anecdote is credible although the testimony was not directly from H. L. Mencken who died in 1956. The tale was circulating while he was alive, and I have not seen any evidence that he challenged the story. There are two versions of the message: “You may be right” and “You may be right at that”. QI is uncertain which is correct.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a hand writing a message from a 1912 edition of “The Book of Knowledge” published by The Grolier Society. Image has been resized.
(Great thanks to the H. L. Mencken fan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)