George Bernard Shaw? Blanche Patch? Archibald Henderson? Bennett Cerf? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?
Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in 1899 within the London journal “The Garden” which published a short item crediting Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw with the joke. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1899 May 20, The Garden: Illustrated Weekly Journal of Horticulture in All Its Branches, Volume 55, Number 1435, The New Style, Quote Page 358, Column 1, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Mr. G. Bernard Shaw on flowers is—well, he is Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, just as he is on the drama and things generally. As thus: “A well-balanced mind has no favourites. People who have a favourite flower generally cut off its head and stick it into a button-hole or a vase. I wonder they do not do the same to their favourite children. It is a crime to pluck a flower. I dislike formal gardens. At any given moment two thirds of its blossoms are dead.
The journal did not specify the source of this tale. Shaw received credit for variations of this quip in later years.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1906 the “Boston Evening Transcript” of Massachusetts printed a short piece which also credited Shaw. The word “game” in the following passage referred to the meat of wild animals. Shaw was a vegetarian:[ref] 1906 February 5, Boston Evening Transcript, Mr. Shaw’s Rejoinders, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
Someone once offered to send Mr. G. B. Shaw a box of game; but he replied that he would rather die than live at the price of bloodshed. So the anxious donor offered flowers. “Surely, you must be fond of flowers, Mr. Shaw?” “So I am of children,” he replied, “but I don’t cut off their heads, and stick them in pots about the room.”
The Boston newspaper stated that the tale was: “From the World and His Wife”. WorldCat indicates that “The World and His Wife” was a monthly magazine published in London between 1904 and 1910. The colloquial phrase “the world and his wife” means “a large group of people”. During subsequent weeks and months the story appeared in numerous newspapers including “The Chicago Daily Tribune” of Illinois[ref] 1906 February 21, The Chicago Daily Tribune, Personal, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and the “Los Angeles Express” of California.[ref] 1906 February 26, Los Angeles Express, Items Gathered from Afar, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. Newspapers_com) [/ref]
In 1927 Archibald Henderson published a multi-part profile of George Bernard Shaw in “The Winnipeg Evening Tribune” of Manitoba, Canada. The seventh part contained the following anecdote:[ref] 1927 February 12, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, “My Friend Bernard Shaw” by Archibald Henderson, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
On one occasion a friend who noticed that Shaw never had any cut flowers at his house twitted him with not being fond of beautiful flowers. “I am fond of flowers,” retorted Shaw. “I am also fond of children, but I don’t cut off their heads and stick them in pots about the house.”
Henderson’s profile of Shaw appeared in several other newspapers including “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut[ref] 1927 February 13, The Hartford Courant, Shaw Raps Education of Children (Shaw Profile Part 7) by Archibald Henderson, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and the “San Francisco Examiner” of California.[ref] 1927 February 20, San Francisco Examiner, Section: March of Events, U.S. Would Be Better Off With Women Presidents—Shaw (Shaw Profile Part 7) by Archibald Henderson, Quote Page 4K, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
In 1944 the publisher and raconteur Bennett Cerf shared the anecdote with readers of his long-running column “Trade Winds” in “The Saturday Review of Literature”. This version was sent to Cerf by a correspondent who cited another periodical:[ref] 1944 November 25, The Saturday Review of Literature, Volume 27, Number 48, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 16, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) [/ref]
In your recent collection of anecdotes about Mr. Shaw, you overlooked a good one that was just reprinted in the Pulpit Digest. A distinguished writer visited Shaw and expressed surprise that there wasn’t a single vase of flowers in evidence in his Whitehall apartment.
“I thought you were so fond of flowers,” he remarked. “I am,” returned Shaw abruptly. “I’m very fond of children too. But I don’t cut off their heads and stick them in pots about the house!”
In 1945 powerful columnist Walter Winchell printed an instance:[ref] 1945 July 06, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Walter Winchell (syndicated column), Quote Page 18, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
No scrapbook of literary gems would be complete without a G. B. Shaw story … A writer once visited Shaw and expressed surprise that there wasn’t a single vase of flowers in his apartment. “I thought you were fond of flowers,” he remarked . . . Shaw’s abrupt response: “I am fond of flowers. I am also fond of children. But I don’t cut off their heads and stick them in pots around the house!”
In 1951 Blanche Patch who was the long-time secretary of Shaw published “Thirty Years with G. B. S.”. Patch presented the anecdote together with a fascinating supplementary tale from Shaw about his mother:[ref] 1951, Thirty Years with G. B. S by Blanche Patch, Chapter 15: Himself, Quote Page 246, Victor Gollancz, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
The garden was quite an ordinary one; for Shaw, as I have said, was not interested in flowers. He could never remember their names. He disliked cut flowers. One day a caller remarked that there were none in his room.
“I’m very fond of children,” said G.B.S., “but I don’t cut off their heads and stick them in pots around the house.”
He told me that this dislike of his probably arose out of an incident but for which he might never have been born. When his mother was being wooed by his father, there was a rival suitor whom she noticed, as he left the house one day, swishing off the heads of flowers with his cane. Somehow, it made her think of children’s heads, so she decided that she could not marry the fellow. We owe George Bernard Shaw and his fifty plays to that woman’s fancy of a moment.
In 1956 Archibald Henderson published “George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century”. Henderson discussed Shaw’s mother, and he presented a version of the anecdote that differed from his 1927 version. The punchline referred to “babies” instead of “children”:[ref] 1972 (1956 Copyright), George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century by Archibald Henderson, Volume 1, Part I: A Hazard of New Fortunes, Chapter 7: Family Life in London, Quote Page 88 and 89, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
It is related that Shaw’s mother discarded a suitor because he slashed flowers off the stem with his cane. She thought of flowers as children; and so couldn’t entertain the thought of him as a husband. Shaw took this trait from his mother; and his wife took it from him.
At different times I have heard both of them inveigh against the cutting of flowers, so that, in answer to the inevitable query, “Why, don’t you love flowers?” they would, individually, reply: “I most assuredly do. I also love babies. But I shouldn’t care to go around cutting off babies’ heads and sticking them up in pots.” But I have seen Charlotte accept a bouquet of cut flowers very graciously, without rebuke to the donor.
Also, in 1956 Bennett Cerf published “The Life of the Party: A New Collection of Stories and Anecdotes”. Cerf gave a name to Shaw’s visitor:[ref] 1956, The Life of the Party: A New Collection of Stories and Anecdotes by Bennett Cerf, Chapter 18: The Printed Word, Quote Page 209, Hanover House – Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
Arnold Bennett once visited Shaw in his apartment overlooking the Thames Embankment in London and expressed surprise that not a single vase of flowers was in evidence. “I thought you were so fond of flowers,” chided Bennett. “I am,” responded Shaw abruptly. “I’m very fond of children too. But I don’t cut off their heads and stick them in pots about the house.”
In conclusion, QI believes that George Bernard Shaw deserves credit for this quip. It entered circulation by 1899, and Shaw apparently used it more than once. The precise phrasing varies.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration of colorful flowers.
(An inquiry from Pete Morris about a different expression attributed to George Bernard Shaw inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Stu Silverstein who located the 1899 citation. Thanks also to Dan Goncharoff who mentioned that there was a magazine called “The World and His Wife”. Goncharoff also told QI about the colloquial meaning of the phrase “the world and his wife”.)
Update History: On October 4, 2022 the 1899 citation was added to the article. Also, parts of the article were rewritten.