Repartee Origin: You Are the Second Most Beautiful Woman in the United Kingdom

Lilian Braithwaite? James Agate? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

Portrait of Lillian Braithwaite circa 1902

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent drama critic in London once told a top actress that she was the second most beautiful woman in the United Kingdom. The critic expected her to ask for the identity of the most beautiful woman, but she wittily replied that she would treasure the compliment because it was coming from the second best drama critic. Would you please explore the provenance of this repartee?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Daily Telegraph” of London in March 1932. The two figures in the anecdote were English theatre critic James Agate and English actress Lilian Braithwaite:1

“A little while ago,” said Mr. Agate, “I was fortunate enough to find myself alone with Miss Braithwaite. I hastened to avail myself of this rare opportunity.

“‘My dear lady,’ I said, ‘May I tell you something I have wanted to tell you for years: that you are the second most beautiful woman in the United Kingdom?’

“I naturally expected that Miss Braithwaite would ask who, in my opinion, was the woman who came before her. And I had prepared myself with a name to which it would have been interesting to see Miss Braithwaite’s reaction.

“But she asked no such question. She merely looked at me with her charming smile and said, ‘Thank you. I shall always cherish that, as coming from the second-best dramatic critic.’”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The anecdote from “The Daily Telegraph” was reprinted on the same day in other newspapers such as “The Yorkshire Evening Post”2 of Leeds, West Yorkshire and the “Belfast Telegraph”3 of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In June 1932 the tale traversed the Atlantic, and the popular U.S. columnist Walter Winchell presented a version with a different phrasing:4

Then there’s Rob Wagner’s report on a quip relayed by James Agate, one of London’s better drama defenders. Agate was sitting next to Lilian Braithwaite at a dinner one eventide. He informed her that she was in his opinion, the second most beautiful woman in all England.

Instead of inquiring who the other might be, Lil sweetly said: “I shall always treasure that as coming from London’s second-best dramatic critic.”

In 1935 James Agate published the first installment of his multi-volume memoir and diary under the title “Ego: The Autobiography”. He included another version of the tale:5

The wittiest woman in London to-day is Lilian Braithwaite. Seeing her sitting alone at the Savoy grill one night I rushed in where angels, etc., etc. “My dear Lilian, I have long wanted to tell you that in my opinion you are the second most beautiful woman in London.” If questioned I was prepared to award first place to a beauty of antique and challengeless fame. But Lilian was not curious, and the words were hardly out of my mouth before she said: “Thank you so much. I shall cherish that, coming from our second-best dramatic critic.”

In January and February 1935 Agate’s book was reviewed, and the anecdote was reprinted in newspapers such as the “Liverpool Echo”6 of Liverpool, England and “The Era”7 of London.

In 1945 Walter Winchell printed another version of the anecdote. The columnist wrote creatively by using the name of “Dorothy Parker” as a verb meaning to make a witty remark:8

A NEWSWEEKLY, discussing Lilian Braithwaite (the London star), revealed that critic James Agate once saluted her with: “You are still the second most beautiful woman on the English stage.” To which Lilian Dorothy-Parker’d: “That’s quite a compliment coming from England’s second-best critic.”

The tale has continued to circulate for decades. In 1985 an instance appeared in “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes”,9 and in 2000 an instance appeared in “Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes”.10

In conclusion, James Agate presented this anecdote at a dinner of theatre people in 1932 according to “The Daily Telegraph” of London. Agate was seated next to Lilian Braithwaite when he told the story, and the newspaper did not report any objections from her. He also included a version of the tale in his 1935 book “Ego: The Autobiography”.

The phrasing of the repartee in 1932 and 1935 was slightly different. Thus, Agate’s memory was apparently imperfect. Nevertheless, QI believes that the exchange between Agate and Braithwaite did occur as outlined.

Image Notes: Public domain portrait of Lillian Braithwaite by Charles Sims circa 1902.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Paul Craven who tweeted about this  repartee which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Craven gave a hat tip to Robbie MacNab. Thanks also to Andrew Denny who participated in the tweet thread.

Update History: On May 3, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1932 March 2, The Daily Telegraph, London Day by Day: Second Best by Peterborough, Quote Page 12, Column 5, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  2. 1932 March 2, The Yorkshire Evening Post, Gossip of the Day, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  3. 1932 March 2, Belfast Telegraph, Gossip of London: What the Press Is Saying, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  4. 1932 June 14, Evening Courier, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1935, Ego: The Autobiography of James Agate by James Agate, Chapter 7: Kaleidoscope, Quote Page 140, Hamish Hamilton, London, England. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. 1935 January 24, Liverpool Echo, A Critic’s Confessions, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Liverpool, Merseyside, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1935 February 6, The Era, Talking Shop by “The Era” Staff, Quote Page 2, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  8. 1945 July 26, Chillicothe Gazette, Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Chillicothe, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1985, “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes”, Edited by Clifton Fadiman, Section: Dame Lilian Braithwaite, Quote Page 76, Column 1, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  10. 2000, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, Edited by Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard, Revised Edition, Quote Page 75, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩︎