Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Laurie Anderson? Steve Martin? Frank Zappa? Martin Mull? Elvis Costello? Thelonius Monk?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult riddle for you. A mailing list I belong to has discussed the following quotation several times during the past ten years, and the question of its origin has never been satisfactorily resolved.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Clara Schumann, Miles Davis, George Carlin and several other people have been credited with concocting this extraordinarily popular and enigmatic simile. There is another common version of the quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Is there any chance that you could attempt to trace this famous saying?

Quote Investigator: With the help of colleagues, correspondents, and wonderful music librarians QI can report some revealing citations. The first close match appears in the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan in February 1979 within a column titled “Bob Talbert’s quotebag” which presents miscellaneous quotations. The dots are in the original text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Martin Mull . . .
. . . Comedian-musician on music criticism: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

The second close match appears in a magazine dedicated to the history of rock and roll called “Time Barrier Express”. The September-October 1979 issue contains a profile of the group Sam & Dave by Gary Sperrazza in which he discusses the interplay and rapport of the duo: 2

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It’s so hard to explain on paper, you’ll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe — honest — that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture).

Based on current evidence QI believes that Martin Mull is the most likely originator of this expression. It is not clear how Bob Talbert and Gary Sperrazza heard or read about the quotation. Mull did release several albums combining comedy and music in the 1970s. He also appeared in the television soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, and the talk show parody “Fernwood 2 Night” (later renamed “America 2-Night”). It is possible that he used the phrase in one of these venues, or perhaps he said it during a stage performance or interview.

Researchers have been attempting to trace this well-known saying for many years. It is a recurrent topic in discussion forums and on mailing lists. Alan P. Scott was the key pioneer in this endeavor, and he has created a wonderful webpage that records his gleanings and includes a comprehensive list of people that have been credited with the quotation. 3

The clever maxim was probably not created ex nihilo. QI has found a family of similar expressions about music that date back to 1918. This backstory helps to illuminate the aphorism, and it begins with a remark involving “singing about economics.”
Continue reading Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Notes:

  1. 1979 February 18, Detroit Free Press, Bob Talbert’s quotebag, Quote Page 19C, Column 5, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1979 September-October, Time Barrier Express, “Looka Here! It’s Sam & Dave!” by Gary Sperrazza, Page 25, Column 1, Issue Number 26, Volume 3, Number 6, White Plains, N.Y. (Verified using scanned images from the Music Library & Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green State University; Great thanks to the librarian at BGSU)
  3. Alan P. Scott authored webpage about the origin of the saying “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” (Accessed 2010 November 7) link

If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

Margaret Thatcher? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to learn about a sentence supposedly said by Margaret Thatcher who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1980s. The version I was told is:

If you want a speech made you should ask a man, but if you want something done you should ask a woman.

This is a fascinating statement, but I am incredulous. Could you investigate? Where and when did she say this? Or is this another fake quotation?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will look into this provocative remark for you. Two important reference works, the Yale Book of Quotations [YQMT] and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [OQMT], list a version of this saying that appeared in People magazine in 1975. This instance of the adage includes the prefatory phrase “In politics”. Here is an excerpt from People [PMT]:

“In politics,” Margaret Thatcher once acidly observed, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

The Yale Book of Quotations also states, “Thatcher is said to have used this in a 1965 speech.” Yes, QI can report that a newspaper called the Evening News on May 20, 1965 quotes Thatcher using the phrase when addressing a women’s group.

Continue reading If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

How Old Cary Grant? Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?

Cary Grant? Gar Wood? Mark Clark? Tom Ferris?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the movies from the golden age of Hollywood. I think the stars were more glamorous in the past, and the stories about the stars were wittier. The quotation I would like you to investigate was written by Cary Grant for a telegram that he sent.

Telegram delivery was halted in the 1980s, so some of your blog readers may not know much about them. They were text messages that were sent long-distance via radio or wire and then delivered using messengers. They were expensive in the 1930s and 1940s, and to save money telegram messages were often very short. Words such as “is” and “are” were often deleted from messages to obtain greater brevity.

A classic anecdote begins with a journalist who is working on a story about Cary Grant with a tight deadline. He needs to gather some background information, so he sends a telegram to the publicist of Cary Grant asking about the age of the star:

HOW OLD CARY GRANT?

But Cary Grant intercepts the message and decides to send his own reply:

OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

I love this story, but I know that Hollywood studios during the golden age sometimes concocted fun stories about stars and planted them in newspapers. Could you investigate whether this quotation is genuine?

Quote Investigator: Cary Grant directly denied the story in a newspaper interview in 1978. This humorous yarn has been told with at least three different people in the leading role. Cary Grant was the third. While the version featuring Grant is probably apocryphal there is evidence supporting a version featuring the motorboat racer Gar Wood and the writer Tom Ferris.

A 1957 report says that a journalist who was covering a speedboat race was badgered by a managing editor to obtain the age of a participant named Gar Wood. The exasperated journalist finally sent a telegram of this type to the editor. An account in 1959 says that a cable like this was sent regarding the age of General Mark Clark. Also in 1959 the comedienne Celeste Holm joked that a movie studio sent a reply wire of this sort about Cary Grant’s age.

Continue reading How Old Cary Grant? Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?

She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Who Said the Quote? Dorothy Parker? Richard Henry Little? Alexander Woollcott?

Who was the Polyglot? Winifred Stackville Stoner? Merle Oberon?

Dear Quote Investigator: My question differs from most. Here is a quotation of admiration with a stinger that I would like you to investigate:

That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say “No” in any of them.

Dorothy Parker receives credit for this quip in multiple reference books. What interests me is the identity of the polyglot woman. Can you figure out who Parker was talking about?

Quote Investigator: Like many of the sayings assigned to Parker that have persisted in the cultural milieu this phrase is risqué. The earliest attribution of the quote to Parker located by QI occurs in 1933.

But QI has also found an earlier citation for a close variant of this joke in 1931 that is not credited to Parker. The witticism was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist, Richard Henry Little, who was writing about a former child prodigy named Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. The text of the article reveals a different interpretation to the notion of saying “No”. Little’s gag is not focused on promiscuity; instead, it refers to multiple marriages [RLWS]:

… it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.

It is possible that Little heard a joke from Parker and then modified it to create a less provocative version that applied to Winifred Stackville Stoner. Alternatively, Little’s jest may have been modified to create a ribald version that fit the wisecracking persona of Parker.

Continue reading She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Dying is Easy. Comedy is Hard

Peter O’Toole? Edmund Kean? Edmund Gwenn? Donald Crisp? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of my friends is an aspiring comedian, and he enjoys telling an anecdote about a gifted character actor who delivered a famously incisive line about playing comic roles while lying on his deathbed. A visitor approached the actor who was ill in a hospital and said sympathetically, “This must be very difficult for you”. The actor lifted his head, smiled weakly, and disagreed saying “No. No. It is not too bad”. He then spoke the classic apothegm:

Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.

Is there any truth to this story? Could you investigate this quotation? My friend says the tale is about Edmund Gwenn who played Santa Claus in the 1947 version of the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

Quote Investigator: There is another popular variant of this show business adage that is similarly terse: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” This tale is prevalent in Hollywood and has been told by prominent actors such as Academy Award winners Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon.

Edmund Kean was a celebrated Shakespearean actor, who lived from 1787 to 1833, and who is sometimes credited with this maxim. However, QI has not located any solid support for this attribution. Other renowned figures such as Groucho Marx and Stan Laurel [QVEG] are sometimes mentioned, but the evidence is non-existent.

There is evidence that Edmund Gwenn is responsible for this adage though the phraseology given in the earliest citation is different. Gwenn was a very successful actor who began with roles on the stage, appearing in West End and Broadway productions; later he appeared in Hollywood films. He died in 1959, and the first published description of his deathbed saying that QI has located is in a 1966 self-help guide by Neil and Margaret Rau that is aimed at actors.

A movie director and friend named George Seaton regularly visited the bedridden Edmund Gwenn at the Motion Picture Country House.  The nickname Seaton used for Gwenn was Teddy. On Seaton’s final visit the following dialog reportedly ensued [NREG]:

“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy.”
“Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.”

The anecdote recounted by the Raus states that Gwenn expired immediately afterwards, hence these were his last words.

Continue reading Dying is Easy. Comedy is Hard

I Take the Punch Bowl Away Just When the Party is Getting Good

Arthur F. Burns? William McChesney Martin? G. William Miller? Paul A. Volcker?

Dear Quote Investigator: The U.S. economy has experienced two large bubbles in recent years in technology stocks and in real estate. These gyrations in the market reminded me of an old comment from a previous director of the Federal Reserve.

He said his job was to shut down any wild and irresponsible “party” involving money before it could start.  He was going to take the punch bowl away before people started profligately spending money and negligently loaning money.  I know this was said before the terms of Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker, but I am not sure who said it. Would you please explore this picturesque saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a syndicated financial column called “Trade Winds” by Lou Schneider in October 1955. He discussed a speech delivered to the Investment Bankers Association about a week earlier by William McChesney Martin who was the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Martin employed the vivid punch bowl metaphor. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Mr. Martin owned up that the Federal Reserve “is in the position of the chaperone who ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.” But it was done because there are economic danger signals in sight. “If we fail to apply the brakes sufficiently, and in time, we shall go over the cliff.”

Martin definitely popularized this figurative language, and he was the speaker in the first known citation. Yet, it was not certain whether he originated this metaphorical framework. Special thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the above citation. His webpage on this topic is located here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Take the Punch Bowl Away Just When the Party is Getting Good

Notes:

  1. 1955 October 25, Greensboro Record, Trade Winds: Credit Controls Policy Unchanged by Lou Schneider, Quote Page B9, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1955 October 25, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), Trade Winds: Talk by FRB Chief Explicit by Lou Schneider, (Consolidated News Features), Quote Page 32, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

I Do Not Want to Predict the Future. I Want to Prevent It

Frank Herbert? Ray Bradbury? Theodore Sturgeon? Fred Pohl?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once read an interview with a science fiction writer in which he was asked about predicting the future. The interviewer was disappointed that some of the technological developments heralded in science fiction never seemed to actually happen. The response from the author was unexpected and haunting:

I don’t try to predict the future. I try to prevent it.

I think this answer confused the interviewer, but I understood it. The dystopian stories like Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Sheep Look Up, and The Machine Stops are not attempting to predict the future. They are trying to prevent the futures that they describe. The identity of the interviewee is fuzzy in my mind and so is the exact wording. Could you look into this quote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest expression found by QI appears in 1977 from the typewriter of the SF great Theodore Sturgeon who credits the remark to another SF luminary Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles. In 1978 the idea is attributed to another famed SF writer, Frank Herbert, the author of Dune.

These initial citations indicate that the original statement occurred still earlier and QI is unable to determine if Bradbury or Herbert first voiced the motto. The statement has several variations. Sometimes the goal of preventing the future is considered to be the task of science fiction as a genre, and sometimes the goal is the task of an individual author.

Continue reading I Do Not Want to Predict the Future. I Want to Prevent It

Be Nice to People on Your Way Up. You’ll Meet Them On Your Way Down

Jimmy Durante? Wilson Mizner? Walter Winchell? George Raft?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes clichés become clichés because they express important truths. I think this is an example:

Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down

Can you determine who first came up with this insightful saying? Was it “The Schnozzola” Jimmy Durante?

Quote Investigator: There are three main candidates for authorship of this phrase: playwright Wilson Mizner, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and comedian Jimmy Durante. New evidence uncovered by top researcher Barry Popik in December 2014 points to Mizner as the originator.

Currently, the earliest known citation appeared in a San Francisco, California newspaper on July 5, 1932. The saying was ascribed to “Miznor” which was a misspelling of “Mizner”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Wilson Miznor, globe-trotter, ex-Alaska mining chappie, scenario writer, playwright and sage of Hollywood, gave the following advice to a young and coming motion picture star:

“Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.

Walter Winchell employed the adage during a radio program on July 7, 1932, and he has often been credited with the remark; however, shortly after the broadcast he ascribed the saying to Mizner in his newspaper column. Jimmy Durante spoke a version while performing in a 1933 movie. But the saying was already in circulation. Further details are given below.

Continue reading Be Nice to People on Your Way Up. You’ll Meet Them On Your Way Down

Notes:

  1. 1932 July 5, San Francisco Chronicle, Directs Traveler On Road to Fame Quote Page 9, Column 6, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)

Never Miss a Chance to Have Sex or Appear On Television

Gore Vidal? Lewis H. Lapham? Fictional? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I watch reality television shows today I can only conclude that some people will do anything to be on television. This fits the advice the famous author Gore Vidal apparently gave:

Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to be on television

Clearly this is a guiding principle to a large cohort, but I think it is an eccentric recommendation. Could you determine if Vidal did say this? I do recall seeing him on television multiple times, so maybe he was following his own counsel.

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Vidal did say a version of this quotation in the 1970s. He was interviewed on the Charlie Rose television show in 2009 and was asked about this saying. He replied that the adage was his, and he originally said it to Diane Sawyer the network correspondent who is now a prominent anchor.

QI has not yet located a transcript of the colloquy between Vidal and Sawyer. The earliest instance of the quote QI has found appears in the magazine Harper’s in a column written by the editor Lewis H. Lapham in October of 1978 where the words are credited to Gore Vidal.

Continue reading Never Miss a Chance to Have Sex or Appear On Television