Speaker: William Morris? Guy de Maupassant? Alexander Hadden? Elliot Paul? Gillian Widdicombe? Adlai Stevenson? Anonymous?
Landmark: Eiffel Tower? National Theatre in London? Palace of Culture in Warsaw? Empire State Building?
Dear Quote Investigator: Cultural critics have lamented that some massive structures dominating city skylines are unsightly, e.g., the Eiffel Tower, the National Theatre in London, and the Palace of Culture in Warsaw.
A popular anecdote states that a well-known literary figure frequently visited one of these ugly monuments. An acquaintance who found the luminary gazing out across the metropolis from the observation deck of the landmark inquired about motivation:
“As a regular visitor to this site, do you find this structure beautiful?”
“Of course not! This is the only place in the city where I can look out and avoid seeing this hideous thing.”
Would you please explore this acerbic tale?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1914 report from the Manchester Literary Club of England. The brief note described a meeting of the club during which a member named Alexander Hadden presented a paper about the city of Paris. The following passage about prominent writer and activist William Morris included a punchline that was spoiled by a typo. The word “can” was supposed to be “can’t”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Incidentally it was mentioned that William Morris was a frequent visitor to Paris, and when there his friends noticed that he spent a considerable part of his time high upon the Eiffel Tower. When asked the reason for this he replied, “That is the only place where you can see the damned thing.”
Morris died in 1896, so the citation above provides imperfect evidence. Nevertheless, Morris is the leading candidate for crafter of this quip. This anecdote has been difficult to trace because of its multiplicity of embodiments.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.