I Ring It Whenever I Want an Hour of Uninterrupted Privacy

Dorothy Parker? Alexander Woollcott? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A patient in a modern hospital room can push a button to call for the help of a nurse; however, on occasion, the response time is long because nurses have many medical tasks to perform. The famous wit Dorothy Parker created a joke on this topic. She claimed that pushing the button enabled her to experience an extended interval of privacy. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1933 article by prominent critic Alexander Woollcott in “Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan” magazine. Woollcott described visiting Dorothy Parker who was being treated in a hospital. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Tiptoeing now down the hospital corridor, I found her hard at work. Because of posterity and her creditors, I was loath to intrude, but she, being entranced at any interruption, greeted me from her cot of pain, waved me to a chair, offered me a cigaret and rang a bell. I wondered if this could possibly be for drinks. “No,” she said sadly, “It is supposed to fetch the night nurse, so I ring it whenever I want an hour of uninterrupted privacy.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Ring It Whenever I Want an Hour of Uninterrupted Privacy

Notes:

  1. 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, (Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan), “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Start Page 70, Quote Page 88, Column 3, International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies; thanks to local and remote librarians)

Oh—You’re the Man Who Can’t Spell

Dorothy Parker? Tallulah Bankhead? Edith Gwynn? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The 1948 war novel “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer employed the euphemism “fug” (“fugged”, “fugging”) instead of the four-letter word for intercourse. According to a popular literary legend, a witty woman who was introduced to Mailer shortly after the release of the book said:

Oh! You’re the man who can’t spell.

This line has been ascribed to the actress Tallulah Bankhead and the writer Dorothy Parker. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared as a short item in the Hollywood gossip column of Edith Gwynn in April 1950. “Tallulah” was misspelled as “Talullah” in the newspaper text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When Talullah Bankhead was introduced to Norman Mailer, who authored “The Naked And The Dead,” she exploded, “Oh—you’re the man who can’t spell!”

This citation provides substantive evidence that the episode did occur; however, it is not definitive. Publicity agents have been known to feed fictitious stories to columnists to help their clients maintain high public profiles. Hence, it is possible that the incident did not occur.

Norman Mailer’s comments on the topic have varied. On one occasion he said it was an invented incident. On another occasion he told the prankster satirist Paul Krassner that he had uttered a harsh rejoinder.

The ascription to Dorothy Parker was probably the result of a faulty memory. Additional selected citations are given below.

Continue reading Oh—You’re the Man Who Can’t Spell

Notes:

  1. 1950 April 26, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Edith Gwynn’s Hollywood by Edith Gwynn, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

Writing Well Is the Best Revenge

Dorothy Parker? Susan Sontag? Alix Nelson? Ross Macdonald? Kenneth Millar? Tom Samet? Edmund Wilson? Anne Ruggles Gere? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Yesterday, while reading an acerbic episode within a stylish memoir I recalled the following adage:

Writing well is the best revenge.

These words are often credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker, but I am skeptical because I have never seen a good citation. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that she employed this saying. QI has found instances in 1976, but that is a surprisingly late date. Perhaps future researchers will build on this research and locate earlier occurrences.

In August 1976 Alix Nelson, a New York-based journalist and copywriter, published a book review in “The New York Times”. One of the book’s primary characters was portrayed very harshly, and Nelson likened that figure to Alexander Portnoy who was the lead in an influential work published seven years prior titled “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Never has an ordinary man been rendered with such glee. For those of us who’ve been waiting around for Alexander Portnoy to get his, author Rhoda Lerman here “hulls him from the belly button like an overripe strawberry” to prove that writing well is the best revenge.

The other early instance was from the pen of the famous mystery writer Ross Macdonald (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) who in 1976 wrote the expression in a book dedication for fellow mystery writer William Campbell Gault. The inscription was mentioned in a profile article about Gault published in the “Los Angeles Times” in 1984: 2

In 1976, Ross MacDonald dedicated his last book, “The Blue Hammer,” to him, writing in his copy: “To Bill Gault, who knows that writing well is the best revenge.”

The article by David Wilson containing the words above also included many quotations from Gault and a description of the interior of his home; hence, QI believes Wilson visited Gault’s home and directly inspected the book’s dedication.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Writing Well Is the Best Revenge

Notes:

  1. 1976 August 8, New York Times, Section: New York Times Book Review, The Girl That He Marries by Alix Nelson, Start Page 10, Quote Page 10, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1984 December 14, Los Angeles Times, An Author From the Old School: For This Writer, There’s No Mystery About What Sells by David Wilson, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

Scratch an Actor and You’ll Find an Actress

Dorothy Parker? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was well known for her sometimes controversial witticisms. Apparently, one of her remarks was based on clichés about the vanity, mannerisms, and/or sexuality of actors. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in 1940: 1

Don’t use “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actress!” It’s an oldie of Dorothy Parker’s.

Winchell stated that the remark was already old, and it probably would have been difficult to publish in a newspaper in the 1920s when Parker was delivering lines at the Algonquin Roundtable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Scratch an Actor and You’ll Find an Actress

Notes:

  1. 1940 September 6, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

All the Couples Were Triangles and Lived in Squares

Dorothy Parker? Margaret Irwin? Kingsley Martin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The writers, artists, and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group formed complex and shifting intimate relationships. A wit once said:

They lived in squares and loved in triangles.

The geometric wordplay referred to the residences of the group. For example, Leonard and Virginia Woolf lived in London’s Tavistock Square while Vanessa and Clive Bell lived in Gordon Square. It also referred to their love lives; e.g., Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell had a child together while she was married to Clive.

The famous author Dorothy Parker has received credit for this quip and for a more elaborate version:

They were living in squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles.

Would you please explore the provenance of this family of sayings?

Quote investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1928 book “Fire Down Below” by the popular English novelist Margaret Irwin. During one scene the character Peregrine referred to Bloomsbury as Gloomsbury, and his child asked for clarification. The word “love” was not employed. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Where’s that, Father?”
It is a circle, my fair child, composed of a few squares where all the couples are triangles.
“Perry dear what are you saying?”
The children could not understand . . .

This citation was uncovered by independent scholar Stuart N. Clarke who shared his knowledge via an article in the “Virginia Woolf Bulletin” and the “Virginia Woolf Miscellany”. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Irwin’s wordplay was remembered many years later by the columnist who wrote a “A London Diary” within “The New Statesman and Nation” magazine in 1941: 3

I wonder what people mean by “Bloomsbury”? I asked myself as I looked at the dismantled flat. Certainly it is no longer what Margaret Irwin used to describe in the ‘twenties as the place where “all the couples were triangles and lived in squares”. Whatever it was once, it is gone now.

Kingsley Martin was the long-serving editor of the periodical, and he wrote “A London Diary” under the name “Critic”. 4

In 1973 “Kingsley: The Life, Letters and Diaries of Kingsley Martin” by C. H. Rolph printed an instance. Kingsley received credit for the saying, but as shown in the previous citation he disclaimed authorship: 5

The Bloomsbury they now lived in had already acquired its legendary and seemingly imperishable aura of intellectualism; but as Kingsley says in Father Figures (page 149) they were “on the edge of Bloomsbury but not of it”. Demographically, he used to say, it was a place where the couples were triangles who lived in squares.

In 1975 an article by John Walker in “The Saturday Review” included an anonymous instance of the saying: 6

. . . the Bloomsbury set—where, as some wit has said, “the couples were triangles and everyone lived in squares.”

In 1979 a book review by Dianne C. Betts in the journal “Southwest Review” used the title “Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles” and included the following passage: 7

Bloomsbury has long been famous, or perhaps infamous, for living in squares and loving in triangles. They dared to flaunt convention, both in their speech and their behavior.

In 1986 a review of a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb in “The New York Times” included the saying: 8

On their determined promiscuity, Miss Himmelfarb allows herself the wry comment that the famous description of Bloomsburyall the couples being triangles living in squares — was wholly inadequate to do justice to their polygonal connections. Their compulsive bisexuality was matched by their rampant homosexuality.

In 2013 the journal “Victorian Review” published a review of a book by Rosemary Ashton which included an instance: 9

. . . she maps a detailed, historical journey through nineteenth-century Bloomsbury in order to show that the early twentieth-century Bloomsbury Circle, avant-garde writers and artists who lived in squares and loved in triangles, were successors to earlier radicals, who introduced significant reforms, primarily in education, in this neighbourhood.

In 2015 “Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group” by Amy Licence attributed the quip to Dorothy Parker: 10

From there to Fitzroy Square, Bedford Square and back, a circle of family and friends met to drink cocoa and eat buns, to discuss or sit in sympathetic silence, seeking personal and artistic liberation through what writer Dorothy Parker described as ‘living in squares and loving in triangles’.

Also, in 2015 the website of the U.K. newspaper “Daily Express” published an article about a BBC drama called “Life in Squares”. The actor James Norton was asked about the name of the three-part series: 11

It came from a description of the Bloomsbury Group (a loose association of writers, artists and philosophers of the early 20th century) as “living in Squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles”.

In conclusion, Margaret Irwin is the leading candidate for creator of this quip based on the 1928 citation. Kingsley Martin gave her credit in 1941 which provides additional evidence of her authorship. The variant saying with the word “love” (“loving”, “loved”) was published in the 1970s.

Image Notes: Abstract artwork with squares and triangles by Viscious-Speed at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Many thanks to Dickon Edwards of Birkbeck, University of London who notified QI of the 1928 citation that Stuart N. Clarke had discovered. Edwards also kindly provided QI with scans from the 1928 book to verify the citation. Great thanks to George Thompson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. QI located the saying within a 1960 compilation of “A London Diary” columns from “The New Statesman”. Using this information Thompson precisely located and retrieved the 1941 citation. Thanks to Benjamin Barrett who highlighted the residences and love lives of the Bloomsbury group and indicated that an explanation of the pun would be helpful to readers.)

Update History: On November 20, 2018 the 1928 citation was added. The conclusion and other parts of the article were updated to reflect the new information.

Notes:

  1. 1928, Fire Down Below by Margaret Irwin (Margaret Emma Faith Irwin), Quote Page 109, William Heinemann, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to Dickon Edwards of Birkbeck, University of London)
  2. Issue: Fall 2017 / Winter 2018, Periodical: Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Number 92, Article: “squares where all the couples are triangles”, Author: Stuart N. Clarke (Independent Scholar), Start Page 38, Column 2, Quote Page 39, Column 2, (Footnote states article first appeared in the Virginia Woolf Bulletin, No. 57 (January 2018), Pages 42-45). (Accessed online at virginiawoolfmiscellany.wordpress.com on November 20, 2018)
  3. 1941 March 29, New Statesman and Nation, A London Diary, Start Page 317, Quote Page 317, Column 1, London, England. (ProQuest Periodicals Archive Online)
  4. Website: New Statesman, Article title: The unconscious of the middle class: The life and times of Kingsley Martin, Article author: Norman Mackenzie, Date on website: May 22, 2013, Website description: British magazine of politics and culture based in London. (Accessed newstatesman.com on May 15, 2018) link
  5. 1973, Kingsley: The Life, Letters and Diaries of Kingsley Martin by C. H. Rolph (Cecil Hewitt Rolph), Chapter 7: Olga, Quote Page 115, Victor Gollancz, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  6. 1975 April 19, The Saturday Review, World Literary Survey: Great Britain by John Walker, Start Page 22, Quote Page 22, Column 3, Saturday Review, Inc., New York. (Unz)
  7. 1979 Autumn, Southwest Review, Volume 64, Number 4, Review title: Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles, Book under review: A House of Lions by Leon Edel, Review author: Dianne C. Betts, Start Page 406, Quote Page 406, Publisher: Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1986 March 23, New York Times, Defending ‘All the Decent Drapery of Life’ by Neil McKendrick (Book review of “Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians” by Gertrude Himmelfarb) Quote Page BR9, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 2013 Fall, Victorian Review, Special Issue: Extending Families, Volume 39, Number 2, Review: Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton, Review by: Susan David Bernstein, Start Page 225, Quote Page 225, Published by: Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. (JSTOR) link
  10. 2015, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group by Amy Licence, Chapter 1: The Birth of Bloomsbury 1878, Quote Page Unnumbered, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire, England. (Google Books Preview)
  11. Website: Express (Daily Express and Sunday Express, Article title: James Norton on playing a real-life character in new drama Life In Squares, Article author: Clair Woodward, Date on website: July 12, 2015, Website description: Daily national tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom. (Accessed express.co.uk on May 16, 2018) link

Hollywood Is the Only Place Where You Can Die of Encouragement

Dorothy Parker? Pauline Kael?

Dear Quote Investigator: The decision to greenlight a movie in Hollywood is complicated and protracted. Those eager to make films experience a mixture of encouragement, uncertainty, delays, and heartbreak. Here are two versions of a germane witticism:

  • Hollywood is the one place on earth where you could die of encouragement.
  • Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement.

These words have been credited to author Dorothy Parker and movie critic Pauline Kael. Would you please determine the correct ascription?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker who died in 1967 crafted this line.

In 1980 Pauline Kael published a piece in “The New Yorker” titled “Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers”. Many people in the movie business have the power to say no to a nascent project. Individuals at the top of the studio hierarchy can say yes, but they are cautious: 1

They postpone decisions because they’re fearful, and also because they don’t mind keeping someone dangling while his creative excitement dries up and all the motor drive goes out of his proposal. They don’t mind keeping people waiting, because it makes them feel more powerful.

Kael named some executives who were willing push projects forward with alacrity. Yet, she stated that definitive responses were uncommon. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

But most of the ones who could say yes don’t; they consider it and string you along. (Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement.) For the supplicant, it’s a matter of weeks, months, years, waiting for meetings at which he can beg permission to do what he was, at the start, eager to do.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Hollywood Is the Only Place Where You Can Die of Encouragement

Notes:

  1. 1980 June 23, The New Yorker, The Current Cinema: Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers by Pauline Kael, Start Page 82, Quote Page 88, The New Yorker Magazine Inc., New York. (Archive of The New Yorker at archives.newyorker.com)

What Fresh Hell Can This Be?

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The well-known wit Dorothy Parker brought forth laughter from others, but personally she experienced episodes of depression. Apparently, when her doorbell rang she would sometimes proclaim:

What fresh hell is this?

Is this an accurate claim?

Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and the earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1970 biography “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats. The book records the testimony of journalist Vincent Sheean who was Parker’s friend: 1

“When it came time to leave the apartment to get a taxi, you could see this look of resolution come on her face,” he said. “Her chin would go up and her shoulders would go back; she would almost be fighting back fear and tears, as if to say to the world, ‘Do your worst; I’ll make it home all right.’ If the doorbell rang in her apartment, she would say, ‘What fresh hell can this be?’—and it wasn’t funny; she meant it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Fresh Hell Can This Be?

Notes:

  1. 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Chapter 7, Quote Page 124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on hardcopy)

It Spills Its Seed Upon the Ground

Dorothy Parker? Corey Ford? John Keats? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the famous wit Dorothy Parker was once asked why she had selected the curious name Onan for her pet canary. She replied:

Because he spills his seed on the ground.

What is the veracity of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The biblical figure Onan appeared in the Book of Genesis. He disobeyed God by refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow and spilling his seed on the ground. This behavior irked the Deity and proved fatal to Onan.

The earliest version of the Parker anecdote located by QI occurred within a chapter profiling her in the 1934 book “While Rome Burns” by Alexander Woollcott who helped to build her reputation for clever banter. Woollcott’s statement was elliptical. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Of her birds, I remember only an untidy canary whom she named Onan for reasons which will not escape those who know their Scriptures.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Spills Its Seed Upon the Ground

Notes:

  1. 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Quote Page 152, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

There Is Less in This Than Meets the Eye

Tallulah Bankhead? Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? James Boswell? Richard Burke? William Hazlitt?

Dear Quote investigator: The actress Tallulah Bankhead was watching an ostentatious play, and she whispered to her companion a hilarious line based on an inverted cliché:

There is less in this than meets the eye.

This quip has also been attributed to two other witty people: Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote investigator: QI has located no substantive support for ascribing the comment to Parker or Benchley.

In 1922 the theater critic Alexander Woollcott invited Tallulah Bankhead to join him at a performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama “Aglavaine and Selysette”. The following day Woollcott’s hostile review of the production in “The New York Times” credited the remark to a “beautiful lady”: 1

The civility of the spectators was really extraordinary. There was not so much as a snicker, for instance, when William Raymond, as Meleander, cried out anxiously: “What shall I be doing next year?” Not a ripple when Clare Eames, gazing severely at the audience, said: “It is sometimes better not to rouse those who slumber.” It is, it is, indeed. But after all the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Later in 1922 Woollcott published the book “Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights”. He discussed Maeterlinck’s play in a chapter called “Capsule Criticism” and credited the statement to Bankhead: 2

Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading There Is Less in This Than Meets the Eye

Notes:

  1. 1922 January 4, New York Times, The Play by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page 11, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1922, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter 4: Capsule Criticism, Start Page 77, Quote Page 86, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Change One Letter in That Phrase and You Have My Life Story

Dorothy Parker? Ben Hecht? Corey Ford? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker apparently constructed a risqué quip when she observed people ducking for apples at a party. Would you please explore this topic?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of Parker’s jest located by QI appeared in the 1957 book “Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by Ben Hecht. MacArthur and Hecht were successful writing partners who created popular plays such as “The Front Page” and “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Dorothy Parker was Hecht’s friend and MacArthur’s lover. The book recounted the following anecdote. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

At a subsequent Halloween party, Miss Parker spoke one of her wryest sentences. Asked to join a group of merrymakers who were “ducking for apples,” Dorothy said, “Change one letter in that phrase and you have my life story.”

The change probably referred to the transformation of “ducking” into a synonym for fornication.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order Continue reading Change One Letter in That Phrase and You Have My Life Story

Notes:

  1. 1957, Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur by Ben Hecht, Quote Page 99, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with hard copy)