Category Archives: Dorothy Parker

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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)

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

parker08Dear Quote Investigator: William Shakespeare memorably wrote that:

Brevity is the soul of wit.

The wordsmith Dorothy Parker famously transformed the Bard’s phrase into a humorous and erotic remark:

Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

Several quotation references list Parker’s statement, but the earliest citation I’ve seen is indirect; a friend named Alexander Woollcott attributed the quip to her in 1934. Would you please help me to find better evidence?

Quote Investigator: In October 1916 “Vogue” magazine published a lengthy profusely illustrated article titled “Vogue Pattern Service”. One page displayed drawings of models wearing nightgowns and chemises together with the following caption in capital letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

FROM THESE FOUNDATIONS OF THE AUTUMN WARDROBE, ONE MAY LEARN THAT BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF LINGERIE

Dorothy Parker was employed at “Vogue”, and QI believes she crafted the caption; indeed, a few years later she used the quip again. By 1919 she had moved to “Vanity Fair”, and the magazine printed a comical piece she composed titled “Our Office: A Hate Song: An Intimate Glimpse of Vanity Fair—En Famille”. She leveled light-hearted criticisms at each department of the publishing enterprise: 2

I hate the office;
It cuts in on my social life.

There is the Art Department;
The Cover Hounds.
They are always explaining how the photographing machine works.
And they stand around in the green light
And look as if they had been found drowned.

When Parker mocked the editorial group she employed the adage under investigation:

Then there is the Editorial Department;
The Literary Lights.
They are just a little holier than other people
Because they can write classics about
“‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie’, said this little chemise to itself”;
And “Here are five reasons for the success of the Broadway plays”.
They are all full of soul;
Someone is forever stepping on their temperaments.
They are constantly having nervous breakdowns
And going away for a few weeks.

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Notes:

  1. 1916 October 1, Vogue, Vogue Pattern Service, Start Page 89, Quote Page 101, Conde Nast, New York. (ProQuest Vogue Archive)
  2. 1919 May, Vanity Fair, Volume 11, Number 3, Section: Domestic Products, Our Office: A Hate Song: An Intimate Glimpse of Vanity Fair—En Famille by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6 and 8, Conde Nast, New York. (HathiTrust) link

Horticulture Pun

Dorothy Parker? The Virginia Spectator? The Daily Standard of Sikeston, Missouri? Alexander Woollcott? Anonymous?

garden11Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was famous for her coruscating wit, and she once employed a notoriously bawdy pun based on the word horticulture. Was she responsible for originating this pun?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker created the horticulture pun while she was participating in a word game at a party. She may have spoken it during a meeting of the famed Algonquin Round Table. These gatherings were held regularly by a group of columnists, playwrights, actors and other bright individuals at lunch within the Algonquin Hotel in New York City between roughly 1919 and 1929.

The earliest evidence, however, appeared several years later in 1935 in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell. The actual pun was too taboo to print in a newspaper in the 1930s; hence, Winchell’s comment was curiously cryptic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Dorothy Parker can make up a sentence containing the word “Horticulture,” but hardly here.

A month later another gossip columnist named Harrison Carroll printed an elliptical comment that also linked Parker to the pun without sharing with readers the details of the witticism: 2

What was Dorothy Parker’s priceless offering when the gang at the James Gleason party were playing one of those “make a sentence with a word” games and someone suggested “horticulture”?

Special thanks to top researcher Bill Mullins who located the two citations given above.

The earliest account presenting a full version of Parker’s remark that QI has located was published in 1962 in a magazine of arts and literature called “Horizon”. An article by the prominent drama critic John Mason Brown referred to two puns. The first quip was based on the word “meretricious”, and an exploration of its provenance is available in another entry here. The second jest was ascribed to Parker. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Frank Adams’s solving the problem of building a sentence around “meretricious” with “Meretricious ‘n’ a Happy New Year,” and Mrs. Parker’s solving the same problem with “horticulture” by coming up with “You may lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think”—these and a hundred others of their kind may by now have become enfeebled by familiarity. But they were born of a moment, and meant for that moment, and at that moment they were triumphant.

In addition to wordplay with “horticulture” Parker cleverly refashioned a very old English proverb about stubbornness: You may lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. As noted previously, when Parker delivered her joke it was too racy to be reprinted in contemporaneous books or periodicals published for a wide audience.

Interestingly, the first full instance of the pun known to QI was printed in 1952 embedded within a different sentence in a student periodical at the University of Virginia. The joke was not credited to Parker; details are given further below. Social mores have changed over the decades, and in 1990s protesters argued that the jest was insulting to sex workers.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1935 March 1, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1935 April 19, Bradford Era Friday, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Behind the Scenes in Hollywood by Harrison Carroll, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1962 July, Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 4, Number 6, High Spirits in the Twenties by John Mason Brown, Start Page 32, Quote Page 38, Column 1, American Heritage Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

The Cure for Boredom Is Curiosity. There Is No Cure for Curiosity

Dorothy Parker? Ellen Parr? Anonymous?

rover09Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement about curiosity has been attributed to the well-known wit Dorothy Parker and someone named Ellen Parr:

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quotation known to QI appeared in “Reader’s Digest” in December 1980 in a column called “Quotable Quotes” where the words were ascribed to Parr. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
—Ellen Parr

Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and there is no substantive evidence that she employed this saying. The two names “Parr” and “Parker” are alphabetically very close, and QI conjectures that a mistake led to the reassignment of the saying from Parr to Parker based on a known mechanism for misattribution. A more extensive explanation is given further below.

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Notes:

  1. 1980 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 117, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 172, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

First I Brush My Teeth and Then I Sharpen My Tongue

Dorothy Parker? Oscar Levant? Anonymous?

cougar10Dear Quote Investigator: A famously trenchant wit was once asked to describe the daily routine followed after arising:

I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, and then I sharpen my tongue.

These words have been attributed to the writer Dorothy Parker and to the pianist comedian Oscar Levant. Would you please determine who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: In 1940 the Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson relayed the following remark from Oscar Levant though the name was misspelled as “Lavant”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Asked about his morning routine by an interviewer, Oscar Lavant cracked: “First I brush my teeth and then I sharpen my tongue.”

The ascription to Levant was supported by other columnists in the 1940s. The linkage to Dorothy Parker appears to have been constructed in the 2000s. Thus, the Parker connection was not substantive.

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Notes:

  1. 1940 September 26, Santa Cruz Evening News, Erskine Johnson’s Hollywood Today, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com)

Have You Tried Curiosity?

Dorothy Parker? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?

cat09Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker was a friend of Alexander Woollcott, a notable writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. When Woollcott’s ancient cat developed a serious malady he was told by a veterinarian that the animal would have to be put to sleep. Uncertain of how to proceed, he consulted with Parker who said, “Have you tried curiosity?”

I offer my apologies to cat lovers for retelling this anecdote. Would you please examine the veracity of this incident?

Quote Investigator: To understand Parker’s quip the reader must be aware of an odd piece of proverbial wisdom that was in circulation by the 1800s:

Curiosity killed the cat.

A precursor proverb using the same template employed the word “care” instead of “curiosity”; the term “care” referred to worry and anxiety. For example, Shakespeare wrote in “Much Ado About Nothing” circa 1599:

What! courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.

The earliest instance of the Parker quip located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1966. This version of the tale did not involve Woollcott, and the incident described occurred one week before the publication of the column when Dorothy Parker visited the residence of the actor Zero Mostel. Boldface has been added to excerpts. Ellipses were present in the original text: 1 2

Ian Hunter also was among the guests, and Mostel asked him about his cat — which terrorizes everyone: “Have you killed that cat yet?” … “No, I haven’t,” Hunter said. “Frankly, I can’t afford it — to pay the fee for killing my cat.” … Mrs. Parker suggested: “Have you tried curiosity?”

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Notes:

  1. 1966 August 6, Morning Advocate, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 2A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1966 August 6, The Times-Picayune, The Lyons Den: Coach Meets Pope by Leonard Lyons, Section two, Quote Page 12, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

“She Is Always Kind to Her Inferiors” “But Where Does She Find Them?”

Dorothy Parker? Mark Twain? Samuel Johnson? Sidney Skolsky? Margaret Case Harriman? Anonymous?

parker08Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating wit Dorothy Parker once listened to an enumeration of the many positive attributes of a person she disliked. Below is the final statement of praise together with Parker’s acerbic response:

“She is always kind to her inferiors.”
“And where does she find them?”

The humor hinges on the possible non-existence of the inferiors. Is this tale accurate? Who was the person being discussed?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this anecdote located by QI was printed in the Hollywood gossip column of Sidney Skolsky in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At lunch the other day, a group were discussing a prominent actress and a person said: “She’s only kind to her inferiors.” Whereupon Dorothy Parker remarked: “Where does she find them?”

In January 1941 “The New Yorker” magazine printed an article by Margaret Case Harriman that profiled the fashionable author and playwright Clare Boothe Luce, and it included an oft-repeated version of the tale in which Clare Boothe Luce was the target of the barb from Parker.

Interestingly, the playwright was not known for her evanescent pursuit of acting. Her initial fame was primarily based on the Broadway hit she wrote titled “The Women” which debuted in December 1936, and QI believes that the columnist Sidney Skolsky would not have referred to Clare Boothe Luce as a “prominent actress” in June 1937.

There was another woman named Claire Luce who was a well-known actress in the time period. Conceivably, the names were confused. It was also possible that the entire story was simply concocted by someone to provide entertainment. Precursor tales and jibes have been circulating since the 1700s. Mark Twain employed a fun variant.

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Notes:

  1. 1937 June 23, Milwaukee Sentinel, Section: Peach, Page 3, Column 6, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)

Shoot Them Now, While They’re Happy

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

typeparker07Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant wit Dorothy Parker’s career was based on writing. She composed screenplays in Hollywood, and she authored columns for the magazines “Esquire” and “The New Yorker”. Yet, she was not always happy with her literary livelihood.

Recently on Pinterest I saw a piece of comically lethal acerbic advice that Parker reportedly gave to friends of aspiring writers. Would you please tell me if this quip is an authentic Parkerism? Where exactly did it appear?

Quote Investigator: In November 1959 Dorothy Parker penned a book review column in “Esquire” magazine that evaluated the revised edition of the famous writing guide “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Parker gave the work her highest recommendation and said it should be kept and treasured as a “forever” book. She also prescribed a form of euthanasia for budding writers. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

William Strunk taught Mr. White English at Cornell, and certainly he had no more gifted and proficient a pupil. It is a book to put alongside Fowler’s works, and I can think of no higher praise; I greatly doubt if there is any.

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

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Notes:

  1. 1959 November, Esquire, Book Reviews by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 26, Quote Page 28, Column 4, Published by Arnold Gingrich, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)