Dorothy Parker? Clare Boothe Luce? Sheilah Graham? Snooty debutante? Little chorus girl?
Dear Quote Investigator: I think Dorothy Parker should be credited with the wittiest comeback ever spoken. She was attempting to go through a doorway at the same time as another person and words were exchanged. According to the story I heard the other person was the glamorous socialite and playwright Clare Boothe Luce.
“Age before beauty” said Luce while yielding the way. “And pearls before swine,” replied Parker while gliding through the doorway. Is this quotation accurate and is this tale true?
Quote Investigator: There is more than one version of this story, and the earliest description does not refer to Clare Boothe Luce by name. However, the second oldest version does identify her and Dorothy Parker as the antagonists. Further, this version was written by the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham who claimed that she heard it directly from Parker in 1938.
In 1941 The New Yorker magazine referred to the supposed interchange as an “apocryphal incident”. In addition, Boothe has denied the skirmish occurred. QI thinks that there is strong evidence that Parker created the quip, and she spoke it. Yet, it is not completely clear whether she was addressing Boothe.
In this article Clare Boothe Luce will sometimes be referred to as Boothe. Confusion is possible because two names: Clare Boothe and Clare Boothe Luce are both used in media accounts. Clare Boothe married the powerful publisher Henry Luce in 1935, and the name Luce was added to her appellation. Both names have continued in use.
Here are the two earliest citations found by QI. On September 16, 1938 The Spectator, a London periodical, published this passage: 1
It is recorded that Mrs. Parker and a snooty debutante were both going in to supper at a party: the debutante made elaborate way, saying sweetly “Age before beauty, Mrs. Parker.” “And pearls before swine,” said Mrs. Parker, sweeping in.
Boothe was born in 1903 and was 35 when this article was published; hence, she probably would not have been referred to as a debutante. Yet, the article does not specify a date of occurrence, and the event may have happened several years before 1938.
On October 14, 1938 the Hartford Courant printed the celebrity gossip column of Sheilah Graham containing this tale: 2
Dorothy Parker tells me of the last time she encountered Playwright Clare Boothe. The two ladies were trying to get out of a doorway at the same time. Clare drew back and cracked, “Age before beauty, Miss Parker.” As Dotty swept out, she turned to the other guests and said. “Pearls before swine.”
Additional selected citations in chronological order and some background information are presented below.