George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan? Anatole France and Isadora Duncan? Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe? Albert Einstein and a chorus girl? George Bernard Shaw and a strange lady in Zurich?
Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly there was famous exchange between the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw and the glamorous dancer Isadora Duncan on the topic of producing a child together. Duncan stated that Shaw had a magnificent brain and she had a glorious beauty; the combination would yield a remarkable child. Shaw replied with regret that he feared the result would embody his beauty and her brains.
Recently, I read this same tale, but the dialog was between two other people: the playwright Arthur Miller and the icon Marilyn Monroe. Is this anecdote genuine? Who were the participants?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence matching the template of this story located by QI was published in the Boston Globe newspaper in 1923. The two supposed participants were the Frenchman Anatole France who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 and the acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan. The spelling “Isadore” was used by the paper:
In all probability the conversation between Isadore Duncan and Anatole France, who were discussing eugenics, came to a sudden stop when Isadore said: “Imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!” and Anatole responded: “Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!”
A version of the anecdote featuring George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan was in circulation during the same time period. Here is an instance from an Interfraternity Conference held in New York in 1925 where the communication between Shaw and Duncan was via letters instead of spoken. This tale was presented by Oswald C. Hering, a noted architect. The spelling “Isidora” was used in the following passage:
It reminds me of the story going around about the letters interchanged by Isidora Duncan and Bernard Shaw. Miss Duncan wrote Mr. Shaw as follows: ‘My dear Mr. Shaw: I beg to remind you that as you have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body, it is our duty to posterity to have a child.’ Whereupon Mr. Shaw replied to Miss Duncan: ‘My dear Miss Duncan: I admit that I have the greatest brain in the world and that you have the most beautiful body, but it might happen that our child would have my body and your brain. Therefore, I respectfully decline.’
This popular story was disseminated internationally, and George Bernard Shaw was asked directly about the anecdote by the editor of the German periodical Sächsisches Volksblatt because of a controversy involving a writer named Max Hayek. A short story by Hayek shared similarities with the anecdote, and he was accused plagiarizing an instance of the tale featuring Shaw and Duncan that was published in the Italian periodical Milan Corriere della Sera.
On March 3, 1926 Shaw sent a letter in which he strongly denied the Italian story about his interaction with Duncan and remarked on the unreliability of newspaper accounts in general:
… No beautiful American dancer has ever proposed marriage to me, on eugenic or any other grounds. The Italian journalist invented the dancer and her proposal; stole the witty reply from Herr Max; and chose me for the hero of his tale because newspapers always buy stories about me. 99% of these stories are flat falsehoods. 1/2% are half true. The remaining 1/2% are true, but spoilt in the telling.
Strikingly, Shaw made additional intriguing comments on this topic in 1931. He claimed that he once received a comparable “strange offer” from a “foreign actress”, and his reply was analogous to the one in the famous anecdote. The details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations and commentary.