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


  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

If the Bee Disappeared Off the Face of the Earth, Man Would Only Have Four Years Left To Live

Albert Einstein? Charles Darwin? Maurice Maeterlinck? E. O. Wilson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A dramatic quotation about the dangers of environmental upheaval is attributed to the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein. Here are two versions:

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.

If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live

Some commentators are skeptical about this ascription. Could you examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type about bees. Alice Calaprice, the editor of the important collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein”, placed the saying in the “Probably Not by Einstein” section of her reference. 1

The earliest evidence known to QI of a connection between Einstein and disastrous environmental scenarios caused by the disappearance of bees was published in the “Canadian Bee Journal” in 1941: 2

If I remember well, it was Einstein who said: “Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

QI has located no supporting evidence that Einstein made the remark above. Instead, QI has determined that a statement of this type was made by the major literary figure Maurice Maeterlinck in his work “The Life of the Bee” in 1901. The saying was widely disseminated in the decades afterwards.

In May 1965 a French periodical about nature and animals called “La Vie des Bêtes et l’Ami des Bêtes” stated that Einstein had calculated a grim four year time limit for humanity if bees disappeared. This was the earliest evidence known to QI of a connection between Einstein who died in 1955 and the dire deadline. Details are given further below.

Below is a selected chronological sequence of citations that attempt to roughly outline the evolution of this expression and its conceptual formation. Because this task is difficult and the available information is fragmentary this entry is lengthy. QI is indebted to the pioneering research of Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Ray Girvan who explored this topic and located many important citations including the two given previously.

Continue reading If the Bee Disappeared Off the Face of the Earth, Man Would Only Have Four Years Left To Live


  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Page 479, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1941 January, Canadian Bee Journal, Volume 49, Number 1, Comments From Quebec by Ernest A. Fortin, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Publisher: J. and M. Atkinson, St. Catharines, Ontario. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Terry Garey and Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)