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