French Have Taken Umbrage. English Have Taken Cognizance.

Who was fighting? Russians? French? Zulus? English? Prussians? Boers?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I worked on a student newspaper in college I was told a story about a late night editor at a major newspaper who received a terse wire report saying the “Russians Have Taken Umbrage”. The editor did not know the meaning of this phrase, and his attempt to locate “Umbrage” on a map failed. However, he was certain that this was a significant news item. The next day the paper bannered something like:

Umbrage Captured; Defenders Retreat in Disarray

I have never seen a copy of the actual news article, but the time period was World War II. Is this a newspaperman’s legend, or is there some truth in this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: First, to understand this humorous tale it is helpful to know that “to take umbrage” means “to take offense” or “to be displeased”.

Jokes based on misunderstanding “umbrage” in a military context stretch far back in time. QI has located a variant that uses this form of wordplay in “The Town and Country Magazine” in 1782. The setting of this jape is “During the war between France and England in the last reign.” The following narrative describes the experiences of a newspaper reader who is initially made unhappy by what he reads. In the text the word “Damn” is represented by “D—n” [TCFE]:

Coming to a paragraph which informed him that the French had taken umbrage, he removed his spectacles from his nose with unusual precipitation, and exclaimed, with an eagerness which evidently proceeded from the strength of his feelings, though it was at the expence of his understanding–“D–n these fellows, they will have every town they come to if they go on at this here rate.”

When he had vented his indignation at the taking umbrage, he resumed his paper, and finding, soon afterwards, in another page that the English had taken cognizance, his face brightened up amazingly; looking round the room with an air of satisfaction he said, “Aye, aye, this is something like; now we are even with the powder-puffs; aye, aye, tis’ high time to put a spoke into Mounsheer’s wheels.”

“To take cognizance” means “to take notice” or “to acknowledge”. “Mounsheer” is a deliberate misspelling of the French word “Monsieur” which is a courtesy title equivalent to the English ‘Mr.’ The passage appears in a section called “Letters to the Delineator’ and the letter writer is named Samuel Snug.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading French Have Taken Umbrage. English Have Taken Cognizance.

Venice: Streets Full of Water. Advise.

Robert Benchley? Mattie Barwick? David Niven?

Dear Quote Investigator: You might enjoy looking into this confusing question. I have been searching newspaper databases for a project involving the Venice canals. The following humorous note appeared in a newspaper called the Miami News on October 30, 1958 [MNGB]:

Word comes from European traveler, Mattie (Mrs. George) Barwick who is abroad with Mrs. William H. Walker, Jr.

Says she. “Just arrived in Venice. Find all streets flooded. Please advise.”

I recognized this as a restatement of a memorable joke telegram sent by Robert Benchley. Nowadays with the water problems in Venice the quip is less amusing.

I checked some quotation references to find out when Benchley came up with this clever comment. My puzzlement stems from the fact that Benchley is first credited with the joke in 1968, and this is ten years after the Miami News article. Benchley died in 1945. Do you think he is being given credit for something he never said?

Quote Investigator: A version of this message is attributed to Benchley in the Yale Book of Quotations [YBRB], the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [ODRB], the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations [PMRB] and many other references. The YBQ contains the best citation information, and it refers to the 1968 book “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan [AWRB]:

On a summer vacation trip Benchley arrived in Venice and immediately wired a friend:

“STREETS FLOODED. PLEASE ADVISE.”

QI has located a version of the anecdote and the telegram text under the title “Bulletin from Benchley” in the October 1958 issue of The Reader’s Digest, and this should help to resolve the riddle [RDRB]:

David Niven tells about the time he and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., planned a European itinerary for humorist Robert Benchley: “I made arrangements for him to visit some friends of mine in Venice. The day Benchley got there he sent us a cable which read:

STREETS FULL OF WATER. ADVISE.

—As told to Dean Jennings in The Saturday Evening Post

The Reader’s Digest was typically released before the date on its cover, and the issue of the Saturday Evening Post containing the words attributed to Benchley must have been available before that time. Hence the joke was widely disseminated before it appeared in the Miami News at the end of October in 1958.

Here are some additional select citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Venice: Streets Full of Water. Advise.

I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept Me as a Member

Friars Club? Delaney Club? Beverly Hills Tennis Club? Hillcrest Country Club?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful story about Groucho Marx and an elite private club. I have heard so many variants of this tale that I was hoping you would investigate. In one version Groucho resigns from a club, and in another version he refuses to join a club. He sends a telegram or a letter saying something like the following:

  • I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.
  • I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.
  • I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
  • I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

The club is called: The Friars Club of Beverly Hills, The Delaney Club, The Lambs Club, The Beverly Hills Tennis Club, or The Hillcrest Country Club. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Evidence shows that Groucho Marx crafted a magnificently humorous line that has become a comedy classic. However, the same evidence does not reveal the exact wording of his comical gem or the precise circumstances of its employment. Yet, there is some agreement; for example, sources concur that Groucho was resigning from a club, and he was not refusing to join one.

On October 20, 1949 the Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson published the tale. This is the earliest instance located by QI: 1

Groucho Marx’s letter of resignation to the Friars’ Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

On October 13, 1951 the only son of Groucho, Arthur Marx, published a version of the anecdote in Collier’s Magazine. This is the earliest variant by a close family member with intimate knowledge of Groucho. Over the years Arthur Marx recounted different narratives of this episode, and some will be presented further below. In 1951 he said that Groucho joined the Friars Club at the insistence of friends, but he did not participate. So Groucho sent a letter of resignation: 2

In the next mail, he received a letter from the club’s president, wanting to know why he had resigned. My father promptly wrote back, “Because I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member!”

In 1959 Groucho himself told about resigning a club in his memoir “Groucho and Me”, but he presented a fictionalized version of the story in which the club was referred to as the Delaney Club: 3

The following morning I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.

In 1988 Groucho’s son wrote another description of the resignation in his book “My Life with Groucho: A Son’s Eye View”. In this version Groucho resigned from the Hillcrest Country Club and not the Friars Club or the Delaney Club. 4

Dear Board,

I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

Sincerely yours,
Groucho Marx.

These four variants of the tale are the most salient in QI’s opinion, but several more are available. No one seems to know the exact wording of the resignation message which is endlessly mutable.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Don’t Want to Belong to Any Club That Will Accept Me as a Member

Notes:

  1. 1949 October 20, Dunkirk Evening Observer, In Hollywood by Erskine Johnson, Page 22, Column 5, Dunkirk, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1951 October 13, Collier’s magazine, Groucho Is My Pop by Arthur Marx, Page 14, Column 2, P.F. Collier, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1995 [reprint of 1959 edition], Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx, Chapter 24, Page 321, Da Capo Press Inc., New York. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside)
  4. 1992 [reprint of 1988 edition], My Life with Groucho by Arthur Marx, Pages 187-188, Robson Books Ltd., London. (Verified with hardcopy)

Taxes: This is a Question Too Difficult for a Mathematician

Albert Einstein? Associated Press? Time magazine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: You recently discussed one quotation by Albert Einstein about taxes, but my question is about another remark attributed to the genius. The Canadian newspaper “Globe and Mail” published the following earlier this year [GME]:

Albert Einstein said of his tax return, “This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher.”

Is this information accurate?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Einstein spoke this; however, the precise wording in the original differs. The following text appeared in an Associated Press article in the New York Times titled “Tax Form Baffles Even Prof. Einstein” dated March 11, 1944 [NTE]:

Asked what his reaction was to the maze of income tax questions, Professor Einstein, whose theory of relativity is supposedly understood by only seven persons in the world, replied:

“This is a question too difficult for a mathematician. It should be asked of a philosopher.”

The byline stated the location was Princeton, New Jersey, and Einstein did work at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University in 1944. The AP wire story was widely distributed; for example, on the same day the quotation was printed in the Los Angeles Times [LAE] and the Christian Science Monitor [CME].

Continue reading Taxes: This is a Question Too Difficult for a Mathematician

“It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Who Said It? Samuel Goldwyn? Robert Benchley? Gracie Allen? Alva Johnston? Anonymous?

Who or What Was Caustic? The Little Foxes? Jim Tully? An Unnamed Actor? Mr. Rosenblatt? An Unnamed Script? An Unnamed Writer? Sidney Howard? Moss Hart?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining legend about the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn has been amusing people for decades. “The Little Foxes” was a major Broadway hit in 1939 and Goldwyn was considering purchasing the rights to create a film based on the story. He asked his top advisor to see the play and report to him. Here is what the aide supposedly told Goldwyn together with his reply:

“Sam, it’s a great drama, but it might be a little too caustic.”
“I don’t care what it costs, I want it.”

This is my favorite anecdote about Goldwyn, and it is supported by the fact that he did buy the rights and made a classic movie starring Bette Davis. Could you research this quotation?

Quote Investigator:Thanks for sending in this fun story. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the timeline that makes this tale unlikely. In January 1930 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell reported a version of the joke based on the misconstrual of the word “caustic” that was being disseminated by the popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley. Thus, the core joke was in circulation about nine years before the premiere of “The Little Foxes”.

The tale centered on two movie magnates who began their careers in the garment business. This biographical detail matched Samuel Goldwyn who was a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood. The maladroit line was spoken by one of the magnates. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They were in conference trying to save a new picture that lacked, what critics usually call, “a wallop.”
“If we could only get someone to fix it up,” said one.
“Why don’t you get Jim Tully?” suggested an executive.
“Jim Tully is too caustic!”
“Oh,” thundered one of the magnates, “the hell with the cost, get him!”

The writer Robert Benchley constructed many humorous stories, and it was possible that he simply invented this anecdote to entertain friends. Alternatively, he may have been present at a meeting when the line was spoken. Special thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation given above.

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

You Cannot Persuade Her with Gun or Lariat, To Come Across for the Proletariat

Dorothy Parker? W. Somerset Maugham? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dorothy Parker was at a party where guests were challenging one another to complete poems based on a few starting lines, or so the story goes. Parker was given the following two lines:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

After a moment to gather her thoughts she finished the verse with the following lines:

You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

I thought Parker’s lines were hilarious when I was told this story. But I have never been able to find any details about this anecdote. When and where did this party take place? Who challenged Parker? Could you explore this tale and quotation?

Quote Investigator: The lines of poetry that you give are accurate, but the surrounding anecdote is not quite correct. The story first appeared, QI believes, in the introduction written by W. Somerset Maugham to the 1944 edition of “The Viking Portable Library: Dorothy Parker” [SMDP]. Maugham described attending a Hollywood dinner party at the invitation of Miss Fanny Brice. Other guests included the writers Aldous Huxley and Dorothy Parker. During the course of the party Maugham and Parker were seated together, and after some discussion on miscellaneous topics Maugham ventured a request:

“Why don’t you write a poem for me?”
“I will if you like,” she replied. “Give me a pencil and a piece of paper.”

Maugham did not have either, so he requested both from their waiter who was “gone a long time” on the errand. At last he returned with paper and a blunt pencil:

Dorothy Parker took it and wrote:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

“Yes, I’ve always liked those lines,” I said.
She gave a thin, cool smile and without an instant’s hesitation, added:

You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
To come across for the proletariat.

With this brilliant rhyme she gathered Higgledy Piggledy into the august company of Jove’s Eagle, Sindbad the Sailor’s Roc, the Capitoline Geese, Boccaccio’s Falcon, Shelley’s Skylark, and Poe’s Raven.

In Maugham’s anecdote Parker was not challenged with a pair of lines and told to create a quatrain; instead, she supplied the entire set of lines.

Here are a small number of additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Cannot Persuade Her with Gun or Lariat, To Come Across for the Proletariat

A Banker Lends You His Umbrella When It’s Sunny and Wants It Back When It Rains

Mark Twain? Robert Frost? Ambrose Bierce? Ben Bernanke? Philippe Girardet? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is remarkably difficult to obtain a loan in a difficult economic climate. This notion can be expressed with the following adage:

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this remark, but I know that means little. It seems every clever remark is eventually attributed to Twain. Could you figure out who really said it?

Quote Investigator: You are correct to doubt the ascription of the saying to Mark Twain. The invaluable TwainQuotes website of Barbara Schmidt has a webpage dedicated to this adage with the following warning notice: 1

This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.

1905 is the date of the earliest citation found by QI expressing the kernel of the idea in the maxim. The following words were published in a London-based weekly for chartered accountants: 2

A customer who was not getting what he wanted, once said to me: “You bankers only lend a man an umbrella when it is a fine day,” and I thought he expressed it exactly.

A version very similar to the questioner’s expression appeared in January 1930. The first cite found by QI attributing the remark to Mark Twain is dated 1944. In 1949 the adage was credited to the famous poet Robert Frost.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading A Banker Lends You His Umbrella When It’s Sunny and Wants It Back When It Rains

Notes:

  1. TwainQuotes editor Barbara Schmidt, TwainQuotes.com website, Banker quotation and attribution warning, “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella…” (Accessed 2011 April 06) link
  2. 1905 April 15, The Accountant: The Recognised Weekly Organ of Chartered Accountants, [A paper read at a meeting of the Manchester Chartered Accountants Society on March 10th 1905], Notes on a Banker’s Accounts by John Moodie, Page 464, Column 1, Gee & Co., The Accountant Office, London. (Google Books full view) link

The Urge to Save Humanity is Almost Always Only a False-Face for the Urge to Rule It

H.L. Mencken? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is credited to H.L. Mencken on several websites, and I found it in some quotation dictionaries. But I cannot find it directly in any works written by Mencken. Could you tell me if the attribution is correct?

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-front for the urge to rule it.

Quote Investigator: I sympathize with your inability to find this adage using electronic searches. Locating this saying is tricky because the key word “false-front” is incorrect. Here is the phrase with some additional context as it appeared in “Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks” which were first published in 1956 [MRH]:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve. This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel to foreign parts.

The first sentence above was altered to yield the common modern variant by replacing “false-face” with “false-front” and by deleting the word “only”. It is not clear when or where this modification took place.

Continue reading The Urge to Save Humanity is Almost Always Only a False-Face for the Urge to Rule It

“There is a Conspiracy of Silence Against Me. What Should I Do, Oscar?” “Join It.”

Oscar Wilde? Augustine Birrell? Lewis Morris? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular anecdote about Oscar Wilde that is very funny, but it is also implausible in my opinion. The story claims that Wilde was speaking with a terrible poet who had recently published a book of verse. The rhymer complained that no one was reviewing his work. He felt it was being deliberately ignored.

“There is a conspiracy of silence against my book, Oscar. What should I do?”

“Join it,” replied Oscar.

This is a cleverly cutting remark, but I do not believe that Wilde would have been that cruel. In my readings he always seemed to be a gracious conversationalist, and he would not issue this type of direct insult to someone. Could you research this anecdote and quotation?

Quote Investigator: This is an intriguing question but it is not an easy one to probe. QI has located strong evidence that some people who knew Wilde and knew about this incident expressed an opinion similar to yours. Friends of Wilde tell a version in which he did not directly insult the target of this comical barb.

Yet, the earliest published reports of this episode located by QI depict Wilde delivering the quip during a face-to-face encounter with the poet. For example, the following version of the story appeared in a review called “The Critic” on October 13, 1894, and this account was widely disseminated in other reviews and journals during the next few years [TCCS]:

The Bookman tells an amusing story of Mr. Oscar Wilde and a certain poet, who shall be nameless. The bard complained to the aesthete that a book of his had been practically ignored by certain critics. “There is a conspiracy of silence against my book,” he said. “What should you do about it, if you were I?” “Join it,” was the answer.

A very different account was presented by a biographer of Wilde named Robert Harborough Sherard in “The Real Oscar Wilde” in 1916. In this version, the poet, identified as Lewis Morris, asks for advice from the statesman Augustine Birrell. At a later time Birrell communicates the query to Wilde who responds acerbically [ROCS]:

Apropos of conspiracies of silence, there is a frequently told anecdote that the poet, Lewis Morris, having complained to Oscar that there was a conspiracy of silence against him was promptly advised to join it. I never believed that Oscar Wilde would have said such a thing to a brother poet, because I never knew him wilfully to hurt anybody’s feelings, and for another thing, this particular poet was an eminently well-meaning if tedious personage, insufficiently popular to excite anybody’s hostility. That I was right in doubting the accuracy of this story was proved to me by the following statement made by Mr Augustine Birrell, the present Secretary for Ireland, in the course of a conversation he had with Mr Herbert Vivian, who was writing a series of interviews, or Studies in Personality for The Pall Mall Magazine.

Birrell had been talking about a conversation he had had with Winston Churchill and remarked that, in answer to something that Winston had said, “I scarcely knew what to say to him, but I was profoundly impressed by his manner and earnestness.” Hereupon Vivian said: “I should not think that you often found yourself at a loss for an answer.”

To this Birrell answered, with a smile: “That reminds me of a certain poet who came to me once upon a time and complained that his works were neglected. He said there was a conspiracy of silence. Of course I felt very sorry for him, but I was really puzzled what to say. I mentioned this to a well-known wit, who exclaimed quite angrily: ‘You did not know what to say! Do you really mean to tell me that you did not know what to say?’ ‘No, upon my word I did not.’ ‘Of course, you should have said: “A conspiracy of silence! My dear fellow, join it at once.”’”

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “There is a Conspiracy of Silence Against Me. What Should I Do, Oscar?” “Join It.”

Progress May Have Been All Right Once, But It Went On Too Long

Ogden Nash? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Jeopardy is my favorite game show, and I recently watched in amazement as an IBM computer named Watson beat the two best human players in the history of the trivia tournament. I was reminded of the classic one-line observation made by the brilliantly humorous poet Ogden Nash:

Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.

This epigram is listed in the Wikipedia entry for Ogden Nash, and I found it in some quotation references, but no one seems to know where it appeared initially. I searched the archive of The New Yorker because that magazine published many of his poems, but I could not find the phrase. Could you determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The primary obstacle to tracing this saying is the inaccuracy of its wording. The phrasing specified in your question, which is common online and appears in many books, differs from the original text used by Ogden Nash when he published the line as part of the poem “Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours” in the 1950s. This is a common problem in quotation research that complicates database searches. Even when the phrasing is very similar and the semantics are nearly equivalent the rigorous word-for-word and letter-for-letter matching may fail.

Your idea to search the New Yorker database was an excellent one. The poem appeared in the April 4, 1959 issue of that magazine, but you may have missed it because your search query was based on the incorrect wording. The fourteen-line composition begins as follows [NYCK]:

My dictionary defines progress as an advance toward perfection.

There has been lots of progress during my lifetime, but I’m afraid it’s been heading in the wrong direction.

The poem ends with the following two lines:

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long;

I think progress began to retrogress when Wilbur and Orville started tinkering around in Dayton and at Kitty Hawk, because I believe that two Wrights made a wrong.

This saying is a favorite of the prominent political pundit George Will who first used a version of it in his doctoral thesis. Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Progress May Have Been All Right Once, But It Went On Too Long