If You Want to Know What a Man’s Like, Look at How He Treats His Inferiors

J. K. Rowling? Lord Chesterfield? Sirius Black? Charles Bayard Miliken? M. C. B. Mason?

Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite quotation from the entire Harry Potter series was the brilliantly insightful remark spoken by the character Sirius Black:

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

Did the author originate this saying?

Quote Investigator: One theme in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling is the mistreatment of a class of servants called house elves. The term “inferiors” is used to refer to individuals who have a lower rank or status within a society. This group included house elves in Rowling’s fantasy universe.

In the book “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” the character Hermione Granger was unhappy with the treatment given to a house elf by Bartemius Crouch, a powerful official. Sirius Black concurred with Granger that Crouch’s actions revealed a character defect. Here is a longer excerpt in which Hermione Granger speaks of the dismissal of a house elf, and Black then addresses Ronald Weasley [GFSB]:

“Yes,” said Hermione in a heated voice, “he sacked her, just because she hadn’t stayed in her tent and let herself get trampled—”

“Hermione, will you give it a rest with the elf!” said Ron.

Sirius shook his head and said, “She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron.  If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The popularity of Rowling’s books provided wide-dissemination for this guideline about assessing character. But this general expression has a long history, and QI has located an example in 1910 that communicated the same idea using comparable language [CMRT]:

It is the way one treats his inferiors more than the way he treats his equals which reveals one’s real character.

—Rev. Charles Bayard Miliken, Methodist Episcopal, Chicago.

Below are additional selected citations on this theme in chronological order starting in the 1700s.

QI has also examined a related saying: You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. Skip to the end of this article for a comparison of these two sayings and/or click here to read the other article.

Continue reading If You Want to Know What a Man’s Like, Look at How He Treats His Inferiors

Now We’re Just Haggling Over the Price

George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Groucho Marx? Max Aitken? Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Bertrand Russell?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous story about sex and money that I have heard in myriad variations. A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?
He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

This joke is retold with different famous individuals filling the roles. Often Bernard Shaw is mentioned. Did anything like this ever happen? Who was involved?

Quote Investigator: The role of the character initiating the proposal in this anecdote has been assigned to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson and others. However, the earliest example of this basic story found by QI did not spotlight any of the persons just listed. In addition, the punch line was phrased differently.

In January 1937 the syndicated newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre printed a version of the anecdote that he says was sent to him as a newspaper clipping. This tale featured a powerful Canadian-British media magnate and politician named Max Aitken who was also referred to as Lord Beaverbrook [MJLB]:

Someone sends me a clipping from Columnist Lyons with this honey:

“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ She said she would. ‘And if be paid you five pounds?’ The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”

Note that this newspaper version does not use the blunt phrase “sleep with”. Instead, a more oblique expression, “live with”, is employed to conform to the conventions of the period.

Top-researcher Barry Popik has performed very valuable work tracing this tale, and we have incorporated some of his discoveries in this article. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Now We’re Just Haggling Over the Price

No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance!

Walter Winchell? Michael Todd? Rose Bigman? Helene Hanff? Richard Rodgers?

Dear Quote Investigator: The most famous review in Broadway history is also the most controversial, and I hope you can help solve the following mystery.

In 1943 a hardworking theater group in New Haven, Connecticut was trying to prepare a major musical so that it could move to Broadway. The production was called “Away We Go!” and the local audience was welcoming. But an important visitor from New York saw the show and was decidedly unenthusiastic. The women in the cast wore appropriate period costumes, long dresses. The reviewer thought that the display of feminine pulchritude was fundamental to success, so the following devastating one-line analysis was communicated to New York:

No legs; No jokes; No chance!

A major investor threatened to drop out, but the company persevered. When the production was transferred to Broadway it had a new title: “Oklahoma!” and box-office records were smashed. “Oklahoma!” became the longest running and most successful musical of its era.

However, this popular Broadway legend has more than one version because the identity of the New York visitor is uncertain. Some say that the influential producer Mike Todd created the inaccurate review. Others say that Rose Bigman heard the statement or composed the statement and sent it via telegram to New York. She was the right-hand assistant of Walter Winchell the most powerful newspaper columnist and radio commentator of the period. The legend says Winchell published the now infamous appraisal in his widely distributed column. Another scandalous tale says the true unexpurgated comment was “No tits; No jokes; No chance.” What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The New Haven premiere of “Away We Go!” occurred on March 11, 1943. Some references claim that the lacerating evaluation was published shortly after this performance, but QI has been unable to find any evidence supporting this claim.

The Broadway production with the updated title “Oklahoma!” opened on March 31, 1943. Three months later, on June 24, 1943, Walter Winchell’s syndicated column was printed in the Augusta Chronicle with the following comment about the musical which was already a triumph. Note that the repeated dots in this text are part of Winchell’s writing style and do not represent an ellipsis [OKW1]:

The success of “Oklahoma” still is Broadway tabletalk. …The musical was “a sleeper.” …There was no advance gab about it. ..None of the usual excitement of a Theatre Guild first night …Even the ticket brokers were unimpressed after witnessing it at New Haven. One spec summed up this way: “No jokes, no legs, no chance!”

This is the earliest instance of the well-known remark that QI has located. Note that the first two elements, “No jokes” and “No legs”, are swapped when compared to the most common modern version.

Clearly, Winchell was not attacking the play in this piece; instead, he was criticizing a wildly inaccurate prediction. Also, he did not publicly attach a name to the harsh statement. The next week, on June 29th, Winchell printed a humorous and joyful follow-up response from a member of the theater company [OKW2]:

The quip here about “Oklahoma” being unappreciated during the try-outs and a N.Y. ticket spec summing up: “No jokes, no legs, no chance!” is topped by Jean Roberts of the cast .. “And now,” she telegraphs, “no tickets!”

More than a decade later in 1957 the notable Broadway press agent Richard Maney wrote about the early reception of “Oklahoma!” In one sentence he presented Mike Todd’s negative opinion of the show. In the immediately succeeding sentence he mentioned the notorious phrase which he attributed to a “Broadway ticket broker”. In a third sentence he listed the critique of theater owner Lee Shubert. A rapid reader might have connected the key comment to Todd instead of an anonymous ticket broker. In the following excerpt Lindy’s referred to a popular New York City restaurant [FFRM] [PPRM]:

“Are they going to ask $3.60 for that?” jeered Michael Todd, even then identified as a genius by the illuminati in Lindy’s. “No legs, no jokes, no chance!” was the verdict of a Broadway ticket broker credited with occult powers. Lee Shubert frowned on the proceedings. No musical could prosper in which a character was killed, he said.

In 1960 a columnist named Harlowe R. Hoyt writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer attributed the remark directly to producer Mike Todd [CPMT]:

And the late Mike Todd jeered “Oklahoma” with: “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

Starting in 1961 two strongly conflicting accounts about this episode in musical history emerged. One account was outlined by a publicist for “Oklahoma!” named Helene Hanff in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in March 1961. Another version was given by Walter Winchell in a series of rebuttals printed in his column and in his memoir. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance!

The Next Time I Send a Damn Fool for Something, I Go Myself

Samuel Goldwyn? Michael Curtiz? Sheilah Graham? Jones? Scones? Louis Cukela? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is an unintentionally hilarious remark credited to the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. He sent an assistant on an important errand and was angry when the task was badly botched. In exasperation Goldwyn created this classic rebuke:

The next time I send a damn fool for something, I go myself.

However, I am now told that Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-American film director, actually spoke this line to a prop man who retrieved the wrong prop three times in a row. Can you resolve this uncertainty?

Quote Investigator: The earliest example of this basic story located by QI does not involve Samuel Goldwyn or Michael Curtiz. In 1889 the following funny tale was told about a person named “Jones”, but this incident was not portrayed as an actual event. Instead, “Jones” was used as a generic name in a fictional gag [JBHM]:

Jones, having sent a stupid servant to do an errand, was greatly annoyed on finding that he had done exactly the opposite of what he had been ordered.

“Why, you haven’t common-sense,” he remonstrated.

“But, sir”—

“Shut up! I should have remembered that you were an idiot. When I’m tempted to send a fool on an errand again I’ll not ask you—I’ll go myself.”

The passage above was printed in the Boston Herald newspaper of Massachusetts; however, an acknowledgment indicated that the words were reprinted from “Judge” an influential humor magazine. Indeed, the joke was published a couple years later in 1891 in the companion magazine “Judge’s Library: A Monthly Magazine of Fun” [JLMJ]. Versions of the tale were also featured in several other newspapers and magazines in succeeding years.

Sometimes a pre-existing comical anecdote is spuriously assigned to a series of famous personalities over a period of decades. When this occurs the attributions are inaccurate and the events are fictitious. These entertaining apocryphal tales can be used to fill column inches in newspapers and pages in books. Yet, in this case, intriguingly, there is eyewitness evidence that a variant of the gag was embodied in an actual occurrence on a film set.

The first connection found by QI between Michael Curtiz and the saying was dated 1936. The syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham visited the movie location for “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and observed the behavior of the director Curtiz.

During the filming of one scene an actor playing an English cavalryman shouted “Yippee”, and the incongruous scene required a reshoot. During the second take a horse became recalcitrant and spoiled the action [SGMC]:

It is now 10 minutes to six, and the light is going fast. The third “take” is ruined by a too-eager extra who charges ahead of the order. “Next time I send a fool into the charge, I’ll go myself,” wails the foreign Mr. Curtiz, whose American becomes confused in moments of stress.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Next Time I Send a Damn Fool for Something, I Go Myself

April, Like a Child, Writes Hieroglyphs on Dust with Flowers

Rabindranath Tagore? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: My daughter remembers a poem, or part of a poem, and she asked me about it.  I don’t recognize it and have not been able to find it.  Perhaps you can work your magic.

April writes hieroglyphs in the sand
Wipes them away and forgets

Quote Investigator: Your daughter was probably recalling a verse from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. The work “Fireflies” was published around 1927 and it contained the following lines [RTTP] [RTMR]:

April, like a child,
writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
wipes them away and forgets.

This verse and several others were published in 1928 in the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, Louisiana and in other periodicals. Tagore wrote in Bengali and his poems were translated into English.

Continue reading April, Like a Child, Writes Hieroglyphs on Dust with Flowers

The Telegraph is Like a Very, Very Long Cat (or Dog)

Albert Einstein? Shah of Persia? National Telegraphic Union? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein was once asked to explain radio communication, and he supposedly gave the following answer:

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat.  You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles.  Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there.  The only difference is that there is no cat.

Personally, I doubt that this quotation should be credited to Einstein, but I still find it fascinating. Could you determine who created this joke?

Quote Investigator: There is no significant evidence that Einstein ever wrote or spoke the passage above. The earliest cite QI has located for this text was within a 1985 source code listing of a computer program called “fortune”. This program was part of the installation of the popular Unix operating system, and “fortune” was inspired by the notion of a fortune cookie.

When the program was run it displayed one saying from a large collection of texts that was kept in a simple database file. The quote above appeared in a version of the program that was distributed on February 28, 1985.[1]1985 February 28, Usenet Newsgroup: net.sources.games, Subject: sunybcs’s fortune(6), From: Col. G. L. Sicherman, [Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet] … Continue reading The quote may have been present in the program for several years before this date.

QI has not yet found any connection between Einstein and the anecdote predating the “fortune” program version. But the jocular comparison of telegraphy and very long animals has an extensive history. The earliest instances of the comical remarks featured a dog instead of a cat. Here is an example in 1866:[2] 1866 August 31, Providence Evening Press, A Novel Illustration Of The Telegraph, Page 2, Column 2, Providence, Rhode Island. (GenealogyBank)

A Novel Illustration of the Telegraph.—A most ludicrous conversation took place a few weeks ago in a small village near Paris. Two peasants were discussing about the war between Austria and Prussia, when one of them remarked that he could not understand how messages could be sent by the electric telegraph. His companion after having tried to make him comprehend the manner in which the telegraph works, at last, struck with a bright idea, exclaimed:

“Imagine that the telegraph is an immense long dog-so long that its head is at Vienna and its tail is at Paris. Well, tread on its tail, which is at Paris, and it will bark at Vienna. Do you understand now, stupid, what the telegraph is like?”

“O, yes,” replied the other. “I have an idea now what a telegraph must be.”

This basic anecdote was retold over a period of many decades with a shifting cast of characters. For example, a diary entry in 1873 claimed that the workings of the telegraph were explained to the “Shah of Persia” by using the simile of an “immense dog” stretched between London and Teheran. In 1877 the joke was moved to America, and the dog was used to connect Brooklyn and Hoboken.

By 1917 a new elaboration was added to the evolving story. This variant joke discussed telegraphy with and without a wire. The animal used for transmission was a dog which was spelled “dawg”. The punch line in heavy dialect stated that the operation of the wireless device was “prezactly de same” except that “de dawg am ‘maginary”, i.e., exactly the same except that the dog is imaginary.

By 1924 another variant entered circulation that featured a cat. This variant also spoke about telegraphy with and without a wire. The punch line was “wireless is precisely the same thing without the cat”. This version strongly matched the joke attributed to Einstein, but his name was not mentioned in 1924. Special thanks to correspondent Andrew Steinberg for identifying this important early citation with a cat instead of a dog. Further details for these evolving instances of the joke are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading The Telegraph is Like a Very, Very Long Cat (or Dog)

References

References
1 1985 February 28, Usenet Newsgroup: net.sources.games, Subject: sunybcs’s fortune(6), From: Col. G. L. Sicherman, [Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet] (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed February 23, 2012) (Note: the following words preface the quotation given above: “Albert Einstein, when asked to describe radio, replied:”) link
2 1866 August 31, Providence Evening Press, A Novel Illustration Of The Telegraph, Page 2, Column 2, Providence, Rhode Island. (GenealogyBank)

Books Will Soon Be Obsolete in the Schools

Thomas Edison? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Ebooks have surged in popularity since Amazon introduced the Kindle and Apple released the iPad. Some futurists believe that paper books will be phased out and replaced by electronic books. But I came across a fascinating false prediction made by the most important innovator of the previous century:

Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. – Thomas Edison

Is this quote accurate? What was the larger context?

Quote Investigator: These words are very close to a phrase that was reportedly spoken by Thomas Edison in 1913. Edison pioneered the development of machines for displaying motion pictures, and he was confident that these devices would be used extensively to help teach students. Here is the pull-quote that was displayed adjacent to an interview with Edison published in The New York Dramatic Mirror in July 1913 [NDTE]:

Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye.

The interview article was part of a series of stories in the newspaper about the “Evolution of the Motion Picture”. The well-known Wizard of Menlo Park was asked to speculate about the future.

Continue reading Books Will Soon Be Obsolete in the Schools

Tennis, Anyone?

Humphrey Bogart? George Bernard Shaw? W. Somerset Maugham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Before Humphrey Bogart played iconic tough and sophisticated characters he appeared in drawing room comedies on Broadway. Supposedly in his first scene as a young actor he came striding onto the stage swinging a racquet and saying:

Tennis anyone?

Later this line became a cliché that was parodied by comedians. But recently I read that Bogart never said it. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: For years researchers have attempted to uncover evidence that Bogart spoke this piece of dialogue in a stage production. Some theater goers indicated that they heard Bogart deliver the line, but this type of testimony is not reliable. In multiple interviews Bogart denied that he said it.

But QI has found a 1948 interview with him in the syndicated newspaper column of Hollywood gossip Erskine Johnson that helps to explain the existence of this assertion. Bogart himself stated that he used a nearly identical line “Tennis anybody?” earlier in his career [EJHB]:

Bogart laughed. “I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: “Tennis anybody?” It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way I come in with a gun and bump ’em off.”

According to the language columnist William Safire the story told by Bogart was somewhat different in 1951. In that year Safire interviewed Bogart for the New York Herald Tribune. The text from a yellowed clipping of the resulting article was reprinted by Safire in the New York Times in 1990 [WSHB]:

”People forget how I used to look on Broadway,” the actor reminisced. ”There would be a crowd of charming and witty young blue bloods gathered in the drawing-room set, having tea, while the hero and the heroine get into a petty squabble. The writer couldn’t think of any other way of getting excess characters off the stage, so the leads could be alone – and that’s where I would appear in the doorway, in my flannels, hair slicked back, sweater knotted jauntily about my neck, four tennis racquets under my arm, breathing hard as I said my line: ‘It’s 40-love out there. Anyone care to come out and watch?’ ”

Safire asked Bogart directly about the disputed line and received a denial [WSHB]:

”The lines I had were corny enough, but I swear to you, never once did I have to say Tennis, anyone?”

Reconciling these pronouncements from Bogart is possible if one assumes that the phrase “Tennis anybody?” was not supposed to be a literal description of words in a script. Instead, Bogart was giving a representational or generic phrase that his character type was assigned. Nevertheless confusion is understandable.

The expression occurs frequently enough that lexicographers have created an entry for it in the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary. Two phrasal variations are listed together with a definition [OEDT]:

anyone for tennis?, who’s for tennis?, etc., a typical entrance or exit line given to a young man in a superficial drawing-room comedy, used attrib. of (someone or something reminiscent of) this kind of comedy.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tennis, Anyone?

In the Future Everyone Will Be Anonymous for Fifteen Minutes

Banksy? Andy Warhol? John Leland? Graham Greenleaf? John Hilvert? Neal Gabler?

Dear Quote Investigator: The rise of the hacktivist group “Anonymous” reminded me of an artwork I saw by the graffiti provocateur Banksy. He (or she, or they) created a pink television set with a screen that displayed this message:

In the future everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes

Lasting pieces of art are always ambiguous, and I am not certain what motivated Banksy. Maybe the proliferation of pseudo-celebrities has flattened the notion of fame. Thus, in the future each person will become an interchangeable semi-star.

Perhaps the loss of privacy from ubiquitous cameras, internet tracking, and DNA fingerprints means each of us will be able to retain our secrets and autonomy for only fifteen minutes. Possibly each one of us will join some protest group like “Anonymous” but only for a quarter of an hour.

Naturally, Banksy, himself or herself, has been anonymous for much longer than fifteen minutes. Can you determine who first spun Warhol’s famous prediction to create this new statement?

Quote Investigator: As the questioner suggests, this saying is a twist on a famous pronouncement attributed to the Pop artist Andy Warhol concerning the velocity of modern fame:

In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

The earliest instance found by QI of a saying similar to the one in Banksy’s artwork was printed in the music magazine Spin in 1989. It appeared in a hostile profile of the singer and songwriter Richard Marx by the journalist and critic John Leland. In the following text the term “the 90s” referred to the near future [SPRM]:

A success story for the 90s — when everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes — Marx is rock’s invisible man. No one has sold so many records and made so little impact on the culture. Even his press kit, the expensive, glossy cardboard portfolio of a major star, reads more like a corporate annual report than the story of a life.

The passage above is about the transposable and indistinguishable elements of fame. By May 1996 an interesting variant quotation was circulating that was aimed at another topic: the computer-mediated invasion of privacy. This maxim had different implications because “cyberspace” was substituted for “the future”. The periodical “PJ: Privacy Journal” reported on the saying and credited a legal academic [PJGG]:

“In cyberspace, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.”

Graham Greenleaf, associate professor of law at University of New South Wales and member of the New South Wales Privacy Committee in Australia.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading In the Future Everyone Will Be Anonymous for Fifteen Minutes

The Future Has Arrived — It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed Yet

William Gibson? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I work at Google, and a colleague of mine who leads our Search Education efforts pointed out your site as a great resource for people learning to search smarter. I love the site!

There is a quotation credited to the influential and award-winning science fiction author William Gibson that we’ve used on multiple occasions. But we are not certain whether Gibson said it:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

If you’d care to investigate, you’d have at least a couple thankful fans here.

Quote Investigator: Gibson is a brilliant author, and this is a perceptive and piquant quotation. In 1990 he appeared in a documentary called “Cyberpunk”, and he discussed the differential access to technological developments based on wealth and location. He also stated a version of a key part of the maxim [CPWG]:

The future has already happened.

The earliest evidence for the full version of the saying was found by top quotation expert Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, who kindly shared the citation with QI. In 1992 the San Francisco Examiner published an article about the nascent technology of virtual reality, and the journalist Scott Rosenberg credited a version of the adage to Gibson [WGSF]:

Once whole worlds can be simulated for the senses, the only way to assure the integrity of the public imagination will be to get the power to create those worlds out of the hands of an elite and into general circulation. As William Gibson put it: “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

With the help of Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and a pivotal neoteric thinker, QI was able to obtain a comment from William Gibson about the genesis of this saying and where it might have appeared initially. Kelly relayed that “Gibson does not remember when he first said it, but it was not something he wrote.” Gibson stated [KKGO]:

The problem is that the idea would have preceded its first recorded public utterance by quite some time, in the way of these things. I would assume I thought it, then eventually said it to friends, and that by the time I said it in an interview (the most likely scenario) it had become an idea I took for granted. It wasn’t something generated to give a talk, nor was it in some essay or article.

Gibson can be heard employing a version of the maxim during a 1999 interview on National Public Radio. He was complimented for the accuracy of his predictions by the interviewer and was asked if he read the technical literature. Gibson said that he “read very little technical literature at all” and then he downplayed his predictive skills [NRTN]:

…actually I spend a lot of my time, a lot of my media time trying to disown my prescience…

… as I’ve said many times the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Future Has Arrived — It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed Yet

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