Dorothy Parker? Tallulah Bankhead? Edith Gwynn? Roy Blount Jr.? 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: 1950 April 26, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Edith Gwynn’s Hollywood by Edith Gwynn, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
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!”
The citation above indicated that the episode did occur; however, Norman Mailer strongly denied the tale in a private letter he wrote in 1954:2014, The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, Edited by J. Michael Lennon, Letter Number 130, Letter To: Basil Mailer, Letter Date: November 17, 1954, Start Page 181, Quote Page 182, Random House, New … Continue reading
It’s not true. I never met her. But I hear the story everywhere. Probably her press agent put it out. In irritation (because the story has me by implication shifting my feet and blushing to the ears) I spread a counter rumor. The new legend (all mine) has it that I retorted, “Yes, and you’re the young lady who doesn’t know how to.”
Thanks to linguist Jesse Sheidlower, author of “The F-Word”, who told QI about Mailer’s 1954 missive.
The recipient of the letter was Basil Mailer who was the son of Norman Mailer’s uncle. The letter appeared in the 2014 collection “The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer”.
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.
The ascription to Dorothy Parker was probably the result of a faulty memory. Additional selected citations are given below.
|↑1||1950 April 26, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Edith Gwynn’s Hollywood by Edith Gwynn, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)|
|↑2||2014, The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, Edited by J. Michael Lennon, Letter Number 130, Letter To: Basil Mailer, Letter Date: November 17, 1954, Start Page 181, Quote Page 182, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)|