Animal Rights and Beings from Another Planet

George Bernard Shaw? John Harris? Brigid Brophy? Apocryphal?

cow09Dear Quote investigator: George Bernard Shaw was a strong advocate of vegetarianism who was greatly concerned with animal welfare. The following statement attributed to Shaw encouraged the reader to embrace an abstract extraplanetary perspective and asked the reader to condemn the instrumental use of animals for food, clothing, and sport:

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth — beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals — would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?

I have been unable to locate this passage in the writings of Shaw. Would please examine its provenance?

Quote investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the claim that George Bernard Shaw wrote the words above. Indeed, QI hypothesizes that the fallacious ascription originated with the misreading of a passage from a volume published in 1979. Details are given further below.

The earliest strongly matching evidence located by QI was published in a 1972 collection called “Animals, Men, and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans”. An article titled “Killing for Food” by John Harris argued that there was “no justification for continuing to eat meat”. Near the end of his essay Harris asked readers to contemplate an alien perspective: 1

I should like to leave those of you who remain unconvinced with a final thought. Suppose that tomorrow a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals. Would they have the right to treat you as you treat the animals you breed, keep and kill for food?

QI believes that the modern quotation was derived from the passage above although the wording was somewhat different. Harris should be credited with this statement and not Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Animal Rights and Beings from Another Planet


  1. 1972, Animals, Men, and Morals: An Enquiry Into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans, Edited by Stanley Godlovitch, Roslind Godlovitch, and John Harris, Article title: Killing for Food, Article author: John Harris, Start Page 97, Quote Page 110, Publisher by Taplinger Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

The Biggest Problem in Communication Is the Illusion That It Has Taken Place

George Bernard Shaw? William H. Whyte? Pierre Martineau? Joseph Coffman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am copy editing a book, and the author would like to include an insightful remark about communication. Here are four versions:

1) The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

2) The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.

3) The most serious danger in communication is the illusion of having achieved it.

4) The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.

The first expression is usually attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw, but the citations I have seen are unconvincing. I do not wish to reference a business book published in 2000 to support an ascription to Shaw. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw who died in 1950 made this statement. The saying has been linked to Shaw only in very recent decades.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in an article titled “Is Anybody Listening?” by William H. Whyte which was published in “Fortune” magazine in 1950. Whyte was a journalist and a best-selling author who wrote about organizations and public spaces. His instructional “Fortune” article was designed to encourage improved communication within the business domain: 1

LET US RECAPITULATE A BIT: The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it. We have talked enough; but we have not listened. And by not listening we have failed to concede the immense complexity of our society–and thus the great gaps between ourselves and those with whom we seek understanding.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Biggest Problem in Communication Is the Illusion That It Has Taken Place


  1. 1950 September, Fortune, “Is Anybody Listening?” by William Hollingsworth Whyte, Start Page 77, Quote Page 174, Published by Time, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)

“If I Were Your Wife I’d Put Poison in Your Tea!” “If I Were Your Husband I’d Drink It”

Winston Churchill? Nancy Astor? Marshall Pinckney Wilder? Patrick O’Dowd? David Lloyd George? George Bernard Shaw? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous anecdote in which an exasperated individual fantasizes aloud about giving poison to another person. The sharp rejoinder is surprising and hilarious. Usually the two named participants are Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill. Are you familiar with this story? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI of a strongly matching jest was published in November 1899. The excerpt below from an Oswego, New York newspaper acknowledged a source called the “Listener”. Neither participant was identified. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The “Listener” reports the following from the subway: On one of the recent warm days a sour-visaged, fussy lady got on one of the smoking seats on an open car in the subway.

Next her sat a man who was smoking a cigar. More than that, the lady, sniffing, easily made out that the man had been eating onions. Still more than that, she had the strongest kind of suspicion that he had been drinking beer. The lady fussed and wriggled, and grew angrier, and looked at the man scornfully. Presently she could endure it no longer. She looked squarely at him and said:

“If you were my husband, sir, I’d give you a dose of poison!”

The man looked at her. “If I were your husband,” said he, “I’d take it!”

The popular story above was reprinted with minor alterations in multiple newspapers in the following days, months, and years. An early instance in the “New York Tribune” acknowledged “The Boston Transcript”. 2 3 Top researcher Barry Popik identified this primordial version of the repartee and located other valuable citations. 4

This joke has been evolving for more than one hundred years. In March 1900 the humorist Marshall Pinckney Wilder asserted authorship of the gag. By April 1900 a version with a comical Irishman was circulating. In 1902 a theatrical production switched the roles of the husband and wife.

In 1949 an instance with Winston Churchill delivering the punchline to an unnamed woman was printed in “The New York Times”. The story with Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill was recounted in a 1952 book called “The Glitter and the Gold”. It is conceivable that Churchill employed this line, but he would have been knowingly or unknowingly re-enacting a joke that had been circulating for many years.

In 1962 the legendary comedian Groucho Marx presented the gag, but he credited the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw with the punchline. The details for all these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “If I Were Your Wife I’d Put Poison in Your Tea!” “If I Were Your Husband I’d Drink It”


  1. 1899 November 18, Oswego Daily Times, Right and Left, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Oswego, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1899 November 19, Colorado Springs Gazette, Tales of the Town, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1899 November 19, New York Tribune, Section: Illustrated Supplement, Well Agreed, (Acknowledgement to The Boston Transcript), Quote Page 19, Column 3, New York, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “‘If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee’ (Nancy Astor to Churchill?)”, Date on website: February 09, 2009, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik com on August 26, 2014)

If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain

Edmund Burke? Anselme Batbie? Victor Hugo? King Oscar II of Sweden? George Bernard Shaw? François Guizot? Georges Clemenceau? Benjamin Disraeli? Winston Churchill? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some individuals change their political orientation as they grow older. There is a family of sayings that present a mordant judgment on this ideological evolution. Here are three examples:

Not to be a républicain at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.

If you’re not a socialist before you’re twenty-five, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after twenty-five, you have no head.

If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.

Political terminology has changed over time, and it differs in distinct locales. Within the context of these sayings the terms “républicain”, “socialist”, and “liberal” were all on the left of the political spectrum. Would you please explore this complex topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in an 1875 French book of contemporary biographical portraits by Jules Claretie. A section about a prominent jurist and academic named Anselme Polycarpe Batbie included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

M. Batbie, dans une lettre trop célèbre, citait un jour, pour expliquer ses variations personnelles et bizarres, ce paradoxe de Burke: « Celui qui n’est pas républicain à vingt ans fait douter de la générosité de son âme; mais celui qui, après trente ans, persévère, fait douter de la rectitude de son esprit. »

Here is one possible translation to English.

Mr. Batbie, in a much-celebrated letter, once quoted the Burke paradox in order to account for his bizarre political shifts: “He who is not a républicain at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.”

Batbie was probably referring to the statesman Edmund Burke who was noted for his support of the American Revolution and later condemnation of the French Revolution. However, QI has not located the quotation under investigation in the writings of Burke. Anselme Batbie lived between 1828 and 1887.

The same quotation with an ascription to Batbie appeared in volume five of the “La Grande Encyclopédie” which was published circa 1888. The title in English of this 31 volume work was “The Great Encyclopedia”, and the statement was printed within the entry for Batbie. 2

This saying is often attributed to the French statesman and historian François Guizot who died in 1874. However, this ascription was based in an entry in “Benham’s Book of Quotations Proverbs and Household Words” which was published many years after the death of Guizot; hence the supporting data is not very strong. Details are given further below in the 1936 citation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain


  1. 1875, Portraits Contemporains by Jules Claretie, Volume: 1, Chapter Topic: M. Casimir Périer, Start Page 51, Quote Page 55, Published by Librairie Illustrée, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. La Grande Encyclopédie: Inventaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Lettres et Des Arts, (The Great Encyclopedia: A Systematic Inventory of Science, Letters, and the Arts), by Société de Savants et de Gens de Lettres, Tome Cinquième (Volume 5), From Bailliébe to Belgiojoso, (Date: the 31 Volumes were published between 1886 and 1902; volume 5 was published circa 1888), Entry: “Batbie, Anselme-Polycarpe”, Start Page 705, Quote Page 705, Column 2, Published by H. Lamirault, Paris. (The quotation was nearly identical: “persévère” in 1875 was expanded to “persévère encore” in 1888)(Google Books Full View) link

I Have Made an International Reputation for Myself by Thinking Once or Twice a Week

George Bernard Shaw? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous playwright, critic, and essayist George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a remark about his world-wide fame. He entertainingly stated that his acclaim rested on his ability to engage in thought once or twice a week because others attempted to think only two or three times a year. Would you be willing to trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this remark known to QI was published in the mass-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest” in May 1933. The statement was printed in a section called “Quotable Quotes” together with a miscellaneous collection of other items: 1

George Bernard Shaw once addressed a company as follows: “I suppose that you seldom think. Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”

Unfortunately, the passage did not present any details about when the words were spoken nor was the audience identified. Shaw died in 1950, and the expression coupled with this ascription achieved wide-spread dissemination many years before his death.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Have Made an International Reputation for Myself by Thinking Once or Twice a Week


  1. 1933 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 23, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 16, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

Some People Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity

George Bernard Shaw? Abba Eban? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular phrase used to criticize individuals and groups. Here are three examples:

Some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
He never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity.
This group loses no chance to miss an opportunity.

Can you determine who originated this turn of phrase?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1922 when the diary of Sir Algernon West was published. The critical words were attributed to the prominent playwright and social commentator George Bernard Shaw, and they were aimed at Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery who was for a short time the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity, and W. Johnson, afterwards Cory the Eton master, said in a classical allusion that he wanted the palm without the dust.

The phrase “wanted the palm without the dust” referred to the desire to obtain victory without a major expenditure of effort. The excerpt above assessing Rosebery’s character was part of a section recounting events in 1892 but the date of the remark by Shaw was not precisely specified. Algernon West died in 1921.

When the volume containing the “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West” was examined in “The New York Times” in October 1922 the reviewer found the shrewdly humorous remark about Rosebery distinctive enough to reprint: 2

Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Some People Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity


  1. 1922, Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West, G.C.B. by Sir Algernon West, Edited by Horace G. Hutchinson, Chapter III: 1892: The General Election, Quote Page 35, E.P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1922 October 1, New York Times, In Gladstone’s Cabinet, (Book Review of “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West”), Start Page 50, Quote Page 50, New York. (ProQuest)

But Suppose the Child Inherited My Beauty and Your Brains?

George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan? Anatole France and Isadora Duncan? Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe? Albert Einstein and a chorus girl? George Bernard Shaw and a strange lady in Zurich?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly there was famous exchange between the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw and the glamorous dancer Isadora Duncan on the topic of producing a child together. Duncan stated that Shaw had a magnificent brain and she had a glorious beauty; the combination would yield a remarkable child. Shaw replied with regret that he feared the result would embody his beauty and her brains.

Recently, I read this same tale, but the dialog was between two other people: the playwright Arthur Miller and the icon Marilyn Monroe. Is this anecdote genuine? Who were the participants?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence matching the template of this story located by QI was published in the Boston Globe newspaper in 1923. The two supposed participants were the Frenchman Anatole France who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 and the acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan. The spelling “Isadore” was used by the paper: 1

In all probability the conversation between Isadore Duncan and Anatole France, who were discussing eugenics, came to a sudden stop when Isadore said: “Imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!” and Anatole responded: “Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!”

A version of the anecdote featuring George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan was in circulation during the same time period. Here is an instance from an Interfraternity Conference held in New York in 1925 where the communication between Shaw and Duncan was via letters instead of spoken. This tale was presented by Oswald C. Hering, a noted architect. The spelling “Isidora” was used in the following passage: 2

It reminds me of the story going around about the letters interchanged by Isidora Duncan and Bernard Shaw. Miss Duncan wrote Mr. Shaw as follows: ‘My dear Mr. Shaw: I beg to remind you that as you have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body, it is our duty to posterity to have a child.’ Whereupon Mr. Shaw replied to Miss Duncan: ‘My dear Miss Duncan: I admit that I have the greatest brain in the world and that you have the most beautiful body, but it might happen that our child would have my body and your brain. Therefore, I respectfully decline.’

This popular story was disseminated internationally, and George Bernard Shaw was asked directly about the anecdote by the editor of the German periodical Sächsisches Volksblatt because of a controversy involving a writer named Max Hayek. A short story by Hayek shared similarities with the anecdote, and he was accused plagiarizing an instance of the tale featuring Shaw and Duncan that was published in the Italian periodical Milan Corriere della Sera.

On March 3, 1926 Shaw sent a letter in which he strongly denied the Italian story about his interaction with Duncan and remarked on the unreliability of newspaper accounts in general: 3

… No beautiful American dancer has ever proposed marriage to me, on eugenic or any other grounds. The Italian journalist invented the dancer and her proposal; stole the witty reply from Herr Max; and chose me for the hero of his tale because newspapers always buy stories about me. 99% of these stories are flat falsehoods. 1/2% are half true. The remaining 1/2% are true, but spoilt in the telling.

Strikingly, Shaw made additional intriguing comments on this topic in 1931. He claimed that he once received a comparable “strange offer” from a “foreign actress”, and his reply was analogous to the one in the famous anecdote. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations and commentary.

Continue reading But Suppose the Child Inherited My Beauty and Your Brains?


  1. 1923 December 7, Boston Globe, Editorial Points, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  2. 1925, Minutes of the Seventeenth Session of the Interfraternity Conference, (Held at New York on November 27th and 28th, 1925), Report of Committee on Chapter House Architecture, Quote Page 111, Publisher: National Interfraternity Conference, New York. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  3. 1988, Bernard Shaw Collected Letters: 1926-1950, Edited by Dan H. Laurence, Volume 4 of 4, (Letter from George Bernard Shaw to The Sächsisches Volksblatt, Zwickau, dated March 3, 1926), Quote Page 16 and 17, Viking, New York. (Verified on paper)

You Are Only Interested in Art and I Am Only Interested in Money

George Bernard Shaw? Howard Dietz? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful anecdote about a meeting between the famous movie studio chief Samuel Goldwyn and the renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw. Goldwyn flew to England to convince Shaw to write material for him to use in films. Goldwyn emphasized the high quality and the artistic merit of the movies he hoped to produce, but Shaw was more interested in the extent of the compensation. Shaw responded with a classic line that humorously reversed the formulaic expectations present when an artist meets a moneyman. Could you research the veracity of this tale and determine the precise statement made by Shaw?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed on May 1, 1921 in the Baltimore American newspaper of Baltimore, Maryland. The famous remark of Shaw was relayed from London via a special cable message according to the dateline: 1

Mr. Goldwyn is a ready talker and G.B.S. being Irish, was a little behind him at times. After going over the entire film situation in a discussion lasting several hours, Mr. Shaw closed the interview as follows:

“Well, Mr. Goldwyn, there is not much use in going on. There is this difference between you and me: You are only interested in art and I am only interested in money.”

The passage above was reprinted in other newspapers during the following days and weeks, e.g., The Springfield Sunday Journal of Springfield, Illinois, 2 and The State of Columbia, South Carolina. 3

In 1922 Shaw recounted the episode with Goldwyn during an address before an organization of wordsmiths and composers.  His speech provided additional background that helped to explicate his remark. He repeated the quotation but used a different phrasing. In 1926 Shaw described the meeting again, and this time he used a third phrasing for the quotation. In 1937 a biography of Goldwyn contended that the statement was actually composed by a publicity man named Howard Dietz who was employed by the movie mogul. The details for these cites are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Are Only Interested in Art and I Am Only Interested in Money


  1. 1921 May 1, Baltimore American, Shaw Refuses to Write for Movies, (Special Cable to the New York Herald and the Baltimore American), Dateline: London, Section 2, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1921 May 15, The Springfield Sunday Journal (Daily Illinois State Journal), I Seek Coin, You Art, Shaw to Goldwyn, (Special Dispatch from London), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1921 May 29, The State, Section: Part II, Art and Profiteer: G. B. Shaw Eager in Chase of Almighty Pound, Quote Page 26, Column 8, Columbia, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

George Bernard Shaw? Bertrand Russell? Oscar Wilde? John H. Gibbons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is used by speakers who are planning to project a series of slides that are filled with statistics. The words are credited to the famous dramatist and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Here are two versions:

The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.

It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.

The second version was printed in the Congressional Record in 2008. I have been unable to identify the original source of this remark, and I think knowing the context is essential. Neither expression sounds like something that Bernard Shaw would say. But perhaps it was employed by a character in one of his plays, and the words were satirical. Could you examine this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the origin of this saying can be traced back to a book authored by another prominent intellectual. In 1926 Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and essayist, published “Education and the Good Life” which included a chapter titled “The Aims of Education”.

Russell listed four characteristics forming the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. Education, he believed, should develop and enhance these qualities. His discussion of sensitiveness included a phrase mentioning statistics. Boldface is used to highlight key phrases in the following: 1 2

The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.

The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.

The phrase about statistics was memorable, and in May 1926 the reviewer of Russell’s book in the New York Times selected the words and reprinted them: 3

Sensitiveness is the capacity for emotional response. Nor is there anything mawkish about it: “The emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate; mere intensity is not what is needed.” Sympathy, yes, but a discriminating sympathy. It should not only be refined, but extended by the intellect—even so far “as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics.”

In June 1926 Glenn Frank published an editorial calling for action against the high rate of illiteracy in the United States. Frank was the President of the University of Wisconsin and the former editor of Century Magazine. His piece mentioned Russell’s remark about statistics: 4

As Bertrand Russell has suggested, the test of the quality of our sympathy comes when we are called upon to aid suffering or need when the needy one is neither an object of special affection nor sensibly present.
Are we great enough to be “moved emotionally by statistics?”
I do not know a statistical figure that is freighted with more human drama than this: 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.

The citations below trace the evolution of the quotation over the decades. For many years, different iterations of the saying were credited to Bertrand Russell, but curiously the expression was reassigned to George Bernard Shaw by 1981. Both men were noteworthy intellectuals residing in England, and they had overlapping life spans. QI believes that the similarity of names “Bernard” and “Bertrand” facilitated the mistaken transition of the attribution to Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics


  1. 1926, Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell, The Aims of Education, Start Page 47, Quote Page 71, Liveright Publishing Group, New York. (Reprint created after 1954 renewal of copyright) (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell: 1903-1959, Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, The Aims of Education, Start Page 413, Quote Page 423, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1926 May 30, New York Times, Bertrand Russell Depicts the Intelligent Radical: He Offers New Lamps for Old in a Scheme for Educating the Post-War Child by Evans Clark (Review of “Education and the Good Life” by Bertrand Russell), Page BR7, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1926 June 3, Washington Post, Let’s Read and Write by 1930 by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

Here are Two Tickets for the Opening of My Play. Bring a Friend—If You Have One

George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Randolph Churchill? Noel Coward? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest example of repartee that I have ever heard about was a famous exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill about a pair of tickets to a play.

Shaw: I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one.

Churchill: Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one.

I hope this jousting really happened. Could you examine this story?

Quote Investigator: The earliest printed evidence that QI has located appeared in 1946 in the influential syndicated column of Walter Winchell, but the participants were not Shaw and Winston Churchill. Instead, Churchill’s son and the popular playwright Noel Coward enacted a partial version of the anecdote. In the following passage UP refers to the United Press news service [WWRC]:

Randolph Churchill and Noel Coward haven’t always agreed on politics. A gag (from a UP pal in London) says that Churchill’s boy wrote Noel asking for two tickets to his new show. He received one ducat and this note: “Let me know if you really have a friend and I’ll send you the other ticket.”

The second cite was printed in the 1947 book “More and More of Memories” by Arthur Porritt. It contained a tale similar to the one above, but the wording given for Coward’s remark was closer to modern phrasing [APRC]:

When Mr. Randolph Churchill asked Mr. Noel Coward for a ticket for a new play he had written, Mr. Coward is said to have replied: “My dear Randolph. Here are tickets for my new show: one for yourself, and one for a friend—if you have a friend.”

The first evidence QI has found for the prevalent modern version is in a newspaper article with a dateline of January 1948 in New York City from the International News Service [EMJG] [EMOW]:

George Bernard Shaw sent Winston Churchill a couple of seats for the opening night of one of his plays, some time ago. Commissioner Ed Mulrooney was reminiscing the other day at the unveiling of the portrait of the late Jimmy Walker at city hall.

Shaw enclosed a little note with the tickets. It read, “Here are two tickets for the opening of my new play. Keep one for yourself and bring along a friend—if you can find one.”

Churchill returned the tickets with a nice little note, too.

“I’m sorry that a previous engagement precludes my attending your opening night.” he said. “I shall be happy to come the second night—if there is one.”

This anecdote was retold many times during the succeeding decades, but the phrasing used to describe Shaw’s message and Churchill’s rejoinder varied considerably. The name of the play was not given in the initial citations, but later versions mentioned at least four different dramas by Shaw: “Man and Superman,” “Pygmalion,” “Back to Methuselah,” and “Saint Joan.” By the 1960s a variant was being propagated that featured Winston Churchill and the playwright Noel Coward instead of Shaw.

The most interesting citation QI has located was published in “Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium” in 1962. The book presented the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon named L. W. Plewes who treated Shaw in 1950 when the playwright was 94 years old. Plewes said that Shaw himself provided the following version of the anecdote [LPSV]:

While G.B.S. was in hospital under treatment, some peaches arrived from Winston Churchill, who was in Florida at the time. Hearing from Mr. Churchill reminded G.B.S. of some correspondence he had had with him before Pygmalion was first staged. It went as follows: G.B.S. to Winston Churchill: “I enclose two tickets for the first night of my new play, one for yourself and one for your friend, if you have one.”Winston Churchill to G.B.S.: “I am sorry I cannot attend for the first night, but I should be glad to come on the second night, if there is one”!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Here are Two Tickets for the Opening of My Play. Bring a Friend—If You Have One