Wolcott Gibbs? George Bernard Shaw? Margaret Case Harriman? Alexander Woollcott? Ivor Brown? Frank Case? Peter Fleming? Brooks Atkinson? George S. Kaufman? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A wit once travelled to the opulent country estate of a friend and was shown the surrounding grounds which were well-manicured and extensively landscaped. Several large trees had been transplanted to provide shade. The humorist was asked for a candid appraisal and said:
Well, it just goes to show you what God could do if he had money.
A remark of this type has been attributed to both George Bernard Shaw and Alexander Woollcott. Shaw supposedly said it while visiting the estate of William Randolph Hearst in California. Woollcott reportedly said it while visiting the country mansion of playwright Moss Hart. Is either of these anecdotes accurate?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence located by QI was printed in June 1933 in a London periodical called “The Fortnightly Review”. An article by drama critic Ivor Brown discussed the spectacular productions of Shakespeare plays staged by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The critic was particularly impressed by the simulation of a storm in “The Tempest”. Brown employed a version of the saying and credited an unnamed wag. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Tree’s storm might vulgarly be described as “a corker”. A wit, when asked what he thought of Long Island, said, “It’s what God would have done with Nature, if He had had the money”. My memory suggests that the remark perfectly fitted Prospero’s island as conceived by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
In the above passage the joke was not applied to a specific estate; instead, an entire region of the U.S. known for expensive property and impressive homes was named.
Earlier indirect evidence of the quip also exists. In 1974 a biography of Peter Fleming by Duff Hart-Davis was released. Fleming was a British travel writer who was the brother of famed spy-thriller author Ian Fleming. Peter Fleming was credited with using the saying in a letter dated 1929. If this date was accurate then Fleming either crafted the comical remark, or he was relaying a witticism that was already circulating on Long Island. The name “Rupert” in the following referred to Fleming’s friend Rupert Hart-Davis who was a publisher: 2 3
‘Long Island represents the Americans’ idea of what God would have done with Nature if he’d had the money,’ Peter wrote to Rupert on September 29th, 1929 from the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, where he spent the first weekend of his stay in America
The joke has been ascribed to a variety of sharp individuals in addition to Fleming, including: Wolcott Gibbs, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and George Bernard Shaw.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1933 June, The Fortnightly Review, New Series Volume 139, Old Series Volume 139, Producing Shakespeare by Ivor Brown, (Footnote for article: A paper recently read before the Shakespeare Association at Kings College, London), Start Page 759, Quote Page 760, Published by Horace Marshall & Son, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1974, Peter Fleming: A Biography by Duff Hart-Davis, GB Page 67, Jonathan Cape, London. (Google Books Snippet View; not yet verified on paper; the quotation credited to Peter Fleming with the same date is listed in an entry of the 1989 edition of “The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations”) ↩
- 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: United States, Quote Page 585, Column 1, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩