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.

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