Venice: Streets Full of Water. Advise.

Robert Benchley? Mattie Barwick? David Niven?

Dear Quote Investigator: You might enjoy looking into this confusing question. I have been searching newspaper databases for a project involving the Venice canals. The following humorous note appeared in a newspaper called the Miami News on October 30, 1958 [MNGB]:

Word comes from European traveler, Mattie (Mrs. George) Barwick who is abroad with Mrs. William H. Walker, Jr.

Says she. “Just arrived in Venice. Find all streets flooded. Please advise.”

I recognized this as a restatement of a memorable joke telegram sent by Robert Benchley. Nowadays with the water problems in Venice the quip is less amusing.

I checked some quotation references to find out when Benchley came up with this clever comment. My puzzlement stems from the fact that Benchley is first credited with the joke in 1968, and this is ten years after the Miami News article. Benchley died in 1945. Do you think he is being given credit for something he never said?

Quote Investigator: A version of this message is attributed to Benchley in the Yale Book of Quotations [YBRB], the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [ODRB], the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations [PMRB] and many other references. The YBQ contains the best citation information, and it refers to the 1968 book “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan [AWRB]:

On a summer vacation trip Benchley arrived in Venice and immediately wired a friend:

“STREETS FLOODED. PLEASE ADVISE.”

QI has located a version of the anecdote and the telegram text under the title “Bulletin from Benchley” in the October 1958 issue of The Reader’s Digest, and this should help to resolve the riddle [RDRB]:

David Niven tells about the time he and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., planned a European itinerary for humorist Robert Benchley: “I made arrangements for him to visit some friends of mine in Venice. The day Benchley got there he sent us a cable which read:

STREETS FULL OF WATER. ADVISE.

—As told to Dean Jennings in The Saturday Evening Post

The Reader’s Digest was typically released before the date on its cover, and the issue of the Saturday Evening Post containing the words attributed to Benchley must have been available before that time. Hence the joke was widely disseminated before it appeared in the Miami News at the end of October in 1958.

Here are some additional select citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Venice: Streets Full of Water. Advise.

“It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Who Said It? Samuel Goldwyn? Robert Benchley? Gracie Allen? Alva Johnston? Anonymous?

Who or What Was Caustic? The Little Foxes? Jim Tully? An Unnamed Actor? Mr. Rosenblatt? An Unnamed Script? An Unnamed Writer? Sidney Howard? Moss Hart?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining legend about the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn has been amusing people for decades. “The Little Foxes” was a major Broadway hit in 1939 and Goldwyn was considering purchasing the rights to create a film based on the story. He asked his top advisor to see the play and report to him. Here is what the aide supposedly told Goldwyn together with his reply:

“Sam, it’s a great drama, but it might be a little too caustic.”
“I don’t care what it costs, I want it.”

This is my favorite anecdote about Goldwyn, and it is supported by the fact that he did buy the rights and made a classic movie starring Bette Davis. Could you research this quotation?

Quote Investigator:Thanks for sending in this fun story. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the timeline that makes this tale unlikely. In January 1930 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell reported a version of the joke based on the misconstrual of the word “caustic” that was being disseminated by the popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley. Thus, the core joke was in circulation about nine years before the premiere of “The Little Foxes”.

The tale centered on two movie magnates who began their careers in the garment business. This biographical detail matched Samuel Goldwyn who was a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood. The maladroit line was spoken by one of the magnates. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They were in conference trying to save a new picture that lacked, what critics usually call, “a wallop.”
“If we could only get someone to fix it up,” said one.
“Why don’t you get Jim Tully?” suggested an executive.
“Jim Tully is too caustic!”
“Oh,” thundered one of the magnates, “the hell with the cost, get him!”

The writer Robert Benchley constructed many humorous stories, and it was possible that he simply invented this anecdote to entertain friends. Alternatively, he may have been present at a meeting when the line was spoken. Special thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation given above.

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Epitaph: At Last She Sleeps Alone

Robert Benchley? Irvin Cobb? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A variety of quips have been credited to the great wit and stylish film actor Robert Benchley, but I don’t see his name very often on this website. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes contains a story that illustrates his sharp humor. Benchley was attending a Hollywood bash and sitting next to a beautiful actress who married often and engaged in love affairs even more frequently. A popular party game called for each guest to write his or her own epitaph [BRB]:

She complained that she could not think what to write about herself. The humorist suggested: “At last she sleeps alone.”

Would you please explore this tale to see if Benchley concocted this zinger?

Quote Investigator: In addition to Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes this popular witticism appears as a punch line in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [ORB] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YRB].  All three references credit Benchley and the earliest citation of 1943 is given by the YBQ.

QI has found an instance of this yarn with Benchley composing the jocular epitaph that was published at the slightly earlier date of 1942. But another famed humorist was a participant in a very similar story, and he produced the same punch line several years before this date. Since the joke is somewhat risqué and also a bit unkind QI was surprised to find it ascribed to the folksy entertainer Will Rogers in 1935.

Yet the quip without the supplementary anecdote may have been in circulation for an even longer period. One well-known historian states that the joke was told by the columnist Irvin Cobb about a high-profile socialite named Sally Ward who died in 1896. Here are selected instances in chronological order.

Continue reading Epitaph: At Last She Sleeps Alone

I was the Toast of Two Continents: Greenland and Australia

Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? Frank Sullivan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The writer Dorothy Parker was famous for her clever and barbed witticisms. Her remarks were often aimed at others, but sometimes she laughed at herself with a self-deprecating comment. I particularly enjoy the statement she made when asked about her fame:

Yes, I once was the toast of two continents: Greenland and Australia.

I laughed when I heard this, but then I began to wonder. Greenland is not really a continent, and Parker must have known this fact. Maybe this picayune detail is irrelevant, but maybe it shows that this quote is a fake. Perhaps Dorothy Parker never said it. Would you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will examine this saying for you. It is true that Greenland is not a continent, but it is the largest island that is not a continent, and QI still thinks that the joke is funny. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Parker originally told a different version of this joke. Specifically, Parker is quoted in 1956 stating that she was the toast of two continents. But the two continents that she names differ from the two geographical regions mentioned in the quotation above.

Continue reading I was the Toast of Two Continents: Greenland and Australia