They’ve Absolutely Ruined Your Perfectly Dreadful Play

Tallulah Bankhead? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest one-line review of a movie I have ever encountered is the following:

Darling, they’ve absolutely ruined your perfectly dreadful play.

According to a show-business legend, the movie star Tallulah Bankhead delivered this mortifying judgement to the famous playwright Tennessee Williams when she saw the film version of his play “Orpheus Descending”. Would you please explore this tale?

Quote Investigator: In 1940 Tennessee Williams wrote a play titled “Battle of Angels”; however, at that time he was unable to successfully mount a full production. He rewrote and retitled the work “Orpheus Descending”, and in 1957 it was presented on Broadway, but the reception was muted. The construction of the play had been inspired by the tragic ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In 1960 “Orpheus Descending” was adapted into a film titled “The Fugitive Kind” with top performers in the cast: Marlon Brando played the Orpheus-type role and Anna Magnani played the Eurydice-type role. The critical notices were mixed, and the commercial performance was weak.

The earliest evidence located by QI of a match for the quotation appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in May 1960. Winchell stated that Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams had recently resumed a friendship that previously had been strained. Bankhead’s candor was unhampered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They witnessed the film “Fugitive Kind” (adapted from his “Orpheus Descending”) and she told him: “I think it’s disgraceful. They’ve absolutely ruined a bad play!” Tennessee enjoys being spiked by Talu the tiger.

The use of the pedestrian word “bad” in this version of the quotation reduced its humor. Yet, this instance might be the most faithful to the words Bankhead actually uttered. The word choice evolved as the tale was retold during the ensuing years.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading They’ve Absolutely Ruined Your Perfectly Dreadful Play


  1. 1960 May 25, The Terre Haute Tribune, Walter Winchell of New York, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

There Are Only Three Great Cities in the U.S.: New York, San Francisco, and Washington. All the Rest Are Cleveland

Mark Twain? Tennessee Williams? Edward Gannon? Hugh A. Mulligan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Travelers in the U.S. sometimes complain of cookie-cutter monotony. The following quip has been attributed to the prominent playwright Tennessee Williams, and the luminary Mark Twain:

America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.

I find this comment entertaining although I personally like Cleveland. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain employed this joke; it is not recorded in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. 1 Also, it is not listed on Barbara Schmidt’s valuable website. The comedian Russell Brand did improbably attach a version to Twain in his 2014 book “Revolution”. 2

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1975 issue of a periodical called “Best Sellers” which was composed of book reviews. A reviewer named Edward Gannon printed an instance and attributed the words to an unnamed Frenchman. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

I once heard a Frenchman say, “There are only three cities in the United States: New York, San Francisco and Washington. All the rest are Cleveland.” (I suggested he add Boston and Atlanta.)

The small collection of cities deemed worthy by quipsters has varied; the group has included: New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, and Santa Fe. Tennessee Williams died in 1983, and one year afterwards the joke was attributed to him. A detailed citation is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Only Three Great Cities in the U.S.: New York, San Francisco, and Washington. All the Rest Are Cleveland


  1. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2014, Revolution by Russell Brand, Chapter 9: It’s Big But It’s Not Easy, Unnumbered Page, Ballantine Books: Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1975 September, Best Sellers, Volume 35, Number 6, (Review by Edward Gannon of the book “Washington Now” by Arthur H. Kiplinger and Knight A. Kiplinger), Quote Page 176, Column 1, University of Scranton Library and Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C. (Verified with microfilm)