None of This Nonsense about Women and Children First

Noël Coward? Winston Churchill? W. Somerset Maugham? Joe Drum? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: After major news events people often start exchanging jokes related to the subject matter. The recent tragic cruise ship accident has caused two versions of a comical anecdote to enter circulation. The punch line has been attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill and to the playwright Noel Coward. Examples of this joke are visible now [on January 21, 2012]  when one searches for the phrase “women and children” on Twitter. Here is an example credited to Coward:

I only travel on Italian ships. In the event of sinking, there’s none of that ‘women and children first’ nonsense!

Could you explore this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke found by QI appeared in a Missouri newspaper in 1917. A travel writer, Henry J. Allen, described leaving a Paris railroad station and attempting to obtain transport in a taxicab; however, the number of taxicabs available was inadequate. The writer was reminded of a joke that he attributed to a “New York traveler” [KCNY]:

When we reached the outside our trouble began. There were some thirty or forty women from the train and as we watched the scramble for the very small number of taxicabs and 1-horse vehicles we were reminded of the reason a New York traveler once gave for traveling on a French liner: He said, “there is no foolishness about women and children first.”

Early instances of this barb were aimed at French vessels and crew and not Italian vessels. In March 1932 the name Joe Drum was attached to the tale by the syndicated gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre. But the fame of Joe Drum has faded with time, and today he is largely unknown [OOJD]:

Drum was sailing one day on a French ship. “I choose to cross with the gallant chevaliers of France,” he said, “where there is no hanky-panky about women and children first.”

In 1932 the saying was also credited to a more prominent individual, Noël Coward. Over the decades the attributions and embellishments have changed. By 1946 a more elaborate variant that mentioned food and drink was credited to an American Rear-Admiral. By 1985 the quip was ascribed to W. Somerset Maugham, and by 1993 an ornate version was credited to Winston Churchill.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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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.

Continue reading You Cannot Persuade Her with Gun or Lariat, To Come Across for the Proletariat

Gift Book: A Book Which You Wouldn’t Take on Any Other Terms

Dorothy Parker? Walter Winchell? Fictional? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I gave a close friend a book as a gift, and on the accompanying card I included a quotation that Dorothy Parker once used in a book review:

This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.

After reading about so many false attributions on this website I decided to check this quote. Initially, I was happy to discover that several texts agreed that Dorothy Parker employed the quip while reviewing a work by Lucius Beebe called “Shoot If You Must”. But mystification followed because the book does not exist. There are two books titled “Shoot If You Must”: one written by Richard Powell and another written by C. D’W. Gibson. Lucius Beebe never wrote a book with that title.

A precise citation for Dorothy Parker’s book review was not given in any of the places I looked. There is an online database for The New Yorker magazine, and I searched it because that is where Parker published many of her book reviews; however, I could not find the saying. Is this another fake Dorothy Parker witticism?

Quote Investigator: Your quest for accuracy is admirable and QI sympathizes because he encountered similar difficulties while exploring the history of this saying. Lucius Beebe did write a book that was reviewed by Dorothy Parker. But the title used wordplay, and it was called: “Snoot If You Must” and not “Shoot If You Must”. In the December 11, 1943 issue of the “Saturday Review of Literature” Parker ended her review with this comment [SRB]:

I see that Mr. Beebe’s “Snoot If You Must” (it is surely some dark, dark masochism that makes me say that title again) is widely advertised for the Christmas trade. It must be what I believe is known as a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Gift Book: A Book Which You Wouldn’t Take on Any Other Terms

An Epigram is Only a Wisecrack That’s Played Carnegie Hall

Oscar Levant? Edmund Fuller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I see on the website that you looked into a quotation credited to the pianist, actor, and wit Oscar Levant and showed that someone else probably said it first. But I am confident that the following quote was originally said by Levant, and it fits the theme of the blog:

An epigram is only a wisecrack that’s played at Carnegie Hall.

Could you tell me whether these are the words of Oscar Levant?

Quote Investigator: QI will be happy to research this saying for you. To understand the humor in the remark it is helpful to know that Carnegie Hall has historically been one of the top venues for musical performances in New York and the world. This epigram about epigrams does appear to be the creation of Levant, but the wording given above differs from the earliest instances found by QI.

In 1941 a collection titled “Thesaurus of Quotations” edited by Edmund Fuller listed the following version of the saying attributed to Oscar Levant [TQF]:

An epigram is a gag that’s played Carnegie Hall.

There are a few other versions of the saying. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading An Epigram is Only a Wisecrack That’s Played Carnegie Hall