Anecdotes (and a trifle more): Part Two

During a campaign William Jennings Bryan was asked to speak to a crowd of people assembled in a field. As he climbed up onto a manure spreader that served as an impromptu dais, he remarked, “This is the first time I have ever spoken from a Republican platform.”


Despite holding important posts in the Liberal administration just before WW I, Churchill found that his salary from the government did not cover the expenses of his growing family. He was obliged to his supplement his income by lecturing and journalism. “I live from mouth to hand,” he remarked.


Thoreau was languishing in jail after he had refused to pay the Massachusetts poll tax in 1843. Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him and asked him why he was there. “Waldo, why are you not here?” said Thoreau.


Thoreau’s A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers did not sell. Eventually his publisher, who needed the space, wrote to ask Thoreau how he should dispose of the remaining copies. Thoreau asked that they be sent to him—706 copies out of the edition of 1,000. When they arrived and were safely stowed away, Thoreau noted in his journal, “I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”


Walking with a friend in a London churchyard one day, engrossed in the melancholy pastime of reading the inscriptions on the gravestones, Thomas Chatterton stumbled and fell into a newly dug grave. His friend immediately came to his rescue, and in an attempt to make light of the matter, said he was glad to have been present at the resurrection of a genius. Chatterton took a more gloomy view of the accident: “I have been at war with the grave for some time, and I find it not so easy to vanquish it as I imagined. We can find an asylum to hide from every creditor but that.” Three days later he killed himself.


In 1965 Steinbeck passed through San Francisco with his famous poodle, Charlie. He sat at a side walk cafe with Howard Gossage and remarked, “Yesterday in Muir Woods Charlie lifted his leg on a tree that was fifty feet across, a hundred feet high, and a thousand years old. What’s left in life for that dog after that supreme moment?” Gossage reflected a moment and then said, with his slight stammer, “W-w-well, he could always t-t-teach.”


The following exchange took place between a country parson to George Bernard Shaw.

After hearing that Shaw was an expert at brewing coffee, the rector wrote the dramatist and asked for the recipe. Shaw sent it, adding, “I hope this is an honest request and not a surreptitious mode of securing my autograph.” The parson answered, enclosing Shaw’s signature cut from his letter, “Accept my thanks for the recipe. I wrote in good faith so allow me to return what it is obvious you infinitely prize, but which is of no value to me, your autograph.”


Like many celebrities, Rudyard Kipling, the british author abhorred autograph seekers and rarely answered their supplications. One disgruntled collector complained to the writer, “I have written to you five times for your autograph without success. I hear you get five dollars a word for every word you write. Enclosed is $5. Send me one word.” Kipling pocketed the fiver and wrote one unsigned word at the bottom of his correspondent’s letter: “Thanks.”


This transpired between the president of a major railroad company and a disgruntled customer.

A railroad traveller was savagely bitten by bedbugs in his Pullman compartment and complained to the president of the company. He received in the mail an abject apology explaining that this was the first time the company had ever had such a complaint and that the president had ordered every car fumigated. Accidentally enclosed was his original letter of complaint with a penciled note at the top in the president’s hand: “Send this S.O.B. the bedbug letter.”


Original title: First Impressions

Final title: Pride And Prejudice (1813)

Author: Jane Austen

Original title: Mag’s Diversions, also World As It Rolled

Final title: David Copperfield (1849)

Author: Charles Dickens

Original title: All’s Well That Ends Well

Final title: War And Peace (1866)

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Original title: The Sea-Cook

Final title: Treasure Island

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Original title: The Chronic Argonauts

Final title: The Time Machine (1895)

Author: H G Wells


There was a bit of Dorothy Parker in Rebecca West. Here’s a sample:

Someone at a party remarked of Cecil Chesterton (brother of GKC) that although he had a dingy complexion he was in fact very clean. The speaker went on to say that when Cecil swam at Le Touquet, “he came out of the water just as gray-blue as when he went in.” Rebecca West asked, “But did you look at the Channel?”


Caruso was caught in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. He swore he would never again go back to such a city, “where disorders like that are permitted.”


A group of reporters once asked him what he thought of Babe Ruth. Caruso, who was unfailingly polite and amiable, replied that he didn’t know because unfortunately he had never heard her sing.


Amid great expectations of success as a Hollywood screenwriter, F Scott Fitzgerald drew up his will in 1937. The first thing he specified was “a funeral and burial in keeping with my station in life.” His new career fell flat, however, and he began work on a final unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. Shortly before his death, he amended his wishes in pencil to read “cheapest funeral … without undue ostentation or unnecessary expense.” The actual cost came to $613.25, with $93 in personal cash left over.


Here’s something a bit different. The following is the source of the title of a famous novel (#22 on Modern Library top 100 novels list) by John O’Hara:


There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and, trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

–W. Somerset Maugham


Original title: Paul Morel

Final title: Sons And Lovers (1913)

Author: D H Lawrence

Original title: Stephen Hero

Final title: A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (1916)

Author: James Joyce

Original title: The Romantic Egotist

Final title: This Side Of Paradise (1920)

Author: F Scott Fitzgerald

Original title: The Village Virus

Final title: Main Street (1920)

Author:Sinclair Lewis

Original title: Incident At West Egg, also Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires

Final title: The Great Gatsby (1925)

Author: F Scott Fitzgerald


One of Thurber’s favorite stories concerned a conversation he had with a nurse while he was in the hospital. “What seven-letter word has three Us in it?” he asked her. The nurse pondered and said, “I don’t know, but it must be unusual.”


In the fall of 1961 Thurber underwent surgery for a blood clot on the brain. He made a partial recovery but then contracted pneumonia and died on the afternoon of November 2. His last words were: “God bless . . . God Damn.”


At a Berlin subscription ball, open to those of lesser rank as well as to high society, William I, Emperor of Germany, noticed his court tailor and greeted him amiably: “A lovely ball, isn’t it?” The tailor bowed deeply, observing in a tone of servility, “These balls, Your Majesty, seem to draw a somewhat more mixed group of guests than formerly.” The emperor smiled, then said, “True, but what can we do about it? We can’t invite tailors only.”


Coming to pay her last respects to Scott Fitzgerald as he lay in an undertaker’s parlor in Los Angeles, Dorothy Parker used the words spoken by the anonymous mourner at the funeral of Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a-bitch!”


While in France Thomas Paine narrowly escaped execution. Apparently he was spared by something as random as an open door. The story goes that a guard passed through Paine’s cell block placing chalk marks on the doors of the prisoners who were to be guillotined the following morning. He was scheduled for the fourth beheading but, because he was feverish, the door to his cell was left open to allow a cooling breeze to enter. This caused the chalk marked number 4 to be placed on the inside of the door. The door was closed later that evening, meaning the mark was no longer visible from the hall. The next day their cell was overlooked. A few days later Robespierre was removed and the terror ended.


According to newspaper reports in 1961, Tennessee Williams decided not to attend any further sessions with his psychoanalyst. Asked the reason for this decision, the playwright replied, “He was meddling too much in my private life.”

[His biographer, Donald Spoto, claimed Williams was not aware of the humor in his reply.]


Benjamin Franklin said to Paine, “Where liberty is, there is my country.” Paine answered, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.”


One day Tennessee Williams and one of his leading ladies, Sylvia Miles, were walking through Piccadilly when Sylvia saw a very thin young girl. She whispered to Williams, “Oh, Tennessee, look—anorexia nervosa,” and without the slightest hesitation he shot back, “Oh, Sylvia, you know everybody!”

[Apparently he appreciated his own joke; it appeared later in “Clothes for a Summer Hotel.”]


There’s a story about Menachem Begin and chess. In September 1940 he was playing chess with his wife when Russian soldiers burst into his home to arrest him. As they dragged him away, he shouted to Mrs Begin that he conceded the game.


But the best is about Emanuel Lasker. Lasker travelled to Paris, rented a room and visited the famous Cafe de la Regence to meet other famous players. Lasker enjoyed himself until well after midnight. But then, intending to return to his room, he discovered to his great embarrassment that he couldn’t remember the address.

The next day he sent a telegram to a friend in London asking him to send him the address of his room. This was logical but he forgot to include an address in the telegram. The following day Lasker searched methodically through the districts of Paris to find his room and eventually did so.

The woman who opened the door presented him with his friend’s telegram from London. Not knowing Lasker’s location, he sent the address to the only address he had–the place that Lasker couldn’t find.


A couple of personal stories about losing and gaining:

Many years ago while living in a small rural Japanese village I accidentally left a money clip with $380 in my pocket when turning my things over to a laundress. When she delivered my laundry later that afternoon she presented the money. This young woman’s salary was 7200 Yen ($20) per month, so those bills that were so casually handled by me, and which she returned before I even realized they were missing, represented more than 18 months of income for her. I was so moved by her honesty that I tried to give her a year’s salary on the spot. She refused to take it. I made a project of tracking her husband and convincing him to take the money.

On another occasion, a summer Sunday morning, I left a camera bag filled with about $3,000 worth of gear on the sidewalk as my luggage was placed in a taxi outside an Italian air force base in Brindisi, Italy where I had just landed. The driver assumed I would keep the bag with me and I assumed he would load it along with the rest of the luggage. I discovered the loss when I arrived at my hotel and found it wasn’t in the trunk.

I should add that this area literally swarmed with thieves at that time to the extent that drivers routinely removed their windshield wipers before leaving their cars unattended, and it was very common to find headlights missing from cars left unobserved for more than an hour or so.

I knew the chances of recovery were slim to none since the spot where the bag had been left was always crowded with pedestrians and young, notoriously underpaid Italian airmen. But I rushed back anyway. When I arrived the bag, as expected, was gone. I asked a group of nearby airmen if they had seen it, and one of them took me to find the OD (officer-of-the-day). The OD was a young captain who looked like he just stepped off an opera stage, resplendent in his uniform complete with a broad red sash worn diagonally over the shoulder, and still posing this way and that as Italian men are wont to do. It seems to have something to do with their profiles. Despite the preening he was obviously an honorable sort because, with a slight bow and theatrical wave of his arm, he presented the bag with all its contents intact. But more impressive to me was the integrity of the young enlisted man for whom the bag’s contents represented literally years of income, and who steadfastly refused any reward.

Sartre was probably right that “hell is other people”–but only sometimes.


Billy Wilder had some difficulty understanding the concept of existentialism, even when it was explained to him by Jean-Paul Sartre himself. His research into the subject, however, gave him the idea for a new film. “It’s a great plot,” he said enthusiastically,. “This boy falls in love with his mother and marries her. They live together quite happily until one day he learns that she isn’t his mother. So he commits suicide.”


In 1811, while a student at Oxford, the poet Shelley and his close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg sent a pamphlet entitled “The Necessity of Atheism,” a summary of the arguments of John Locke and David Hume, to the heads of the colleges. When both students refused to answer questions about the pamphlet, they were summarily expelled.


Original title: Fiesta; also The Lost Generation, River To The Sea, Two Lie Together, and The Old Leaven

Final title: The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Original title: Tenderness

Final title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

Author: D H Lawrence

Original title: Twilight

Final title: The Sound And The Fury (1929)

Author: William Faulkner

Original title: O Lost

Final title: Look Homeward, Angel (1929)

Author: Thomas Wolfe

Original title: Bar-B-Q

Final title: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Author: James M Cain


Dorothy Parker once attended a party with Somerset Maugham where the guests challenged each other to complete nursery rhymes. Somerset Maugham presented Ms Parker with the lines:

“Higgledy piggledy, my white hen

She lays eggs for gentlemen.”

Dorothy added the following couplet:

“You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat

To come across for the proletariat.


Tennessee Williams one visited the fabulous thirty-nine room Gramercy Park home of the famous publicist and art-and-celebrity collector Benjamin Sonnenberg. According to Ben Sonnenberg, Jr.’s account, Williams, after being shown through the ornate mansion, repaired to the bathroom, stayed there briefly, and was later heard to say, “It looked so shabby when I took it out, I couldn’t go.”


Bennet Cerf claimed that puns are the lowest form of humor. Here’s some proof:

The Eskimo stabbed himself with an icicle. He died of cold cuts.

In his dessert list, a San Antonio restaurateur suggests, “Remember the alamode.”

There was an advice to the lovelorn editor who insisted, “If at first you don’t succeed, try a little ardor.”

The commuter’s Volkswagen broke down once too often. So he consigned it to the Old Volks Home.

When a fire chief responded to a call from a lingerie shop, he found no trace of a blaze. His official report read, “Falsie alarm.”

The wise old owl perched himself on a telephone wire. He wanted to make a long distance caw.

After the war a farmer with relatives in East Germany heard that a food package he had sent had never arrived. Optimistically he reassured them, “Cheer up, the wurst is yet to come!”

When the promoter of a big flower show was told that a postponement was necessary because the exhibits could not be installed on time, he explained to his backers, “We were caught with our plants down.”

There was an unscheduled event in a Baghdad harem. The sultan barged in unexpectedly–and his 62 wives let out a terrified sheikh.

A critic declared that he always praised the first show of a new theatrical season. “Who am I,” he asked, “to stone the first cast?”

She was voted the most popular girl in school by the male half. They weighed her in the balance and found her wanton.

A hen stopped right in the middle of the highway. She wanted to lay it on the line.

The husband of a talkative wife sighed, “I’ve given that woman the best ears of my life.”

A Turkish salesman sought an audience with an old-time sultan. “I don’t recall your name,” said the sultan pleasantly, “but your fez is familiar.”

Oh, stop groaning, dammit! 🙂


(Lillian Hellman related this incident that took place as the body of Alan Campbell [Parker’s husband] was being carried from the house where he had died.)

“Among the friends who stood with Dottie on those California steps was Mrs Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, pretended to like Dottie, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles. Mrs Jones said, ‘Dottie, tell me, dear, what I can do for you.’

“Dottie said, ‘Get me a new husband.’

“There was a silence, but before those who would have laughed could laugh, Mrs Jones said, ‘I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.’

Dottie turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, ‘So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.’ “


Billy Wilder was going to Europe for the opening of “Some Like It Hot.” His wife, who had recently returned from a trip to Paris, asked him to send back some Charvet ties for a friend and a bidet for herself. A couple of weeks later, Wilder cabled from France: “Charvet ties on way but impossible to obtain bidet. Suggest doing handstand in shower.”


Original title: Tomorrow Is Another Day; also Tote The Weary Load, Milestones, Jettison, Ba! Ba! Blacksheep,

None So Blind, Not In Our Stars, and Bugles Sang True

Final title: Gone With The Wind (1936)

Author: Margaret Mitchell

Original title: The Various Arms; Also Return To The Wars

Final title: To Have And Have Not (1937)

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Original title: Something That Happened

Final title: Of Mice And Men (1937)

Author: John Steinbeck

Original title: Proud Flesh

Final title: All The King’s Men (1946)

Author: Robert Penn Warren

Original title: Salinas Valley

Final title: East Of Eden (1952)

Author: John Steinbeck


G K Chesterton was an obese and unpopular child who suffered greatly in school and could not read until he was eight. One of his masters told him, “If we could open your head, we should not find any brain but only a lump of white fat.” He stayed at the bottom of his classes until, at 15, a budding friendship with future author E C Bentley ended his introversion. His transformation was remarkable, and by the time he was finishing secondary school he was well on his way to a prolific and successful writing career highlighted by the Father Brown series.


A close call:

Novelist Jerzy Kosinski was flying to Los angeles to join his friend Voytek Frykowski at a party being given at the Hollywood home of actress Sharon Tate on the evening of August 8, 1969. During the evening some uninvited guests attended the party—the Charles Manson followers, and all the party goers were gruesomely murdered. The expected guest, Jerzy Kosinski, was delayed because a French airline clerk had accidentally sent his luggage to New York instead of Los Angeles. Kosinski later wrote about the close call in his novel Blind Date.

[Kosinski committed suicide in 1991. His books aren’t available in Kindle format, but Amazon does list, among others, a paperback of The Painted Bird, one of the most stunningly original works I’ve read.]


Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 massive science-fiction tale was rejected by 13 publishers with comments like “too slow,” “confusing and irritating,” “too long,” and “issues too clear-cut and old-fashioned.” But the persistence of Herbert and his agent, Lurton Blassingame, finally paid off. Dune won the two highest awards in science-fiction writing and quickly sold over 10 million copies. To date the books’ total sales are in the tens of millions, continue at a brisk pace, and the series is considered by many to be among the finest works ever produced in the genre.

Don’t spill your e-ink, fellow Kindlers, but on April 6, 2007 a first edition copy of Dune sold at auction for $10,755. Take that, ebook lovers! 🙂


Writing on the wall.

Here is a choice assortment of literary graffiti from the littlest room of some of the biggest libraries and institutions of the nation:

George Orwell is an optimist

Henry Miller is a virgin

I was here. Wait for me—Godot

Hester Prynne was a nymphomaniac

Herman Melville eats blubber

Renata Adler is smarter than Susan Sontag

Franz Kafka is a kvetch

Leo Tolstoy drinks tea from a glass

Marcel Proust is a yenta

Othello was a bigot

Norman Mailer is the master of the single entendre

Moby Dick was a honkie

Thoreau was a hippie

Electra loved daddy

Emily Dickinson doesn’t have a date for the senior prom

Frodo lives


Fill ‘er up, barkeep!

Here’s H L Mencken’s take on those of us who “read too much” to suit him:

“There are some people who read too much, the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.“


All the following titles were derived from literary antecedents. Can you name the source of each title?

1. Noel Coward, Blithe Spirit

2. Norman Mailer, Armies Of The Night

3. John Steinbeck, Of Mice And Men

4. Mary Webb, Precious Bane

5. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

6. Lilli Palmer, Change Lobsters And Dance

7. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful Of Dust

8. Thornton Wilder, The Skin Of Our Teeth

9. W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes And Ale

10. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

11. Gary Wills, Bare Ruin’d Choirs

12. James Herriot, All Creatures Great And Small

13. Robert Penn Warren, World Enough And Time

14. Frederick Forsyth, The Dogs Of War

15. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog And The Fox


The 18 publishers who rejected Lorna Doone, Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s novel of 17th century England appeared vindicated when Sampson Low’s three volume edition flopped in 1869, selling only 300 of an edition of 500. Two years later, however, a single volume edition proved a big success. Harper’s pirated the book in the US, where it became the number-one bestseller in 1874. The book has remained in print ever since, and three film versions have been produced.


Winston Churchill who was to become the most distinguished member of an already illustrious family seemed so dull as a youth that his father thought he might be incapable of earning a living in England. A hyperactive child, Churchill enjoyed history and literature but refused to study Latin, Greek, or math, and entered Harrow as the absolute bottom student of his class. He improved his standing somewhat over the next four and a half years, but then failed the entrance exams to Sandhurst [British equivalent of West Point] twice and was taken out of Harrow and placed with a “crammer.” He passed the exams on his third try.


The director Billy Wilder’s wife, before their marriage, lived in a rather shabby part of town, and Wilder disliked having to pick her up there for a date. “I’d worship the ground you walked on,” he told her, “if only you lived in a better neighborhood.”


Attending a dress rehearsal of her play “Close Harmony,” Dorothy Parker was discouraged by the performance. The leading lady was amply endowed. At one point the producer, sitting with Dorothy, whispered, “Don’t you think she ought to wear a brassiere in this scene?”

“God, no,” said Dorothy. “You’ve got to have something in the show that moves.”


The composer Hugo Wolf, went mad and was committed to an asylum. He was still sane enough however to be aware of his condition. “Is that clock right?” he once asked, pointing to a large clock that hung in the dining room of the asylum. “as far as I know,” replied one of the attendants, “then what’s it doing here?” inquired Wolf.


[David Niven told a story about his good friend Fred Astaire, who had become the owner of a string of winning racehorses.]

“The most balanced man in every sense of the word, he only once to my knowledge went mad. At dawn one day Fred called me and announced his mental aberration.

“ ‘I’ll never know what made me do it,” he moaned, “but I had this overpowering urge . . . so I got up in the middle of the night and drove all over Beverly Hills painting the mailboxes with my racing colors.’ “


Beware the fury of a patient man.

–John Dryden

When the Roman general Marcellus eventually captured Syracuse, he gave special orders that the life of Archimedes should be protected. A Roman soldier, sent to fetch the scientist, found him drawing mathematical symbols in the sand. Engrossed in his work, Archimedes gestured impatiently, indicating that the soldier must wait until he had solved his problem, and murmured “Don’t disturb my circles.” The soldier enraged, drew his sword and killed him.


You go, girl!

Male antagonism toward Nancy Astor as the first woman to gain a seat in the House of Commons showed itself on several occasions, Winston Churchill in particular being guilty of discourtesy. When she challenged him about his behavior, he told her that it was because he found her intrusion into the all-male preserve embarrassing—as embarrassing as if she had burst into his bathroom when he had nothing to defend himself with. “Winston,” she retorted, “you are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.”

But then the worm turns. . .

Since Lady Astor believed in making her presence felt, she rather too frequently interrupted other speakers. Castigated for this on one occasion, she protested that she had been listening for hours before interrupting. Yes, we’ve heard you listening,” said an exasperated colleague.


Sherwood Anderson’s first publishers, recognizing his potential, arranged to send him a weekly check in the hope that, relieved of financial pressure, he would write more freely. After a few weeks, however, Anderson took his latest check back to the office. “It’s no use,” he explained, “I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face.”


The Italian novelist Massimo Azeglio’s second marriage to Luisa Blondel was not very successful and they separated. Later, learning that Azeglio was dying, Luisa rushed to his deathbed. “Ah, Luisa, sighed Massimo, “you always arrive just as I’m leaving.”


After Alec Guinness received an honorary degree at Boston College, along with the Pulitzer Prize poet Phillis McGinley, the youngest of Mrs McGinley’s three daughters slipped up to Guinness. “Oh, Sir Alec,” she gushed, “how does it feel to know the whole world adores you?”

“If you want to know the answer to that,” Guinness said kindly, “you must ask your mother.”


Fred Allen, wrote much of his own material. Once when one of his scripts was returned to him with extensive alterations scrawled across the pages in blue pencil. Allen flipped through it impatiently. “Where were you fellows when the paper was blank?” he asked.

Spying a haggard, long-haired cellist in the orchestra pit of a vaudeville house in Toledo, Ohio, Allen called out to him, “How much would you charge to haunt a house?”


In the court of James I there was present a rather unremarkable envoy from France. After giving audience to this lanky, overgrown nobleman, the king asked Francis Bacon his opinion of the marquis. “Your majesty,” replied Bacon, “people of such dimensions are like four- and five-story houses—the upper rooms are the most poorly furnished.”


Here’s one from the “Louisville Lip” that I like:

Just before takeoff an airline attendant reminded Muhammad Ail to fasten his seat belt. Ever the jokester, Ali replied, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” “Superman don’t need no airplane, either,” Retorted the attendant.

And here’s another:

At a New York party, violinist Isaac Stern was introduced to Ali. “You might say we’re in the same business,” remarked Stern. “We both earn a living with our hands.”

You must be pretty good,” said Ali. “There isn’t a mark on you.”


Charles Darwin did so poorly  in a school noted for its classical education that his father once told him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family. After failing dismally in a medical course at Edinburgh University, Darwin languished at Cambridge until his enthusiasm for natural history got him a berth on HMS Beagle in 1831. He transformed the voyage into one of history’s greatest scientific expeditions, using his findings from the trip to develop his theory of evolution.


Dorothy Parker was told that a certain London actress had broken a leg. “How terrible,” she said, “she must have done it sliding down a barrister.”


How nerds got a bad name:

Charles Babbage, best remembered for his “Analytical Engine,” the forerunner of modern computers, objected to Tennyson’s lines from The Vision of Sin, “Every moment dies a man,/ Every moment one is born,” saying that if that were true “the population of the world be at a standstill.” In the interest of accuracy, he wrote to Tennyson, the lines should be emended to read, “Every moment dies a man,/ Every moment one and one-sixteenth is born.”


When her wealthy socialite friends began to throw large and increasingly daring parties with colorful characters as the attraction, Mary Astor, (wife of William Astor, of Waldorf-Astoria fame) was determined not to be left out. “I’m having a bohemian party, too,” she announced. Asked who would be there to provide the necessary spice, she said, “J P Morgan and Edith Wharton.”


At the height of the Napoleonic wars the poet Thomas Campbell attended a literary dinner at which he proposed a toast to “Napoleon Bonaparte.” An angry clamor broke out among the patriotic guests. Campbell raised his voice and continued. “Gentlemen, you must not mistake me. I admit that he is the sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But gentlemen, we must be just to our enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a bookseller.”

The audience, nearly every one of them an author, broke into applause.

[The executed bookseller was Johann Palm of Nuremberg.]


Isaac Newton, the man who now ranks as perhaps the greatest intellect of all time showed little promise as a youth. An idler and mechanical dabbler, Newton was allow to continue his his education only because he proved a complete flop when entrusted with running the family farm. He was then relegated to the lowest form in his school, but he finally snapped out of his mental lethargy when a fight with a better student moved him to better his own standing. His later work in mathematics and physics revolutionized scientific thought.


Looking at a worn-out toothbrush in their hostess’s bathroom, a fellow guest said to Dorothy Parker, “Whatever do you think she does with that?”

“I think she rides it on Halloween,” was the reply.


Albert Einstein’s parents feared their son was retarded because he spoke haltingly until the age of nine and thereafter would respond to questions only after a long period of deliberation. He performed so badly in all hight school courses except mathematics that a teacher asked him to drop out, reportedly telling him, “You will never amount to anything, Einstein.” His enrollment at Zurich’s Polytechnic Institute was delayed a year because he failed his entrance exams. Even after graduating from the institute, he had trouble finding and holding a job. Meanwhile, he was formulating his first ideas about the theory of relativity.


In 1930 novelist Rex Stout built a fourteen-room house, with his own hands, on a hilltop in Danbury, Connecticut. Later he invited Frank Lloyd Wright out to see it and waited patiently for his evaluation. Wright examined it carefully and then said, “A superb spot. Someone should build a house here.”


One summer in the 1940s Nabokov and his family stayed with James Laughlin at Alta, Utah, where Nabokov took the opportunity of enlarging his collection of the butterflies and moths.

One evening at dusk he returned from his day’s excursion saying that during a hot pursuit over Bear Gulch he had heard someone piteously groaning down by the stream. “Did you stop?” Laughlin asked him.

“No I had to get the butterfly.” Nabokov replied.

The next day the corpse of an aged prospector was discovered in the place now named, in Nabokov’s honor, Dead Man’s Gulch.


Seventeen publishers rejected Irving Stone’s Lust For Life, a 1934 novel about Vincent van Gogh. Once the book was published, however, sales became spectacular, and Doubleday eventually took over the publication. By 1975 it had sold more than 24 million copies in 70 different editions.


Alexander Woollcott was constantly referred to in the Broadway and literary columns. At one stage, the popular columnist Walter Winchell quoted a whole series of jokes and wisecracks he attributed to Woollcott. In fact, they had been made up by Irving Mansfield, whom Woollcott had hired for the purpose. Mansfield, who later became a well known television producer, soon ran out of funny things to say, and Winchell’s column no longer contained bons mots attributed to Woollcott. After a couple of weeks Woollcott sent Mansfield a telegram: “Dear Irving, whatever happened to my sense of humor?”


Opening an account at a New York department store, Dorothy Parker and her new husband, Alan Campbell, cited Alexander Woollcott as a reference for their financial reliability. They were soon to regret their choice. Woollcott’ endorsement read: “Mr. Alan Campbell, the present husband of Dorothy Parker, has given my name as a reference in his attempt to open an account at your store. We all hope you will extend this credit to him. Surely Dorothy Parker’s position in American letters is such as to make shameful the petty refusals which she and Alan have encountered at many hotels, restaurants, and department stores. What if you never get paid? Why shouldn’t you stand your share of the expense?”


When Thomas Wolfe dedicated his first, very lengthy, novel to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, a proof copy was sent to F Scott Fitzgerald for his views. “Dear Max,” ran Fitzgerald’s reply, “I liked the dedication, but after that I thought it fell off a bit.”


Producer Joseph L Mankiewicz, stubbornly convinced that the film “Three Comrades” would make more money if the leading female character did not die, asked F Scott Fitzgerald to change the script. “‘Camille’ would have made twice as much if Garbo had lived,” he argued. “How about “Romeo and Juliet”—you wouldn’t have wanted Juliet to live, would you?” asked Fitzgerald. Mankiewicz, whose cultural experience did not extend beyond the film world, cast his mind back to the unsuccessful 1936 film version of the play. “That’s just it,” he retorted triumphantly. “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t make a cent.”


Billy Wilder was sent to Germany at the end of World War II to help reestablish the German entertainment industry. Having authorized the resumption of the Oberammergau Passion Play, he was asked if a certain actor, a known supporter of the Nazis, could reassume the role of Christ, which he had played before the war. “Certainly,” replied Wilder, “if you use real nails.”


William Wordsworth boasted in Carl Lamb’s hearing, “I could write like Shakespeare if I had a mind to.”

”So it’s only the mind that’s lacking,” murmured Lamb.


Tom Carlson’s dog had chewed up an autographed copy of one of Ogden Nash’s works. Though the book was out of print, Carlson finally managed to acquire a replacement. He sent it to Nash, explaining what had happened and asking for another autograph. The book was returned with the dedication: “To Tom Carlson or his dog—depending on whose taste it best suits.”


Financial consideration played only a small part in the satisfaction John Muir derived from life. On one occasion he declared that he was richer than magnate E H Harriman: “I have all the money I want and he hasn’t.”


Hermann Bahr once received from a yong poet an historical tragedy together with a request for his opinion: “If you find any faults, please tell me the truth. Words of criticism from a source so judicious would make me feel ennobled.” Bahr returned the manuscript with a brief comment: “I’d like to make you at least an archduke.”


Euripides once confessed that it had taken him three days to write three verses. His astonished interlocutor, a poet of inferior abilities, exclaimed, “I could have written a hundred in that time!”

“I believe it,” replied Euripides, “but they would have lived only three days.”


Asked why he did not go to the movies more often, T S Eliot replied, “Because they interfere with my daydreams.”


Flaubert was once asked outright who the real-life Emma Bovary was. With a wistful smile the author replied, “I am Madame Bovary.”


William F Buckley once sent fellow author Norman Mailer a copy of his latest book. Mailer, disappointed to find that Buckley had not written any message on the flyleaf, promptly turned to the index to see if he had been mentioned. Alongside Mailer’s name in the index was the handwritten greeting “Hi!”


When Benjamin Franklin was dining out in Paris, one of the other diners posed the question: “What condition of man most deserves pity?” Each guest proposed an example of such a pitiable condition. When Franklin’s turn came, he offered: “A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read.”


The British writer Charles Stuart Calverley was showing a party of tourists around the colleges of Oxford University. Calverley announced “That is Balliol College. That is the Master’s house . . .” Here he paused to throw a stone at the study window. “And that,” he continued, “is the Master.”


Andrew Carnegie was a generous supporter of the New York Philharmonic Society, meeting its annual deficits in its early years. One year the society’s secretary came as usual to Carnegie’s mansion, this time requesting a subvention of $60,000. Carnegie as just about to sign the check when he paused and said, “No, I’ve changed my mind. Surely there are other people who like music enough to help with their own money.” He then told the secretary to go out and raise half the necessary amount, promising to match it with the other half when this had been done.

The following day the secretary was back at the Carnegie mansion, announcing that he had raised the requisite money. Carnegie commended the man’s enterprise and wrote out his check for $30,000. As he handed it over he said, “Would you mind telling me who gave you the other half?”

“Not at all. Mrs. Carnegie.”


G A Stewart spotted a copy of Edmund Morris’s book “Dutch,” a biography of Ronald Reagan, on the desk of a talk show host who was about to interview him.

“Interesting book,” commented Stewart. “I just finished it.”

“Did you learn anything new?” asked the host.

“Sure. Before I had always thought Reagan’s closest brush with death was the assassination attempt. Now I realize it occurred while Reagan was taking an early morning walk. He was crossing the Potomac when a motorboat came within a hair’s breadth of running him over.”


Frank Case, the manager of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, met William Faulkner one morning in the hotel lobby looking decidedly sorry for himself. Case asked him what was the matter. “I feel like the devil. My stomach’s upset,” Faulkner grumbled. “Too bad,” sympathized Case. “Something you wrote, no doubt.”


Christopher Morley and William Rose Benét were gazing at the window of a wig shop in which were displace to small identical wigs on their stands. “They’re alike as toupees in a pod,” observed Morley.


One evening, when Dickens was dining at John Forsters house, Mary, the maid, served boiled beef without any carrots. Foster instantly recalled her and demanded an explanation. “Weren’t none,” the girl replied simply. With a dignified wave of the hand, Forster commanded: “Mary, let there be carrots.”


Alexander Woollcott, on seeing Moss Hart’s sumptuous country mansion and landscaped grounds, remarked, “Just what God would have done if he had the money.”


When a committee sat to examine the working of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, the proud author was somewhat discomfited by their editorial revisions. Benjamin Franklin noticed his colleague’s distress and told him a little story. When he was a young man, Franklin said, he had a friend who had completed his apprenticeship as a hatter and was about to open up in business for himself. He was anxious to have a fine signboard and composed one with the inscription “John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money” over the depiction of a hat. He then showed it to his friends and asked them what they thought. The first one remarked that “hatter” was superfluous as “makes and sells hats” showed the nature of the business. The second pointed out that “makes” could be left off the sign, as customers were unlikely to be interested in who had made the hats. The third friend said that as it was not the custom locally to sell on credit, the words “for ready money” were superfluous, and they too were struck out, leaving just: John Thompson sells hats.” “No one would expect you to give them away,” said the fourth friend, “so what is the point of ‘sells?’” Finally someone said that it seemed unnecessary to have the word “hats” on the board since there was the painted picture of a hat. So the board eventually read “John Thompson” with a picture of a hat underneath the name. Jefferson was much mollified by this story, and it was generally agreed that the committee’s editorial work had improved the wording of the Declaration of Independence.


At a high school dance Gene Fowler sat next to a ravishing young girl who began to make a play for him. Young Fowler sat silent under her flattery. At last she offered him a penny for his thoughts. “I was just wondering,” came the reply, “whether a horse’s legs ever go to sleep on him.”


The English literary critic Peter Quennell was a guest at the country house of Ian Fleming. Queried on the point by Mrs. Fleming, Quennell stated that he was an early riser. Mrs. Fleming then gently requested, in case he should care to walk about outside in the early morning, that he not disturb the dew on the spiderwebs on the lawn. Ian, it seemed, liked to look at them first thing in the morning when he awoke.


From Poems in Prose: “The Sparrow”

by Ivan Turgenev

I was on my way home from hunting, and was walking up the garden avenue. My dog was running on in  front of me.

Suddenly he slackened his pace, and began to steal forward as though he scented game ahead.

I looked along the avenue; and I saw on the ground a young sparrow, its beak edged with yellow, and its head covered with soft down. It had fallen from the nest (a strong wind was blowing, and shaking the birches of the avenue); and there it sat and never stirred, except to stretch out its little half-grown wings in a helpless flutter.

My dog was slowly approaching it, when suddenly, darting from the tree overhead, an old black-throated sparrow dropt like a stone right before his nose, and, all rumpled and flustered, with a plaintive desperate cry flung itself, once, twice, at his open jaws with their great teeth.

It would save its young one; it screened it with its own body; the tiny frame quivered with terror; the little cries grew wild and hoarse; it sank and died. It had sacrificed itself.

What a huge monster the dog must have seemed to it! And yet it could not stay up there on its safe bough. A power stronger than its own will tore it away.

My dog stood still, and then slunk back disconcerted. Plainly he too had to recognize that power. I called him to me, and a feeling of reverence came over me as I passed on.

Yes, do not laugh. It was really reverence I felt before that little heroic bird and the passionate outburst of its love.


Walter De La Mare suffered a severe illness and for some time his life lay in the balance. During his convalescence, his daughter came to see him and asked if there was anything she could get him—fruit or flowers. “No, no,” said the poet weakly, “too late for fruit, too soon for flowers.”


Isn’t there an old saw … something to do with chickens and hatching? 🙂

In the 1948 presidential contest between Truman and Tom Dewey, governor of New York, the latter looked like a winner. On election night, Dewey asked his wife, “How will it be to sleep with the president of the United States?” She replied, “A high honor, and quite frankly, darling, I’m looking forward to it.”

Next morning at breakfast, after Dewey’s defeat, Mrs. Dewey said, “Tell me, Tom, am I going to Washington or is Harry coming here?”


In 1983, the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Australia and New Zealand on a royal tour. Walking freely among the crowds in South Australia, Diana, who had once worked as a kindergarten assistant in London, made for a group of young children. She patted one youngster on his tousled head and asked, “Why aren’t you in school today?”

“I was sent home,” the lad replied, “because I’ve got head lice.”


While Dickens was acting as editor of the weekly periodical “Household Words,” a young poet called Laman Blanchard sent him a contribution entitled “Orient Pearls at Random Strung.” Dickens’s rejection slip read, “Dear Blanchard, too much string—Yours, C.D.”


Disraeli had a standard acknowledgment for people who sent him unsolicited manuscripts for his opinion: “Thank you for the manuscript; I shall lose no time in reading it”


Chauncey Depew and Mark Twain were both billed to speak at a banquet. Twain spoke first for about twenty minutes and was loudly applauded. When Depew was called upon, he rose and said: “Before this dinner Mark Twain and I agreed to trade speeches. He has just delivered mine and I am grateful for the reception that you have given it. Unfortunately I have lost his speech and cannot remember a word of what he had to say.” And he sat down.


At full moon in accordance with his claim to be on an equal footing with the gods, Caligula used to invite the moon goddess to his bed. “Did you not see her?” he demanded of Aulus Vitellius (himself later to become emperor). “No,” said Vitellius tactfully, “only you gods can see one another.”


Visiting Lourdes, Anatole France surveyed the ex-votos and crutches and remarked, “Don’t see any wooden legs.”


In 1965, William F Buckley stood as Conservative candidate for the office of mayor of New York City. The likelihood of victory being almost nonexistent, the campaign was not taken seriously, even by Buckley himself. A reporter asked him what his first action would be if elected. “I’d demand a recount,” replied Buckley.


When the subject of heaven and hell was broached one day in conversation, Cocteau politely declined to offer any opinion. “Excuse me for not answering,” he said. “I have friends in both places.”


Authenticity is always a problem with anecdotes. Kant, listening to a string of anecdotes about a famous personality of the time, remarked, “It seems to me I recall similar anecdotes about other great figures. But that is to be expected. Great men are like high church towers: around both there is apt to be a great deal of wind.” Churchill, Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Wilde are all in that “high tower” category today.

Talleyrand is a great case in point. It was said that he never fashioned so many brilliant mots during his life as he did after his death. But even during his life, his brother claimed that he abstracted many of his best from L’Improvisateur Français, a compilation of anecdotes in twenty-one duodecimo volumes.


Father Divine was a black revivalist preacher, born George Baker, and founder of the cultish Peace Mission movement. The goings-on at his house of worship drove his neighbors to bring a court case against him as causing a public nuisance. On November 16, 1931, Justice Lewis J Smith fined the preacher $500 and sentenced him to a six month jail term. Four days later the judge, without warning or pain, dropped dead. This extraordinary coincidence unleashed a storm of publicity. Father Divine kept his head and told the reporters clamoring for his comments on the affair, “I hated to do it.”


Alexander the Great was puzzled to find Diogenes examining a heap of human bones. “What are you looking for?” he inquired.

“I am searching for the bones of your father,” replied the philosopher, “but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves.”


Marie-Louise Denis, niece, housekeeper and one time mistress of Voltaire, in the course of an English lesson grew impatient over the difficulty of pronouncing the words of this uncouth language. She said to her teacher, “You write ‘bread,’ but say ‘bred.’ Wouldn’t it be simpler just to say ‘du pain?’”


In one of John Dennis’s plays, “Appius and Virginia,” a clap of thunder is called for. This Dennis provided by a machine he had invented. However, in a later performance of “Macbeth” at the same theatre he heard an identical cap of thunder, which he correctly assumed emanated from his own machine. “Damn them” he is reported to have cried. “See how the rascals use me! They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!”


J Paul Getty was one of the wealthy men who frequently came to watch the boxer Jack Dempsey train. Himself a keen amateur boxer, he asked to be allowed to spar for a round with the champion. Getty put up quite a creditable performance until he made the mistake of saying, “Hit me a little harder, Jack.” Dempsey knocked him out.


Disraeli was once asked to define the difference between a calamity and a misfortune. Taking the name of his great rival, Gladstone as his example, Disraeli said, “If for instance, Mr Gladstone were to fall into the river, this would be a misfortune. But if anyone were to pull him out, that would be a calamity.”


Like, most of Charles Dickens’s work, The Old Curiosity Shop was first published in serial form. The novel won a vast readership in both Britain and the United States, and interest in the fate of the heroine, Little Nell, was intense. In New York, six thousand people crowded the wharf at which the ship carrying the magazine with the final installment was due to dock. As it approached, the crowd’s impatience grew to such a pitch that they cried out to the sailors, “Does Little Nell die?”


Leaving her place at the Round Table one day, Dorothy Parker said, “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.” She paused, then went on, “I really have to telephone, but I’m too embarrassed to say so.”


Disraeli was once asked to define the difference between a calamity and a misfortune. Taking the name of his great rival, Gladstone as his example, Disraeli said, “If for instance, Mr Gladstone were to fall into the river, this would be a misfortune. But if anyone were to pull him out, that would be a calamity.”


To play in “Rosemary” the renowned actor, John Drew, shaved off his mustache, which greatly altered his appearance. Soon afterward he met Max Beerbohm but failed to recall who the latter was. Beerbohm, however, recognized Drew and said, “Mr. Drew, I’m afraid you don’t recognize me without your mustache.”


At her home in Nice in September 1927, Isadora Duncan, world-famous dancer, stepped into her brand new low-slung Bugatti racing car, driven over from the dealer’s by a mechanic. She wrapped her favorite long red scarf around her neck, flung back the end of it, and waived gaily to her friends, crying, “Adieu, mes amis! Je vais à la gloire!” The driver started up and the car moved off with a roar. The long red scarf became entangled in the spokes of the oversized rear wheel, twisted, and snapped Isadora’s neck, killing her instantly.


When Chauncey Depew was quite old, he was sitting at dinner next to a young woman wearing a very low-cut, off-the-shoulder dress. The old boy peered at her décolletage, leaned toward her, and asked, “My dear, what is keeping that dress on you?”
“Only your age, Mr. Depew.”


Frederick Douglass was traveling by boat from New York to Boston a stormy night. As his negro blood disqualified him from occupying a cabin or any of the public rooms, he was obliged to curl up in a corner of the deck to sleep. An officer came across him there and took pity on him. Knowing that he could find Douglass a stateroom if he could pass him off as an American Indian, the officer approached him with the words, “You’re and Indian, aren’t you?” Douglass at once grasped the significance of the question. Looking the officer straight in the eyes, he replied, “No, sir, I’m a nigger,” and curled up in his corner again.


On D-day, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, WW II director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner of the CIA), asked David Bruce, chief of the OSS in Europe, if he had arranged to be buried in Arlington cemetery. Taken aback, Bruce said that he had not—and why did he ask. “Well,” said Donovan, “I have; that’s where I want to be buried. David, you’ve got to get a plot near mine. Then we can start an Underground together.”


As a houseguest in the Kaufman household, Oscar Levant rather overstayed his welcome. At the end of one of his prolonged visits, Mrs. Kaufman hinted, “The servants always expect a little something, and I know you haven’t any money, so I tipped them each three dollars and told them it was from you,” Levant was outraged. “You should have given the five!” he exclaimed. “Now they’ll think I’m stingy.”


Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 3:29 PM  Leave a Comment  
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