Anecdotes: Part Three

A young writer seeking advice from the aged English author, W. Somerset Maugham, said; “Mr. Maugham, I’ve just written a novel, but I haven’t been able to come up with a suitable title. You seem to have such a knack for titles, sir, Cakes and Ale, The Razor’s Edge, I wonder if you would read my novel and help me.”

“Don’t need to read your novel,” the old man said “Are there drums in it?”

“No, it’s not that sort of story. You see it deals with the alienation of ….”

“Are there any bugles in it?”

“No sir.”

“Call it, ‘No Drums, No Bugles.'”


There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep to be

able to tell what mutton tastes like. It is enough if he

eats a cutlet.



I wonder how many know that while in Paris Hemingway was so poor that he was forced to catch pigeons in the parks, hide them under his son Bumby’s baby carriage blanket, and sneak them past the gendarmes to feed his family.

Things got better. 🙂


While on a lecture tour of the States, a New York customs official asked if Oscar Wilde had anything to declare. “No, I have nothing to declare”–Wilde paused–“except my genius.”


I have always liked the ancient little story of the creative writing class in England where the assignment was to write a short piece that included sex, the royal family, mystery, and religion. Some enterprising young student wrote simply, “My God, the Queen is pregnant. Who did it?!” [Contributed by Dorothy Higgins]


Browsing a bookshop one day, Aaron Copland noticed a woman buying a copy of his book What To Listen For In Music, together with a paperback edition of a Shakespeare play. As the customer left the shop, Copland stopped her and asked “Would you like me to autograph your book?” Looking blankly into the composer’s beamng face, the woman asked, “Which one?”


A friend was very upset at having to get rid of his cat. Dorothy Parker suggested, “Have you tried curiosity?”


Maugham believed that early nights would keep him young, a habit his friend, the society hostess Emerald Cunard, found irritating. As he was preparing as usual to leave soon after dinner one night, Lady Cunard pressed him to stay. Maugham demurred, “I can’t stay, Emerald, I have to keep my youth.”

“Then why didn’t you bring him with you?” Lady Cunard asked, “I should be delighted to meet him.”


There were two plays containing a character based on Dorothy Parker, one written by George Oppenheimer and the other by Ruth Gordon. Dorothy grumbled that she had wanted to write her autobiography but was now afraid to do so. “If I did, George Oppenheimer and Ruth Gordon would sue me for plagiarism.


Henry Fonda was asked to say in one phrase the most important thing that any young actor has to know. Fonda answered, “How to become and old actor.”

This reminds me of the Air Force adage, “There are many bold young fighter pilots, but few bold old fighter pilots.”


In 1955 John Kenneth Galbraith was in an airport bookshop. At the time his seminal tome on the Great Depression (“The Great Crash: 1929”) was a bestseller (it’s still a great read, as it explains why we are in a severe recession now). Inspecting the shelves of the small airport shop he was accosted by a clerk and was asked what he sought. As he tells it, “I passed over the name of the author and said it was a work called ‘The Great Crash'”. “Not a book you could sell in an airport,” she responded firmly.


At a meeting of a Parisian literary society Franklin found himself a bit at sea as flowery compliments in French were exchanged. He decided that it would be safest to clap only when he saw a lady of his acquaintance applauding. After the gathering was over, Franklin’s little grandson said, “But Grandpapa, you always applauded, and louder than anyone else, when they praised you.”


I’m reading Jon Meacham’s, An American Lion, a biography of Andrew Jackson at the moment. Although he’s another that doesn’t meet the author criterion, these are too good to miss:

When the British admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane was about to attack New Orleans, he boasted that he would eat his Christmas dinner in the town. The remark was reported to Jackson who said, “It may be so, but I shall have the honor of presiding at that dinner.”


As his artillery pounded the British lines at the battle of New Orleans, Jackson stood beside the gunners to watch the effect of their fire. Not entirely satisfied, he gave the order, “Elevate them guns a little lower.”

And finally

Scandal broke out during Jackson’s first administration because of his friendship with Peggy Eaton, the attractive wife of Jackson’s secretary of war. This lady had a rather dubious background, and John Eaton’s marriage to her did not restore her reputation. All the Washington ladies boycotted receptions at which she was present and clergymen denounced her in public. Jackson called two of the latter into a cabinet meeting to discuss the question. The ministers admitted that there was no evidence of improper behavior on the part of John Eaton. “Nor Mrs. Eaton, either!” said angry president.

“I would prefer not to venture an opinion on that point,” replied the clergyman.

“She’s as chaste as a virgin!” snapped Jackson.

When this last remark was repeated to Daniel Webster, he paraphrased the line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite virginity.” [The last word in the actual line is “variety.”]


This isn’t about the author himself, but I thought I’d repeat this posting since it amused me when it happened. My wife brought my book “Truman” to the local bookstore where David McCullough was doing a book-signing. She brought along my 3-year old daughter. When my wife got up to McCullough and he asked what inscription she’d like, my daughter yelled out, “You never let ME write in books!” [Contributed by PaxtonReader]


After suffering a stroke, Henrik Ibsen was forced to abandon his writing and spent the remaining six years of his life as a helpless invalid. One day he heard his nurse suggest that he was feeling a little better. “On the contrary!” he snapped, and promptly died.


Jean Jacques Rousseau once sent Voltaire a copy of his “Ode to Posterity,” seeking his opinion. “I do not think,” Voltaire drily declared, “that this poem will reach its destination.” [Contributed by Carolyn Kephart]


James Joyce had no patience with monuments. Valery Larbaud said to him as they drove in a taxi in Paris past the Arc de Triomphe with its eternal fire, “How long do you think that will burn?” Joyce answered, “Until the Unknown Soldier gets up in disgust and blows it out.”


While a book reviewer for the New Yorker, Dorothy Parker went on her honeymoon. Her editor, Harold Ross, began pressuring her for her belated copy. She replied, “Too f***ing busy, and vice versa.”


At one time Dorothy Parker had a small dingy cubbyhole of an office in the Metropolitan Opera House building in New York. As no one ever came to see her, she became depressed and lonely. When the sign painter came to paint her name on the office door, she got him to paint instead the word “GENTLEMEN.”


William Randolph Hearst lived with his movie-star mistress Marion Davies in his spectacular castle, San Simeon. Hollywood personalities were frequent guests. Hearst always insisted upon the observation of certain rules. Despite his own irregular association with Marion Davies, one of these rules was that there should be no love-making between unmarried couples. Dorothy Parker broke the rule and received a note from her host asking her to leave. In the San Simeon visitors’ book she left these lines:

Upon my honor,

I saw a Madonna

Standing in a niche,

Above the door

Of the famous whore

Of a prominent son of a bitch


A notoriously dissolute group of Parisians invited Voltaire to participate in an orgy. He accepted, giving such a satisfactory account of himself that the very next night he was asked to come again. “Ah, no, my friends,” said Voltaire with a slight smile. “Once: a philosopher; twice: a pervert!”


Carson McCullers’s mother was on a bus en route to visit her daughter in New York when she fell into conversation with a lady of aristocratic mien who said she was fond of reading. The proud mother immediately began a lengthy monologue on her daughter’s extraordinary literary talents. After some time the other woman mentioned that her father had also been a writer. Carson’s mother asker her name. “Countess Tolstoy,” was the answer.


When Ben Johnson asked his benefactor, Charles I of England, for a square foot in the hallowed Westminster Abbey after he died, that is exactly what he got. He was buried in an upright position in order that he take up no more space than he had bargained for.


A lady sitting next to Calvin Coolidge at dinner tried to coax him into talking to her. “I have made a bet, Mr. Coolidge, that I could get more than two words out of you.”

“You lose,” said Coolidge

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 4:18 PM  Leave a Comment  
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