Bon Mots, Wisecracks, and Gags: The Wit of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and the Algonquin Round Table

Bon Mots, Wisecracks, and Gags: The Wit of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and the Algonquin Round Table

by Robert E. Drennan, Heywood Hale Broun

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Overview

A hilarious and witty collection of quotes from twentieth century literary icons.
 
“Stop looking at the world through rose-colored bifocals.” “His mind is so open, the wind whistles through it.” “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.” Ever wonder where these sayings came from? For decades, the dining room of New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel was a hub of letters and humor. Cocktails were swilled as writers, humorists, actors, and critics poked fun at culture, the arts, and one another. In this lively tribute, today’s readers will come to understand why Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker represent the epitome of quips and comebacks—wit that still packs a punch decades later.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620874127
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 496,143
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Robert E. Drennan is an editor and writer, with a special interest in literary history and humor.

Heywood Hale Broun was an American author, sportswriter, commentator,
and actor. He passed away in 2001.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Franklin Pierce Adams

Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) [i88i-ig6o] was regarded as the father of the Round Table. His column, "The Conning Tower/' spanned a thirty-year period and appeared in three New York newspapersthe Herald Tribune, the World, and the Post. He wrote in the "genteel" tradition, excelling in urbanity, high wit, and erudition. Contributors to "The Conning Tower" included Round Tablers George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott. Harold Ross based much New Yorker humor on "The Conning Tower," liked Adams' emphasis on "humor with a local flavor" Described as "the cigar-smoking, pool-playing little gargoyle with the long neck and the big nose and the bushy mustache," F.P.A. spoke favorably of card games and tennis, derisively of hat-check girls, paper towels, illegible house-numbers, and his wife's salad dressing. Fond of light verse with a satiric bite, he published several books of poetry and short prose sketches (e.g., The Book of Diversion and Half a Loaf), and a literary parody in topicai setting, The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys. He was a regular panelist on the famed 'Information, Please" radio show.

Referring to an occasional Algonquin visitor known for his miserly habits, KP.A, one day informed the Round Table that the man, newly engaged to be married, had had an accident while buying a ring for his fiancee. "He got his finger crashed between two pushcarts/'

* * *

One evening at a Thanatopsis session, when Ross was not present, F.P.A. recalled seeing an incredible sight that day — Harold Ross tobogganing.

"For God's sake — Ross tobogganing!" exclaimed Kaufman. "Did he look funny?" "Well," Adams said, "you know how he looks not tobogganing."

* * *

Adams, whose philosophical musings generally took expression in the form of backyard aphorisms, once concluded, "Money isn't everything, but lack of money isn't anything."

* * *

"The average man is a great deal above the average/'

"What this country needs is a good five-cent nickel/'

* * *

F.P.A. was fond of rewriting advertising slogans for amusement, as with the following razor blade ad: "Ask the man who hones one/'

* * *

"You may be certain that age is galloping upon you when ... a feminine voice over the telephone says, 'Do you know who this is?' And you say, 'No,' and hang up the receiver."

* * *

The Algonquin has traditionally maintained a policy of issuing personal charge account applications to its regular guests. Filling out one such form, F.P.A. wrote in a space marked Position — "Horizontal."

* * *

"In the Countess Salm's letters she said, 'Ludi never was made to work — he hates it.' That is the difference between Ludi and the rest of us, who merely hate it."

* * *

"And now Mr. Bernard Shaw says that schoolteachers ought to have babies. Well, he ought to know; he's had schoolteachers/'

* * *

"Il Duce, believing, as he does, in press censorship, probably will cut the last three words from the headline 'Mussolini Best Man at Marconi's Wedding.'"

* * *

"Our favorite way of wasting time is trying to say something in praise of paper towels/'

* * *

"Speaking of screen stars, there's the mosquito."

* * *

"Where the brook of Youth and the river of Age meet is an interesting point. One arrives there when one is too old to rush up to the net and too young to take up the sedentary and ancient game of golf."

* * *

"Our friends accuse us of nepotism. They say our policy is Uncle Sam and Anti-Wilson."

* * *

"Ninety-two percent of the stuff told you in confidence you couldn't get anybody else to listen to."

* * *

"As I often have said, I am easily influenced. Compared with me a weather vane is Gibraltar...."

* * *

Frank Case in his book Do Not Disturb, which was written about the Algonquin, asked F.P.A. to send him a list of his likes and dislikes for publication. F.P.A. responded as follows:

"I like you.

"I dislike parsley, uncrisp bacon, well-done beef.

"You may mention me, and high time, too."

* * *

One of the Round Tablers' favorite games was called "I-Can-Give-You-A-Sentence." It involved using a sentence in which a word that sounded like an unrelated phrase was employed. For example, one Christmas season F.P.A. went about wishing all "a meretricious and a happy New Year."

* * *

At a Thanatopsis poker session Woollcott remarked in passing, "One thing I'll say for myself, I never struck a woman but once/' F.P.A. responded, "And then unfavorably, Pll be bound."

* * *

On signing a first-edition copy of his book Shouts and Murmurs, Alexander Woollcott sighed and said: "Ah, what is so rare as a Woollcott first edition?" "A Woollcott second edition," replied F.P.A.

* * *

At Thanatopsis poker sessions the Round Table men would generally play through the night (Saturday), and frequently all weekend. At odd intervals one member or another would retire from the game and go home. These persons, according to F.P.A., were suffering from "winner's sleeping sickness," while the remaining players had been stricken with "loser's insomnia," or "Broun's Disease."

* * *

F.P.A. once poked good-natured fun at his friend Reginald Birch — the artist, then editor of Judge — a man exceptionally small in physical stature: "If you were half a man — and you are."

* * *

'The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time."

* * *

'It is a malicious pleasure to think, riding up in the cool Subway, of the motorists driving home through traffic jams; and it is a malicious pleasure to muse, driving home through the fresh air, of the thousands standing up in the hot and sticky Subway."

* * *

"Everything, good authority tells us, is lower in price. Even the $5 silk shirts are down to $8.50, reduced from $13.50."

* * *

"Every time we tell anybody to cheer up, things might be worse, we run away for fear we might be asked to specify how."

* * *

"Our notion of an optimist is a man who, knowing that each year was worse than the preceding, thinks next year will be better. And a pessimist is a man who knows the next year can't be any worse than the last one."

* * *

"Watching an aeroplane race, some of the spectators tell us, is more fun than watching a yacht race. The boredom endures less than an hour."

* * *

F.P.A. once asked Beatrice Kaufman, "Guess whose birthday it is today?" Beatrice guessed, "Yours?" and F.P.A. admitted, "No, but you're getting warm — -it's Shakespeare's."

* * *

Heywood Broun, who had taken up oil painting as his chief hobby, once complained to F.P.A., "You have no idea how hard it is to sell a painting."

"If it's so hard," Adams advised, "why don't you try just selling the canvas? I'll give you a note to some tent-makers 1 know."

* * *

Adams belonged to a poker club that numbered among its members a certain actor, Herbert Ransom, whose facial expressions when holding a good hand were so obvious that KP.A. proposed a new club rule: "Anyone who looks at Ransom's face is cheating."

* * *

F.P.A. once listened painfully but patiently while a friend related a story that threatened never to end. At last the teller drew near his finish and said, "Well, to make a long story short — — -"

"Too late," said Adams.

* * *

F.P.A., after seeing Helen Hayes' performance in Caesar and Cleopatra, remarked that the young actress seemed to be suffering from "fallen archness."

* * *

While in France serving on the Stars and Stripes, Captain F. P. Adams inscribed a book to Medical Sergeant Aleck Woollcott — then, as later, an exceedingly hefty man. The inscription recalled crowded conditions in Paris, when, rank being disregarded, officers and men were sometimes forced to bunk together:

One night I slept on a Terribly full cot,
My partner being Alexander Woollcott.

* * *

On the birth of a baby boy to actress Myra Hampton, the members of the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club — who all thought highly of her — -chipped in and gave the young actress a share of United States Steel, worth over $200, in the infant's name. A short time later Wall Street crashed, and F.P.A. remarked at the club's next meeting, "I hear Myra's kid has been clipped by the market."

* * *

F.P.A. once escorted George and Beatrice Kaufman to a cocktail party where Beatrice, sitting down on a cane-bottom chair, suddenly broke through the seat. Held captive by the frame, her derrière drooping to the ioor, Beatrice looked to the men for help. Adams secured her humiliation by remarking, I've told you a hundred times, Beatrice, that's not funny!"

* * *

At the close of the football season one year F.P.A. decided that as long as so many persons were choosing Ail-American teams, he might as well pick one himself. Following were his nominations: "Cedars of Lebanon; Diet of Rice; Crossing of Delaware; Bells of St. Mary's; Dissolution of Union; Quality of Mercer; Heart of Maryland; District of Columbia; Pillars of Temple; Grist of Mills; and Destruction of Carthage."

Substitutes included: "Hard, Knox; Dead, Center; Gimme, De Pauw."

* * *

Adams once discussed the etiquette involved in a young man's seeing a young woman home from a date. He stressed that this was not always a clear-cut situation, and that the varying desires of the two players often made it difficult for them to know what to say. He explained this as follows:

Four things are possible:

1. He wants to come in and she wants him to.

2. He wants to come in and she doesn't want him to.

3. He doesn't want to come in and she wants him to.

4. He doesn't want to come in and she doesn't want him to.

Well —

1

"You don't think I'm going home, do you?"

"I should say not."

2

"I'm coming in."

"Oh, no, you're not."

3

"Well, good night."

"Aren't you coming in to say good night to me?"

"No, I can't."

"Why not?"

"I've got to get up early tomorrow."

"Oh, just for a few minutes."

"No, I can't."

"Oh, please. Just a few minutes."

"No, I've got to go to bed. If I don't get my eight hours I'm no good the next day."

"Oh, what's five minutes?"

"It'll be more than that."

"No, I'll send you away in five minutes."

"Will you, honest?"

"Yes, my dear."

"All right."

4

"Good night."

"Night."

* * *

Adams had short patience with boring conversationalists and seldom could bring himself to listen to them, even as a polite gesture. One evening at the Players, spotting a well-known bore headed in his direction, F.P.A. met his adversary, took his hand, and said, "How are you that's fine," then went his way, leaving the man alone and confused in the center of the room.

* * *

One of the members of a poker group to which F.P.A. belonged was an especially long-winded storyteller much of whose material centered around the famous baseball pitcher Christy Mathewson, his personal friend. One night when the man was absent, the news came in that Mathewson had died. One of the players observed, 'This will cut down his conversational stock fifty per cent,"

"A drop in the bucket," Adams cracked.

* * *

F.P.A. dedicated his book Overset to New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope. The dedication page read:

To Herbert Bayard Swope without whose friendly aid and counsel every line in this book was written

* * *

At a Players Club gathering one of the members held the floor in denunciation of a generally unpopular fellow member, ending his comments with the relatively soft statement, "He's his own worst enemy." "Not while I'm around," said F.P.A.

* * *

On the occasion of a well-publicized theater fire in the Basque country of Spain (in which a number of patrons were crushed and killed trying to escape through the building's one door), F.P.A. philosophized, "Don't put all your Basques in one exit."

* * *

"When politicians appeal to all intelligent voters, they mean everyone who is going to vote for them."

* * *

When Woollcott moved to his East River address — later to be christened "Wit's End" by Dorothy Parker — he sent out invitations to his friends to give him a linen-china-and-silver "shower." F.P.A. obligingly sent him a handkerchief, a moustache cup, and a dime.

* * *

Though Dorothy Parker's appellation for Woollcott's apartment on the East River — "Wit's End"— proved more lasting, F.P.A. suggested one that many favored: "Old Manse River."

* * *

"'Big wars,' says the Herald Tribune, in our nomination for the year's Half-Truth Prize, 'are very costly to the losers.'"

* * *

"'Does civilization pay?' asks the Reverend Dr. Arthur Wakefield Slater. Yes, but only about ten cents on the dollar."

* * *

"About censorship we feel the way either Mr. Moran or Mr. Mack feels about piccolo playing. 'Even if it's good,' drawls the drawling one, 'I won't like it.' "

* * *

One night Woollcott showed up at a Thanatopsis game wearing a $200 bearskin coat which he had bought before the war, and which, he boasted, could be sold any day for as much as he had paid for it. F.P.A. glanced over at the always unkempt Heywood Broun and said, "You couldn't get that much for your entire wardrobe, Heywood ... unless it was from a costumer."

* * *

On one October evening, while vacationing in Sag Harbor with the Frank Cases (Algonquin owners), F.P.A. politely watched from the dock while a number of the other guests engaged in chilly water-sports. Back in the house, after what seemed to him too much time had elapsed between entertainment and refreshments, F.P.A. said, "What do you have to do to get a drink around here — turn up embalmed in a glacier, like the Lost Bridegroom?"

* * * At a Thanatopsis session, F.P.A., who professed to be a garden lover, reported that his peonies required special attention. One of the members asked, "How about your dahlias?"

"They're thriving," F.P.A. answered. "It proves that if you take care of your peonies, the dahlias will look after themselves."

* * *

"Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory."

CHAPTER 2

Robert Benchley

Robert Benchley [1889-1945] was a drama critic for twenty years, first with the old Life magazine, then with The New Yorker. As a well-known humorist-writer, he contributed countless short pieces, gently sardonic in tone, to popular magazines. Many of these were collected in book form, under such titles as Of All Things, My Ten Years in a Quandary, Chips Off the Old Benchley. He later wrote, directed, and acted in humorous film shorts. He was once described as "a sly wag with an inexact mustache, a burbling laugh and one of the world's warmest wits" His writings were said to be "only one of the outward and visible evidences of the inner grace, the divine essence," which led one commentator to write, "Benchley was humor!' As an American wit, Benchley made a clear break from the "crackerbox philosopher" tradition, choosing a style both sophisticated and literate. He edited the Harvard Lampoon while an undergraduate, later retaining his interest in satire, parody, and verbal understatement, as in "The Treasurer's Report." A strong "nonsense element" dominates much of his written and spoken humor.

Better than anyone else, Benchley recognized his own irresponsibility in matters of finance. He once applied for a loan at his local bank and, to his shock, was granted the money with no questions asked" The next day he reportedly withdrew all his savings from the bank, explaining, "I don't trust a bank that would lend money to such a poor risk."

* * *

Benchley lived at the Algonquin for a period, later moving across the street to another hotel He explained to owner Frank Case that too many friends had the habit of milling around the Algonquin lobby and coming up to visit him. Case suggested that Benchley tell the desk clerks not to let anyone up until he had given them a telephone okay. "Yes," said Benchley, "but that won't keep me from coming down."

* * *

Benchley once appended a note to his endorsement on the back of a bank check: "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here. Robert Rabbit Benchley."

* * *

ON MIRRORS: 'Things are depressing enough as they are, without my going out of my way to make myself miserable."

* * *

"A man gets on a train with his little boy, and gives the conductor only one ticket. 'How old's your kid?' the conductor says, and the father says he's four years old. 'He looks at least twelve to me,' says the conductor, and the father says, 'Can I help it if he worries?' "

* * *

"There are various forms of a [certain] disease, the victim of which is unable to say 'No.' Some of these forms are more serious than others, and often lead to electrocution or marriage."

* * *

"With the increase in crime during the past decade has come a corresponding increase in crime prevention. Or perhaps it is vice versa."

* * *

Influenced by an irrepressible New England conscience regarding sex, Benchley expressed outward disapproval of sensationalism as a marketable commodity in the theater. Discussing the play Ception Shoals, starring Nazim-ova, Benchley found the production "too obstetric for my simple soul," and referred to its starring lady as the play's "leading spermatozoa."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Bon Mots, Wisecracks, And Gags"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Robert E. Drennan.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction Heywood Hale Broun 7

Cast of Characters 11

Franklin Pierce Adams 23

Robert Benchley 41

Heywood Broun 61

George S. Kaufman 77

Ring Lardner 95

Dorothy Parker 111

Alexander Woollcott 129

Completing the Circle 151

Selected Bibliographies 169

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Midna woke up when Julia sneezed.