Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Saying Famous Things |
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Saying Famous Things

Nobody knows who said it, but it was no accident, as the academics say, that the magnificent cod-Latin joke Sic transit Gloria Swanson was cracked somewhere in the vicinity of Billy Wilder. The professionally witty Viennese master had the blessed gift of making amateurs funny too. He heightened the atmosphere; everybody wanted his respect; people wanted to be remembered the next day for having said something funny the previous night.

According to legend — i.e. the facts are almost certainly otherwise — the line was delivered in the foyer after the premiere of Sunset Boulevard. According to likelihood, it was probably first delivered in a Paramount screening room at an early stage of assembling the rough cut, and might even have been said by Wilder himself. Not all of Wilder’s best ideas were hatched in tandem with I.A.L. Diamond: only most of them. Wilder’s wit benefited from collaboration, which graces you with the presence of an editor.

Judging from his interviews, Wilder noticed everything, but rarely narrowed the focus of his observation to the point where an epigram flared into independent life. It was because English was not his first language. When hearing it, he was sensitive to every nuance, but when speaking it he was only as quick as he spoke, and to construct a striking remark as you go you have to be ahead of the game. Working with Diamond, Wilder could realise his potential. In their best lines, nobody will ever puzzle out which of them did what: they were like songwriters. In one of their minor comedies, there is a whole scene which they probably dreamed up just for one line. The pretty girl is given a knee injury just so that the hero can examine it and say: “What’s a joint like this doing in a girl like you?”

It doesn’t really matter which movie it is. Ideally, Walther Matthau should have said it to Kim Novak in Kiss Me Stupid. But Walter Matthau got sick and couldn’t play the lead in that one. He played the lead in The Fortune Cookie, but I can’t remember a pretty girl with a bad knee. You don’t have to imagine Matthau saying the line. It’s enough to imagine Wilder saying it: perhaps saying it just after Diamond whispered it in his ear. Nobody ever heard Diamond say much. It seems safe to conclude that spent most of his time listening. In Hollywood, there was always a lot to listen to.

In Hollywood, “The son-in-law also rises” is a remark that was already part of the culture before World War Two. Like the original author of “Sic transit Gloria Swanson”, the original author of “The son-in-law also rises” has never been tracked down, possibly because the joke was first made before David O. Selznick ever met Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, after which it was on everybody’s lips, the name players being on everybody’s mind. But although the prospect of their marriage might possibly have inspired the remark, it is much more likely that the marriage simply made an already circulating witticism current.

The same remark about the son-in law became current all over again when Count Ciano married Mussolini’s daughter Edda, and was rewarded with an exalted portfolio as Foreign Minister for Italy. In other words — or, rather, in exactly those words — everybody was saying it. All we can be reasonably sure of is that nobody said it before Hemingway first published a book called The Sun Also Rises. Like all of Hemingway’s book titles, this one continues to be a sure-fire draw in the book shops. Part of its charm, however, is in its indeterminacy, as with a beautiful woman who might be smiling specifically at you or just happen to be smiling in your direction.

When correctly emphasized — on the word “rises” — Hemingway’s title tells us that the sun does one of two things. The joke, therefore, depends on a misreading. In the joke, there is no suggestion that sinking is the other thing that the son-in-law does. The joke means that the son-in-law rises like the son. It could have been the lurking ambiguity in the title, incidentally, that encouraged Hemingway’s English publishers to insist on a change, to Fiesta: clean and neat, but nothing like as haunting. The American title worked so insidiously on the memory that it was widely recognizable even to people who had never read the book. Having attained such currency, it attracted variations: hence the success of the joke.

After World War II, Edward Albee’s title “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” attained a similar currency. Albee’s title was already a joke, depending on the neat substitution of “Virginia” for “the big bad”. But in several thousand titles for magazine articles — it still happens today — that point, which was the only point, is blithely ignored, and little is kept except the “Who’s afraid” and the concluding question mark. In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wade?” the joke was still there, if only at two removes, but a title like “Who’s Afraid of Varicose Veins?” tells you nothing except the name of the subject. Who’s afraid of a clapped-out trick? No magazine editor. The wittiest variation on the standard line was a title by Alan Bennett — “Me: I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — but it was a crucial one word too long to catch on.

Every smart remark has to be made for the first time, but we should be suspicious when a famous person gets the credit, unless the famous person is also a famous wit. An obvious example is Marilyn Monroe’s reply to the set-up question about what she wore in bed. “Chanel No 5” she is reputed to have said, but even at the time there was a wide-spread assumption that a publicity man had both prompted the question and supplied the answer. The chances are good, however, that Noel Coward actually did make up on the spot his famous remark about the very large Queen of Tonga and the very small man who was in the open carriage with her at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: “That’s her lunch.” Nowadays the joke needs a health warning on grounds of its flagrant political incorrectness, but at the time it was thought hilarious, and not least because the fastidious Coward had said it.

Though Coward was not, at that time, generally known to be homosexual — the acknowledgment came only after his death — he was universally recognized as being dainty in his ways, so the brutalism was all the more delightful. (Robert Helpmann got the same reaction for his reputed reply to a New York cop who called him a fairy: apparently Helpmann took to the air, touched the cop with an imaginary magic wand, and said “Disappear!”) The best reason for thinking that Coward made up the line about Queen Salote’s lunch was that he had a reputation to protect, and would not have wanted to be caught borrowing. But there is also the possibility that, even if he thought of it on his own, he might not have been the first to do so. White imperialists visiting Tonga might long before have noticed the discrepancy in size between Queen Salote and any attendant male. Most people who recount the story now —usually as part of a roster of Noel Coward anecdotes —supply the information that the small man in the carriage with her was the King.

If somebody else made the remark first, the remark still didn’t come into its own — into its life — until it was heard from Noel Coward, because at last it had found someone famous enough to be its author, even if, as it were, he wasn’t. The same might apply to Liberace’s supposed authorship of a classic response by an artist to his hostile critics: “I cried all the way to the bank.” Prey to the delusion that a candelabra on the piano would add something to Tchaikovsky, Liberace over-delivered his signature wisecrack as he over-delivered everything, and that should have been a tip-off, because the phrasing belongs to someone who understands understatement. It sounds, in fact, like New York humour (i.e. Jewish humour) and was almost certainly already old in the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth. All it needed for immortality was a sufficiently famous mouth to say it. Liberace’s mouth got the job, and took the credit.

A full sixty years after his suicide, every article written about the unspeakable Hermann Goering still gives him respectful acknowledgment for the crack about reaching for his gun when he heard the word “culture”. (The respect comes from the fact that the journalists themselves secretly rather fancy the idea of armed philistinism.) Though Goering reached for the cyanide when he heard the word “rope”, his lasting reputation as a wit was already secure. The real author of the remark was the official Nazi writer Hanns Johst, but he was never remembered for saying it, mainly because he was an official Nazi writer, and therefore never remembered for saying anything, even at the time.

The dim bulb Johst’s solitary flash of inspiration — far more successful than any of his plays and poems — refused to stick with him. A smart saying is usually as anonymous as a sucker fish in search of a shark. When it finds one, it begins its long ride in a tunnel of reflected glory, while the source of the glory gets the credit for powers of invention equal to its prominence. By now more than forty years have gone by since Lyndon Johnson added to his fame for an acutely foul mouth by giving the press an exclusive on why he hadn’t fired J. Edgar Hoover. “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” It’s the perfect smart remark, but that’s exactly the reason to suspect that LBJ didn’t think of it first. No amount of harping on the point, however, will ever again get such a saying separated from the celebrity who is reputed to have said it. Does this anomaly matter? Only as a reminder that even the written record consists almost entirely of distortions. One of the basic things a young writer about any branch of history needs to learn is that if a quote sounds good, the person quoted is saying something that somebody else said first.

(The Monthly, March 2007)


The treasuring and propagation of smart remarks is a tribute we pay to an ideal. We would all like to take part in conversations where things that neat are said. In reality, they seldom are. Most conversations are babble. A tape-recording of all the conversations at a book launch, with all the cleverest authors in town duly present and striving to impress, would sound not much better than Christmas Eve in a mental hospital. Every year, some aspiring young television producer gets the idea of shooting a dinner party. It never works, not because the dinner party in a studio doesn't sound like a real dinner party, but because it does.