David Bruce: Insults

Dorothy Parker had a tart tongue. She once said, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and she can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” When an acquaintance left the table, saying he had to “go take a leak,” Ms. Parker remarked, “He really wants to telephone, but he’s too embarrassed to say so.” And when she was being shown an apartment available to rent, she remarked, “Oh, dear, that’s much too big. All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.” Her comment on a prom at Princeton was, “If all the girls were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be surprised.” When someone once told her that Clare Boothe Luce was always kind to her inferiors, she replied, “And where does she find them?”

A singer once came to Sir Thomas Beecham for advice about his son. He explained that his son was going to Oxford, but still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He wasn’t interested in law or politics, and his family didn’t want him to go into business. Sir Thomas asked, “Why not make a singer of him?” The singer explained that this suggestion was quite impossible, as his son didn’t have any kind of voice. “Ah, I see,” joked Sir Thomas. “A family failing.”

During an election, a politician once grew angry at Parliament member Richard Brinsley Sheridan and said that he would knock his brains out. Mr. Sheridan stayed calm and said to the crowd of onlookers, “You have heard my opponent’s amiable desire. I have but one suggestion to make. Let him be very careful when he performs the operation. Let him pick up my brains, for he needs them sadly.”

During a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Emma Eames got the idea that Katti Senger-Battaque was trying to steal a scene from her, so she whacked Ms. Senger-Battaque on the head. After the performance, Ms. Senger-Battaque said that she wasn’t upset with Ms. Eames because “I was really surprised and delighted to see any evidence of emotion in Madame Eames.”

Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont, a social upstart, was not intimidated by the wealthy and fashionable. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once became upset with her and angrily told her, “I have just heard what you said about me at Tessie Oelrich’s last night. You can’t deny it because she told me herself. You told everybody that I look like a frog.” Mrs. Belmont corrected her: “A toad, my dear, a toad.”

Organist Nadia Boulanger once forced Walter Damrosch to conduct an organ concerto by Aaron Copland by refusing to play anything else. However, Mr. Damrosch got his revenge — after the concerto was finished, he turned to the audience and said, “If a young man at the age of 23 can write like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder.”

Major Hill once charged Abraham Lincoln with making insulting remarks about Mrs. Hill. Mr. Lincoln replied that he had never said anything derogatory about Mrs. Hill, that he had the highest respect for her, and in fact the only thing he knew about her that put her in a bad light was that she had married Major Hill.

Groucho Marx was once approached by a man and his wife. The couple introduced themselves, and then the man said that his wife was a big fan of Groucho’s and was dying to be insulted by him. Groucho replied to the husband, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. With a wife like that, it ought to be easy to think of your own insults.”

Edward Simmons was inclined to speak often and at great length. Oliver Herford once posted a sign at The Players Club: “Exit in Case of Simmons.” Once, Mr. Simmons told Mr. Herford that he had been offered $500 to resign from The Players. Mr. Herford advised him to hold out for a better offer.

A man was heckling a Salvation Army worker: “Do you believe that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale?” “I don’t know,” she answered. “I’ll ask him when I get to Heaven.” “But what if he isn’t there?” asked the heckler. The Salvation Army worker replied, “Then you ask him.”

While making “My Little Chickadee” with Mae West, character actress Alison Skipworth became annoyed with the female star and told her, “You forget I’ve been an actress for 40 years!” Ms. West replied, “I’ll keep your secret.”

Asked to explain the difference between “misfortune:” and “calamity,” Benjamin Disraeli made a joke about his political rival, William Gladstone: “If Mr. Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune, but if someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

During a rehearsal of “The Darling of the Gods,” Herbert Beerbohm Tree asked an actor to stand back a little, then a little more, then a little more. The actor complained, “If I go back any more, I shall be right off the stage.” Mr. Tree replied, “Exactly.”

Sydney Smith was involved in politics as a Tory. While attending a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” he saw Lord Brougham, a rival Whig, enter the hall, and he said, “Here comes counsel for the other side.”

During an outdoors picnic, King Harun rested his head on Bahlul’s knee, then asked, “I understand that you are related in some way to a thief. What is the relationship?” Bahlul replied, “I am his pillow.”

Once a woman complained to Sir Winston Churchill that she didn’t like either his politics or his moustache. Sir Winston replied, “Madame, you are unlikely to come into contact with either.”

At The Players Club, members were speaking of a much-disliked fellow member. One person said, “He’s his own worst enemy.” Franklin Pierce Adams spoke up: “Not while I’m alive.”

William F. Buckley had a keen wit. He once received an insulting letter from a Dr. Prickman, so he wrote back, “My friends call me Buck. What do your friends call you?”

Alexander Woollcott once wrote this defense of Michael Arlen, a friend of his: “Arlen, for all his reputation, is not a bounder. He is every other inch a gentleman.”

Copyright 2015 by David Bruce

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