Cellist Pablo Casals and organist Gabriel Pierné were once supposed to do a concert at which the Dvorak “Concerto for ’Cello” would be played, but Mr. Casals withdrew from the concert when Mr. Pierné insulted the concerto by calling it “dirty music.” Because Mr. Casals had signed a contract to perform at the concert, he was sued, and he lost the lawsuit. Nevertheless, Mr. Casals had a lot of support from the music community for his refusal to perform with Mr. Pierné. Conductor Pierre Monteux told him, “The adagio of the Dvorak ’Cello Concerto is one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written. You were quite right in your refusal, cher ami.”
One of the best things about being witty is being able to come up with exactly the right insult. Dick Cavett and his friend David Lloyd once worked with a comedy writer who suffered from a lack of a decent personality as well as a lack of writing talent. Mr. Cavett once heard his friend tell the loathed writer, “Your parents owe the world a retraction.” And when the two saw the loathed writer come out of the men’s room, Mr. Cavett remarked, “That’s where he puts his best stuff on paper.” As many creative people do, Mr. Cavett occasionally suffers from depression. A man once told him, “Depression is for sniveling little neurotics.” Mr. Cavett replied, “How, then, have you escaped it?”
Thaddeus Stevens once told President Abraham Lincoln not to make any deals with Simon Cameron. When President Lincoln asked Mr. Stevens whether he thought that Mr. Cameron was a thief, Mr. Stevens replied, “I don’t think that he would steal a red-hot stove.” Word of Mr. Stevens’ comment got to Mr. Cameron, and he demanded that Mr. Stevens make a retraction. Therefore, Mr. Stevens told President Lincoln, “He is very mad and made me promise to retract. I will now do so. I believe I told you he would not steal a red-hot stove. I now take that back.”
Early in her career, stand-up comedian Judy Tenuta used to make money on the side at “private functions.” For example, a woman would pay Ms. Tenuta to go to her house and insult her husband on his birthday. At the birthday party, Ms. Tenuta would say such things as, “Hi, it’s your birthday, pig. Come, let me play my accordion in your face.” A fringe benefit of these performances was free food. Ms. Tenuta would always ask that food be brought to her so she could eat as she insulted the guest of honor.
Philosopher David Hume was both brilliant and fat. When he lived in Paris, some of the philosophes were jealous of his success, so they ridiculed his obesity. Once, when Mr. Hume walked into a room, mathematician Jean d’Alembert greeted him by quoting a Latin translation of St. John’s Gospel, “Et verbum care factum est.” (“And the word was made flesh.”) However, Mr. Hume did have his female admirers, one of whom responded, “Et verbum carum factum est.” (“And the word was made lovable.”)
While he was head conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Artur Rodzinski used to have members of a carefully selected committee listen to new music, then make recommendations about whether the orchestra should play that music. On one occasion, all the members of the committee except one turned thumbs down on a piece of new music. The other members of the committee asked the lone member why he wouldn’t join them in condemning the new work. He replied, “I can’t condemn it — I wrote it.”
The Harlem Globetrotters used to play serious basketball, playing against local teams and running up a big lead before beginning their clowning. While on tour in Woodfibre, Canada, in the early 1930s, the Globetrotters were insulted by members of the local team, who called them nasty names as they warmed up. Therefore, the Globetrotters decided to play serious basketball for the entire game. They won, 122-20.
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights, went from door to door collecting food for the troops. One man refused to donate food to the war effort, and Ms. Truth asked him for his name. He said, “I am the only son of my mother.” She replied, “I am glad there are no more,” then she went to the next house to ask for food donations.
A lady of doubtful reputation returned after a long absence to the court of Frederick the Great in Prussia, then complained to Voltaire, “The things they say about me are incredible. They even say I retired to the country in order to give birth to twins!” Voltaire replied, “Don’t let that bother you. I believe only half of what I hear at court.”
Before becoming a comedian, Roseanne used to work as a waitress and insult her customers. After someone ordered, she would say such things as “Those drinks are gonna be six bucks, and it’ll cost you three more to have me take ’em off the tray and put ’em on the table.” She was so good that customers came in just so she could insult them.
Some singers are able to command an audience by the force of their personality even after they can no longer command their voice. Italian writer Ferdinando Galiani was once asked his opinion of a concert by Sophie Arnould. He replied, “It is the most beautiful asthma I have ever heard.”
James McNeill Whistler wasn’t afraid to use his devastating wit — even against the people who paid him to paint their portrait. When one male patron complained, “Do you consider that a great work of art?,” Mr. Whistler replied, “Do you consider yourself a great work of nature?”
Famous pianist Moritz Rosenthal had a sharp tongue. While visiting the home of a Viennese composer, he saw several scores by such notabilities as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Mr. Rosenthal exclaimed, “My goodness! I always thought you composed by ear.”
A pause can change the meaning of a sentence. Poet Robert Southey hinted around for a compliment about his epic titled “Madoc,” so classical scholar Richard Porson said, “’Madoc’ will be remembered … when Homer and Virgil are forgotten.”
© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved
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