Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Tony Deyal | Diamonds are forever

Published:Saturday | November 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM

"Dorothy Parker tells me of the last time she encountered playwright Clare Boothe. The two ladies were trying to get out of a doorway at the same time. Clare drew back and cracked, 'Age before beauty, Miss Parker.' As Dotty swept out, she turned to the other guests and said, "Pearls before swine.'"

This massive putdown by the famous Ms Parker, poet, writer, wit and wise-cracker par excellence was reported by celebrity gossip columnist Sheilah Graham on October 14, 1938 in the Hartford Courant newspaper. Ms Parker was famous for her scathing sarcasm and comments like, "Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone." Not for her the banality of telling someone, "Go to hell," she did it her way.

When she was offended by the amount of money a producer offered her to write a script, she remarked, "You can't take it with you, and even if you did, it would probably melt." When jilted by someone she cared for deeply, she still bravely quipped, "It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard."

Mae West was called the "vamp of the high camp" and known as someone capable of finding a double meaning in every situation. In one of her stage acts, she was told, "Ten men are waiting to meet you at home." Her response? "I'm tired. Send one of them home." The 'straight' comedian setting up the joke said sympathetically, "You must be good and tired," and Ms West replied, "No, just tired."

In the movie Night After Night, the young lady in the coatroom gushes over Ms West's jewellery, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds!" The reply was, "Goodness had nothing to do with it." When Mae West played Catherine the Great on stage, Field Marshal Potemkin brought her news of war with the Turks, and she responded with a variation of her famous tag line (Come up and see me sometime) by saying, "Come up to the royal suite later tonight - and let's talk Turkey."

If we are bent on talking turkey even though it is still five days before Thanksgiving, what I would like is to give thanks to the witty women of a comedic bent who are not as well known or respected as the male quipsters. Jilly Cooper, the British journalist and novelist, put together an anthology in 1980 of women's writings and sayings with Tom Hartman.

In her introduction, Ms Cooper made the telling point: "Some time ago, it occurred to us that in most anthologies and dictionaries of quotations, the contributors have been at least 90 per cent male."

While agreeing that men dominate art and music, her view was that literature is different, and it is unfair that anthologies of prose and poetry should be so male-dominated. This is the background to Violets and Vinegar, a book which I love dearly, tattered and torn though it is, and which remained forlorn in boxes and shelves over the past 25 years as I moved from pillar to posting, from Boston and Washington to Barbados, Trinidad and then Belize, on to Antigua and back to Trinidad.

I thought of the book when someone opened the door at an eating place for me and remarked, "Age before beauty." "Pearls before swine" came quickly to my head, but not my lips. Ms Parker could do it, but not me. I muttered an unfelt "thanks" and went inside wishing I had the combination of strength and boldness, violets and vinegar, to say what I wanted instead of meekly surrendering to my fear of offending.

 

No such restriction

 

Women have absolutely no such restriction. For example, Imogene Fey made me rethink the close resemblance of my children to me when she observed, "A man finds out what is meant by a spitting image when he tries to feed cereal to his infant."

Fran Lebowitz, an American author and public speaker, who is more sardonic than snide, on the same subject of children, said in her inimitable style, "Children sleep either alone or with small toy animals. The wisdom of such behaviour is unquestionable, as it frees them from the immeasurable tedium of being privy to the whispered confessions of others. I have yet to come across a teddy bear who was harbouring the secret desire to wear a maid's uniform."

Whether Dorothy Parker or Mae West, Ms Cooper herself or Fran Lebowitz, what women humorists have that men can only aspire to is style. They have style to burn and often their victims are not just charred, but immolated. Eliza Savage displayed the aptness of her surname when she uttered the vain hope, "I saw Mr Gladstone in the street last night. I waited and waited, but no cab ran him over."

Diane de Poitiers, French noblewoman and courtier, as early as the 16th Century observed, "The years that a woman subtracts from her age are not lost. They are added to the ages of other women."

One of Queen Mary's courtiers, Margaret Greville, admitted with a delicious pun, "You mustn't think I dislike Lady Cunard. I'm always telling Queen Mary that she isn't half as bad as she's painted."

Even though the Queen dearly loved her sister Margaret, she, too, sometimes shows the fire beneath the ice.

Speaking about Princess Margaret's children, Her Majesty made it quite clear, "They are not royal. They just happen to have me as their aunt."

I know that while I included Imogene Fey, I did not quote anything from Tina Fey, and I have stuck with the women of a previous generation or two (or even three or more). It is not that modern women cannot be as biting, as funny, or as compassionate as their predecessors, it is the combination of style, substance and subtlety that women writers and humorists of the past seemed to possess. The much-married Zsa Zsa Gabor was both witty and wise when she stated flatly, "I never hated a man enough to give him back his diamonds." Obviously, you can cast your pearls before swine, but diamonds are forever.

- Tony Deyal was last seen quoting from Margaret Halsey's 'Malice Towards Some': "Englishwomen's shoes look as if they had been made by someone who had often heard shoes described but had never seen any."