Tony Deyal | Cherchez les femmes (look for the women)
There are some one-liners that are unforgettable. For example, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” or, “The best way to keep children at home is to make the atmosphere pleasant and let the air out of their tyres.” Or take the review of a new book: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” This wry and self-deprecating comment on Halloween: “Duck for apples – change one letter, and it’s the story of my life.”
These are classics by Dorothy Parker, writer, wit, and strong supporter of radical causes. Then there was the legendary Mae West, known as ‘the vamp of high camp’, with her famous purring trademark: “Come up and see me sometime.” In one of her stage shows, Mae was told that 10 men were waiting to meet her at her home. She replied, “I’m tired. Send one of them home.” Another time, after a long (and what she would describe as ‘hard’) day, she was asked, “You must be good and tired.” Her response: “No, just tired.” This is very much like one of her most famous retorts. “Goodness, Mae,” one of her friends commented when they met, “where did you get those beautiful pearls?”
Mae replied, “Never mind. But you can take it from me that goodness had nothing to do with it.” In fact, that famous line, “Goodness had nothing to do with it,” became the title of the first volume of Mae West’s autobiography.
No two famous women and quipsters could have been more dissimilar and yet so quick on the draw. Mae was irrepressible. When in her stage performance as Catherine the Great she met Field Marshal Potemkin, who brought her news of a war with the Turks, she told him, “Come up to the royal suite tonight – and we’ll talk Turkey.” In one of her early films, Mae was asked, “You ever meet a man that could make you happy?” Her reply was, “Several times.” Then the famous one-liner: “It takes two to get one in trouble.” Describing her role in the film No Angel, she said, “She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong.” When an astrologer told her, “I see a new position for you,” she responded, “Sitting or reclining?” Then there was Mae’s famous take on an old phrase: “A man in the house is worth two in the street.”
Dorothy Parker was a true literary genius – a short-story writer, poet, and critic with a sharp tongue and sharper pen. She had a very low tolerance for hypocrisy and stupidity. When a young man, looking loftily around at a party, confided, “I’m afraid I simply cannot bear fools,” Dorothy Parker commented, “How odd. Your mother could, apparently.”
Speaking about an acquaintance, she murmured in bogus admiration, “You know, she speaks 18 languages and cannot say ‘no’ in any of them.” She once collided with Clare Booth Luce, the writer, in a narrow doorway. “Age before beauty,” declared Mrs Luce, stepping aside. “Pearls before swine,” retorted Dorothy Parker, gliding through. She had previously remarked, when told that Mrs Luce was always kind to her social inferiors, “And where does she find them?”
On being informed that the stoic and taciturn American President Calvin Coolidge was dead, Parker queried, “How do they know?” Sometimes, her wit could be gentle. When one of her friends gave birth, Dorothy sent her a telegram stating, “Congratulations. We all knew you had it in you.” She could be outrageous. Dorothy kept a small cubbyhole of an office in New York, but as she never had any visitors, she became depressed and lonely. When the signwriter came to paint her name on the office door, she got him to write instead the word ‘GENTLEMEN’.
Gentlemen, and some a little bit rougher and tougher, were a commodity that Mae West was never shy of. As she said, “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked,” and, “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” When told that people were shocked by her behaviour and language, Mae’s view was, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.” In fact, like every other punster or humourist, there was no subject, person, or thing out of bounds or too shocking to make a joke of. The one that was so typically Mae West (who had previously admitted that between two evils, she always picked the one she had never tried before) was, “It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men.”
Dorothy Parker was, if anything, more sarcastic.
One of her friends was upset at having to get rid of his cat. Dorothy enquired, solicitously, “Have you tried curiosity?” When challenged to use the word ‘horticulture’ in a sentence, Dorothy quickly responded, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” On learning that a certain London actress had broken a leg, the quick quip was, “How terrible. She must have done it sliding down a barrister.” As a journalist, Dorothy had to write a report on a Yale University prom at which the number and beauty of the girls present had clearly impressed her, and she wrote, “If all those sweet young things were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
One of Dorothy’s greatest gifts, apart from her social conscience (she left her estate to civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr), was her ability to laugh at herself. Some years after she and her second husband, Alan Campbell, had split, they decided to remarry. At the reception after the ceremony, Dorothy confessed to the guests, “People who haven’t talked to each other for years are on speaking terms again today – including the bride and groom.” My favourite of all her responses is this one. While she was on her honeymoon, her boss at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, pestered Dorothy for a book review she was supposed to send in. Her reply: “Too ****ing busy, and vice-versa.”
Tony Deyal was last seen repeating a Mae West quip that could just as easily have been made by Dorothy Parker. When asked, “How do you do, Miss West?” her reply was, “How do you do what?”