LONG before the term political correctness had any meaning there was a richness to riposte sadly lacking in today’s vernacular. Those in the public eye often captured the headlines with a sneering wisecrack at an opponent. Newspaper editors too risked their readers’ wrath with an occasional derisive comeback.
Lord Sandwich was scathing when he contemptuously addressed John Wilkes, editor of The North Briton: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of the pox.” The newsman retorted: “That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your politics or your mistress.”
This exchange has wrongly been accredited to Gladstone and Disraeli. It was a time when the English language was an art-form; when people could communicate with richness.
“If you were my husband I would give you poison,” sneered Lady Astor to Winston Churchill. “If you were my wife I would take it,” he answered back.
Insulting witticisms must include Clarence Darrow’s: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”
If you think red-top tabloid crassness is a recent phenomena reflect on William Faulkner’s take on Ernest Hemingway’s writings: “He has never been known to use a word that might send the reader to a dictionary.” The war correspondent’s retort was to the point: “Does he really think that big emotions come from big words?”
Pity the wretched author who received a memo from Moses Hadas. “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.”
Mark Twain, renowned for his sharp wit, once said; “I didn’t attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw loathed Winston Churchill. Aware that his corpulent foe was better known for his toadies than for genuine friends, he wrote: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one.” Winston replied, “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second, if there is one.”
Any in a misplaced relationship may take heart from Stephen Bishop’s remark: “I feel so miserable without you. It is almost like having you here.” Equally sardonic the opinion of Irvin S. Cobb: “I have just heard about his illness. Let us hope it is nothing trivial“. The playwright Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”
There were times when the ‘f’ word is permissible. Maria Callas the international opera diva despised her heartless mother. When before her funeral she went to the still open casket in which her dead mother’s remains lay she was asked why she had thought to do so: She replied: “To make sure she was f****** dead.”
This brings us to the thereafter which prompted Jack E. Leonard to surmise; “There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.”
Thomas Brackett Reed might easily have been talking of today’s celebrities when he said, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” As for enthusiasts of pop music Billy Wilder spoke for many: “He has van Gogh’s ear for music.”
By Mike Walsh
Photo Credit: Alan Light