Stage Whispers

Fanny Kemble’s 1833 American tour was not a uniform success — her journal gives this account of one eventful scene in Baltimore:

ROMEO: Tear not our heart strings thus! They crack! They break! — Juliet! Juliet! (dies)

JULIET: (to corpse) Am I smothering you?

CORPSE: (to Juliet) Not at all. Could you be so kind, do you think, as to put my wig on again for me? It has fallen off.

JULIET: (to corpse) I’m afraid I can’t, but I’ll throw my muslin veil over it. You’ve broken the phial, haven’t you? (corpse nods)

JULIET: Where’s your dagger?

CORPSE: ‘Pon my soul, I don’t know.

“The play went off pretty well, except they broke one man’s collar-bone, and nearly dislocated a woman’s shoulder by flinging the scenery about.”

Epic Fantasy

From a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his publishers, February 1950:

My work has escaped my control, and I have produced a monster; an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody); and it is not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion. Ridiculous and tiresome as you may think me, I want to publish them both — The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. That is what I should like. Or I will let it all be. I cannot contemplate any drastic rewriting or compression. But I shall not have any just grievance (nor shall I be dreadfully surprised) if you decline so obviously unprofitable a proposition.

At 150 million copies, The Lord of the Rings is now the third best-selling novel of all time.

Art Direction

E. Gertrude Thomson

In 1879, illustrator Emily Gertrude Thomson appointed to meet Lewis Carroll at the South Kensington Museum. She had arrived at the rendezvous before she realized that neither of them knew what the other looked like.

“The room was fairly full of all sorts and conditions, as usual,” she wrote later, “and I glanced at each masculine figure in turn, only to reject it as a possibility of the one I sought.”

As the clock struck, she heard high voices and children’s laughter ringing down the corridor, and a tall, slim gentleman entered holding two little girls by the hand. “He stood for a moment, head erect, glancing swiftly over the room, then, bending down, whispered something to one of the children; she, after a moment’s pause, pointed straight at me.”

He dropped their hands, came forward with a smile, and said, “I am Mr. Dodgson; I was to meet you, I think?” She smiled and asked how he had recognized her.

“My little friend found you,” he said. “I told her I had come to meet a young lady who knew fairies, and she fixed on you at once.”

More Amusing Indexes

From Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, 1872:

Act to make the poor rich by making the rich poorer, 3
Ankle, wonderful effects of breaking a bone in the, 114
Batrachian reservoir (frog-pond in vulgar speech), the palladium of our city, 369
Biography, penalties of being its subject, 191 et seq.
Common virtues of humanity not to be confiscated to the use of any one creed, 360
House-flies mysterious creatures, 288
Ideas often improve by transplantation, 171
Intellects, one story, two story, three story, 50
Jests distress some people, 289
Justice, an algebraic x, 317
Life a fatal complaint, and contagious, 395
Limitations, human, not to be transferred to the Infinite, 319
Millionaires cannot be exterminated, 5
Non-clerical minds, hopeful for the future of the race, 302
Old people almost wish to lose their blessings for the pleasure of remembering them, 385
Poem, is it hard work to write one?, 111
Power, we have no respect for as such, 317
Private property in thought hard to get and keep, 356
Ribbon in button-hole pleases the author, 322
Rigorists, mellowing, better than tightening liberals, 19
Tattooing with the belief of our tribe while we are in our cradles, 384
Traditionalists eliminate cause and effect from the domain of morals, 265

And from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621:

Atheists described, 705
Baseness of birth no disparagement, 509
Beer censured, 145
Black eyes best, 519
Blow on the head cause of melancholy, 247
Confidence in his physician half a cure, 392
Crocodiles jealous, 629
Eunuchs why kept, and where, 642
Fishes in love, 493
Great men most part dishonest, 636
Guts described, 96
Hell where, 318
How oft ’tis fit to eat in a day, 307
Ignorance the mother of devotion, 678
Man the greatest enemy to man, 84
Old folks apt to be jealous, 632
Poets why poor, 203
Salads censured, 145
Step-mother, her mischiefs, 241
Venison a melancholy meat, 142
Why good men are often rejected, 415
Why fools beget wise children, wise men fools, 139, 140

The New York Times Book Review called Burton’s index “a readerly pleasure in itself.”

See Memorable Indexes.

Self Seeking

Letter from Winston Churchill to American author Winston Churchill, June 1899:

Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle on the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.

In 1959 Bertrand Russell and Lord Russell of Liverpool wrote a joint letter to the Times:

“Sir: In order to discourage confusions which have been constantly occurring, we beg herewith to state that neither of us is the other.”

A Modest Proposal

In 1936, after his first wife had left him, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to her cousin Laura Herbert, asking whether “you could bear the idea of marrying me.”

“I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you,” he wrote, “but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody and misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition. On the other hand I think I could do a Grant and reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I should be faithful. Also there is always a fair chance that there will be another bigger economic crash in which case if you had married a nobleman with a great house you might find yourself starving, while I am very clever and could probably earn a living of some sort somewhere.”

He added, “All these are very small advantages compared with the awfulness of my character. I have always tried to be nice to you and you may have got it into your head that I am nice really, but that is all rot. It is only to you & for you. I am jealous & impatient — but there is no point in going into a whole list of my vices. You are a critical girl and I’ve no doubt that you know them all and a great many I don’t know myself.”

They were wed the following spring.


French science fiction writer Albert Robida has been lost in the shadow of Jules Verne, but in the 1880s he was widely popular for a trilogy of illustrated novels imagining life in the 20th century. He predicted social upheavals around the time of our two world wars and foresaw transatlantic air travel, home shopping, video telephones, and a feminist revolution. But his greatest innovation was one we haven’t reached yet — a president made of wood:

And he is really well made. See the hand that’s holding the pen? It is secured in position. You can try pushing and pulling it all you want, it won’t budge! There is a secret lock. Absolute security! The mechanism is extremely complex; there are three locks and three keys. The prime minister has one, the president of the chamber has another one, and the president of the senate has the third. A minimum of two keys is requested to activate the mechanism. In case of conflict between the prime minister and the president of the chamber, the president of the senate is summoned with his key. He stands with one side or the other and introduces his key into one of the locks. The mechanism is activated, and the automatic president signs away!

“He shall reign, but not govern,” explains a citizen. “The power will remain in the hands of the nation’s representatives. … The monarchists’ main objection to democracy has always been its inherent instability. With this wooden president, democracy equals stability!”

Murder Ink

In 1973, Sheldon Klein of the University of Wisconsin programmed a computer to write a 2,100-word mystery story in 19 seconds:

Wonderful smart Lady Buxley was rich. Ugly oversexed Lady Buxley was single. John was Lady Buxley’s nephew. Impoverished irritable John was evil. Handsome oversexed John Buxley was single. John hated Edward. John Buxley hated Dr. Bartholomew Hume. Brilliant Hume was evil. Hume was oversexed. Handsome Dr. Bartholomew was single. Kind easygoing Edward was rich. Oversexed Lord Edward was ugly. Lord Edward was married to Lady Jane. Edward Liked Mary Jane. Edward was not jealous. Lord Edward disliked John. Pretty jealous Jane liked Lord Edward. …

The plots tend to be haphazard and the narrative unsophisticated … but in this example the butler did it. Perhaps Klein was onto something.

“Good Heavens, Holmes!”

Stage instruction from La Tragedia de Baskerville, a five-act drama mounted in Bilbao in 1915 by Gonzalo Jóver and Enrique Arroyo:

El perro ha de ser de atrezzo, grande, negro, de cabeza achatada, en los ojos dos lámparas eléctricas rojas y otra en la boca, simulando la parte de la lengua. El perro irá montado sobre ballestas arquedas, con las patas extendidas en actitud de galopar. Las dos ballestas se unen por dos travesaños que irán debajo de las patas. Del travesaño delantero se engancha un alambre, del cual se tirará fuertemente, para que el perro corra con el movimiento propio del galope. Para que no se vea el montaje es necesario que los apliques sean más altos que el practicable del camino.

The dog, large and black, with red electric lights for eyes and another to indicate the tongue, is to be mounted on arched crossbows, with paws extended as though running. The crossbows are to be joined by two cross timbers, placed under the feet, and to the foremost cross piece a copper wire is to be attached in such fashion that it may be vigorously pulled, to give the animal a galloping movement. Arrangement of the mechanical mounting is to be such that the appliances are not visible from the audience.

Historian Paul Patrick Rogers notes that the play “seems never to have reached Madrid.”


“The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own.” — William Empson

A Close Friend,_Samuel_Hollyer.png

In June 1857, Hans Christian Andersen arrived at Charles Dickens’ new country home, Gads Hill Place. Andersen was an enormous admirer of Dickens — he had just dedicated a novel to him and was eager to enjoy a fortnight with his “friend and brother.”

Enjoy it he did. He gathered nosegays in the woods, cut figures from paper, invited Dickens’ son Charley to shave him, and explored London in cabs while hiding his valuables in his boots. He found that Dickens had an excellent supply of dinner whiskey and could offer a large tumbler of gin and sherry afterward. He watched Dickens perform in The Frozen Deep, burst into tears at the death scene, drank champagne with the cast, and returned to see it again a week later.

So delighted was he that in the end he stayed five weeks instead of the planned two. “None of your friends can be more closely attached to you than I,” he wrote on the way back to Denmark. “The visit to England, the stay with you, is a bright point in my life. … I understood every minute that you cared for me, that you were glad to see me, and were my friend.”

When Dickens returned to the house, he stole into Anderson’s bedroom and affixed a card to the dressing-table mirror. “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks,” it said, “which seemed to the family AGES.”

Lightning Rods

On April 18, 1926, Sinclair Lewis mounted the pulpit of a Kansas City church, took out his watch, and defied God to prove his existence within 10 minutes by striking him dead.

God spared him.

George Bernard Shaw had once made the same challenge but gave God only three minutes. “I am a very busy man,” he said.


“The average American loves his family. If he has any love left over for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain.” — Thomas Edison

Modern Literature

In the early 1970s, AI researcher James Meehan tried to teach a computer to retell Aesop’s fables. This was not always successful:

Once upon a time there was a dishonest fox and a vain crow. One day the crow was sitting in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth. He noticed that he was holding the piece of cheese. He became hungry, and swallowed the cheese. The fox walked over to the crow. The end.

Henry Ant was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. He was unable to call for help. He drowned.

One day Henry Crow sat in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth, when up came Bill Fox. Bill saw the cheese and was hungry. He said, ‘Henry, I like your singing very much. Won’t you please sing for me?’ Henry, flattered by this compliment, began to sing. The cheese fell to the ground. Bill Fox saw the cheese on the ground and was very hungry. He became ill. Henry Crow saw the cheese on the ground, and he became hungry, but he knew that he owned the cheese. He felt pretty honest with himself, so he decided not to trick himself into giving up the cheese. He wasn’t trying to deceive himself, either, nor did he feel competitive with himself, but he remembered that he was also in a position of dominance over himself, so he refused to give himself the cheese. He couldn’t think of a good reason why he should give himself the cheese, so he offered to bring himself a worm if he’d give himself the cheese. That sounded okay, but he didn’t know where any worms were. So he said to himself, ‘Henry, do you know where any worms are?’ But of course, he didn’t, so he …

“The program eventually ran aground for other reasons,” Meehan writes. “I was surprised it got as far as it did.”

Pen Time

“I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.” — Pascal

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” — Mark Twain

“If you want me to talk for ten minutes, I’ll come next week. If you want me to talk for an hour I’ll come tonight.” — Woodrow Wilson


Harold Macmillan: “What are you doing, prime minister?”

Winston Churchill: “Rehearsing my impromptu witticisms.”


When Mark Twain took his first job as a newspaper reporter, his editor told him never to report anything as fact unless he could verify it by personal knowledge.

That night Twain covered a social gala. He filed the following story: “A woman giving the name of Mrs. James Jones, who is reported to be one of the society leaders of the city, is said to have given what purported to be a party yesterday to a number of alleged ladies. The hostess claims to be the wife of a reputed attorney.”


In 1937, Max Eastman and Ernest Hemingway found themselves together in Max Perkins’ office at Scribner’s. On Perkins’ desk was Eastman’s Art and the Life of Action, which contained an essay critical of Hemingway. They began to argue. Hemingway bared his chest. Eastman bared his. Hemingway slapped him.

What happened next is unclear. “The trouble with these literary bouts,” opined the New York Times, “is that there is never an official referee on hand. Both sides can claim a decision and a foul at the same time, and usually do.”

But in 1947 the House of Books catalog offered for sale a damaged copy of Art and the Life of Action. On page 95, it said, was a spot caused by contact “with Mr. Eastman’s nose when Mr. Hemingway struck him with it in a gesture of disapproval.” The spot was witnessed by Maxwell Perkins.

Return of Post

Letter from Charles Dodgson to Nellie Bowman, Nov. 1, 1891:

C.L.D., Uncle loving your! Instead grandson his to it give to had you that so, years 80 or 70 for it forgot you that was it pity a what and: him of fond so were you wonder don’t I and, gentleman old nice very a was he. For it made you that him been have must it see you so: grandfather my was, then alive was that, ‘Dodgson Uncle’ only the. Born was I before long was that, see you, then But. ‘Dodgson Uncle for pretty thing some make I’ll now,’ it began you when, yourself to said you that, me telling her without, knew I course of and: ago years many great a it made had you said she. Me told Isa what from was it? For meant was it who out made I how know you do! Lasted has it well how and. Grandfather my for made had you macassar-Anti pretty that me give to you of nice so was it, Nellie dear my

“If you see Nobody come into the room,” he wrote to another girl, “please give him a kiss from me.”

Contradictory Proverbs

Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

You’re never too old to learn.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

A word to the wise is sufficient.
Talk is cheap.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Actions speak louder than words.
The pen is mightier than the sword.

Many hands make light work.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Seek and ye shall find.
Curiosity killed the cat.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The best things in life are free.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

G.K. Chesterton said, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”

Cold Shoulder

In 1944 a children’s book club sent a volume about penguins to a 10-year-old girl, enclosing a card seeking her opinion.

She wrote, “This book gives me more information about penguins than I care to have.”

American diplomat Hugh Gibson called it the finest piece of literary criticism he had ever read.


  • Canada’s coastline is six times as long as Australia’s.
  • Rudyard Kipling invented snow golf.
  • Can you see your eyes move in a mirror?
  • 26364 = 263 × 6/4
  • “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.” — Montaigne

Higher Things

On a television show, Eddie Fisher complained to George S. Kaufman that women refused to date him because he looked so young. Kaufman considered this and replied:

“Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to 24 times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed until the construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope. Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.”


Alexander Woollcott asked that his ashes be scattered at his alma mater, Hamilton College in Utica, N.Y.

Somehow they were misdirected to Colgate University, and they arrived at Hamilton with 67 cents postage due.

He once wrote, “Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.”

Author Relations

When Bennett Cerf published Gertrude Stein’s Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind in 1936, he included this “Publisher’s Note”:

This space is usually reserved for a brief description of a book’s contents. In this case, however, I must admit frankly that I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title.

I admire Miss Stein tremendously, and I like to publish her books, although most of the time I do not know what she is driving at. That, Miss Stein tells me, is because I am dumb.

I note that one of my partners and I are characters in this latest work of Miss Stein’s. Both of us wish we knew what she was saying about us. Both of us hope too that her faithful followers will make more of this book than we were able to!

Interviewing Stein on his radio program, Cerf said, “I’m very proud to be your publisher, Miss Stein, but as I’ve always told you, I don’t understand very much of what you’re saying.”

She said, “Well, I’ve always told you, Bennett, you’re a very nice boy, but you’re rather stupid.”