Fact and Fiction


Wonder Woman and her Lasso of Truth were created by a pioneer in lie detectors.

While a graduate student at Harvard after World War I, William Moulton Marston had developed a systolic blood pressure test to detect deception.

Twenty-five years later, while proposing a female superhero to DC Comics, he suggested a magic lasso that would force those it captured to tell the truth.

He was inspired by his wife, Elizabeth. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power,” he said in 1943. “The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Investor Relations


Letter from Groucho Marx to the Franklin Corporation, April 24, 1961:

Dear Mr. Goodman:

I received the first annual report of the Franklin Corporation and though I am not an expert at reading balance sheets, my financial advisor (who, I assure you, knows nothing) nodded his head in satisfaction.

You wrote that you hope I am not one of those borscht circuit stockholders who get a few points’ profit and hastily scram for the hills. For your information, I bought Alleghany Preferred eleven years ago and am just now disposing of it.

As a brand new member of your family, strategically you made a ghastly mistake in sending me individual pictures of the Board of Directors. Mr. Roth, Chairman of the Board, merely looks sinister. You, the President, look like a hard worker with not too much on the ball. No one named Prosswimmer can possibly be a success. As for Samuel A. Goldblith, PhD., head of Food Technology at MIT, he looks as though he had eaten too much of the wrong kind of fodder.

At this point I would like to stop and ask you a question about Marion Harper Jr. To begin with, I immediately distrust any man who has the same name as his mother. But the thing that most disturbs me about Junior is that I don’t know what the hell he’s laughing at. Is it because he sucked me into this Corporation? This is not the kind of face that inspires confidence in a nervous and jittery stockholder.

George S. Sperti, I dismiss instantly. Any man who is the President of an outfit called Institutum Divi Thomae will certainly bear watching. Is he trying to impress stockholders with his knowledge of Latin? If so, why doesn’t he read, ‘Winnie ille Pu’? James J. Sullivan, I am convinced, is Paul E. Prosswimmer photographed from a different angle.

Offhand, I would say that I have summed up your group fairly accurately. I hope, for my sake, that I am mistaken.

In closing, I warn you, go easy with my money. I am in an extremely precarious profession whose livelihood depends upon a fickle public.

Sincerely yours,

Groucho Marx
(temporarily at liberty)

Stand-In Spectacle

The climax of Harry Houdini’s 1919 film The Grim Game called for the hero to descend by a rope between two biplanes. During filming, the planes inadvertently collided and went plunging toward the ground (about 4:30 in the clip above).

No one was hurt, but the incident was caught on film and the story was hastily rewritten to incorporate the sequence. Ever the showman, Houdini boasted that “all the flying stunts [had been] actually performed” and offered $1,000 “to any person who can prove that the collision [shown in] the film was not genuine.”

It was genuine, all right, but the performer wasn’t Houdini — a former U.S. Air Service pilot named Robert E. Kennedy had performed the stunts, which were later intercut with closeups of Houdini.

During the accident, Houdini had been safely on the ground with his arm in a sling — he’d fallen three feet while filming a jail-cell escape.

That Kind of Woman


“What a subject: her nose is too big, her mouth is too big, she has the composites of all the wrong things, but put them all together and pow! All the natural mistakes of beauty fall together to create a magnificent accident.” — Rex Reed on Sophia Loren, review, Oct. 23, 1968


Director Curtis Bernhardt was midway through shooting My Reputation in 1944 when he encountered some trouble with one of the stars. Robert Archer insisted on wearing a jacket and shirt while mowing a lawn under the hot California sun.

Bernhardt pressed him, and to his surprise Archer said, “Okay, okay, I’m a girl.”

She was Tanis Chandler, a 20-year-old typist in a local brokerage office who’d gotten tired of waiting for acting jobs. Posing as Archer, she’d won a part in 1943’s The Desert Song, where robes and a burnoose had hid her shape. She’d done so well that the casting office had sent her out for Bernhardt’s film.

“The studios are always yelling about the lack of men,” she said. “I thought I’d have better luck in male roles. Oh, well.”

First Base


The earliest mention of baseball may be in Northanger Abbey, of all places:

… it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.

Jane Austen wrote that passage in 1798, 41 years before Abner Doubleday supposedly invented the game in 1839. Evidence now suggests that “America’s game” evolved in England and was imported to the New World in the 18th century.

UPDATE: A reader alerts me that the town of Pittsfield, Mass., passed an ordinance in 1791 forbidding inhabitants from playing “Baseball” and certain other games near a new meeting house. This is believed to be the first written reference to baseball in North America. But a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the OED now has an example dating from 1748: “Now, in the winter, in a large room, they divert themselves at base-ball, a play all who are, or have been, schoolboys, are well acquainted with.” The letter writer was English, so, for the moment, England has the ball.

Lightning Monopoly


What’s the shortest possible game of Monopoly if each player plays optimally? Richard I. Hess of Palos Verdes, Calif., found this solution:

You roll 1, 1, land on Community Chest, and win $10 as second prize in a beauty contest. Then you roll 5, 5 and buy Electric Co. for $150. You end your turn by rolling 1, 3 and buying St. James for $180. Now you have $1180.

Each other player rolls 1, 3 and pays 10 percent Income Tax, reducing their balance to $1350 each.

Your turn again. You roll 1, 1 and buy Tennessee for $180, then roll 2, 2 and draw a Chance card, which sends you back three spaces, where you buy New York for $200. Now you roll 1, 2 and draw another Chance card, which advances you to GO and yields $200. You have exactly $1000, which you use to buy 10 houses, four on St. James and three each on Tennessee and New York.

The other players roll 4, 4 and pay $32 rent on Electric Co., then roll 2, 2 and pay $750 on St. James. They conclude ignominously by rolling 1, 2 and going bankrupt on New York, where they owe $600 and have only $568.

That’s if every player does his best. What if your opponents play a stupid but legal game?

You roll a 3 and buy Baltic for $60. Every other player buys Baltic from you for $1500 and sells it back for $3. Then each rolls 1, 2, lands on Baltic, and, having $3 but owing $4, goes bankrupt.

(From the Journal of Recreational Mathematics, 15(1))

11/21/2011 UPDATE: Kevin Tostado points out that a player who draws the Community Chest card “Bank Error in your Favor: Collect $200” would not need to draw the “Advance to GO card”; that it’s unnecessary to purchase Electric Company; and that the 10% income tax option was phased out in 2008. He offers the following improvement, which requires one less roll by the first player and one less property purchased:

You roll 1, 1, land on Community Chest, and collect $200 for a bank error in your favor. Then you roll 4, 4, land on Just Visiting, then roll 1, 5 and buy St. James for $180, ending your turn. Now you have $1370.

Each other player rolls 1, 3 and pays $200 Income Tax, reducing their balance to $1300 each.

Your turn again. You roll 1, 1 and buy Tennessee for $180, then roll 1, 3 and draw a Chance card, which sends you back three spaces, where you buy New York for $200. You have $1140, which you use to buy 11 houses, four each on St. James and New York and three on Tennessee.

The other players roll 3, 3, land on Just Visiting, then roll 3, 3 and pay $750 on St. James. They conclude ignominously by rolling 1, 2 and going bankrupt on New York, where they owe $800 and have only $550.

“Also, in the course of filming my documentary, one player I interviewed described how in an actual tournament game, he bankrupted three opponents in under 15 minutes, all actually trying to win (and not just throw the game), through acquiring a natural monopoly on the light blues on his 2nd full turn of the game.” (Thanks, Kevin.)


  • Newton was born the year that Galileo died.
  • Cole Porter’s summer home was called No Trespassing.
  • 66339 = (6 × 6)3 + 39
  • Could you have had different parents?
  • “A good conscience is a continual Christmas.” — Ben Franklin

UPDATE: The first item here is incorrect. The dates coincide only if one uses the Gregorian calendar to date Galileo’s death and the Julian to date Newton’s birth. The two events occurred 361 days apart, which puts them in separate years on both calendars. Apparently this is a very common error. (Thanks, Igor.)