Print Charming

During the Depression, magazines and newspapers regularly carried advertisements for “talent bureaus” promising to assess the writing of undiscovered authors. Sensing a scam, Author & Journalist editor Willard Hawkins asked his daughter to compose “the most impossible, inane and childish semblance of a story that it was possible to conceive.” She obliged with “Her Terrible Mistake,” the story of 17-year-old Mary Jane Smith, who “fell devinely in love with a very nice fellow who was a machinic by the name of Jack Berry.” When a stranger seduces Mary Jane, her “fionce” exposes him as “a villian in sheeps clothing.”

Universal Scenario Co. of Hollywood declared this “admirably suited to talking picture presentation” and for $10 offered to submit it “personally to those producers whose current production demands call for this particular type of story.”

Encouraged, Hawkins now had Lottie Perkins write a 30,000-word novel, The Missing Twin:

‘Mr. Jones I think something has happened at home. I think we ought to have left someone to take care of our children. What will I do if someone has kidnapped them out from under my nose. How can you sit there and let them be stolen from me. O my babies. How could anyone be so crule as to steel you.’

Economy Publishers of Tacoma, Wash., read this “with ever increasing pleasure and admiration for the author. My! how your characters live and breathe and walk out into the room before one … !” They agreed to publish the book for $375, returning 40 percent of all royalties to Perkins.

In the end, Author & Publisher found that in most such cases, the publisher printed only about 100 copies — and profited $200.

Sublime, Ridiculous

Amazingly, Cyrano de Bergerac was banned from the United States for 15 years because a federal judge decided that Edmond Rostand had plagiarized it from a Chicago real estate developer.

The developer, Samuel Gross, had written The Merchant Prince of Cornville in 1896 and had 250 copies printed privately. In 1900 he brought suit in U.S. district court, and Judge C.C. Kohlsaat ruled that Rostand was “a plagiarist and by inference a perjurer” for “obviously” borrowing from Cornville and then denying he’d ever heard of it. The judge issued a perpetual injunction against the production of Cyrano in the United States.

So was Rostand guilty? Decide for yourself — here’s a sample of the work he “stole”:

Violet: I thought I heard some one speak, but not from underground, for he’s not a goblin; nor yet from the sky, for he’s not an angel; nor yet from the earth, for no dreadful man is near. Why, what is that in the sky? ‘Tis last eve’s moon, that will not to her couch by day. To rest! pale planet. Oh gentle moon, where is thy blush? Thou art dismantled by the roseate sun. Alack! what divine dramas are there in the skies!

The ban was eventually overturned: In 1915 Gross failed to stop an operatic production of Cyrano, and in 1923 the original play was revived successfully. I’m not really sure what happened to The Merchant Prince of Cornville.

The Malcontents Abroad

In 1852, two years after condemning all of Europe, cranky Victorian travel writer Favell Lee Mortimer turned to the east for Far Off: Asia and Australia Described. What did she learn of the colorful people, rich history, and sophisticated cultures of these exotic lands?

  • “The reason why the Armenians live in holes in the ground is because they hope the Kurds may not find out where they are.”
  • “It is impossible to trust a Persian.”
  • “The Buddhists are full of tricks by which to get presents out of people.”
  • “The Chinese are very selfish and unfeeling.”
  • “The Arabs are so unforgiving and revengeful that they will seek to kill a man year after year.”
  • “In disposition the Siamese are deceitful and cowardly.”
  • “It must be very terrible to live in the midst of such murderers as the people of Bokhara seem to be.”

And: “All the religions of China are bad, but of the three, the religion of Confucius is the least foolish.”

Customer Service

Some day you will move me almost to the verge of irritation by your chuckleheaded Goddamned fashion of shutting your Goddamned gas off without giving any notice to your Goddamned parishioners. Several times you have come within an ace of smothering half of this household in their beds & blowing up the other half by this idiotic, not to say criminal, custom of yours. And it has happened again to-day. Haven’t you a telephone?

— Letter from Mark Twain to the Hartford City Gas Light Company, Feb. 12, 1891


When George Bernard Shaw was a music critic, he dined one evening at a restaurant with a mediocre orchestra.

Recognizing Shaw, the leader sent him a note asking what he would like them to play next.

Shaw replied, “Dominoes.”

The Mirror Problem

In 1868, 8-year-old Alice Raikes was playing with friends in her London garden when a visitor at a neighbor’s house overheard her name and called to her.

“So you are another Alice,” he said. “I’m very fond of Alices. Would you like to come and see something which is rather puzzling?” He led them into a room with a tall mirror in one corner.

‘Now,’ he said, giving me an orange, ‘first tell me which hand you have got that in.’ ‘The right,’ I said. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘go and stand before that glass, and tell me which hand the little girl you see there has got it in.’ After some perplexed contemplation, I said, ‘The left hand.’ ‘Exactly,’ he said, ‘and how do you explain that?’ I couldn’t explain it, but seeing that some solution was expected, I ventured, ‘If I was on the other side of the glass, wouldn’t the orange still be in my right hand?’ I can remember his laugh. ‘Well done, little Alice,’ he said. ‘The best answer I’ve had yet.’

“I heard no more then, but in after years was told that he said that had given him his first idea for Through the Looking-Glass, a copy of which, together with each of his other books, he regularly sent me.”

His Mark

The longest word in Shakespeare appears in Act V, Scene 1 of Love’s Labour’s Lost:

O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

It’s the ablative plural of the Latin honorificabilitudinitas, “the state of being able to achieve honors.” And it can be rearranged to spell hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, which means “These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.”

So that settles that.

A Xenophobe’s Gazetteer

Evangelical author Favell Lee Mortimer (1802-1878) set foot only twice outside England, but that didn’t stop her from writing harrowing travel books for Victorian children. From The Countries of Europe Described (1850):

  • “There are not nearly as many thieves in Wales as there are in England.”
  • “[On Easter] the streets of Petersburgh are filled with staggering, reeling drunkards.”
  • “Nothing useful is well done in Sweden.”
  • “It is dreadful to think what a number of murders are committed in Italy.”
  • “The Greeks do not know how to bring up their children.”
  • “A great many people have coughs in Vienna, because the east wind blows very cold.”
  • “Though the Portuguese are indolent, like the Spaniards, they are not so grave, and sad, and silent.”
  • “The Hungarians are much wilder people than the Germans; they are not industrious; they do not know how to make things; most of them cannot read or write.”
  • “The greatest fault of the Norwegians is drunkenness.”
  • “The Poles love talking, and they speak so loud they almost scream; and they are proud of this, and say that the Germans are dumb.”
  • “Denmark is flat, but not nearly as flat as Holland, nor as damp, nor as ugly.”

“I do not mean to say that there are as many robbers in Sweden as in Sicily; there the robbers are seldom punished at all: in Sweden they are punished; but yet the rest of the people go on stealing.”

Fox in Stocks

In 2007, prison inmate Charles Jay Wolff sent a hard-boiled egg to U.S. District Court Judge James Muirhead in Concord, N.H.

Wolff, who was awaiting trial for sexual assault, said he was an Orthodox Jew and demanded a kosher diet.

In his judgment, Muirhead wrote:

I do not like eggs in the file.
I do not like them in any style.
I will not take them fried or boiled.
I will not take them poached or broiled.
I will not take them soft or scrambled,
Despite an argument well-rambled.
No fan I am of the egg at hand.
Destroy that egg! Today! Today!
Today I say!
Without delay!

“We’ve told him, if you don’t like the eggs, don’t eat them,” said Assistant Attorney General Andrew Livernois.