Short and humorous stories about people in politics, history and arts
Sir Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill often dined with friends, dignitaries and celebrities at Chartwell, his beautiful country home in Kent. His wit on such occasions was legendary. On one such occasion, he asked Charlie Chaplin what his next role would be.
"Jesus Christ," Chaplin explained.
Churchill's reply: "Have you cleared the rights?"
Gilbert Keith Chesterton
When the notoriously absentminded G. K. Chesterton became engaged, such was his desire to share the happy news with his mother that he went directly home and wrote her a long letter. While Mrs. Chesteron was delighted with the missive, its delivery hardly came as a surprise: she had been in the room with him when he wrote it.
While hunting one day with director Howard Hawks and William Faulkner, the acclaimed actor Clark Gable asked Faulkner to enumerate the five best authors of the day.
"Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos," - Faulkner replied, - "and myself."
"Oh," - Gable maliciously replied, - "do you write for a living?"
"Yes," - Faulkner retorted, - "and what do you do?"
One night a group of Mark Twain's friends in New York, having recognized the date as that of his birth, decided to send him a suitable greeting.
Unfortunately, the globe-trotting traveler was away and no one knew where he might be reached.
After some deliberation, a letter was simply sent off with the address: "Mark Twain, God Knows Where."
Several weeks later a letter arrived from Twain: "He did."
Mark Twain was visited one day by Reverend Joseph Twitchell, who invited him to come along for a walk. Twain declined, explaining that he was pressed for time.
"Well, now, you come to hear me preach every Sunday," Twitchell persisted, "and you say you believe what I read out of the Bible is true. Now, if I could prove to you, from the Bible, that you ought to come and walk with me, would you go?"
"Yes, of course," Twain declared, "but it isn't there."
"Yes it is," Twitchell replied, "for the Bible says, 'And whoso ever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him, twain.'"
Lady Carteret, wife of the Lord Lieutenant, said to Jonathan Swift one day, "The air of Ireland is excellent and healthy."
"For God's sake, madam," said Swift, - falling down before her, - "don't say so in England, for if you do they will tax it."
While dying of cerebral meningitis in a Parisian hotel room, Oscar Wilde was offered a glass of champagne.
His final toast was: "I am dying as I have lived, beyond my means."
Once my editor Horace Gold went too far. He rejected a story of mine which he called "meretricious". The word is from the Latin "meretrix", meaning "prostitute," so that the implication was that I was prostituting my talent and was writing a bad story that would get by on my name alone because I was too lazy to write a good one. This was not true, by the way. This particular story was sold elsewhere and received considerable acclaim.
Swallowing my annoyance, I said mildly, "What was that word you used?"
Obviously proud at knowing a word he felt I didn't know, Horace enunciated carefully, "Meretricious!"
Whereupon I said, "And a Happy New Year to you."
The U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue astounded Capone by demanding millions of dollars in back taxes. "They can't collect legal taxes from illegal money," he objected. (They could; in 1931 Capone was imprisoned for tax evasion.)
Al Capone once said: "You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun."
Charles Spencer Chaplin
The playwright Charles MacArthur had been brought to Hollywood to do a screenplay, but was finding it difficult to write visual jokes.
"What's the problem?" asked Chaplin.
"How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It's been done a million times," said MacArthur. "What's the best way to GET the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and THEN she slips?"
"Neither," said Chaplin without a moment's hesitation. "You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps OVER the banana peel and disappears."
Sir Winston Churchill
Churchill was no admirer of Sir Stafford Cripps, minister for aircraft production in Churchill's government during World War II. After the war, Cripps rejoined the Labour party. Churchill was standing with a friend in the House of Commons when Cripps walked by; Churchill pulled a face and remarked, "There but for the grace of God, goes God."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge was once involved in discussion with a man who firmly believed that children should not be given formal religious instruction of any kind. They would then be free to choose their own religious faith, he reasoned, when they reached the age of discretion. Coleridge did not disagree, but later invited the man into his somewhat neglected garden.
"Do you call this a garden?" exclaimed the visitor. "There are nothing but weeds here!"
"Well, you see," explained Coleridge, "I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way. I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own production."
When Charles Dickens moved into Tavistock House, he made sure that every detail of it was to his taste.
One of the features he installed was a hidden door to his study, made to look like part of an unbroken wall of books, complete with dummy shelves and fictitious titles.
Dickens clearly derived much amusement from the invention of titles for these volumes. They ranged from the purely facetious - Five Minutes in China, three volumes, and Heaviside's Conversations with Nobody - to straight puns, such as The Gunpowder Magazine.
In later years he added Cat's Lives (nine volumes) and The Wisdom of Our Ancestors, which consisted of volumes on ignorance, superstition, the block, the stake, the rack, dirt, and disease. The companion - The Virtues of Our Ancestors - was so narrow the title had to be printed sideways.
A young lady was taken to dinner one evening by Gladstone and the following evening by Disraeli. Asked what impressions these two celebrated men had made upon her, she replied, "When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Joking with Doyle during a rehearsal for one of his plays, a young three-pound-a-week actor called Charlie suggested that he and Sir Arthur should pool their incomes and take half each for the rest of their lives. Though amused by the proposal, Doyle declined for obvious reasons. "I don't think so, Mr. Chaplin," he replied.
Thomas Alva Edison
Edison had a summer residence of which he was very proud. He enjoyed showing visitors around his property, pointing out the various labor-saving devices. At one point it was necessary to pass through a turnstile in order to take the main path back to the house.
Considerable effort was needed to move the turnstile. A guest asked Edison why it was that, with all the other clever gadgets around, he had such a heavy turnstile. Edison replied, "Well, you see, everyone who pushes the turnstile around pumps eight gallons of water into the tank on my roof."
The journal Scientific American once ran a competition for the best exposition of relativity in three thousand words. A prize of several thousand dollars was at stake.
"I'm the only one in my entire circle of friends who is not entering," remarked Einstein ruefully. "I don't believe I could do it."
After a dinner party Robert Frost and the other guests went out onto the veranda to watch the sunset.
"Oh, Mr. Frost, isn't it a lovely sunset?" exclaimed a young woman.
"I never discuss business after dinner," Frost replied.
Hemingway's son Patrick asked his father to edit a story he had written. Hemingway went through the manuscript carefully, then returned it to his son.
"But, Papa," cried Patrick in dismay, "you've only changed one word."
"If it's the right word," said Hemingway, "that's a lot."
A newspaper to which Kipling subscribed published by mistake an announcement of his death. Kipling wrote at once to the editor: "I've just read that I am dead. Don't forget to delete me from your list of subscribers."
William Somerset Maugham
Unable to take his Spanish royalties out of the country, Maugham decided to use the money to pay for a luxury holiday there. He chose one of the best hotels and dined extravagantly every evening, until he felt satisfied that he had spent most of the accumulated sum. He informed the manager that he would be leaving the following day, and asked for his bill. The manager beamed at his distinguished guest. "It has been an honor having you here," he replied. "You have brought much good publicity to us. Therefore, there is no bill."
Alan Alexander Milne
Christopher Milne explained how his father tactfully corrected his table maners.
Once, when I was quite little, he came up to the nursery while I was having my lunch. And while he was talking I paused between mouthfuls, resting my hands on the table, knife and fork pointing upwards. "You oughtn't really to sit like that," he said, gently.
"Why not?" I asked, surprised.
"Well...," he hunted around for a reason he could give. Because it's considered bad manners? Because you mustn't? Because... "Well," he said, looking in the direction that my fork was pointing, "suppose someboy suddenly fell through the ceiling. They might land on your fork and that would be very painful."
"I see," I said, though I didn't really.
While working as an impecunious young reporter in Virginia City, Mark Twain was walking down the street one day with a cigar box tucked under his arm when he encountered a wealthy matron of his acquiantance.
"You promised me," she reproachfully declared, "that you would give up smoking."
"Madam, this box does not contain cigars," Twain replied. "I'm just moving."
Sir Isaac Newton
Newton owned a pet dog named Diamond, which one day knocked over the candle on the scientist's desk and started a blaze that destroyed records of many years' research.
Newton, viewing the destruction, said only, "O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the damage thou hast done."
O'Neill always strongly objected to cutting any of his plays. When director and playwright Russel Crouse asked him to shorten the script of "Ah, Wilderness!" he was very reluctant. The following day he telephoned Crouse to tell him that he had cut fifteen minutes. Surprised and pleased, Crouse said, "I'll be right over to get the changes."
"Oh, there aren't any changes to the text," O'Neill explained, "but you know we have been playing this thing in four acts. I've decided to cut out the third intermission."
In the hospital Dorothy Parker was visited by her secretary, to whom she wished to dictate some letters. Pressing the button marked NURSE, Dorothy observed, "That should assure us of a least forty-five minutes of undisturbed privacy."
George Bernard Shaw
At a performance given by an Italian string quartet, Shaw's companion remarked approvingly, "These men have been playing together for twelve years."
"Surely," said Shaw, "we have been here longer than that."
During his later years, when he was famous, Steinbeck's wife, Elaine, brought home a paperback book entitled "John Steinbeck", by Frank William Watt. Steinbeck, who often felt he had been misinterpreted by many of the commentators on his life and work, read it with great interest.
Finished, he remarked, "This book doesn't seem to be about me, but it's pretty interesting about somebody."
Mark Twain loved to brag about his hunting and fishing exploits. He once spent three weeks fishing in the Maine woods, regardless of the fact that it was the state's closed season for fishing.
Relaxing in the lounge car of the train on his return journey to New York, his catch iced down in the baggage car, he looked for someone to whom he could relate the story of his successful holiday.
The stranger to whom he began to boast of his sizable catch appeared at first unresponsive, then positively grim. "By the way, who are you, sir?" inquired Twain airily.
"I'm the state game warden," was the unwelcome response. "Who are you?"
Twain nearly swallowed his cigar. "Well, to be perfectly truthful, warden," he said hastily, "I'm the biggest damn liar in the whole United States."
In the early years of their marriage, Victoria and Albert visited Florence several times, greatly impressed by the city's architectural treasures. Of these, the Brunelleschi dome surmounting the cathedral was their personal favorite.
Victoria returned to Florence some years after Albert's death to find that the dome had been magnificently restored. She ordered the carriage to stop in the piazza outside the cathedral and rolled down the window.
Opening up the locket that hung around her neck, she turned the miniature of her beloved husband to face the building, so that he could share with her the splendor of the newly restored dome. Then, after a few moments' silent contemplation, she closed the locket and drove away.
Early in the Revolutionary War, Washington sent one of his officers to requisition horses from the local landowners. Calling at an old country mansion the officer was received by the elderly mistress of the house.
"Madam, I have come to claim your horses in the name of the government," he began.
"On whose orders?" demanded the woman sternly.
"On the orders of General George Washington, commander in chief of the American army," replied the officer.
The old lady smiled. "You go back and tell General George Washington that his mother says he cannot have her horses," she said.
Webster's father left him and his brother Ezekiel alone one day and gave them specific instructions as to the work they were to accomplish. On his return, he found the task still undone, and severely questioned his sons about their idleness.
"What have you been doing, Ezekiel?" he asked.
"Well, Daniel, what have you been doing?"
"Helping Zeke, sir."
Herbert George Wells
On leaving a Cambridge party, Wells accidentally picked up a hat that did not belong to him. Discovering his mistake, he decided not to return the headgear to its rightful owner, whose label was inside the brim.
The hat fit Wells comfortably; furthermore, he had grown to like it. So he wrote to the former owner: "I stole your hat; I like your hat; I shall keep your hat. Whenever I look inside it I shall think of you and your excellent sherry and of the town of Cambridge. I take off your hat to you."
Tennessee Williams (Thomas Lanier Tennesee Williams)
Newspaper reports in 1961 announced that Williams had decided not to attend any further sessions with his psychoanalyst. Asked the reason for this decision, the playwright replied, "He was meddling too much in my private life."
Wordsworth boasted in Charles Lamb's hearing, "I could write Shakespeare if I had a mind to."
"So it's only the mind that's lacking," murmured Lamb.
When King George V and Queen Mary visited the Cadbury works, George Cadbury led the way with the queen while his wife walked behind with the king. Cadbury had removed his hat as a mark of respect for royalty. It was, however, very cold, and Queen Mary was concerned lest the old man should get a chill.
"Mr. Cadbury, please put on your hat," she said.
George Cadbury demurred.
"Please, Mr. Cadbury - or I'll ask the king to command you to do so!"
Her host still hesitated. Then from behind them came the ringing tones of Elizabeth Cadbury: "George, put your hat on." He did.
Thomas Stearns Eliot
Publisher Robert Giroux once asked Eliot whether he agreed with the widely held belief that most editors are failed writers. Eliot pondered for a moment, then said, "Yes, I suppose some editors are failed writers - but so are most writers."
Sir Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness was seldom recognized in public. In one of the stories he told about himself, Guinness checked his hat and coat at a restaurant and asked for a claim ticket. "It will not be necessary," the attendant said. Guinness later retrieved his garments, put his hand in the coat pocket and found a slip of paper on which was written, "Bald with glasses."