March 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Saying famous things

By Clive James
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In Hollywood, "The son-in-law also rises" is a remark that was already part of the culture before World War II. Like the original author of "Sic transit Gloria Swanson", the original author of "The son-in-law also rises" has never been tracked down, possibly because the joke was first made before Irving Thalberg met Louis B Mayer's daughter, after which it was on everybody's lips, the name players being on everybody's mind. But although the prospect of their marriage might possibly have inspired the remark, it is much more likely that the marriage simply made an already circulating witticism current.

The same remark about the son-in law became current all over again when Count Ciano married Mussolini's daughter Edda, and was rewarded with an exalted portfolio as foreign minister for Italy. In other words - or, rather, in exactly those words - everybody was saying it. All we can be reasonably sure of is that nobody said it before Hemingway published a book called The Sun Also Rises. Like all of Hemingway's book titles, this one continues to be a sure-fire draw in the bookshops. Part of its charm, however, is in its indeterminacy, as with a beautiful woman who might be smiling specifically at you or just happens to be smiling in your direction.

When correctly emphasised - on the word "rises" - Hemingway's title tells us that the sun does one of two things. The joke, therefore, depends on a misreading. In the joke, there is no suggestion that sinking is the other thing that the son-in-law does. The joke means that the son-in-law rises like the son. It could have been the lurking ambiguity in the title, incidentally, that encouraged Hemingway's English publishers to insist on a change, to Fiesta: clean and neat, but nothing like as haunting. The American title worked so insidiously on the memory that it was widely recognisable even to people who had never read the book. Having attained such currency, it attracted variations: hence the success of the joke.

After World War II, Edward Albee's play title "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" attained a similar currency. Albee's title was already a joke, depending on the neat substitution of "Virginia" for "the big bad". But in several thousand titles for magazine articles - it still happens today - that point, which was the only point, is blithely ignored, and little is kept except the "Who's afraid" and the concluding question mark. In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wade?" the joke was still there, if only at two removes, but a title like "Who's Afraid of Varicose Veins?" tells you nothing except the name of the subject. Who's afraid of a clapped-out trick? No magazine editor. The wittiest variation on the standard line was a title by Alan Bennett - "Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf" - but it was a crucial one word too long to catch on.

Every smart remark has to be made for the first time, but we should be suspicious when a famous person gets the credit, unless the famous person is also a famous wit. An obvious example is Marilyn Monroe's reply to the set-up question about what she wore in bed. "Chanel No. 5," she is reputed to have said, but even at the time, there was a widespread assumption that a publicity man had both prompted the question and supplied the answer. The chances are good, however, that Noël Coward actually did make up on the spot his famous remark about the very large Queen of Tonga and the very small man who was in the open carriage with her at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: "That's her lunch." Nowadays, the joke needs a health warning on grounds of its flagrant political incorrectness, but at the time, it was thought hilarious, and not least because the fastidious Coward had said it.

Though Coward was not, at that time, generally known to be homosexual - the acknowledgement came only after his death - he was universally recognised as being dainty in his ways, so the brutalism was all the more delightful. (Robert Helpmann got the same reaction for his reputed reply to a New York cop who called him a fairy: apparently, Helpmann took to the air, touched the cop with an imaginary magic wand and said, "Disappear!") The best reason for thinking that Coward made up the line about Queen Salote's lunch was that he had a reputation to protect, and would not have wanted to be caught borrowing. But there is also the possibility that, even if he thought of it on his own, he might not have been the first to do so. White imperialists visiting Tonga might long before have noticed the discrepancy in size between Queen Salote and any attendant male. Most people who recount the story now - usually as part of a roster of Noël Coward anecdotes -supply the information that the small man in the carriage with her was the king.

If somebody else made the remark first, the remark still didn't come into its own - into its life - until it was heard from Noël Coward, because at last it had found someone famous enough to be its author, even if, as it were, he wasn't. The same might apply to Liberace's supposed authorship of a classic response by an artist to his hostile critics: "I cried all the way to the bank." Prey to the delusion that a candelabra on the piano would add something to Tchaikovsky, Liberace over-delivered his signature wisecrack as he over-delivered everything, and that should have been a tip-off, because the phrasing belongs to someone who understands understatement. It sounds, in fact, like New York humour (i.e. Jewish humour), and was almost certainly already old in the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth. All it needed for immortality was a sufficiently famous mouth to say it. Liberace's mouth got the job, and took the credit.

A full 60 years after his suicide, every article written about the unspeakable Hermann Göring still gives him respectful acknowledgement for the crack about reaching for his gun when he heard the word "culture". (The respect comes from the fact that the journalists themselves secretly rather fancy the idea of armed philistinism.) Though Göring reached for the cyanide when he heard the word "rope", his lasting reputation as a wit was already secure. The real author of the remark was the official Nazi writer Hanns Johst, but he was never remembered for saying it, mainly because he was an official Nazi writer, and therefore never remembered for saying anything, even at the time.

The dim bulb of Johst's solitary flash of inspiration - far more successful than any of his plays and poems - refused to stick with him. A smart saying is usually as anonymous as a suckerfish in search of a shark. When it finds one, it begins its long ride in a tunnel of reflected glory, while the source of the glory gets the credit for powers of invention equal to its prominence. By now, more than 40 years have gone by since Lyndon Johnson added to his fame for an acutely foul mouth by giving the press an exclusive on why he hadn't fired J Edgar Hoover: "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." It's the perfect smart remark, but that's exactly the reason to suspect that LBJ didn't think of it first. No amount of harping on the point, however, will ever again get such a saying separated from the celebrity who is reputed to have said it. Does this anomaly matter? Only as a reminder that even the written record consists almost entirely of distortions. One of the basic things a writer about any branch of history needs to learn is that if a quote sounds good, the person quoted is saying something that somebody else said first.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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