Tuesday, January 26, 2016


A few weeks ago, my faithful Google Alerts brought to my email inbox an article in The New Indian Express that illustrates the concept of repartee by providing a number of examples. Notably, two of them have Bernard Shaw as one of the necessary protagonists. The first of them has already been discussed here, and has been discarded as completely apocryphal. The other one, however, I had never heard of. It goes like this: 

"Cornelia Otis Skinner won critical acclaim in the lead role of Shaw’s play Candida. Shaw cabled, “Excellent. Greatest.” Skinner, overjoyed, replied, “Undeserving such praise.” Shaw cabled back, “I meant the play.” Pat came the reply, “So did I.”"

If you Google the key words in this exchange, you will quickly realize that the anecdote has been quoted countless times, even if we only list articles that are available online, like this one, this one, or this one. However, no source is provided in any of the instances I've come across. Not even in books that claim to have researched the question, or in the secondary sources they cite.  

Of course, the first thing I did was to check my database and, there it was! There is at least one book that makes reference to this witty repartee. Although, as we shall see, it is not the most reliable of sources. The exact details follow. 

On page 249 of Allan Chappelow's Shaw the Villager and Human Being, we read how Dr. William Maxwell recounts a story that Shaw told him when he was staying with him in Edimburgh: 

"The scene was the 90's, when he was a music critic. He had been invited to a soirée in the house of a noted society lady. She had engaged a violinist (in whose career she had taken an interest) to entertain her guests—there were hundreds of them—and at the end of the evening, asked Shaw what he thought of her protégé. He replied that the violinist reminded him of Paderewski. 'But Paderewski is not a violinist,' she said. ' Exactly,' replied G.B.S. !"

This paragraph ends with a footnote where the author goes on to say that "this amusing story prompted me to tell Dr. Maxwell the following one of a similar flavour." Of course, "the following one" is the story we have quoted at the beginning of this post.

Admittedly, Chappelow does not provide any other source but his own knowledge, and we cannot take his words as confirmation that the exchange between Shaw and Skinner ever took place. As we all know, Chappelow made Shaw's aquaintance when he visited him in 1950 (the year of Shaw's death) and took the last known photographs of him. Therefore, he can only have learned about this anecdote from secondary sources, and it is unlikely that Shaw should have ever mentioned this to him in person - Chappelow would  have probably included that information in his book.

In all, it seems that this quotation may well be apocryphal or, ultimately, impossible to confirm. There is nonetheless evidence to give credibility to this repartee. In 1943 (during Shaw's and Skinner's own lifetimes) Isabella Taves published a book entitled Successful Women and How They Attained Success. The chapter devoted to Cornelia Otis Skinner (pp. 69-78) also contains the same story, practically in the same words. 

Although I know of no data to confirm this, it is plausible to believe that either Shaw or Skinner (or both) might have come across this book - if the author did not send a complimentary copy herself. Wouldn't they have corrected Taves if the story weren't true? Who knows?

Cornelia Otis Skinner

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


I came across a somewhat lengthy quotation - allegedly by Shaw - the other day, as I was perusing an article about Greenwood Village's local election. Don't ask me why. 

The quotation reads as follows: 

“It is a curious fact that when we get sick, we want an uncommon doctor. If we have a construction job, we want an uncommon engineer. When we get into war, we want and uncommon admiral and an uncommon general. Only when we get into politics are we content with the common man.”

As usual, no source is provided. So I seached my database and... nothing! 

Well, it's no wonder. It turns out that none other than 
President Herbert Hoover pronounced these words as part of a telephone address from New York City to Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio on the occasion of the conference "Building For A Better Tomorrow." If you read the links below you'll see just how fitting the title was.  

The full text of the speech can be read at 
the Hoover Association's page, and you can see that it was later published as a booklet - a copy of which is available at the National Archives's site


Well, another misattribution, another dollar. We know of many witticisms and other quotations that have been erroneously ascribed to Shaw. 

However, this blog has no interest in the words of American Presidents - 
except for the occasional Shavianism. In fact, political speeches - or, rather, the speeches of politicians - are practically anathema for Shaw. See, for instance, what he had to say about the way the politicians of his time delivered their speeches through the wireless: 

"Most of the politicians are awful. Lloyd George was bad enough, and Churchill is no better. Someone ought to tell them that their House of Commons style, with long pauses between every word to think out what they are going to say next, is pitiful through the mike, especially when they pronounce their prepositions and conjunctions as if they were speaking oracles."

The quotation is from 
Hesketh Pearson's Bernard Shaw: A Biography (p. 469), and many of my dear friends from the ISS should re-read at least that page because another thing Shaw is quoted as saying is "Do you know anything about these infernal Shaw Societies?"  

At any rate, since Shaw was actually referring to style rather than to content, I'll spare President Hoover, Winston Churcill and all other politicians, and publish the post all the same.