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Insults And Put-Downs, Algonquin-Style

02/25/2015 09:28 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Once upon a time, long before Internet trolls ruined the whole idea of the clever comeback, there was repartee. Eloquent raconteurs could take clever jabs at their opponents, no capital letters needed. Outrage was irrelevant. The only fuel was wit.

No group was better at this than the critics, playwrights, authors and other notables of the Algonquin Round Table, a celebrated band of wits who met daily for lunch throughout the 1920s. Perhaps the most famous of these was Dorothy Parker, dubbed "the mistress of the verbal hand grenade" by fellow Algonquinite Tallulah Bankhead. Other members included playwrights George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, New Yorker founder Harold Ross, novelist Edna Ferber, theater critic Alexander Woollcott, humorist Robert Benchley, sportswriter Heywood Broun and others. Whether their put-downs were uttered across a table or written in a published review, they were widely quoted, often-repeated and continue to resonate over ninety-years later. Here are some favorites:

Describing an acquaintance, Dorothy Parker said, "That woman speaks eighteen languages and can't say 'no' in any of them."

Once, when playwright Noel Coward happened upon novelist Edna Ferber dressed just like him, he said, "Edna, you look almost like a man." Without missing a beat Ferber replied, "So do you."

On discussing a Broadway show, Robert Benchley said, "It was one of those plays in which all the actors unfortunately enunciated very clearly."

George S. Kaufman's epitaph for a dead waiter: "God finally caught his eye."

Dorothy Parker on Harold Ross: "His ignorance was an Empire State Building of ignorance. You had to admire it for its size."

Alexander Woollcott on Dorothy Parker: "She is a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."

Attending a terrible play with Alexander Woollcott, Tallulah Bankhead whispered, "There's less in this than meets the eye."

One day at the Algonquin, a man rubbed his hand over Marc Connelly's bald pate and said, "You know, Marc, your head feels as smooth as my wife's behind." Connelly felt his own scalp and replied, "So it does."

Franklin Pierce Adams once said, "The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time."

When asked his opinion on a play he had attended, George S. Kaufman reportedly said, "I saw it under bad conditions; the curtain was up."

After seeing a young Katharine Hepburn in a stage play Dorothy Parker remarked, "She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."

When asked to sign a copy of his new book, Shouts and Murmurs, Alexander Woollcott sighed, "Ah, what is so rare as a Woollcott first edition!" Franklin Pierce Adams replied, "A Woollcott second edition."

Telegram George S. Kaufman sent to a terrible actor: "Saw your performance tonight from the back of the house. Wish you were here."

Heywood Broun on a certain intellectually-fickle radio personality: "His mind is so open that the wind whistles right through it."

Regarding actors and prostitutes, Alexander Woollcott said, "The two oldest professions in the world -- ruined by amateurs."

On hearing Calvin Coolidge had died, Dorothy Parker remarked, "How can they tell?"


Ellen Meister is the author of
Dorothy Parker Drank Here (Putnam).