Film classic plunges a curvaceous bombshell into the literary mystery of the dry martini

Though I have struggled vainly here with such profound questions as the definition of time and of love, and the difference between prose and poetry, I have always imagined that I had indeed nailed down the final answer to one great literary question:

Who wrote or first said that immortal line, "Let me get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini"?

It is astonishing how many sources for that line (in its variations) have turned up in the memoirs of wits, raconteurs and Hollywood celebrities. It is surely one of the most durable and rootless lines in the language.

It is most often ascribed to Robert Benchley. It is always set in circumstances that lend this attribution an air of factuality.

Bennett Cerf, for example, in "Try and Stop Me," wrote that "Robert Benchley was caught in a thunderstorm one afternoon, and came home soaked to the skin. 'George,' he called to his servant, 'get me out of this wet suit and into a dry martini!' "

The improbability of this version was offered by Tom Cullen of San Pedro. "The circumstances . . . do not ring quite true. To get caught in a thunderstorm, a person has to be out walking somewhere. Given Benchley's notorious aversion to exercise, it seems very unlikely that he would have been engaged in any activity as athletic as walking, except for short trips like the one from the bar to his bungalow at the Garden of Allah."

It has even been suggested that Benchley delivered the famous line after falling into the Garden of Allah swimming pool during one of those athletic excursions.

Benchley's aversion for exercise also fits in with the story that one night when he was leaving the Garden to go across the street, he asked a man in uniform to call him a cab, and the man said haughtily, "I am not a doorman. I happen to be a rear admiral in the United States Navy."

Whereupon, Benchley is supposed to have said, "In that case, get me a destroyer."

But I have a letter from Benchley's grandson, Nathaniel R. Benchley: "Anent the now-infamous incident with the admiral," he says, "I believe the proper quote was, 'In that case, call me a battleship."

I accept young Benchley's word on that, but it does seem to me that a destroyer would have been more in keeping with Benchley's modest tastes.

Benchley's grandson also revises a story told me by Walter Collins, who grew up with the Benchley sons, Nathaniel and Robert Jr. Benchley was cremated and the urn was brought to the Benchleys' Siasconset home, on Nantucket Island, after a very private service. Nantucket's lone undertaker, a Mr. Lewis, brought in an empty urn by mistake. Collins recalls that Robert Jr. "shook it, opened it, inverted it and said, 'My God! Where's Father?' "

Young Benchley says: "Walter Collins may indeed have known my father, Nathaniel, and my uncle, Robert Jr., but he was nowhere around when the urn incident took place. On the last page of his 1955 biography of his father, my father relates the true story: After having been informed by Mr. Lewis of the predicament . . . my grandmother, Gertrude, said, 'You know, I can hear him laughing now. . . . ' "

It is interesting to note that one edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations attributes the dry martini quote to Alexander Woollcott, and a later edition to Benchley.

Many of my informers traced the line to "The Major and the Minor," a 1942 movie written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and directed by Wilder. As I remember, Ginger Rogers works for a beauty shop that makes house calls, and one day she goes to Benchley's apartment in a downpour. He opens the door to see her standing there, soaked to her skin, and says, "Why don't you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini."

It was a risque line for 1942.

I thought I had found the absolute final truth of its origin when I received this note from Wilder himself:

"Charlie Brackett and I used it in . . . 'The Major and the Minor' (more than) 40 years ago. We gave the joke to Robert Benchley . . . under the impression that he had originated it. When it came to the shooting, he modestly disclaimed credit for this now classic line, informing me that it had actually, indubitably and in fact been said by his friend Charles Butterworth."

That's the way I left it.

Now, however, I am staggered by a letter from Martin E. Mullen Jr.:

"Until a few days ago I considered your column pinpointing the source of the movie line 'Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?' the final word on the subject. . . .

"With this data stored neatly in my glitzy memory bank, I settled into an easy chair earlier this week to watch a videotape edition of 'Every Day's a Holiday,' a 1937 Paramount feature written by and starring Mae West, and was delighted by the following exchange between supporting players Charles Winninger and Charles Butterworth:

" 'I'm hot. Soaked all over,' complains Winninger, sweltering in a turn-of-the-century evening suit.

" 'You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini,' Butterworth advises. . . . "

Could it have been Mae West after all? It certainly sounds like her!

But of course Butterworth might have said it when he fell into that pool at the Garden of Allah, and then suggested it to Mae West.

Now I'm afraid we'll never know.

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