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To Wit: This Collection of Humor Is One for the Book

In “Dear Wit: Letters from the World’s Wits” (Prentice Hall), H. Jack Lang gives us a treasury of written wit collected over 50 years.

Wit is not easily defined, but James Thurber came close when he observed that “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself.”

In his introduction, Lang notes that wit is often caustic--it has a victim; but it may also be wise and even gentle. He offers examples of all kinds.

I quote from the book without attention to categories, but mostly I have sought out the briefest forms. As someone has said, brevity is the soul of wit.

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Perhaps I favor the shafts that have victims. George Bernard Shaw once received this invitation from Winston Churchill’s mother: “Lady Randolph Churchill will be home on Thursday afternoon, next, at four o’clock. RSVP.” To which Shaw replied: “So will George Bernard Shaw.”

But the devilish Shaw was outwitted by actress Cornelia Otis Skinner in this exchange after the New York opening of Shaw’s “Candida,” in which she played the lead. Shaw cabled: “Excellent, greatest!” She replied: “Undeserving such praise.” Shaw answered: “Meant the play.” She shot back: “So did I.”

A professor at Western Reserve University asked Bertrand Russell to fill out a long and personal questionnaire. Russell replied: “If this is a specimen of Western reserve, God spare me from Western impudence.”

A young woman who had submitted some of her short stories to Somerset Maugham for criticism asked him, “Do you think I should put more fire in my stories?” He answered. “No. Vice versa.”

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Winston Churchill was irrepressible. At a dinner he asked his American hostess, “May I have a breast?” She explained that in America one asked either for white meat or dark meat. The next day Churchill sent her an orchid with this note: “I would be most obliged if you would pin this on your white meat.”

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke received a cable from William Randolph Hearst: “Is there life on Mars? Cable thousand words.” Clarke cabled back: “Nobody knows. Repeat 500 times.”

When a female admirer asked the playwright Richard Sheridan to explain the essential difference between men and women, he answered: “I cannot conceive.”

One of my favorites is Cary Grant’s answer to a cable from an anonymous magazine editor asking “How old Cary Grant?” Grant replied: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”

Another movie classic is Groucho Marx’s reply to an invitation to join a private club: “I do not wish to belong to the kind of club that accepts people like me as members.”

When a young woman asked Abigail Van Buren if birth control pills were tax-deductible, Dear Abby replied: “Only if they don’t work.”

After an accident in which she lost a leg, the divine Sarah Bernhardt received this cable: “We offer you 100,000 dollars to exhibit your leg at our Exposition in Buffalo.” To which she answered: “Which one?”

An admirer of Sinclair Lewis wrote the famous writer, asking for a job as his secretary, and promising to “do everything for you--and when I say everything I mean everything.” Lewis’ wife, the redoubtable Dorothy Thompson, answered: “My husband already has a stenographer who handles his work for him. And, as for ‘everything,’ I take care of that myself--and when I say everything I mean everything.”

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Successful authors often receive manuscripts from unpublished writers, asking for their criticism. Samuel Johnson once advised one young man: “Your work is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original. And the part that is original is not good.”

The British statesman Benjamin Disraeli had a standard answer to all such appeals: “Many thanks. I shall lose no time reading it.”

The French playwright Georges Courteline received a crude note from an impudent young writer demanding satisfaction for a minor insult. The note was filled with misspelled words. Courteline replied: “As I am the offended party, the choice of weapons is mine. We shall fight with orthography. You are already dead.”

Will Rogers starred in the Ziegfeld Follies during World War I. A young woman wrote him: “Why aren’t you in the Army?” Rogers replied: “For the same reason, Madam, that you aren’t in the Follies--physical disabilities.”

Actress Ilka Chase’s marriage to actor Louis Calhern ended after six months. He soon remarried, and Ilka sent the new bride a box of unused calling cards, engraved “Mrs. Louis Calhern,” with this note: “Hope these reach you in time.”

Perhaps it is not wit, but the most charming line in the collection is in a very brief essay written by Maria Taft, daughter of William Howard Taft III, in response to her teacher’s request for a brief family history.

Maria wrote: “My great-grandfather was President of the United States. My grandfather was Senator from Ohio. My father is Ambassador to Ireland. I am a Brownie.”


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