January 15, 2017

“The business of America is business” – a famously unfair misquote…

When President Warren G. Harding died from a heart-related problem in 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.

The following year, with his popularity buoyed by a strong economy of the “Roaring Twenties”, Coolidge handily won the 1924 presidential election, using the campaign slogan “Keep Cool With Coolidge.”

Unlike some presidents, “Silent Cal” Coolidge wasn’t known for making memorable statements.

The most famous quote associated with him is a line about business being the business of America.

That line is often given as “The business of America is business” or “The business of the American people is business.”

In fact, both of those versions are misquotes.

They aren’t radically different from what he actually said, which was “the chief business of the American people is business.”

However, when this short quote or the misquote versions are cited alone, out of context, they tend to give the inaccurate impression that Coolidge was a totally one-dimensional, pro-business cheerleader.

President Coolidge made his famous remark in an address to the Society of American Newspaper Editors on January 17, 1925 in Washington, D.C.

The speech he gave that day was titled “The Press Under a Free Government.” It focused on the role of the press in free market democracies, like America.

Coolidge noted that the press was far more likely to publish propaganda in autocratic or Socialist countries.

He acknowledged concerns about whether business considerations could affect editorial positions and news reporting in a society like the US. But he pointed out the flip side, saying:

“There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences.”

Then Coolidge added his famous quote:

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”

It’s hard to dispute the notion that most Americans are concerned about the economy and personal prosperity. And, Coolidge made it clear that he didn't simply mean “greed is good.”

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence,” he said. “But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it...But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”

It’s true that Coolidge was generally a pro-business, small-government type politician; sort of a Ronald Reagan without charisma.

But, in my opinion, the spin that is often put on his famous quote about the business of America is clearly overly simplistic and unfair.

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January 04, 2017

“There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Tallulah Bankhead meets the eye quote WM
On January 4, 1922, the New York Times published a review of the dramatic play Aglavaine and Selysette by the paper’s witty critic Alexander Woollcott.

Woollcott had attended the premiere of the play at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York City the day before, on the afternoon of January 3rd.

His review wasn’t glowing.

Aglavaine and Selysette was written in French by the Belgian playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck in 1896.

The plot involves a high society love triangle. The language of the play is rather twee.

It was the kind of thing some high society types or eggheads might like. But not Woollcott.

He was one of the iconoclastic, opinionated writers and celebrities who were members of the “Algonquin Round Table.”

In fact he was one of the founding members, along with other legendary wits like columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, humorist and actor Robert Benchley and writer Dorothy Parker.

So, it’s not surprising that Woollcott’s aimed some zingers at the performance of the Maeterlinck’s play.

One of the lines in his review quickly became a famous quip that’s included in many books of quotations. He wrote:

“...the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’

Woollcott was dissembling a bit by making it seem like he didn’t know the identity of “the beautiful lady.” He’d brought her to the play himself and she was sitting right next to him. She was the then little-known, 19-year-old actress Tallulah Bankhead.

It seems likely that Woollcott didn’t name Tallulah in the review to protect her against possible backlash from high society theatre patrons and producers. But he apparently did tell his Algonquin Club friends, who loved snarky gibes. One way or the other, word got around that Tallulah was the beautiful quipster.

Alexander Woollcott picWoollcott confirmed that publicly in a book he published later the same year, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights.

In that book, he called the line one of the most memorable bon mots to appear in his reviews and said:

“[It] was whispered in my ear by a comely young actress named Tallulah Bankhead, who was sitting incredulous before a deliberate and intentional revival of Maeterlinck’s ‘Aglavaine and Selysette,’ a monstrous piece of perfumed posturing, meaning exactly nothing. Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’”

In her own autobiography, Tallulah, published in 1952, Bankhead recalled it this way:

“It was through Alex Woollcott that I won my first citation as a wit...At the end of the first act I turned to my escort to say, ‘There’s less in this than meets the eye.’ I wasn’t aware that I’d said anything devastating, but the next morning the comment was repeated in Woollcott’s review in the Times...This gave me considerable prestige among those jesters who took such delight in ridicule of their peers, even their betters.”

By “those jesters” she meant the Algonquin Round Table, of which she became an occasional member.

However, as the term she chose for them suggests, she was not entirely a fan of the sometimes vicious humor those jesters were known for.

Nor, ultimately, was she a fan of Woollcott, who died nine years before Bankhead’s autobiography was published.

In that book she wrote:

“Since this is supposed to be a frank and open review of my life it is only fair to say that most of the wisecracks I have mothered have been accidental quips. So long as I have dragged Alexander Woollcott into this saga I may as well voice my opinion of him. It isn’t high. He was vindictive, shockingly petty in a feminine fashion, given to excesses when expressing his preferences or his prejudices.”

Of course, Tallulah, who died in 1968, became notorious for her own excesses, involving wild parties, multiple affairs, marijuana and cocaine.

As she once famously put it: “I’m as pure as the driven slush.”

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December 22, 2016

“Let It Snow!” – the Christmas song that isn’t…


Every year at Christmas time, when I hear someone sing or say “Let It Snow!” I am reminded of what I learned when I looked into the song that popularized that phrase.

It was launched into our holiday lexicon in December 1945, when singer and big band leader Vaughn Monroe released the first recording of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

On December 22, 1945 his 78 RPM recording of that song entered the Billboard “Best Sellers in Stores” chart (a precursor of Billboard’s Top 40 and Hot 100 charts).
The words were written by lyricist Sammy Cahn. The music was by Cahn’s songwriting partner at the time, Jule Styne.

Monroe’s version of the song quickly became a huge hit, making it to Billboard’s number one spot on January 26, 1946.

In the decades since then, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” has been recorded by countless other singers and bands.

Nowadays, many people think it’s a traditional Christmas song. “Let It Snow” is common on Christmas cards and in Christmas-related internet posts.

But, in fact, there’s no reference to Christmas or the holiday season in the lyrics and it wasn’t intended to be Christmas song.

It’s actually a romantic, somewhat corny love song about a guy who is visiting his girlfriend during the winter in some unnamed location.

Since it was the era of PG lyrics, the guy is not expecting to stay for the night. However, when it’s time for him to leave, “the weather is frightful.”

Gosh darnit! It’s snowing too hard for him to travel safely.

The lyrics are written from the guy’s point of view. He seems to see the weather as a stroke of luck and is happy to “let it snow.” 

He suggests to the girl that he’d hate to go out into the storm right at that moment, but if she’d just hold him tight for a while he’d be warm all the way home.

He also mentions he’d brought some popcorn they didn’t get around to eating yet, and the fire is so delightful, and the lights are turned down low, and…

And, the girl buys his snow job. Perhaps not reluctantly.

Then, like in the movies, there’s sort of a fade to a later time in the lyrics. The fire is dying and the couple is still, er, “good-bye-ing.”

Yeah, baby! “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

Although you may not be old enough to have heard Vaughn Monroe’s original version when it first entered the Billboard chart on December 22, 1945, you’ve heard it if you’re a fan of Bruce Willis action movies.

Monroe’s recording of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is the first song that plays during the end credits of Willis’ popular action movie Die Hard. It was also used in the soundtrack of Die Hard II.
So, yippee-kay-yay, fellow Bruce fans! Click on the video link at right and sing along! Here are the lyrics...

       “Oh, the weather outside is frightful
       But the fire is so delightful
       And since we’ve no place to go
       Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

       It doesn’t show signs of stopping
       And I brought some corn for popping
       The lights are turned way down low
       Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

       When we finally kiss good night
       How I hate going out in the storm
       But if you really you hold me tight
       All the way home I’ll be warm.

       The fire is slowly dying
       And, my dear, we’re still good-bye-ing
       But as long as you love me so
       Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

Ironically, as noted in the excellent book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Cahn and Styne wrote the song while sitting in a stifling hot office in Hollywood during the summer of 1945.

Author Ace Collins says Styne worked out a melody he thought sounded “cool” on the piano. Then Cahn turned his thoughts to winter and: “Looking out the window at the California sun baking the landscape, he whispered, ‘Let it snow.’”

It was perfect! In a short time, Cahn and Styne finished what is now considered one of the top 25 Christmas songs of all time — even though it’s not really about Christmas.

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December 12, 2016

“Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.”

In the 1920s, Sinclair Lewis became one of the most successful writers in America.

During that decade he penned a series of five hugely-popular novels: Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth.

In 1930, he became the first American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Only ten other Americans have won the prize since then.)

When Lewis gave his official acceptance address to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on December 12, 1930, he made a remark that would become a famous, widely-cited quotation:

       “Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.”

The story behind that quote involves some now little-known facts about America’s literary and academic history.

In the culture war of recent decades, the most common criticism of college professors as a group has been the claim that they are mostly left-leaning, “effete intellectual,” anti-American liberals.

But in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, America’s academic establishment seemed stuffily conservative to boundary-pushing writers like Lewis.

The members of the nation’s top official organization dedicated to fostering “excellence” in American literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was largely composed of hidebound academics and celebrities who were almost all elderly, White and male.

And, through most of the 1920s, the guidelines for awarding America’s annual Pulitzer Prize for fiction stated that the prize was intended to be “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

Lewis’ first widely-read novel, Main Street (1920), satirized the typical close-minded society of small towns in America. His second, Babbitt (1922), skewered middle-class American businessmen and families. Both titles became symbolic terms for social conformity.

Main Street and Babbitt were huge bestsellers, praised by many critics and suggested as nominees for the Pulitzer Prize. But they clearly bumped up against the outdated guidelines for that award and neither won.

In 1926, the Pulitzer Prize Committee finally did decide to give Lewis a Pulitzer for his third bestseller, Arrowsmith, a novel that focused on an idealistic doctor. However, at that point Lewis decided to thumb his nose at them and refused to accept it.

The letter he wrote to the Committee foreshadows his later Nobel Prize address.

Lewis said the “wholesome” guideline language for the Pulitzer meant that “the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.”

“Between the Pulitzer Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters...amateur boards of censorship, and the inquisition of earnest literary ladies,” he added, “every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest...I must decline the Pulitzer Prize.”

Four years later, when Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature, one tight-assed member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters attacked the decision publicly. By awarding the prize to a writer who had scoffed at American institutions, he sniffed, the Nobel Committee and the Swedish Academy had insulted America.

Lewis reflected on all this in the acceptance address he gave in Sweden on December 12, 1930.

He titled it “The American Fear of Literature.” And, in it, he aimed some pointed barbs at America’s academic and literary establishment.

He criticized the American Academy of Arts and Letters saying, among other things: “It does not represent the literary America of today, it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”

He also took another poke at the Pulitzer Committee and others who tried to make literature conform to rah-rah, politically-correct standards.

In America, he said:

“…even writers are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American...To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers.”

Then, Lewis took some shots at the typical professors of literature at America’s universities, in a section of the speech that ends with his famous quotation:

“To a true-blue professor of literature in an American university, literature is not something that a plain human being, living today, painfully sits down to produce. No; it is something dead; it is something magically produced by superhuman beings who must, if they are to be regarded as artists at all, have died at least one hundred years before the diabolical invention of the typewriter. To any authentic don, there is something slightly repulsive in the thought that literature could be created by any ordinary human being, still to be seen walking the streets, wearing quite commonplace trousers and coat and looking not so unlike a chauffeur or a farmer. Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.

Lewis’ Nobel Prize address caused a huge uproar when it was reprinted in newspapers in the United States.

But as Liberace once put it, Lewis laughed all the way to the bank.

Recipients of the Nobel Prize receive a large monetary award; hundreds of thousands in Lewis’ time, now nearly $1 million.

When reporters asked what was he going to do with all that money, Lewis quipped that he would use it to support a young American author — himself.

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December 03, 2016

“Out Where the West Begins”

On an early December night in 1911, journalist Arthur Chapman was trying to come up with a topic for his regular column in the Denver Republican newspaper, called “Center Shots.”

As he was thinking, he saw an Associated Press dispatch about an ongoing disagreement between the Governors of several Western states.

They were arguing over which state should be considered the state where “the West” begins.

The AP story gave Chapman a flash of inspiration. He sometimes wrote cowboy-style poems for his column and, in a matter of minutes, he wrote one on the topic the Governors were debating.

He titled it “Out Where the West Begins.”

On December 3, 1911 the poem was published for the first time in Chapman’s column in the Denver Republican. It was soon reprinted in other newspapers across the country.

Over the next five years, “Out Where the West Begins” became one of best known bits of verse in America.

In 1917, musician Estelle Philleo wrote music for the poem and turned it into a popular song.

That same year, it was published in a book collecting Chapman’s poetry, Out Where the West Begins and Other Western Verses.

“Out Where the West Begins” made Chapman famous and is still renowned as one of the greatest examples of cowboy poetry.

Here’s how he answered the question of where “the West” begins in his poem:

       “Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
       Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
             That’s where the West begins;
       Out where the sun is a little brighter,
       Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter;
       Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter;
             That’s where the West begins.
       Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
       Out where the friendship’s a little truer,
             That’s where the West begins
       Out where a fresher breeze is blowing, 
       Where there’s laughter in every streamlet flowing,
       Where there’s more of reaping and less of sowing,
             That’s where the West begins.
       Out where the world is in the making,
       Where fewer hearts with despair are aching;
             That’s where the West begins;
       Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
       Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
       And where a man makes friends without half trying,
             That’s where the West begins.”

If you’d like to know other answers to question of where the West begins – and where the East peters out – see the post on my QuoteCounterquote.com site at this link.

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Further reading and listening about Cowboy (and Cowgirl) poetry

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