September 19, 2019

Hanging … It concentrates the mind wonderfully.


Many of the famed witticisms uttered by British writer, lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson were recorded for posterity in a journal kept by his admirer and friend James Boswell.

Boswell used entries from the journal as a foundation for his classic biography, Life of Johnson (first published in 1791).

One of Johnson’s oft-quoted quips comes from the entry Boswell wrote on September 19, 1777.

It’s a great bit of literal gallows humor that is widely cited in the short form:

       "When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Johnson made the remark in reference to an Anglican clergyman named William Dodd.

Dodd, whose clerical background led people to call him Dr. Dodd, had been executed by hanging at England’s Tyburn prison on June 27, 1777.

The “heinous” crime he was guilty of was a loan scam.

He had asked a money lender for a sizeable loan that he claimed was for his former student, the 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

That particular young gent was son of the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, known for those famous windy letters to his son that included platitudes like: “Take care of the minutes: for the hours will take care of themselves.”

Dodd didn’t actually give the money to Stanhope’s son. He pocketed it. And, when he failed to repay the loan, he was taken to court by the money lender, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Even in those days, when capital punishment was common in England, some people thought Dodd’s sentence seemed a bit harsh. One of them was Samuel Johnson.

Johnson tried to stop the hanging with a little scam of his own.

He penned an eloquent plea for mercy, full of Biblical quotes, and had it delivered to the court. Instead of signing it himself, Johnson made it seem as if it were a letter written by Dodd.

Unfortunately for Dodd, it didn’t work. He was hanged anyway, alongside another criminal named Joseph Harris.

The entreaty Johnson had ghost-written was “leaked” and soon published under the title The Convict’s Address to His Unhappy Brethren. It was credited to Dodd on the cover and became quite popular.

In his journal entry for September 19, 1777, Boswell noted that a friend of Johnson’s told the great man he suspected Dodd didn’t actually write the letter himself. It just seemed a bit too well written.

Johnson didn’t fess up at the time. But his response, as recorded in Boswell’s journal and published in the Life of Johnson, includes the memorable quote about hanging that appears on many websites and in many books of quotations:

“Why should you think so?” responded Johnson. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Eventually, Johnson’s authorship was revealed and The Convict’s Address is now generally – and properly – credited to him.

By the way, my favorite edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson is the “Classix Comix” version. It's edited with illuminating notes by writer Dan Leo, author of the mindbending series of novels about bohemian poet Arnold Schnabel (RAILROAD TO TRAIN HEAVEN, THIS WORLD OR ANY OTHER WORLD, and THE BRAWNY EMBRACES). It’s also wonderfully illustrated by digital artist and writer Rhoda Penmarq, who has published her own series of books collecting her witty stories and artwork on Lulu.


(creator of the great Railroad Train to Heaven online novel).

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September 13, 2019

“No man is a hero to his valet” – the backstory on a famous proverb and misquote...



Charlotte Aïssé (1693-1733) was quite a celebrity in France in the early 18th Century — part heroine, part sex symbol, part intellectual.

As a child, her father’s palace was raided by the Turks. They took her captive but soon sold her to Count Charles de Ferriol, the French ambassador at Constantinople.

She was raised by Ferriol's sister-in-law in Paris and became a beauty who attracted the attention of several prominent French aristocrats.

After her death, her fame grew.

Three French plays were written about her. The letters she wrote to her friend Madame Calandrini were edited by the eminent French writer Voltaire and published in 1787, in a book titled Lettres de Mademoiselle Aïssé a Madame Calandrini [“Letters of Mademoiselle Aïssé to Madame Calandrini”].

In one of those letters, dated August 13, 1728, Aïssé mentioned a quip she’d heard.

It was a comment by another prominent French lady, Anne-Marie Bigot de Cornuel (1605-1694), who was once the mistress of King Louis XIV.

A simplified English translation of part of what Madame Cornuel said became cited as a famous proverbial quotation:

      “No man is a hero to his valet.”

Many books and online posts attribute this quote to Cornuel by way of Aïssé’s letter.

However, although Aïssé did write something like that, the attributed quote is a case of something gained in translation.

In the original French, what Aïssé actually wrote in her letter was:

“Je vous renvoie à ce que disoit madame Cornuel, qu’il n’y avoit point de héros pour les valets de chambre, et point de pères de l’Église parmi ses contemporains.”

A literal English translation of her words is something like this:

“I refer to what Madame Cornuel said, that there were no heroes to valets, nor to the Fathers of the Church among their contemporaries.”

Somewhere along the line, in English translations, the valet part of Aïssé’s comment morphed from “there were no heroes to valets” into “No man is a hero to his valet.”

I suspect that is because the saying “No man is a hero to his valet” already existed as a proverbial saying in French.

Indeed, “No man is a hero to his valet” is listed in many sources simply as an old French or English proverb

The meaning of the proverb is that a servant (such as a valet) does not usually have the same grand, positive view other people may have of the servant’s master or employer.

Why? Because servants get to know the bad sides of their masters better than people who don’t spend time with them on a daily basis. In addition, “underlings” are often treated worse by their masters or employers than other people.

My guess is that what Madame Cornuel wrote was a reference to the existing proverb and that her line was misquoted in English to fit the saying.

So... Je suis désolé, Madame Cornuel. Sorry, Madame Cornuel.

You apparently don’t deserve credit for coining “No man is a hero to his valet” — or even for saying those exact words.

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September 01, 2019

“We must love one another or die.”


September 1, 1939
is now known as the day when World War II started.

On that day, Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler ordered his military forces to invade neighboring Poland.

He claimed it was an act of self defense, necessary to protect German citizens and the territorial rights of Germany.

“Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes,” Hitler claimed, in a proclamation he issued that day. “The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.”

Nobody could know at the time that it was the beginning of what would become a horrific worldwide conflict in which 60 million people would die.

But many people who heard the ominous news recognized it as the start of something very bad.

One of them was British author and poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973).

It led him to write a poem reflecting his thoughts upon hearing the news that day.

He initially titled it “September: 1939.”

But the title was changed to “September 1, 1939” when it was first published in New Republic magazine on October 18, 1939.

One line in the poem became an oft-cited quotation: “We must love one another or die.”

It comes at the end of the next to last verse:

       “All I have is a voice
        To undo the folded lie,
        The romantic lie in the brain
        Of the sensual man-in-the-street
        And the lie of Authority
        Whose buildings grope the sky:
        There is no such thing as the State
        And no one exists alone;
        Hunger allows no choice
        To the citizen or the police;
        We must love one another or die.”

“September 1, 1939” is an eloquent condemnation of totalitarian governments and war; a plea for human empathy and peace.

Soon after being published, it became famous.

But Auden himself soon decided it was sappy and self-indulgent, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written.”

In 1945, when a major collection of Auden’s was published, he insisted on cutting the entire stanza that ended with the “love one another” line. And, in the 1950s, he started refusing to let the poem be printed at all.

He did give special permission to include it in the 1955 edition of The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse. But he had the famous line changed, inserting the word and in place of or, so it read “We must love one another and die.”

He later said that the original line was “a damned lie! We must die anyway.”

Nonetheless, it was his original line that remained famous.

It was later recycled — infamously — during the 1964 presidential campaign, in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 TV attack ad against Barry Goldwater, called the Daisy ad.”

That pioneering negative ad was designed to scare the bejeesus out of voters by painting Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger who would be likely to start a nuclear war if he became president.

In it, a pretty little girl is shown in a field picking petals off a daisy and counting.

Suddenly, an announcer is heard giving a missile-style countdown, followed by shots of a nuclear bomb explosion and mushroom cloud and the voice of Lyndon Johnson saying: “These are the stakes — to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

At the end of the spot, the announcer says ominously: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The Daisy ad debuted on Labor Day evening, September 7, 1964, during NBC-TV’s showing of the movie David and Bathsheba.

It was so shocking and so negative for the time that it created a huge hubbub in the press and was only aired during the campaign that one time.

However, the point of the spot and the debate it helped stoke over whether Goldwater could be trusted to have his finger on the nuclear trigger benefited Johnson, who won the election in a landslide on November 3, 1964.

Auden was not a fan of Johnson, Goldwater or politicians in general. The political use of a version of his words “We must love one another or die” probably made him dislike the line even more.

Yet it remains his best-known bit of verse. And, the TV ad in which Lyndon Johnson spoke a version of it remains one of the most famous political commercials of all time.

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August 21, 2019

“Everybody loves a lover” (as Shakespeare never said)...


On July 21, 1958, a week after being released, Doris Day’s recording of the song “Everybody Loves a Lover” entered the Billboard Top 40.

The 45 RPM single, issued by Columbia Records, eventually reached #6 on both the CashBox and Billboard charts.

It was a last big charting hit in the US for Day and has remained one of her most popular songs.

The lyrics were written by veteran lyricist Richard Adler; the music by composer Robert Allen.

Adler and Allen had previously collaborated on the songs for the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game, which was a huge success.

In 1957, Doris Day was tapped as the female lead for the movie adaptation, which was also highly successful.

After working on The Pajama Game, Day told Adler she was looking for a novelty song to record.

Adler’s marriage to his first wife, songwriter and playwright Marion Hart, had hit the rocks at the time — a fact that led, ironically, to the song he wrote for Day.

On a trip to Europe in 1957, he had been introduced to actress and singer Sally Ann Howes.

According to Adler, it was love at first sight.

On January 1, 1958, the same day his divorce from Marion was finalized, Adler married Sally Ann.

Marion was apparently furious and threatened to ruin Adler’s career by publicly attacking him as a philanderer in the news media.

In his 1990 autobiography, You Gotta Have Heart, Adler says he called his lawyer, Sidney Cohn, and expressed his concerns about her threat.

Cohn felt press coverage of Adler’s love for and marriage to Howes was unlikely to create a scandal that would hurt his songwriting career.

“Be happy,” he told Adler. You know what Shakespeare said. All the world loves a lover.”

Adler recalled thinking: “Shakespeare doesn’t know what Marion said. Still, I could relax now, think about the future, and get back to writing.”

When Doris Day approached him about writing a novelty song for her, he remembered the line Cohn had attributed to Shakespeare.

In fact, “All the world loves a lover” doesn’t appear in any of William Shakespeare’s works. Nor did he ever use the words “Everybody loves a lover.”

From what I can tell, the Shakespeare line that comes closest is in his play As You Like It. In Act 3, Scene 4, the character Rosalind says: “The sight of lovers feedeth those in love.”

Some people have attributed “Everybody loves a lover” to American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably because he did say something like it. In 1841, Emerson wrote in his essay “Love,” that “All mankind love a lover.”

However, it appears that Richard Adler deserves credit for creating the now proverbial formulation “Everybody loves a lover.”

The biography Doris Day: Sentimental Journey (2010) by Garry McGee says Adler remembered Cohn’s mistaken Shakespeare quote then “took the line, reworked the wording, and came up with lyrics that became ‘Everybody Loves a Lover.’ He met with composer Bob Allen and in a short time the two had a completed song, which they felt was a hit.”

They were right. The song was a hit for Day and was covered by a long list of other singers and bands.

My own favorite is the classic early rock version recorded by The Shirelles in 1962.

Adler’s use of “Everybody loves a lover” as both the title and the first line in the lyrics of what became a highly popular song also made those words a famous quotation, though most people don’t know who wrote them.

In case you want to queue up one of the many versions of song on YouTube and sing along, you can find the full lyrics on these sites.

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August 09, 2019

“Our long national nightmare is over.”



In August of 1974, faced with Congressional hearings, a mountain of bad press and the looming threat of impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign.

His official letter of resignation was delivered at 11:35 a.m. Eastern Time on August 9, 1974.

A half-hour later, Nixon’s Vice President Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath and was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

After the swearing-in ceremony, Ford gave a brief acceptance speech that was broadcast live on radio and television.

He acknowledged that he was taking office “under extraordinary circumstances” and urged Americans to “go forward now together.”

He then made a remark that became — and remains — a famous political quotation:       

      “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

Following that, Ford alluded to another famous political quote.

“Our Constitution works.” he said. “Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

The phrase “a government of laws, and not of men” reflects a political idea that dates back as far as the ancient Greeks.

But it was enshrined in quotation history by John Adams in one of his Novanglus letters, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774.

Written anonymously under the pen name “Novanglus,” these letters argued that Great Britain’s treatment of American colonists violated their rights under British law.

In the seventh Novanglus letter, Adams wrote that “the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire...a government of laws, and not of men.”

By the 20th Century, British monarchs had virtually no real power.

In contrast, American presidents have many significant powers under the law.

One of them is the power to pardon criminals, both after or even — as Ford showed — before they are convicted.

On September 8, 1974, President Ford announced that he had granted Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute” pardon for any crimes he “has committed or may have committed” while president.

Since shortly after Donald Trump became president there has been speculation about whether he had committed crimes that could land him in jail after he leaves office or is forced out by impeachment.

Some political pundits have suggested that Vice President Mike Pence would pardon him if that happens or that Trump might even give himself a pardon.

Either way, whenever Trump does leaves office, those Americans who hate him — and those who are simply tired of the constant heated news coverage and arguments he generates — are likely to feel like another national nightmare is finally over.

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