October 07, 2018

The stirring words of Haile Selassie that Bob Marley used for the song “War”…

Important Utterances of H.I.M Emperor Haile Selassie
On October 4, 1963, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that includes a famous quotation you almost surely know if you’re a fan of the late, great Reggae musician Bob Marley.

Selassie’s speech provided the basis for one of Marley’s most popular songs, titled “War.”

It’s included on the classic Bob Marley & the Wailers album, Rastaman Vibration, released by Island Records on April 30, 1976.

Here’s are key words from the speech that Bob Marley incorporated into the lyrics of his song and made familiar to millions of people:

     “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned...Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation...Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes...Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race…Until that day, the dream of lasting peace...will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.”

Until the day when racism no longer exists, Marley sings at the end of the verses, there will be “War…Me say war.”

In 1963 and 1976, the word war literally meant armed rebellions by oppressed black people in countries like South Africa, Angola and Mozambique. But in my own mind, and I think in the minds of other Marley fans, it has also taken on a more symbolic meaning; a word that can also be used describe nonviolent protests and actions against injustice and inequality.

As a fan of Bob Marley since the late ‘70s, I’ve listened to “War” many times. It still awes and inspires me to hear Bob and the Wailers sing it or see them perform it in videos on YouTube.

However, while I am no expert on “H.I.M.” (His Imperial Majesty) Haile Selassie, I have read enough to know that his record as Emperor of Ethiopia includes some things that can seem at odds with the concept of equal rights and justice.

Selassie was born in 1892 into Ethiopia’s royal family, which practiced the Ethiopian Orthodox version of Christianity and traced the family’s origins back to King Solomon of Israel and Makeda, Queen of Sheba.

His birth name was Tafari Mkonnen. As a young nobleman he was called “Ras Tafari” – the title “Ras” roughly translating as “Duke” in English.

This became the inspiration for the name of the Rastafari movement created in 1933 by Jamaican preacher Leonard Percival Howell, whose teachings combined Pan Africanism and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity with the use of the “sacred herb” — ganja.

Howell believed that Tafari was the “Black Messiah,” an incarnation of God on Earth, the “Dread Lion” of Judah, King of Kings, predicted by Biblical prophecy. To Howell and his followers, Tafari’s coronation as Emperor was the realization of that prophecy.

Tafari ascended to the throne in 1930, though not peaceably. He had to use his family’s army to defeat that of a rival royal family at the Battle of Anchem.

Once in control of the throne, he took the name Haile Selassie, meaning “Power of the Trinity.”

Although it’s hard to think of any absolute monarchy as a bastion of freedom, he did take steps in what most people would think of as a positive direction. For example, he introduced Ethiopia’s first written constitution in 1931. It ensured some basic rights for most Ethiopian citizens and created a bicameral legislature.

Selassie portrayed it as a transitional stage to democracy. However, it kept most real political power in the hands of the Emperor and Ethiopia’s major landowning families and did not lead to the abolition of slavery in the country. This was not a minor human rights issue, given that Ethiopia had an estimated two million slaves — in this case, black people kept as “vassals” by wealthy black people — out of a population of about eleven million.

Nonetheless, the reforms Selassie pursued and his efforts to modernize Ethiopia’s infrastructure and encourage education, made him seem like a relatively enlightened and progressive African leader to observers in Western countries and the Caribbean. And, his fame increased in the years leading up to Word War II.

During Selassie’s youth, Italy controlled the area north of Ethiopia called Eritrea. In 1896, Italy attempted to expand its control southward. This led to the Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopia’s army defeated Italy’s colonial forces.

In 1935, Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, ally of Nazi Germany, had his modern army invade Ethiopia. This time the Italians prevailed.

Haile Selassie fled to England. Several months later, on June 20, 1936, he addressed the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. In his speech, Selassie asked Westerns nations and other League members to help Ethiopia overthrow its Italian invaders. He warned, prophetically, “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.”

Bob Marley & the Wailers singing 'War' liveThe speech made Selassie an even bigger celebrity. TIME magazine named him “Man of the Year” and featured him on the cover of the January 6, 1936 issue.

But neither the League of Nations nor its members helped Ethiopia fight Italy — until Selassie’s prediction came true and Western democracies were battling Nazi Germany and Italy themselves during World War II.

In 1941, British forces liberated Ethiopia. Selassie returned to the throne. To his credit, one of his first actions upon regaining power was to outlaw slavery.

After World War II, he was a leader in efforts to help African countries transition to independence from European colonial rule.

Toward that end, Selassie brought representatives of 32 African governments together in 1963 to form the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

At the initial OAU Conference held in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in May 1963, the group’s members pledged to increase cooperation among African states to improve the lives of people throughout Africa and eliminate the last bastions of colonialism in South Africa, Angola and Mozambique.

Selassie was also a leading promoter of Pan Africanism, which fostered a sense of unity and pride among black people throughout the world whose ancestors were taken from Africa as slaves.    

For these and other reasons, from the ‘30s to the ‘70s Selassie was increasingly viewed as a towering hero in Africa and the Caribbean islands.

He was particularly popular in Jamaica among members of the Rastafarian movement, which had grown considerably in the 1960s.

Selassie was aware of the Rastafarians. But he didn’t visit Jamaica until April 21, 1966.

When he landed at the Kingston airport that day, he was surprised to find an estimated one hundred thousand Rastafarians from throughout the country had gathered in Kingston to see him.

One of them was Alpharita “Rita” Marley, who had married Bob two months previously.

Rita was into Rastafarianism before Bob. But he, too, became a knowledgeable and devoted Rastafarian, eventually the most famous Rasta on the planet. Among the things he read about Haile Selassie that inspired him was the eloquent speech the Emperor gave to the United Nations on October 4, 1963, five months after the OAU’s Addis Ababa Conference.

In that remarkable speech, Selassie urged the United Nations and its members to work together to stop the nuclear arms race and take a stand against the apartheid government in South Africa and racism in general.

Selassie chose to give the speech in his native language, Amharic.

It was later translated into English by the Imperial Ethiopian Ministry of Information, and published in the 1972 book Important Utterances Of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I, a seminal source for Rastafarians.

Bob Marley lyrics to the song WAR In English, the key part of Selassie’s speech that inspired Bob Marley’s song “War” is as follows.

“On the question of racial discrimination, the Addis Ababa Conference taught, to those who will learn, this further lesson:    
     that until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned;    
     that until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation;    
     that until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes;    
     that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race;    
     that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.    
     And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed;    
     until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good will;    
     until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven;    
     until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.”

Those words, turned into lyrics and set to music by Marley, are incredibly eloquent and stirring.

Given the events that occurred in Ethiopia between 1963 and Selassie’s death in 1975, they are also somewhat ironic.

During his final decade as Emperor, human rights groups criticized Selassie’s regime for suppressing civil liberties and torturing political prisoners.

His army was charged with committing shocking atrocities against rebels who wanted independence for Eritrea, which Selassie had absorbed into Ethiopia after World War II with the approval of the Western Allies and United Nations — but against the will of most people living there.

Those atrocities reportedly included mass slaughters of civilians during late ‘60s and early ‘70s, later described as an attempt at the “ethnic cleansing” of the Muslim Harari people of Eritrea.

In 1974, a famine in Ethiopia killed tens of thousands of people. Skyrocketing inflation led to riots.

That September, Selassie was overthrown and imprisoned by a Soviet-backed group of Marxists called the Derg.

The following year, on August 28, 1975, the Ethiopian state media reported that Haile Selassie had died of “respiratory failure” at age 83 following complications from a prostate operation. His followers believed he had been murdered.

The Derg imposed a brutal Communist dictatorship on Ethiopia that was far worse than Selassie’s regime. When they were ousted by an armed revolt in 1991, Selassie’s bones were found on the palace grounds. For the next nine years they were kept in a coffin in a local church.

One November 5, 2000, the Ethiopian Orthodox church held an imperial-style funeral for Selassie. One of the people who attended was Rita Marley.

Her husband Bob, the Rasta who made Selassie’s UN speech a musical anthem, had died of cancer in 1981.

In the intervening years Rita and Bob’s sons and daughters mastered the music business in ways Bob probably never dreamed of and turned his musical legacy into a worldwide multi-faceted business empire.

One part of that legacy is the song “War,” which has helped make millions of people who know little or nothing about Haile Selassie familiar with his most famous quotation.

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September 23, 2018

The story, the man – and the dog – behind the phrase “man’s best friend”


September 23rd is the anniversary of what is said to be the origin of a dog-related saying that’s as or more famous than “Love me, love my dog.”

The saying is generally heard in the form “A dog is a man’s best friend.”

Sometimes it’s given as “A man’s best friend is his dog.”

Either way, almost everyone knows the phrase “man’s best friend.”

The origin of those familiar words is traditionally credited to the closing arguments made by lawyer George Graham Vest in a trial at the Johnson County Courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri on September 23, 1870.

The case was about a dog named Old Drum.

Old Drum was an unlucky foxhound who crossed paths with a sheep farmer named Leonidas Hornsby in the fall of 1869.

Hornsby had lost some sheep to dogs and had recently vowed to his neighbors that he’d kill any canine he saw on his land. When Old Drum set paw on Hornsby’s property, the farmer kept his vow.

The next morning, Drum’s owner, Charles Burden, went looking for his missing hound dog.

He found him shot dead and figured he knew who did it. So, he filed a lawsuit against Hornsby, asking for compensation.

George Vest served as Burden’s attorney. In his final summation, Vest brought the jury to tears and won the case with these words:

“The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith…The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.”

The first six words of that paragraph, combined with the last three — “The best friend a man has...is his dog” — is said to be the origin of the dog-lovers’ saying we know today.

It’s likely that “A man’s best friend is his dog” was in use before Vest gave his famous closing arguments in 1870. But the folks who live in the nice little city of Warrensburg, Missouri (population 16,000) have their own opinion.

On September 23, 1958, the 88th anniversary of Vest’s memorable words, a statue of Old Drum was placed with great ceremony in front of the Johnson County Courthouse in Warrensburg, where it can still be seen today.

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August 05, 2018

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” the song that made a pioneering Black songwriter famous — and infamous…

Carry Me Back To Old Virginny sheet music TDIQ
How will Rap and Hip Hop songs by Black musicians that use the N-word and seemingly glorify the “thug life” be viewed 140 years from now?

I don’t know for sure, of course.

But I’m willing to guess there will be various conflicting views among people who are both Black and White.

That’s certainly the case for the 140-year-old old song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which was written by the pioneering African American musician James A. Bland (1854-1911) and copyrighted on August 5, 1878.

Bland was in his early twenties at the time. He’d written other songs and was a popular performer in one of the minstrel shows that were common entertainment for both Blacks and Whites at the time.

But “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” carried Bland to a new level.

It became a megahit and made Bland the first Black international music superstar.

Thanks to that fame, he broke many color barriers in the decades after the Civil War, such as having some of his music published under his own name.

He also helped pave the way for Black musicians and performers who followed him.

However, because Bland wrote and performed minstrel show music, originally sung in blackface makeup by white performers and later by black musicians (including Bland before he became famous), and because some of Bland’s songs romanticized the lives of American slaves, his legacy is mixed.

The controversy over “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” is the most notable case in point.

You have probably heard the phrase “carry me back to old Virginny,” which Bland’s song popularized (though it was borrowed from an older one).

You may also be familiar with the melody of Bland’s song.

However, few people know much about James Bland or know the full lyrics of the song.

And, unless you live in Virginia, you’re probably unaware of the modern political controversy about the song.

You’ll understand why it became controversial when you read the lyrics.

They’re written in the voice of a former slave who misses his life on the plantation and loved his “Massa” (i.e., the slave-owning master of the plantation).

Here they are, in their original colloquial form:

       [Chorus] “Carry me back to old Virginny.
       James Bland sheet music cover WMThere’s where the cotton and the corn and ‘taters grow.
       There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
       There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

       There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa,
       Day after day in the field of yellow corn;
       No place on earth do I love more sincerely
       Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

       [Chorus repeats]

       Carry me back to old Virginny,
       There let me live till I wither and decay.
       Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
       There’s where this old darkey’s life will pass away.

       Massa and Missis have long since gone before me,
       Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.
       There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
       There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.

       [Chorus repeats]

Bland himself was never a slave and wasn’t from Virginia. He was the son of a highly-educated, free Black man and was born in New York. His father, Allen Bland, moved the family to Philadelphia after graduating from Wilberforce College.

James attended Howard University but didn’t graduate. As a teenager, he’d fallen in love with the banjo and the minstrel music that was popular in the 1870s. By age 14 he was performing it.

By his early 20s, he was a featured member of a local minstrel show and writing songs for himself and other musicians. Among the notable songs he wrote during the ‘70s, in addition to his ode to Virginia, is “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers.” It became and still is the theme song for the famed Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

Bland’s talent and the huge success of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers” and other songs he wrote led him to be billed as “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man” and “The Prince of Negro Songwriters.”

In 1881, after touring the United States, he spent 20 years performing to wide acclaim in Great Britain and Europe, where he gave command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries.

At his peak, Bland earned the equivalent of hundreds of thousands per year in today’s dollars. By the end of the century, the popularity of minstrel style music had declined and his expensive, proto-rock star lifestyle had drained his resources. (One of his legendary purchases was a 4.75 carat diamond, the largest diamond ever worn by a Black performer at the time.)

In 1901, he returned to the U.S. After that, he wrote songs for one unsuccessful musical, then faded into obscurity.

Bland died of tuberculosis in 1911 in Philadelphia. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

James Bland’s story might have ended there if not for James Francis Cooke, editor of a magazine for musicians titled The Etude.

In 1938, Cooke became interested in Bland’s work. With the help of Bland’s sister, Cooke — or, according to some accounts, the Lions Club of Virginia or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) — found Bland’s grave and eventually had a monument placed on it.

In 1939, Cooke published the first notable biography of Bland in The Etude. It was written by Dr. Kelly Miller, a noted African American scholar and professor at Howard University, who called Bland “The Negro Stephen Foster.”

James A. Bland's headstoneThe publicity this generated led the Virginia state legislature to designate Bland’s song about Virginia as the official state song in 1940, though “Virginny” was changed to “Virginia” in the title and lyrics.

The other lyrics remained as Bland wrote them, complete with the nostalgic “darkey” thinking fondly of his “Massa.”

As the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gained traction, the song became a target of critics who (understandably) viewed it as racist and demeaning to African Americans.

In 1970, Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. That same year, he proposed legislation to have the song retired and replaced.

The majority of White legislators, many of whom liked the rosy picture of slavery the song’s lyrics portrayed, rejected that bill and similar ones for years, including bills introduced after Wilder became the first African American to be elected Governor of Virginia — or any other state — in 1990.

Finally, in 1997, there was a compromise of sorts. The Virginia Senate voted to retire “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” as the official state song, but designated it as the “State Song Emeritus” and authorized a study committee to create a contest to find and select a new state song.

To make a long story short, that approach continued to generate controversy for the next two decades.

It wasn’t until 2015 that a new state song was selected, based partly on the results of an online poll.

In fact, the legislature approved two songs as the new official state songs.

“Our Great Virginia,” a 19th Century ballad, was designated as the official “Traditional State Song.”

The song “Sweet Virginia Breeze” was named the official “Popular State Song.” It was written in 1978 by Richmond, Virginia musicians and Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett, who included it on their 1978 album Robbin Thompson & Steve Bassett – Together.

Meanwhile, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” is still the “State Song Emeritus.” And, although many people can’t listen to the song without having a negative reaction, music scholars now consider James A. Bland to be not only “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man,” as he was billed during his lifetime, but also one of the greatest black writers of American folk or popular songs.

In 1970, Bland was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Every year since 1948, the Lions Clubs of Virginia has sponsored the annual Bland Music Scholarships Program’s “Bland Contest.” This program is designed is to promote cultural and educational opportunities for musically talented young people in Virginia by providing scholarships for college tuition, music lessons, summer music programs and other music education endeavors.

I watched YouTube videos of some of the young people who have performed in the Bland Contest in recent years. The music they played or sang tended to be more classical than popular.

But who knows? Maybe someday one of them could become as famous as James Bland was in his day, or write a song that becomes as revered — or reviled — as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”


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July 14, 2018

“Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend…”


[Reposted by popular demand…]

On June 24, 1968, ABC Records released the self-titled first album by The Fraternity of Man, a California-based rock band whose members included former Mothers of Invention guitarist Elliot Ingber and a young, 17-year-old singer and songwriter named Larry Wagner.

The album wasn’t a big hit. But it was popular with some young people who were in the midst of their pot-smoking Hippie phase (like me).

It included a humorous, country-flavored song that made us laugh. That song included a line that became a pop culture quotation and an idiomatic expression.

The song’s lyrics were written by Wagner, who was nicknamed “Stash” by the band. The music was written by Ingber.

They titled the song “Don’t Bogart Me.”

Today, it’s more commonly (though mistakenly) referred to as “Don’t Bogart That Joint.”

That phrase, from the song’s chorus, became a slang term meaning “don’t keep holding onto that marijuana joint — pass it on and let other people have some.” 

Initially, awareness of the song and the Bogart term was primarily limited to Hippies (a name coined by San Francisco journalist Michael Fallon in 1965).

That changed in 1969, thanks to actor Dennis Hopper, one of the pot-smoking hipsters who knew the song.

Early that year, Hopper was engrossed in editing the new film he’d created with his friend and co-star Peter Fonda — the seminal counterculture classic Easy Rider.

As he edited the movie, Hopper chose some of songs he’d recently been listening to for the soundtrack.

One of them was the Fraternity of Man’s “Don’t Bogart Me.”

Easy Rider premiered in the US on July 14, 1969 at the Beekman Theater in New York, two months after it was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival.

It soon began appearing in theaters throughout the country.

And, soon, millions of people who’d never heard the 1968 Fraternity of Man album were familiar with the saying “Don’t Bogart that joint,” thus firmly embedding in our language.

In fact, the use of “Bogart” as a verb eventually became an idiom used in association with many things other than marijuana joints.

Today, you get thousands of, er, hits if you Google “don’t Bogart” -joint (using the minus sign to find uses that do not include the word “joint”).

There are various theories about why the last name of actor Humphrey Bogart came to be used as a verb that was originally tied to smoking something or holding onto something.

The one that makes the most sense to me is that, in many of his classic films, Bogart often has a lit cigarette hanging from his lips but is not actively smoking it. He’s just letting it burn and turn to ashes.

Bogart died in 1957 from  esophageal cancer. If he’d lived until 1969, he may or may not have liked the way his name was used in the song.

But somehow, in my mind, I can imagine Bogie and Dennis Hopper in the afterlife gleefully singing “Don’t Bogart Me” together.

And, thinking about that makes me want to sing along.

If you want to join us, light ‘em if you got ‘em, and click the video link at right.

Here are the lyrics…

Don’t Bogart that joint my friend
Pass it over to me
Don’t Bogart that joint my friend
Pass it over to me

Roll another one
Just like the other one
You’ve been hanging on to it
And I sure would like a hit

Ro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ll another one
Just like the other one
That one’s just about burnt to the end
So, come on and be a real friend.

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June 12, 2018

The origin of the proverbial political “smoke-filled room”


Although smoking is either banned or not tolerated in most meetings today, the idea of a meeting of power brokers making deals behind closed doors “in a smoke-filled room” is still a well-known political image and metaphor.

The now-idiomatic “smoke-filled room” was embedded in our language by an Associated Press article filed on June 12, 1920 by reporter Kirke L. Simpson.

That story dealt with the nomination of former Ohio Governor Warren G. Harding as the Republican Party’s candidate in the 1920 Presidential election.

My grade school and high school history books didn’t delve into the backroom machinations leading to Harding’s nomination.

But like other fans of the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire, I learned a bit about the real life characters involved and the wheeling and dealing that went on from watching some of the show’s Season 1 episodes.

Those episodes suggest that Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by actor Steve Buscemi) was instrumental in swinging the nomination to Harding.

While that may be one of a number of fictionalized plot elements in the series, Harding’s nomination was the result of some hard-nosed political deal-making.

In the days leading up to June 12, delegates to the Republican Convention in Chicago had reached an impasse.

Neither of the two leading candidates — former U.S. Army General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden — could gain a majority of delegate votes.

So, on the night of June 11, a small group of top Republican party officials held a private meeting in Suite 404 in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel.

Smoke from their cigars filled the room as they discussed the latest ideas on how to break the deadlock.

Sometime after midnight, they decided to push through the nomination of Harding as a compromise candidate who could win in the key state of Ohio and would be friendly to the Captains of Industry.

The AP story filed by Kirke Simpson that morning famously said:

      “Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today as Republican candidate for President.”

Simpson is often credited with coining the phrase “smoke-filled room,” at least in its political sense.

Some sources say that he got the phrase from Harding’s campaign manager, Harry Daugherty (played by actor Christopher McDonald in Boardwalk Empire).

Daugherty allegedly predicted in remarks to reporters:

“The convention will be deadlocked, and after the other candidates have gone their limit, some twelve or fifteen men, worn out and bleary-eyed for lack of sleep, will sit down about two o'clock in the morning, around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination.  When that time comes, Harding will be selected.”

Safire's Political Dictionary, written by the late, great political quote maven William Safire, notes that Daugherty denied saying this.

Either way, the Kirke Simpson’s news story usually gets credit for making “a smoke-filled room” a common political term.

Simpson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize two years later for his series of articles about the burial and tomb of “The Unknown Soldier.”

Harding went on to be elected President of the United States, though he died in office a few years later, after a series of scandals made him a frequent nominee for lists of the worst presidents in history.


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June 02, 2018

Reports of Mark Twain’s quip about his death are greatly misquoted...

Mark Twain, the report of my death
In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895.

He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures.

While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died.


According to a widely-repeated legend, one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped:


      “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

 
Another common variation of the line uses the words “…have been greatly exaggerated.” 


Sometimes the quip is given as “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
 
In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.


It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health.


The editors of the newspaper had sent a cable White on May 28, asking him to get Twain’s response to reports that he was on his deathbed in England.


White relayed this request to Twain. On May 31, 1897, Twain wrote down his response and sent it to White.


The next day, White wrote an article that quoted from Twain’s letter. On June 2, 1897, the article was published in the New York Journal. It said, in part:

     Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London...
     The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:
     “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.
     The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
The origin of the more familiar misquote versions of Twain’s response seems to be the popular biography of Twain written by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Paine’s book was published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. It includes what is apparently Paine’s own embellished variation of the story about Twain’s death quip.


In Chapter 197 of the biography, Paine said a young reporter had “ferreted out” Twain in London after being assigned to follow up on rumors that the famed humorist was “lying at the point of death.”


According to Paine, the newspaper had sent a cable to the reporter ordering him to send back a five hundred 500-word story if Twain was ill, or a thousand word story if Twain was dead.


Paine claimed that upon being shown the cable, Twain “smiled grimly” and told the young reporter:


      “You don’t need as much as that. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

 
Most scholarly books of quotations now use or include the quote recorded in the New York Journal article, taken from Twain’s letter to Frank Marshall White.


However, Paine’s “grossly exaggerated” version and “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” which seems to be a colloquial variation of Paine’s line, are better known and commonly assumed to be actual quotes by Twain.


Of course, as Twain wrote in his book Following the Equator, published in November 1897:


       “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”

 

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