September 30, 2014

A little tea and sympathy (and sex and censorship)…

Back in my college days, I tended to snigger at drug references in rock songs. So, I probably sniggered when I first heard Mick Jagger sing the lines in the Rolling Stones’ 1969 song “Let It Bleed” that go:

      “Baby, you can rest your weary head right on me
        And there will always be a space in my parking lot
        When you need a little coke and sympathy”

Nowadays, I’m more intrigued by the fact that in using the phrase “coke and sympathy” Jagger and his songwriting partner Keith Richards were riffing on the expression “tea and sympathy.”

That phrase was popularized by the play Tea and Sympathy, written by American playwright Robert Anderson (1917-2009). It debuted at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City on September 30, 1953.

Since then, the phrase “tea and sympathy” has been used as an expression that means showing kindness and lending a sympathetic ear to someone who is troubled or upset. 

The play was a groundbreaking exploration of the issues of sexual identity, social prejudice against homosexuals and the repression and rebellion of women stuck in loveless traditional marriages.

Because of certain things that happen in it, “tea and sympathy” is sometimes said with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink, to suggest the idea of giving someone sympathy as a ploy to seduce them.

In the play, a sexually ambiguous teenage boy at a boarding school gets harassed for not meeting the manliness standards of the day. He is widely suspected of being gay. 

The boy, named Tom Lee, is befriended by a faculty member’s lonely and sexually-frustrated wife, Laura Reynolds, played by Deborah Kerr in the original production.

In Act One her unlikeable, domineering husband Bill warns her not to pay too much attention to the students or get involved in their lives. He utters the line that gave the play its name, telling her:

       “All you're supposed to do is every once in a while give the boys a little tea and sympathy.”

Laura ends up offering Tom a bit more “tea and sympathy” than Bill had in mind, if you know what I mean (nudge-nudge-wink-wink).

She also ends up leaving her jerk of a husband.

In the last scene, speaking to Tom, she says the line that became a famous quotation.

       “Years from now, when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.”

That’s the closing line in the play. At that point, the written stage directions say: "Gently she brings the boy's hands towards her opened blouse, as the lights slowly dim out..." The end.

MGM produced a movie adaptation of the play in 1956, which also starred Deborah Kerr. But in that, the sexually-oriented themes of the play were toned down to comply with the puritanical absurdities of the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code).

For example, MGM decided that the play’s original ending would violate the Code’s rules requiring any non-marital sex to be portrayed as immoral. So the studio execs ordered a contrived, politically-correct epilogue to be added.

In the film’s closing scenes, we flash forward ten years and see that Tom has become a manly married man and Laura regrets her sinful behavior. (Yawn.)

I wonder how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would have rewritten the ending.

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September 25, 2014

What is the “It” the Greeks had a word for? And what does that saying come from?

You’ve probably heard the saying “the Greeks had a word for it” (sometimes given as “the Greeks have a word for it”).

But you may not be aware of how this enigmatic idiomatic expression got its start.

It was launched into our language with a splash on September 25, 1930, when a bawdy play titled The Greeks Had a Word for It opened on Broadway.

The play was written by the Missouri-born American playwright, poet and screenwriter Zoe Akins (1886-1958). And, she is generally given credit for coining the phrase.

Several of Akins’ plays had been produced prior to that night.

One of them — Declassée, starring Ethel Barrymore — was a big hit on Broadway in 1919.

In 1935, Akins won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Old Maid (1935).
But her most remembered play (and play on words) is The Greeks Had a Word for It, a comedy about three young “gold diggers” on the hunt for wealthy men.

What was the “It” the Greeks had a word for?

Well, obviously, “It” is a reference to something you weren’t supposed to mention directly at the time.

I’m guessing you can figure “It” out. If not, here’s a hint…

In 1932, Twentieth Century Fox made a film version of the play, starring Joan Blondell, Madge Evans and Ina Claire.

The original title of the film was The Greeks Had a Word for Them.

Why the change?

Because the producers worried that the word “It” would be deemed too blatantly salacious by the censors who enforced the The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (a.k.a. the Hays Code), which was designed to prevent “obscenity” and violence in films.

So, initially, they changed “It” to “Them.”

But then even the revised title raised concerns, since some of the possible words for “Them” that people thought it meant could also be considered too vulgar.

Thus, the name of the film was ultimately changed to Three Broadway Girls.

In 1953, Zoe Akins’ play The Greeks Had a Word for It was used as the basis for a much more famous film starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall.

It was titled How to Marry a Millionaire and it helped launch Marilyn into the top echelon of superstardom.

Although that film also avoided using Akins’ original play title, it revived interest in her and her plays.

As a result, she was hired as a scriptwriter for some of the most prestigious early dramatic series developed for television in the 1950s, including the Kraft Television Theatre and Screen Directors Playhouse.

Her phrase “the Greeks had a word for it” survived and outlived the stuffy censors of earlier decades.

It became a common saying that is still used for humorous effect.

What “It” refers to nowadays varies depending on the context and does not always mean something “obscene” – though typically “It” still does.

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September 22, 2014

Is Nathan Hale’s legendary line “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” a true quote, a misquote or pure fiction?

On September 22, 1776, during the Revolutionary War, a former school teacher named Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for being a rebel spy.

According to legend, Hale uttered a stirring, patriotic line just before his death:

       “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Hale was certainly a spy. But there’s no historical certainty about what he said just before he died.

In 1776, Hale was an officer in General George Washington’s Continental Army.

That September, after the British captured New York City, Washington asked for a volunteer to go behind the British lines to gather intelligence.

Hale volunteered. And, on September 12, wearing civilian clothes, he took a boat from Stamford, Connecticut to Long Island to carry out his secret mission.

A week later, he was detained and searched by British troops. They discovered he was carrying incriminating papers indicating that he was part of General Washington’s growing ring of spies.

British General William Howe quickly ordered Hale to be executed.

According to the eyewitness account recorded in the diary of British officer Frederick Mackenzie (sometimes spelled Mackensie), Hale did say some brave last words on the day he was hung.

But Mackenzie doesn’t mention the classic “I only regret…” quotation. Nor does any other eyewitness account.

Mackenzie’s diary does note:

“He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”

Nearly five years later, on May 17, 1781, the Boston Independent Chronicle ran a story about Hale’s execution. It quoted him as saying:

“I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”

In the book The History of New England, published in 1799, author Hannah Adams wrote that Hale “lamented that he had but one life to lose for his country.”

Adams credited William Hull for her account. He was a former American general who may have been the source for the 1781 story in the Boston Independent Chronicle.

Hull claimed to have heard about Hale’s last words from a British soldier who witnessed the hanging.

In 1848, Hull’s daughter published his memoirs. Apparently, it is that book which first included the line that became famous.

According to Hull’s memoir, shortly before Hale was hung:

“…Few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’”

It’s questionable whether Hale spoke those exact words. But it’s plausible that he said something like them.

Hale was a Yale graduate and a teacher. He was undoubtedly familiar with the play Cato, a tragedy about the Roman leader called “Cato the Younger,” written by the English playwright and poet Joseph Addison.

The play was written in 1712, but it was still highly popular in America in the late 1700s.

In Act IV, scene 4, Cato says:

“How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.”

That last sentence, penned by Addison, is now widely believed to be the origin of the legendary patriotic quote (or misquote) later attributed to Nathan Hale.

Whatever Hale actually did say before being hanged, at age 21, he said it on today’s date in 1776.

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September 12, 2014

The ironic dual anniversary of “subliminal advertising” and the Bushism “subliminable”…

On September 12, 1957, market researcher James Vicary held a press conference that made a new term famous.

Vicary claimed to have developed “hidden” ads that could be used in movies and TV shows. Ads that flashed by so quickly they were not consciously noticed by viewers, but affected their buying habits.

He coined the term subliminal advertising to describe this technique.

The term and concept generated widespread attention from claims he made at his press conference.

Vicary said he’d conducted a six-week experiment at a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

As viewers watched the movie Picnic, he supposedly used special equipment to flash two phrases on the screen for one three-thousandth of a second every five seconds – so fast that they were below the threshold of conscious perception.

One hidden message was “Hungry? Eat popcorn.” The other was “Drink Coca-Cola.”

Vicary claimed his subliminal ads increased Coke sales at the theater by 18% over normal levels and boosted popcorn sales by 57%!

This revelation may have sounded good product manufacturers, but alarmed and outraged the public and the media.

In 1958, the National Association of Broadcasters proactively banned the broadcast of subliminal ads.

But scientists who looked into Vicary’s research soon debunked the idea that such ads have any real effect.

Vicary later admitted he had falsified the data. In fact, it’s questionable whether he actually even conducted the Ft. Lee movie experiment.

Despite that, the bogeyman of “subliminal advertising” was launched into our language and cultural consciousness.

The issue of subliminal advertising made headlines again during the 2000 presidential campaign that pitted Republican George W. Bush against Democratic nominee Al Gore.

In September, a Republican attack ad aired on national television briefly flashed the word “RATS” on screen right after showing a photo of Gore, as the announcer ominously warns that under Gore’s health care plan “bureaucrats” would make  medical decisions.

If you watch the “RATS” ad very closely on YouTube, you will see that those four letters actually seem to be the tail end of the word “BUREAUCRATS” as that word is “flown into” the screen.

Is that true “subliminal” advertising? Maybe. Maybe not.

But the “RATS” ad drew outraged complaints from Democrats and created a media uproar.

So, on September 12, 2000, Bush responded to the controversy by uttering a classic Bushism :

“I wanna make it clear to people that, you know, the idea of putting subliminable messages into ads is, is ridiculous.”

Yes. He actually said “subliminable.”

In fact, he said it several times that day when addressing the ad hubbub.

And, that’s why the date September 12th is linked to both the original term “subliminal advertising” and to the newer, um, word “subliminable.”

It’s an incredidable coincidence!

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September 10, 2014

On this date in 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry launched two immortal naval quotations...

On September 10, 1813, American ships under the command of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry engaged a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

Perry’s flagship was a 20-gun brig that had recently been renamed The Lawrence, in honor of his fallen friend, U.S. Navy Captain James Lawrence.

On June 1, 1813, Capt. Lawrence was mortally wounded during a fight between American and British ships near Boston.

It was reported that, as he lay dying, Lawrence said: “Tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”

Commodore Perry helped immortalize the pithier, more famous version of this quote.

He had a special battle flag made that said “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP.” And, during the September 10th battle on Lake Erie, it was defiantly unfurled on The Lawrence.

It the June naval engagement that the took the life of Capt. Lawrence, the British had prevailed.

But in the Battle of Lake Erie, the Americans won a decisive victory and captured all of the British ships.

Commodore Perry quickly scrawled a brief report on the back of an envelope and had it sent to U.S. General William Henry Harrison.

He wrote:

Dear General:
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, 
O.H. Perry

The first line of his message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” became one of the most famous Naval quotations in US history.

And, the special battle flag Perry flew that day made turned short version of Capt. Lawrence’s dying words an immortal naval motto.

Perry’s flag is now on display at The United States Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland.

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