Dorothy "one martini and I'm under the table, two and I'm under the host" Parker hated her "wisecracker" reputation, but what else do you call someone whose response to the demands of one of her many beaus was, "I'm too fucking busy, and vice versa"? (On being told that former president Calvin Coolidge had died, Parker asked, "How could they tell?")
Ah, the pungent put-down, the ready riposte, the crafty comeback! To honor the upcoming silliness of April Fool's Day, here's more, from my now 40-year-old collection of quotations.
Winston Churchill had a reputation for verbally parrying with women. When the exasperated British-American politician Nancy Astor railed, "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee," Churchill responded, "If I were your husband, I'd drink it!" Another time, Member of Parliament Bessie Braddock said to him (probably correctly), "Winston, you're drunk!" He replied, "Bessie, you're ugly, and tomorrow morning I shall be sober."
He didn't stop with female politicians. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once sent Churchill two tickets for the first night of his new play, "One for yourself and one for a friend -- if you have one." Churchill replied, "I can't make it, but I would like tickets for the second night -- if there is one."
Author and Trotskyite Mary McCarthy detested her "evil twin" literary rival Lillian Hellman, whose infatuation with "Uncle Joe" Stalin she despised. "Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and' and ‘the'," she famously told Dick Cavett on his TV show. That brought on a $2 million libel suit, which only ended with Hellman's death. Another female rivalry didn't stop there. "Just because she's dead doesn't mean she's gonna change," said Bette Davis of Joan Crawford.
Abe Lincoln wasn't above a quick-witted riposte. When political rival Stephen Douglas called him "two-faced" in one of their seven debates in 1858, Lincoln replied, "I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
Hecklers can either be the bane of a stand-up comic's life, or opportunities sent from above. Comedian Jeremy Hardy, getting a hard time from some guy in his audience, finally came back with, "Nigel, it's over. Can't you understand that?" And Englishman Jim Smallman's response to being told by a heckler, "You're ugly!" was, "And yet your missus still prefers me to you."
Oscar Wilde's social life sounds like it was one continuous series of comebacks, but James McNeill Whistler got the better of him once. "I wish I'd said that," said Wilde after a witty remark by Whistler. The painter came back with, "You will, Oscar, you will."
Even soccer players aren't above the occasional put-down, such as George Best's take on David Beckham: "He can't kick with his left foot, he can't head, he can't tackle, and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that, he's all right."
Finally, Truman (In Cold Blood) Capote just didn't see Jack Kerouac as being in his league as an author, declaring of On the Road, "That's not writing, that's typing."
Barry Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) always has a witty response ... one minute too late. His Field Notes compendia are at Eureka Books and Old Town Books.