High life

The art of the witty riposte

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

One hundred or so years ago, a down-in-the-dumps Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig: ‘The barbarians have taken over.’ Later on, Zweig committed suicide and Roth drank himself to death. They were both talented writers depressed about the state of the world. Reading their correspondence last week I had to laugh. Neither Roth nor Zweig had experienced Hollywood, and obviously would have died much earlier if they had done so. Which brings me to what everyone is still talking about, how a trained seal smacked another seal half its size during the Academy Awards. It was done in order to protect his wife from the barbs of the smaller one, although in my experience, whenever someone is that savagely protective of his woman, it is more often than not because he has such a slender hold on her.

It’s also Hollywood at its best. One kicks downwards and bootlicks upwards. And what did we really expect? The deep bow that Talleyrand gave to Napoleon after the emperor angrily called his foreign secretary ‘a shit in a silk stocking’? That would have been a bit out of character for the likes of Will Smith.

Never mind. Wit and a devastating retort cannot be easily produced by those who know only how to read a teleprompter. When the Earl of Sandwich, speaking in parliament, told John Wilkes that the latter would either die on the gallows or of the pox, Wilkes politely responded that it would depend on whether he embraced the earl’s principles or his mistress.

Voltaire was once rhapsodising about a certain critic but was informed by a friend that the critic had just called Voltaire the biggest fraud in France. ‘We’re both wrong,’ said the great man. Noël Coward was a very witty and civilised man who was once rudely addressed by a ruffian in Las Vegas as follows: ‘Where’s de toilet?’ ‘Go to the end of the room,’ answered Sir Noël, ‘turn left and you will see a sign saying gentlemen. Ignore it, and go right through.’

Sir Noël came off second best when, upon meeting the writer Edna Ferber, he discovered they were both wearing double-breasted suits. ‘You almost look like a man,’ said Noël. ‘So do you,’ answered Edna. The one I like best had to do with the playwright Marc Connelly, a member of the Algonquin round table and an affable man who liked a drink or two. During one of those interminable drunken lunches in the company of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, a man passed by the table and stroked Connelly’s bald head. ‘It feels as smooth as my wife’s behind,’ said the man. ‘Why, so it does,’ answered Connelly.

Groucho Marx is of course the master of the smart-aleck answer. He often told the story of how, when his daughter Melinda was prevented from swimming in a pool with friends at an anti-Semitic country club, he wrote a letter to the club president: ‘Since my daughter is only half Jewish, can she wade in up to her knees?’

At the height of the Russian oligarch invasion a few years back, the great ‘Brute’ Anderson wrote in these here pages: ‘The Russian invasion of Europe makes a moral case for the Soviet Union.’ I particularly liked that because in the good old days of the Cold War the only Russians I knew were diplomats, and very polite they were, too. And speaking of diplomats, what I’m about to recount happened when I was 19 and in the company of my great friend Yanni Zographos. It is diplomacy at its best.

Having attended a party in Athens where we were told by our hostess to behave, Yanni proceeded to drink too much and consume, on a bet, 14 tiny chickens. With him not feeling his best, we then decided, on our way to a nightclub, to stop at an outdoor movie theatre and watch Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson. We ordered some light refreshments, which were served on wonderful marble tables back then. As the American planes approached their targets, Yanni readied himself because he was ready to explode. When Van Johnson gave the order to bomb away, Yanni let out probably the loudest fart ever. Fortunately, the bombs falling on poor Tokyo muffled Yanni’s bombs, but the olfactory nerves of a gentleman seated right behind him took the full force of 14 tiny rotting chickens. ‘Merde, ils ont bombardé les chiottes,’ (‘Holy crap! They hit the public toilets’) cried the gent holding his nose, and everyone in the vicinity collapsed laughing. There is more to the story because the man who made everyone laugh turned out to be a French diplomat who knew both my friend and me and the story made the rounds. But it shows how witty a response it was to a gross act, one that Yanni apologised for every time we met the diplomat for the rest of his life. As I’ve said before, those were the days.

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