Monday, July 24, 2006

Snappy Comebacks – A Review of “Viva La Repartee” by Dr. Mardy Grothe

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the book, “Oxymoronica,” by Dr. Mardy Grothe.

Review of "Oxymoronica"

After reading my review, Dr. Grothe wrote to me and said, in essence: “If you liked “Oxymoronica,” you will really like my latest book, “Viva La Repartee – Clever Comebacks & Witty Retorts from History’s Greatest Wits & Wordsmiths.” He was right! I loved this book.

I would have finished the book a few weeks ago, but I inadvertently shared the literary wealth before I had a chance to finish reading the book. On a recent trip to Connecticut, I was regaling my friends, Sean and Marla Cross, by reading to them some of my favorites quotations and quips from “Viva La Repartee.” They decided that they would have to purchase their own copy of the book. I laid the book down, and forgot to retrieve it when I left the house to catch a train into New York City. So, Marla had a chance to share some of the best excerpts from the book with some of her friends before I returned last week to reclaim the slim volume.

There are clever quotes on every page. I have chosen to share only a small sampling of those that struck me as particularly clever and worthy remembering. The Yogi Berra quotation at the end of my review of “Paul’s Place” can be found on page 235!

Here are some of my favorites:

“Perhaps the classic example in the history of wit is the story of a famous exchange between two eighteenth-century political rivals, John Montagu, also known as the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, and the reformist politician, John Wilkes. During a heated argument, Montagu scowled at Wilkes and said derisively, ‘Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you shall die upon the gallows, or of syphilis.’ Unfazed, Wilkes came back with what many people regard as the greatest retort of all time:

‘That will depend, my Lord, on whether
I embrace your principles, or your mistress’” (Pages 3-4)

* * * *

I love puns, and when I find someone punning in Latin, I am impressed!

“In 1842, British commander Charles James Napier led vastly outnumbered British forces to victory over Indian troops, allowing England to annex the Province of Sindh (in modern-day Pakistan) and make an important advance in their colonization efforts. In one of the most popular stories in the annals of military history, Napier immediately sent a dispatch to Lord Ellenborough, the British governor of India at the time. He sent a simple one-word message:


‘Peccavi’ is Latin for ‘I have sinned,’ making Napier’s message also one of history’s most famous puns.” (Pages 60-61)

* * * *

Dr. Grothe offers several pages worth of repartee that originated from various members of The Algonquin Roundtable. This group of New York literati included Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, Alexander Woolcott and Heywood Broun. This is one of my favorites:

“During a surprise thunderstorm, Broun and a colleague were forced to take shelter in a Manhattan dive that was not up to their usual standard. When the wine came, it was not of the highest quality, provoking Broun to sigh:

‘Oh well, any port in a storm.’ (Page 152)

* * * *

“In 1924, [Alexander] Woolcott bought a little island in Lake Bomoseen in the mountains of Vermont. It soon became ‘the’ summer place to go for numerous New York celebrities. . . One day, Harpo Marx decided to spend a weekend at Woolcott’s cottage. When Marx arrived in a rickety Model T Ford, Woolcott exclaimed, ‘What in the hell are you driving?’ Marx answered, ‘This is my town car.’ Woolcott replied:

‘What was the town? Pompeii?’ (Page 158)

* * * *

This next selection earns its place in this review because it relates to a distant relative of mine, whose portrait once adorned the $10,000 bill!

“After serving as secretary of the treasury in Abraham Lincoln’s wartime cabinet, Salmon P. Chase was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1864, where he served as the sixth chief justice of the United states until his death in 1873. Shortly after the Civil War, Chase, a fervent abolitionist, was introduced to a beautiful Southern belle at a Washington dinner party. In a pronounced Southern drawl, the young beauty said provocatively, ‘I must warn you, Mr. Chief Justice, that I’m an unreconstructed rebel.’ Chase may have been approaching sixty, but he proved he could still be quite the charmer, replying:

‘In your case, madam,
reconstruction – even in the slightest –
would be nothing short of sacrilege.’ (Page 166)

* * * *

I include the next quotation for two reasons. I currently live just a few blocks from the ancestral home of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, so I find writings about them to be of particular interest. The second reason is that this quotation represents a particularly poignant and poetic metaphor that is worth remarking.

“John Quincy Adams was the first son of a president to also be elected to the nation’s highest office, becoming the sixth U.S. president in 1825. After his defeat in the 1828 presidential election, he took some time off before returning to political life as a Massachusetts congressman from 1831 until his death in 1848. Two years before his death, a serious stroke limited him enormously, but he continued to serve in Congress. Shortly before his death, Adams was visited by a friend who asked him how he was doing. The declining Adams offered a memorable metaphorical reply:

‘I inhabit a weak, frail, decayed tenement;
battered by winds and broken in upon by the storms,
and from all I can learn,
the landlord does not intend to repair.’ (Pages 182-183)

* * * *

In light of the recently completed World Cup competition, this next excerpt seems timely and apropos.

"In 1990, Germany beat England in a World Cup semifinal soccer game. The defeat upset the entire nation, including many in the intellectual and political worlds. After the defeat, Kenneth Clark, the noted English man of letters, attended a meeting at 10 Downing Street and said in passing to Margaret Thatcher, ‘Isn’t it terrible about losing to the Germans at our national sport?’ The prime minister put it all into perspective when she replied:

‘I shouldn’t worry too much;
we’ve beaten them twice this century at theirs.’ (Page 210)

* * * *

Have Dr. Grothe and I whetted your appetite for more? This little book is a tiny treasure trove. I encourage you to explore its wonders.

Dr. Grothe also publishes a wonderful weekly newsletter with timely quotations, “Dr. Mardy’s Quotes of the Week: A WEEKLY CELEBRATION OF GREAT QUOTES IN HISTORY (AND THE HISTORY BEHIND THE QUOTES)"

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