The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes


By Clifton Fadiman

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 31, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A book compiled of anecdotes from other collections, arranged under the name of the person they’re about.





Clifton Fadiman, General Editor
Jennifer Speakes, Research Editor and Writer
Laurence Urdang and Alan Isaacs, Consulting Editors

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at

First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-08472-7

Copyright acknowledgments are found at the back of the book, following the indexes.


AARON, Henry Louis ["Hank"] (1934– ), US baseball player. He broke Babe Ruth's home-run record, hitting 755 in all.

1    During the 1957 World Series, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra noticed that Aaron grasped the bat the wrong way. "Turn it around," he said, "so you can see the trademark." But Hank kept his eye on the pitcher's mound: "Didn't come up here to read. Came up here to hit."

ABBOTT, Bud (1898–1974), and Costello, Lou (1906–59), US comedians, the famous team of Abbott and Costello.

1    "Bud Abbott and Lou Costello once took out a $100,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London that stipulated payment if any of their audience should die of laughter."

ABERCROMBIE, Lascelles (1881–1938), British poet and critic. He was professor of English literature at Leeds (1922–29) and London (1929–35) universities. His works include Principles of English Prosody (1922) and Twelve Idylls (1928).

1    Abercrombie had expressed an opinion with which the poet Ezra Pound violently disagreed. "Dear Mr. Abercrombie," wrote Pound. "Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace. I hereby challenge you to a duel, to be fought at the earliest moment that is suited to your convenience.…" Abercrombie was rather disturbed by the challenge, knowing of Pound's skill at fencing, but then he remembered with relief that the choice of weapons lay with the party challenged. "May I suggest," he replied, "that we bombard each other with unsold copies of our own books?" Pound, having far more "weapons" than his opponent, immediately withdrew the challenge.

ABERNETHY, John (1764–1831), British physician, especially noted as surgeon and teacher.

1    A titled gentleman who consulted Abernethy was received by the great doctor with the rudeness for which he was notorious. The patient lost his temper and told Abernethy that he would make him "eat his words." "It will be of no use," responded Abernethy, "for they will be sure to come up again."

2    When Abernethy was canvassing for the post of surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, he called upon one of the governors, a wealthy grocer, in the man's shop. The grocer loftily remarked that he presumed Abernethy was wanting his vote at this important point in his life. Nettled by the man's tone and attitude, Abernethy retorted, "No, I don't; I want a pennyworth of figs. Look sharp and wrap them up. I want to be off."

3    "Mrs. J — consulted him respecting a nervous disorder, the minutiae of which appeared to be so fantastic that Mr. A. interrupted their frivolous detail by holding out his hand for the fee. A one-pound note and a shilling were placed into it; upon which he returned the latter to his fair patient, with the angry exclamation, 'There, Ma'am! go and buy a skipping-rope; that is all you want.'"

4    Despite his brusqueness with his private patients, Abernethy was conscientious and kindly toward the poor under his care in the charity hospital. Once as he was about to leave for the hospital, a private patient tried to detain him. Abernethy observed, "Private patients, if they do not like me, can go elsewhere; but the poor devils in the hospital I am bound to take care of."

5    A patient complaining of melancholy consulted Dr. Abernethy. After an examination the doctor pronounced, "You need amusement. Go and hear the comedian Grimaldi; he will make you laugh and that will be better for you than any drugs." Said the patient, "I am Grimaldi."

6    Abernethy was renowned for his dislike of idle chatter. With this in mind, a young lady once entered his surgery and, without a word, held out an injured finger for examination. The doctor dressed the wound in silence. The woman returned a few days later. "Better?" asked Abernethy. "Better," replied the patient. Subsequent calls passed in much the same manner. On her final visit the woman held out her finger, now free of bandages. "Well?" inquired the doctor. "Well," she replied. "Upon my word, madam," exclaimed Abernethy, "you are the most rational woman I have ever met."

ACHESON, Dean [Gooderham] (1893–1971), US statesman and lawyer; secretary of state (1949–53). He was important in the evolution of NATO, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan, all in pursuit of his global strategy of containing the advance of communism.

1    On leaving his post as secretary of state, Acheson was asked about his plans for the future. He replied, "I will undoubtedly have to seek what is happily known as gainful employment, which I am glad to say does not describe holding public office."

2    In April 1963 Winston Churchill was made an honorary citizen of the United States. At the ceremony in the White House, his letter of acceptance was read by his son Randolph, as he himself was too frail to attend. It contained a passage rejecting the idea that Britain had only a "tame and minor" role to play on the international scene. Dean Acheson recognized this as an oblique allusion to his own famous and greatly resented remark that Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a new role. "Well, it hasn't taken Winston long to get used to American ways," commented Acheson. "He hadn't been an American citizen for three minutes before he began attacking an ex-secretary of state."

3    A rather flustered elderly lady once accosted Acheson in a Washington hotel. "Pardon me," she said, "I am somewhat embarrassed. My zipper has stuck and I am due at a meeting. Could you please help me out?" As the zipper was firmly stuck halfway down her back, Acheson was obliged to undo it completely, averting his eyes as best he could, before pulling it back up to the top. The lady thanked him profusely. "I think that I should tell you," she added, "that I am vice president of the Daughters of the American Revolution."

"My dear lady," replied Acheson, "what a moment ago was a rare privilege now appears to have been a really great honor."

ACTON, Harold (1904– ), British author, whose works include poetry, histories, memoirs, and novels.

1    "One summer afternoon Acton, then a celebrated undergraduate poet at Oxford, was asked to perform at a Conservative Garden Fete. He decided he could do no better than recite [T. S. Eliot's] The Waste Land from beginning to end. His audience's good manners were severely tested, as this dirge for a godless civilization, delivered in Harold Acton's rich, resounding voice, swept irresistibly above their heads; and one or two old ladies, who were alarmed and horrified but thought that the reciter had such a 'nice, kind face,' rather than hurt the young man's feelings by getting up and leaving openly, were obliged to sink to their knees and creep away on all fours."

ADAMS, Alexander Annan (1908– ), British air vice-marshal. A wing commander in World War II, he was head of RAF intelligence in Germany (1946–48) and became director of the Mental Health Trust in 1970.

1    At the end of the Battle of Britain, Adams was driving to a meeting at Fighter Command Headquarters when he came upon a sign:

ROAD CLOSED — UNEXPLODED BOMB. Adams called over the policeman on duty, hoping he might be able to suggest an alternative route. "Sorry, you can't go through," said the policeman as he approached the car. "The bomb is likely to go off at any minute now." Then he caught sight of Adams's uniform. "I'm very sorry, sir," he said, "I didn't know you were a wing commander. It is quite all right for you to go through."

ADAMS, Ansel (1902–1984), US landscape photographer (particularly of the mountainous Far West), a technical innovator in his field. He was also honored as a conservationist.

1    During his early years Adams studied the piano and showed marked talent. At one party (he recalls it as "very liquid") he played Chopin's F Major Nocturne. "In some strange way my right hand started off in F-sharp major while my left hand behaved well in F major. I could not bring them together. I went through the entire nocturne with the hands separated by a half-step." The next day a fellow guest complimented him on his performance: "You never missed a wrong note!"

ADAMS, Franklin Pierce (1881–1960), US journalist, writer of light verse, and wit. Known as FPA, he was a regular member of the Information Please radio program and author of such books as In Other Words (1912) and The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys (1935).

1    Adams belonged to a poker club that included among its members an actor called Herbert Ransom. Whenever Ransom held a good hand, his facial expression was so transparent that Adams proposed a new rule for the club: "Anyone who looks at Ransom's face is cheating."

2    Adams accompanied Beatrice Kaufman (wife of the playwright George S. Kaufman) to a cocktail party where, feeling a little out of things, she sat down on a cane-seated chair. The seat suddenly broke, leaving Beatrice immobilized inside the frame, legs in the air. As a shocked silence gripped the party, Adams said severely, "I've told you a hundred times, Beatrice, that's not funny."

3    "Whose birthday is it today?" Adams once asked Beatrice Kaufman. "Yours?" she guessed. "No, but you're getting warm," replied Adams. "It's Shakespeare's."

4    Alexander Woollcott had been asked to sign a first-edition copy of his book Shouts and Murmurs. "Ah, what is so rare as a Woollcott first edition?" he sighed as he wrote. "A Woollcott second edition," replied Adams.

{Told of others.}

5    A friend was recounting to Adams an apparently interminable tale. He finally said: "Well, to cut a long story short — "

"Too late," interrupted Adams.

ADAMS, John (1735–1826), US statesman, 2d president of the United States (1797–1801). He played a major part in winning European support for the cause of American independence, and represented his country in the peace negotiations with Britain. He served as Washington's vice president and succeeded him as president.

1    During his presidency Adams's grand style, which contrasted unfavorably with the simpler dignity of the Washington regime, made him many enemies. A scandalous story circulated that he had sent General Charles C. Pinckney to Britain to select four pretty girls as mistresses, two for the general and two for himself. When this slander came to Adams's ears, he wrote complainingly to a friend, "I do declare, if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two."

2    Although failing fast, Adams was deter mined to survive until the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — July 4, 1826. At dawn on that day he was awakened by his servant, who asked if he knew what day it was. He replied, "Oh, yes, it is the glorious fourth of July. God bless it. God bless you all." He then slipped into a coma. In the afternoon he recovered consciousness briefly to murmur, "Thomas Jefferson lives." These were his last words. Unknown to him, Thomas Jefferson had died that same day.


ADAMS, John Quincy (1767–1848), US statesman, 6th president of the United States (1825–29). Adams, son of John Adams, the second president, was a lawyer by training. As secretary of state (1817–25), he was mainly responsible for formulating the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which governed American foreign policy for nearly a century. As president, he suffered from the opposition of General Andrew Jackson, who defeated him in the election of 1828. From 1831 to his death he served in the House of Representatives.

1    John Quincy Adams, an enthusiastic swimmer, used to bathe naked in the Potomac before starting the day's work. The newspaper woman Anne Royall had been trying for weeks to get an interview with the president and had always been turned away. One morning she tracked him to the river bank and after he had got into the water stationed herself on his clothes. When Adams returned from his swim, he found a very determined lady awaiting him. She introduced herself and stated her errand. "Let me get out and dress," pleaded the president, "and I swear you shall have your interview." Anne Royall was adamant; she wasn't moving until she had the president's comment on the questions she wished to put to him. If he attempted to get out, she would scream loud enough to reach the ears of some fishermen on the next bend in the river. She got her interview while Adams remained decently submerged in the water.

{Anne Royall, often called the first American newspaperwoman, led an adventurous life that veered from luxury to great poverty. John Quincy Adams was among her close friends.}

2    In 1846 John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke and, although he returned to Congress the following year, his health was clearly failing. Daniel Webster described his last meeting with Adams: "Someone, a friend of his, came in and made particular inquiry of his health. Adams answered, 'I inhabit a weak, frail, de cayed tenement; battered by the winds and broken in upon by the storms, and, from all I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair.'"

ADDAMS, Jane (1860–1935), US social reformer. A supporter of racial equality, female suffrage, and pacifism, she was president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She shared the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize with the educator Nichols Murray Butler.

1    In 1900 the Daughters of the American Revolution elected Jane Addams to honorary membership. However, her antiwar stance during World War I and her insistence that even subversives had a right to trial by due process of law caused them to expel her. She commented that she had thought her election was for life, but now knew it was for good behavior.

ADDISON, Joseph (1672–1719), British writer and politician. A member of the literary circle that included Jonathan Swift and Richard Steele, he joined with the latter to produce The Spectator (1711–12). For The Spectator he wrote the famous "de Coverley" essays on the life and opinions of Sir Roger de Coverley, who typified the sensible, dignified, old-fashioned values that Addison found lacking in fashionable London society. Addison was a member of Parliament from 1708 until his death and held various offices in Whig administrations.

1    Addison's natural diffidence made him an ineffective parliamentary debater. On one occasion he began, "Mr. Speaker, I conceive — I conceive, sir — sir, I conceive — " At this point he was interrupted by a voice saying, "The right honorable secretary of state has conceived thrice and brought forth nothing."

2    The Duke of Wharton, hoping to animate Addison into wit, plied him so generously with wine that the writer was taken ill. The duke observed with disgust that he could "get wine but not wit out of him."

3    A friend of Addison's with whom he was accustomed to have long discussions on topics of mutual interest borrowed some money from the author. Soon afterward Addison noticed a change in his behavior; before the loan the two friends had disagreed on a number of subjects, but now the borrower fell in with every line that Addison himself adopted. One day when they were talking on a point on which Addison knew his friend had previously held an opposite view to his own, he exclaimed, "Either contradict me, sir, or pay me my money!"

4    Addison's preoccupation with the principles of religion and manners extended even to his deathbed. As he lay dying, he sent for his wastrel stepson, Lord Warwick, and it was to him that his last words were spoken: "See in what peace a Christian can die."

{Doubt exists as to the authenticity of this anecdote. There is little or no evidence that Lord Warwick led the life of a wastrel, and it has been suggested that Addison's death resulted from overindulgence in brandy.}

ADE, George (1866–1944), US humorist and playwright. His works include Fables in Slang (1899), The College Widow (1904), and Father and the Boys (1907).

1    Following a well-received after-dinner speech by George Ade, a noted lawyer rose to speak. His hands buried deep in the pockets of his trousers, he began: "Doesn't it strike the company as a little unusual that a professional humorist should be funny?" Ade waited for the laughter to die down before replying: "Doesn't it strike the company as a little unusual that a lawyer should have his hands in his own pockets?"

ADEE, Alvey Augustus (1842–1924), US diplomat. He served for forty-seven years in the US State Department, rising to second assistant secretary of state (1886–1924).

1    When Adee was asked by President McKinley the best way to say "no" to six European ambassadors who were coming to see him to try to prevent war against Spain, he wrote on the back of an envelope: "The Government of the United States appreciates the humanitarian and disinterested character of the communication now made on behalf of the powers named, and for its part is confident that equal appreciation will be shown for its own earnest and unselfish endeavors to fulfill a duty to humanity by ending a situation the indefinite prolongation of which has become insufferable."

The president read this message verbatim to the ambassadors.

ADENAUER, Konrad (1876–1967), German statesman and first chancellor of the Federal Republic (1949–63). He did much to advance the international prestige of West Germany and presided over its postwar economic recovery.

1    Essentially a Rhinelander, Adenauer never liked or trusted the Prussians and his compatriots in eastern Germany. In the interwar period he used frequently to have to go by train to Berlin. It is said that every time he crossed the River Elbe on this journey he would frown and mutter to himself, "Now we enter Asia."

2    Adenauer received many marriage proposals in his mail when he was chancellor, even after he became an octogenarian. When they were brought to his notice he used to tell his secretary patiently: "Put them in the nonaggression pact file."

3    When Adenauer, still chancellor, was approaching the age of ninety, he succumbed to a heavy cold. His personal physician, unable to be of very much help, had to put up with Adenauer's impatience. "I'm not a magician," protested the harassed doctor. "I can't make you young again."

"I haven't asked you to," retorted the chancellor. "All I want is to go on getting older."

ADLER, Hermann (1839–1911), British rabbi, born in Hanover. He was chief rabbi of London from 1891.

1    Adler found himself sitting beside Herbert Cardinal Vaughan at an official luncheon. "Now, Dr. Adler," said the cardinal mischievously, "when may I have the pleasure of helping you to some ham?"

"At Your Eminence's wedding," came the prompt reply.

{Told of others.}

AESCHYLUS (525–456 BC), Greek poet. Some of his tragedies are the earliest complete plays surviving from ancient Greece. From an output of about ninety plays, seven are extant.

1    Aeschylus died and was buried at Gela in Sicily. Ancient biographies record the tradition that his death came about when an eagle, which had seized a tortoise and was looking to smash the reptile's shell, mistook the poet's bald head for a stone and dropped the tortoise upon him.

AGASSIZ, Jean Louis Rodolphe (1807–73), Swiss naturalist. He made major contributions to paleontology, though his later theories on the origin of animal species conflicted with Darwin's. He became professor of zoology at Harvard in 1848, deeply influencing the teaching of natural history in the United States.

1    An emissary from a learned society came to invite Agassiz to address its members. Agassiz refused on the grounds that lectures of this sort took up too much time that should be devoted to research and writing. The man persisted, saying that they were prepared to pay handsomely for the talk. "That's no inducement to me," Agassiz replied. "I can't afford to waste my time making money."

AGRIPPINA (AD 15–59), mother of Emperor Nero by her first husband. Her third marriage was to her uncle, Emperor Claudius, whom she later poisoned.

1    Agrippina was consumed by her ambition to place Nero on the imperial throne. She consulted the soothsayers, who told her, "Nero will reign, but he will kill his mother."

"Let him kill me, then," said Agrippina.

2    Agrippina proved less easy to eliminate than Nero expected. According to Suetonius, he tried poison three times (she had taken the antidote beforehand), a collapsible ceiling in her bedchamber (someone warned her), and an unseaworthy boat (she swam to safety). Finally he sent a centurion with orders to kill her. The centurion struck her first on the head, as he had been ordered, but she bared her breasts, crying out, "Strike rather these, which have nurtured so great a monster as Nero."

AIDAN, Saint (d. 651), Irish monk who became bishop of Northumbria (635) and founded the monastery at Lindisfarne, from which he carried out missionary operations in northern England.

1    King Oswin, ruler of the former British province of Deira and a friend of Aidan's, gave the bishop a fine horse. Soon afterward Bishop Aidan met a beggar who asked him for alms; he at once dismounted and gave the horse, with all its costly trappings, to the poor man. When this charitable deed came to the king's ears, he taxed Aidan: "Why did you give away the horse that we specially chose for your personal use when we knew that you had need of one for your journeys? We have many less valuable horses that would have been suitable for beggars." Replied Aidan, "Is this foal of a mare more valuable to you than a child of God?" The king pondered, then, suddenly casting his sword aside, knelt at Aidan's feet and begged his forgiveness. Aidan, greatly moved, begged the king to go to his dinner and be merry.

As Aidan watched the king go, he became very melancholy. When the bishop's chaplain asked why, Aidan replied, "I know that the king will not live long, for I have never seen a king so humble as he is. He will be taken from us as the country is not worthy to have such a king."

This foreboding was proved correct: King Oswin was treacherously killed by his northern neighbor, King Oswy.

ALBEMARLE, William Anne Keppel, 2d Earl of (1702–54), British soldier and ambassador.



On Sale
Oct 31, 2009
Page Count
784 pages