David Bruce: Boredom is Anti-Life — Language, Letters, Media


• Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx were in a Paris hotel where Harpo upset the management with his shenanigans. Mr. Woollcott tried explaining Harpo to the management, but gave it up, turned to Harpo, and said, “How can I explain you? There’s no French word for ‘boob.’”

• Ring Lardner once read through a newspaper column about the 10 most beautiful words in the English language — words such as “moonlight,” “melody,” and “tranquil.” Setting the newspaper down, he mused, “What’s wrong with ‘gangrene’?”

 • French grammarian Dominique Bonhours cared about language even on his deathbed. As he lay dying, he said, “I am about to — or I am going to — die; either expression is used.”


• In 1975, publishing company Alfred A. Knopf rejected A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean, although it had previously said that it would publish the book. University of Chicago Press published the book, which met with considerable critical praise and popular success. Much later, an Alfred A Knopf editor wrote Mr. Maclean to express interest in seeing the manuscript of his next book. However, Mr. Maclean was still sore — very sore — over being rejected by Alfred A Knopf in the past, and he still dreamed of telling off the publishing company, so for his reply letter he wrote a masterpiece of invective that ended with “if the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole remaining author, that would mark the end of the world of books.” Mr. Maclean called his letter “one of the best things I ever wrote […] I really told those bastards off. What a pleasure! What a pleasure! Right into my hands! Probably the only dream I ever had in life that came completely true.”

• When poet Nikki Giovanni was a very young girl, she attended an all-black Episcopal school called St. Simon’s in Cincinnati. After the mother of a teacher died, the school principal asked Nikki’s class to write letters of condolence to the teacher. Young Nikki wrote, “I’m sorry your mother died. But it’s just one of those things.” This letter was never mailed — Nikki’s teacher told her, “We can’t say that.” By the way, when Ms. Giovanni was young, much segregation existed in the United States. She eagerly awaited the coming of the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Knoxville, Tennessee, but she was disappointed when it arrived first at the whites-only movie theater. She and other children with her skin color had to wait for it to come to the blacks-only theater before they could see it.

• A person who posts online as Revstephmc tells about not living close to her only niece, Brooke, but sending her a letter each week, beginning when Brooke was two. The letters are known as “Thursday letters” because that is the day she writes them. When Brooke was two years old, she talked with Revstephmc’s mother: “Auntie Steph writes me a letter every week.” Revstephmc’s mother asked, “That’s a lot of letters. What does she write about?” Brooke replied, “She tells me that she loves me! Sometimes she says it long and sometimes she says it short!” Revstephmc says, “She was absolutely right!”

• Moss Hart apparently was curious about other people’s mail and was known to read his friends’ letters if they were lying around or were in unsealed envelopes. To cure his friend of this bad habit, Alexander Woollcott once put this letter in an unsealed envelope and left it where he knew Mr. Hart would find it: “I’ll ask you up here just as soon as I can get rid of this nauseating Moss Hart, who hangs on like a leech, although he knows how I detest him.”

• Corey Ford once wrote a letter to Frank Sullivan in which he described being in a plane over the Atlantic when the engine caught on fire. Mr. Sullivan was unsympathetic: “What better place for an engine to catch fire? You have the whole d*mn Atlantic to put it out with!”


• When geneticist Barbara McClintock won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, she was surrounded by reporters who wanted to interview her. At a press conference, a reporter asked her, “What do you think of big to-dos like this, with all the attention that’s being heaped upon you?” The 81-year-old geneticist replied, “You put up with it.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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