Jonathan Swift, the famous Irish writer (1667-1745), leading satirist of his age, was not very generous. He seldom gave anything to the servants of those who sent him presents. But once he received a lesson from a boy who very often brought him hares, partridges, and other games. One day the boy arrived with a heavy basket full of fish, fruit, and game. When Swift opened the door, the boy said gruffly, "Here, my master has sent you a basket full of things." Swift, feeling displeased at the boy's rude manners, said to him: "Come here, my boy, and I will teach you how to deliver a message a little more politely. Come, imagine yourself Jonathan Swift, and I will be the boy." Then taking off his hat very politely and addressing himself to the boy, he said: "Sir, my master sends you a little present and begs you will do him the honour to accept it." "Oh, very well, my boy," replied the boy, "tell your master I am much obliged to him, and there is half a crown for yourself." Swift laughed heartily, and gave the boy a crown for his wit.
Agatha Christie's (British writer, 1891-1976) second husband, Max Mallowan, was a distinguished archaeologist who made his name excavating in Mesopotamia. On her return with her husband from the Middle East, Miss Christie was asked how she felt about being married to a man whose interest lay in antiquities. "An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have," she said. "The older she gets, the more intereste ed he is in her."
A man came upon Abraham Lincoln blacking his boots in the basement of the White House. He expressed astonishment that the President of the United States should be at such a menial task. "What! Mr President," he exclaimed, are you blacking your own boots?" "Whose else should I be blacking?" came Lincoln's laconic reply.
A miserly old nobleman wanted William Hogarth (English painter and engraver, 1697–1764) to paint on his staircase a picture of the destruction of Pharaoh's hosts in the Red Sea.1 He did so much haggling over the price that Hogarth finally agreed to do the work for about half what it was worth. After two day's work, to the surprise of the nobleman, Hogarth said the picture was ready. When the curtain was removed there was nothing to be seen but the canvas painted red all over. "Zounds!" cried the miser. "What have you here? I ordered a scene of the Red Sea!" "The Red Sea you have," replied the artist. "But where are the Israelites?" "They are all gone over." "And where are the Egyptians?" "They are all drowned."
Mark Twain once visited the well-known American artist James Whistler (1834–1903) in his studio and was looking over his pictures. He started to touch one canvas. "Oh," cried Whistler, "don't touch that! Don't you see it isn't dry yet?" "I don't mind," said Mark Twain. "I have gloves on."
Once a lady asked Dr. Johnson (Samuel Johnson English critic, poet, and lexicographer, 1709–1784) if he liked music. "No, madam," he replied, "but of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable."
Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796) was treating her court to concerts by the much acclaimed Italian soprano Catterina Gabrielli (173-1796). The Empress had asked her to come to St. Petersburg1 without stating any definite price. At the end of the season Catherine asked her soprano what she was to be paid for her singing. Gabrielli had found that a royal patron should be royally charged, and said freely, "Five thousand ducats." "Five thousand ducats!" the empress exclaimed. "Why, not one of my field-marshals is paid as much as that." "Then get one of your field-marshals to sing," said Gabrielli with a huge flash of wit.
Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945), the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana, once heard an organ-grinder playing excerpts from his opera underneath his window. The composer, annoyed by the slow tempo of the playing, rushed into the street. "Here, here," he cried to the street-musician, "I am Mascagni - I will show you how to play this music correctly." Thereupon he gave the crank-handle of the barrel-organ a few rapid turns. The next day Mascagni, hearing the barrel-organist again, put his head out of the window and read the following sign over the hurdy-gurdy: 'Pupil of Mascagni.'
Thomas Alva Edison (American inventor, 1847–1931) had a beautiful summer residence in which he took general pride. One day he was showing his guests about, pointing out all the various labour-saving devices on the premises.. Turning back toward the house it was necessary to pass through a turnstile which led onto the main path. The guests soon found out that it took considerable force to get through this device. "Mr Edison," asked one of his guests, "how is it that with all these wonderful modern things around, you still maintain such a heavy turnstile?" Mr Edison said, his eyes lighting up with laughter, "Well, you see, everyone who pushes the turnstile around, pumps eight gallons of water into the tank on my roof."
Will Rogers, American humorist (1879?–1935), had a young niece. On a visit to Paris he sent a picture postcard of the Venus de Milo5 to her and wrote on the back: "See what will happen to you if you don't stop biting your fingernails."
American film actor Spencer Tracy (1900–1967) was asked by director Garson Kanin (1913–1999) why he insisted on first billing when he co-starred in films with Katharine Hepburn (American actress, 1907?). "Why not?" asked Tracy. "Well, after all," reasoned Kanin, "she's the lady and you're the man. Ladies first." "This is a movie, not a lifeboat," Tracy retorted.