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Jack Smith

Is it time for the public to get out of the rainy days of legend and into some historical facts?

April 18, 1985|JACK SMITH

Once a legend takes root in the popular mind, little can be done to dislodge it. No amount of learned historical research will disabuse the American public of the notion that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, or that Lee Harvey Oswald was the creature of a conspiracy.

It is also a part of the American myth, apparently here to stay, that it was Alexander Woollcott who said, "I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."

I have an envelope from Dirck Z. Meengs, management consultant, Canoga Park, enclosing his card and a clipping from the Wall Street Journal. On the back of the card is a cryptic note:

"Didn't you set the record straight on this some time ago?"

The clipping is of an ad for Beefeater Gin ("The Crown Jewel of England") and it reads as follows:

" 'I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.' So exclaimed Alexander Woollcott one rainy day to his cronies at the famous old Algonquin Round Table. Woollcott was not alone among the literary lions in his regard for America's favorite cocktail. Somerset Maugham and Alex Waugh were both avowed martini men. But none, including Woollcott, was really inclined to save his martini for a rainy day.

"After all, New York has been known to go weeks without rain."

I guess the point of that is that Woollcott and those other literary figures--Maugham and Waugh, and I wouldn't be surprised if you could throw in Franklin P. Adams and Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and half a dozen others of that era--were not just rainy-day martini drinkers, but they had to have their martinis every day, rain or shine, and of course they always drank them with Beefeater Gin, the Crown Jewel of England.

It might be true that those people drank nothing but martinis, and even that they drank Beefeater; but that isn't the point. The point is that Alexander Woollcott didn't walk into the round table at the Algonquin on a rainy day and say, "I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."

As Meengs says, I've been through all this before. But it's a sign of how small my voice really is to find that my historic conclusion in the question of the authorship of that famous phrase has not found its way into the data bank, or the consciousness, of the Wall Street Journal. That means that the New Yorker probably wasn't listening to me, either, or the New York Times. It isn't likely, anyway, that any of those publications would allow the research of a West Coast columnist to alter any of their beloved legends.

How I got into it, ironically, was by inadvertently attributing the remark to Woollcott myself. I then found out that it was more often attributed to Robert Benchley than to Woollcott. In fact, in Bartlett's 14th edition it was attributed to Woollcott; but in the 15th, it was attributed to Benchley.

There was also a persistent story that the actor Charles Butterworth had said it after falling, fully clothed, into the pool at the Garden of Allah. He might well have fallen into that pool, being a frequent imbiber at the nearby bar, and he might well have made the remark, being a man of exceedingly dry wit; but the circumstances also seemed to fit Benchley, and he prevailed in the mythology.

Perhaps the myth arose from the fact that Benchley had used the line on Ginger Rogers in "The Major and the Minor," which was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Ginger arrives at Benchley's apartment during a rainstorm, and he says, "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?"

When I got that far with the story, the final truth came from the director himself, Billy Wilder.

"Charlie Brackett and I used it in a Paramount Picture, 'The Major and the Minor,' exactly 40 years ago. We gave the joke to Robert Benchley, who played an important part in the picture, under the impression that he had originated it. When it came to the shooting, he modestly disclaimed credit for this now classic line, informing me that it had actually, indubitably and in fact been said by his friend Charles Butterworth.

"That only leaves us now with the mystery of the Marie Celeste."

By the way, Sheilah Graham, in her book "The Garden of Allah," noted that "some of the epigrams attributed to Bob (Benchley) belonged to someone else. He did not say, 'Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini,' although it sounds like him, and I do not doubt that he fell into the Garden of Allah pool fully clothed, perhaps a number of times."

It was Benchley, though, she verifies, who left the Players one night and asked a man standing out front in a uniform for a cab.

"I'm sorry," the man said haughtily. "I happen to be a rear admiral in the United States Navy."

"In that case," said Benchley, "get me a destroyer."

Benchley was elusive to the last.

Walter Collins, who grew up with Benchley's sons Bob and Nat on Nantucket Island, recalls that Benchley was cremated and the urn was to be brought to the Benchley home at Siasconset for very private services. But Mr. Lewis, the undertaker, brought an empty urn by mistake. Bob Jr. opened it, inverted it, and said, "My God! Where's father?"

Now for the Marie Celeste.

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