David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Names, Nobel Prizes, Old Age, Plays

Names

• In the 1930s, writer Alice Mary Norton had her name legally changed to Andre Norton because at that time men were able more easily than women to sell their writing. Ms. Norton became the famous author of such fantasies as Witch World and Star Gate.

Nobel Prizes

• The Nobel Prizes are awarded by a committee of 11 Swedish men. For a prize to be given, the 11 men have to vote unanimously; otherwise, no prize is given in that category in that year. This means that one or two men on the committee can keep certain nominees from winning. In 1976, Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Previously, he had been on the short list of writers considered for the award, but two men on the selection committee had opposed his winning. However, the two men died, and Mr. Bellow won the award. When he heard the inside story of how he had been chosen for the award, Mr. Bellow said, “Oh, you mean it only took two men to die for me to get the Nobel Prize!”

• Princess Grace of Monaco sent John Steinbeck a congratulatory letter when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, so Mr. Steinbeck asked his wife to look up the proper way to address an envelope to a princess so he could reply with the proper etiquette. Mrs. Steinbeck did so, then asked if he knew the proper way to begin the letter. “Sure,” said Mr. Steinbeck. “I’ve already written it: ‘Princess Grace, honey — .’”

• Dorothy Parker taught at Los Angeles State College, where she discovered that the students were “narrow.” She had them read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but the students disliked the book, saying it was dirty. However, when Mr. Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the students’ attitudes changed. According to Mrs. Parker, “After that, they behaved as if they had given it to him.”

Old Age

• In his old age, James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was forced to write with his left hand instead of his right. His secretary, Lady Cynthia Asquith (who got her job partly because she didn’t know how to type — Mr. Barrie disliked the sound of a typewriter), later wrote, “I remember his announcing this change quite formally, as though in dismissing his right hand he were giving notice to a servant of many years faithful service.”

• While visiting China, African-American author Alice Walker met the great Chinese woman writer Ding Ling, who had been imprisoned for opposing the subjection of women. Although Ding Ling was still writing at age 80, she wished that she could have back the time she had lost while being persecuted. She told Ms. Walker, “Oh, to be 67 again!”

Plays

• Actor Robert Morley enjoyed changing the dialogue of the plays he appeared in, including Peter Ustinov’s Halfway Up the Tree. When Mr. Ustinov saw the play, he told Mr. Morley that it was “very funny.” Mr. Morley said, “That’s a relief, Peter. By this time I’m usually not talking to the author.” Mr. Ustinov replied, “What? Not even talking to yourself?” When Mr. Morley left the play and was replaced by actor Jimmy Edwards, Mr. Ustinov said, “I think Jimmy Edwards will be great. My only concern is what he will do to Bob Morley’s script.”

• It’s easy to believe that Alexander Woollcott was the real-life inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the very unpleasant guest in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comic play The Man Who Came to Dinner. After all, Mr. Woollcott once wrote in Mr. Hart’s guest book: “This is to certify that on my first visit to Moss Hart’s house I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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