David Bruce: Etiquette Anecdotes

• Lord Chesterfield was once invited to attend a dinner that was given by the Spanish ambassador. At the dinner, several people gave toasts to their respective kings. The Spanish ambassador compared the King of Spain to the sun. The French ambassador compared the King of France to the moon. Next rose Lord Chesterfield, who said about the King of England, “Your excellencies have taken from me all the greatest luminaries of heaven, and the stars are too small for me to make a comparison of my royal master; I therefore beg leave to give your excellencies — Joshua!” (Readers who know the Bible will remember that the great Hebrew military leader Joshua once stopped the sun and the moon, thus allowing the Israelites to win a battle before nightfall.)

• A week before a scheduled performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, conductor Arturo Toscanini became unhappy with one of his singers — a man who was a good man and a good singer, but who was unsuited for his part. Taking thought about how to replace the singer — but without harming the singer’s reputation — Maestro Toscanini composed a letter in which he said that during rehearsals he had noticed that the singer was not well, and if the singer should wish to withdraw from the performance, he would understand. The singer was no dummy — he took the hint and told the Maestro that yes, he was ill, and yes, he would withdraw from the performance. His replacement was better suited for the part, and Die Meistersingerwas a success.

• Hanro was a royal minister who fell into disgrace and was exiled during the Chou dynasty. For a long time, Hanro lived as a recluse, until the king recalled him from exile. Hanro mounted a horse and started to return to the royal court, but then he decided that he liked being a recluse better than being a court minister, so he turned his horse around and headed back to his mountain home. However, he rode his horse backwards, so that he could not be said to have turned his back on the king’s wishes.

• Adelina Patti, a celebrated diva, seldom showed up for rehearsals (she included a no-rehearsal clause in her contracts), so she often first met her singing co-stars on the stages of the opera house she was performing at the time. In a first-act trio featuring Ms. Patti, a baritone and a tenor, the baritone altered the words of the song he was singing on stage to ask her for an introduction. Ms. Patti being willing, the tenor sang the formal introductions.

• Groucho Marx frequently bumped into Sam Goldwyn in Hollywood. Each time, Mr. Goldwyn would ask Groucho how Harpo was doing, but he never asked about Groucho’s health. Finally, Groucho got annoyed and protested, “Why do you always ask me how Harpo is? Why don’t you ever ask me how I am?” Mr. Goldwyn replied, “I’ll do that sometime, Groucho, but right now, how is your brother Harpo?”

• Art Linkletter was once stopped by a man who insisted he had gone to school with him in Moosejaw, Canada. Actually, although Mr. Linkletter had been born there, he had moved when he was little to San Diego, California, where he went to school. However, because the man’s family was with him, Mr. Linkletter was polite and pretended to have gone to school with the man in Moosejaw, Canada.

• Papal Nuncio Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who was later to be Pope John XXIII, once met the Chief Rabbi of Paris at a reception. They talked together for a long time, and when they were summoned to dinner, they were confronted with the dilemma of who would walk through the door to the dining room first. Nuncio Roncalli motioned for the Rabbi to go first, saying, “The Old Testament before the New.”

• In Philadelphia, a homeless person named Carlos was very hungry and wondering what his next meal would come from. A priest appeared and gave him a sandwich. Carlos was so hungry that he ate the sandwich before remembering to thank the priest. After eating the sandwich, he looked for the priest, but the priest had disappeared. After that, Carlos always thanked someone who gave him food, and then he ate the food.

• Mulla Nasrudin was very hungry and dipped all five fingers of his hand into a bowl of rice, although the etiquette of his time stated that one should get rice with only the thumb and the first two fingers. A bystander asked him, “Why are you eating with five fingers?” Nasrudin replied, “Because I don’t have six fingers.”

• Christoph Willibald Gluck revolutionized opera. His controversial style caused much excitement in his opera Armide, whose premiere was packed. An usher requested one man in the audience to take off his hat, but the man replied, “You take it off; it’s so crowded here that I can’t move my arms.”

• Gioacchino Rossini was once a guest of King George IV. Being polite, Rossini invited the King to sing while Rossini played. Although the King sang badly, Rossini tactfully continued to play. Afterward, when the King complimented Rossini on his tact, he answered, “Sire, it is my duty to accompany you — even to hell.”

• In the days of American slavery, General George Washington was walking down the street when an aged African-American saw him and took off his hat and bowed out of respect. General Washington promptly took off his hat and returned the bow. Later, he explained to a shocked white politician: “I cannot be less civil than a poor Negro.”

• Once a society lady sent her card to George Bernard Shaw. The card said that she would be “at home from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday next.” Mr. Shaw sent the card back with this message written on it: “So will Mr. Shaw.”

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David Bruce: Etiquette Anecdotes

• Businesspeople need to take into account different cultures. Comic singer Anna Russell had an American agent, Eastman Boomer, but she toured frequently in England, necessitating that letters be written back and forth between Boomer and an English business manager. Boomer used to complain, “I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. He writes two pages about the weather, the London scene, and enquires after my health, and he mentions business in the last paragraph as though it were an afterthought.” Meanwhile, the Englishmen complained about Boomer’s letters, “What’s the matter with Boomer? He writes when he wants the tour, how much, yours faithfully. Hasn’t he got any manners?” Ms. Russell was able to convince the Englishman to write more about business in his letters to Boomer, and she got Boomer to throw in some schmaltz in his letters to the Englishmen, with the result that the two men ended up liking each other.

• When writer Ben Hecht was a young boy, his grandmother Tante Chasha took him to the Yiddish theater. All went well until a certain point in the play being performed on stage — one character was accused of stealing a diamond bracelet that had been stolen by another character. This outraged young Ben, and he began shouting for the police on stage to arrest the correct character. Ushers came running, and Ben and his grandmother were taken to the lobby, where the theater manager demanded an apology from Ben’s grandmother. She replied, “Yes, I owe you an apology and here it is.” Then she hit the theater manager with her umbrella. Later, she told Ben: “Remember when you grow up — that’s the only way to apologize.”

• Ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev paid little attention to time. When the young Alicia Markova was dancing for him, he invited her and her governess out for a ride in the country to see some Spanish dancing and to enjoy tea, but he arrived for the engagement late. Alicia and her governess waited an hour for him, then left, and he arrived an hour after they had left. The next day, young Alicia told him calmly, “You broke your appointment, Sergypop. I know that you are a busy man, but that is no excuse for not turning up when you invite a friend to go out with you.” Mr. Diaghilev apologized, then he made a new appointment for the following day, and when Alicia and her governess arrived, he was waiting for them.

• While conducting at the Salzburg Festival, Arturo Toscanini took pains to preserve his privacy. One day, he went to an obscure restaurant where he hoped not to be noticed, but he was recognized instantly. The proprietor of the restaurant gave the Maestro the best seat, and then he brought him the best wine available at the restaurant. A friend tasted the wine, discovered that it was awful, and advised Toscanini (in a foreign language the proprietor didn’t understand) not to drink it. However, Toscanini drank the wine anyway, and complimented the proprietor on it. Later, he explained that he could not refuse the wine, bad as it was, for the proprietor’s sake: “He was so kind. I could not refuse.”

• Many people who tell stories have the bad habit of stopping repeatedly to ask the listener if he or she has heard the story before. Henry Irving was one such person. In telling a story to Mark Twain, he stopped three different times to ask if Mr. Twain had heard the story before. Finally, Mr. Twain could stand it no longer and said, “I can lie once, I can lie twice for the sake of politeness, but there I draw the line. I not only heard the story — I invented it.”

• During a performance of Lohengrin, tenor Leo Slezak still had not met the woman playing Elsa of Brabant. During the performance, following the script, he said, “Elsa, I love thee,” and raised her from her kneeling position and placed her head against his chest, then whispered, “Allow me to introduce myself; my name is Slezak.” The woman playing Elsa then whispered in reply, “Delighted to know you; my name is Ternina.”

• Pope John XXIII regarded some old customs as nuisances, but having respect for tradition, he modified them instead of entirely doing away with them. He was embarrassed by his attendants’ kneeling three times before him whenever they entered or departed from his presence, so he changed the custom so that they kneeled to him only once in the morning and once in the evening.

• Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) was a Yiddish humorist. Among the characters he created in his stories were those that became the basis of Fiddler on the Roof. In 1906, he came to the United States, where he met Mark Twain, to whom he was introduced as the “Jewish Mark Twain.” Mr. Twain then said that he would like to be introduced in Yiddish to Mr. Aleichem as the “American Sholom Aleichem.”

• Choreographer George Balanchine always wanted the members of his New York City Ballet to behave with consideration in whatever place they visited. Once he became very annoyed in West Berlin when some members of his company boarded a bus after carrying out from a restaurant some china cups filled with coffee.

• Sol Hurok, a concert manager, could be a good host. At one of his parties, his personal assistant Walter Prude knocked over a small table and spilled red wine and coffee on a new white rug. Mr. Prude apologized and offered to pay for the rug, but Mr. Hurok said, “I am only proud, my boy, that you have honored me by coming here.”

• Many snobs criticized Lord Byron for being friends with a prizefighter, John Jackson, but this did not bother Lord Bryon, who said that the prizefighter’s manners were “infinitely superior to those of the fellows of the college whom I met at high table.”

• Author Donald Richie once attended a Japanese dinner. As the guest of honor, he was given the head of a fish to eat, and he was expected to eat all of it — including the eyes. Mr. Richie managed to exhibit good manners only after closing his own eyes.

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David Bruce: Etiquette Anecdotes

In November of 1973, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut competed in the all-around competition at the European Championships. She performed well, but fellow Soviet gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva performed better, winning gold to Olga’s silver. When the medal winners were walking to the awards platform, Olga suddenly turned away, walked to a bench, and sat down. She was so disappointed in coming in second that she wanted to refuse to accept the silver medal. However, a female Soviet coach walked over to Olga, grabbed her shoulders, and marched her back to the line. Olga accepted the silver medal and learned something about showing grace when coming in second.

Author Quentin Crisp used to know a homeless woman called The Countess who lived in a large trunk in a graveyard. She had a change of clothes, a portable stove, and some plates, cups, and saucers, and she used to entertain friends who would sit on broken gravestones. Despite being homeless, her manner was regal, and she liked to entertain invited friends only. If someone were to knock on her trunk without being invited to visit her, she would open the trunk and say, “You have not made an appointment. I am seeing no one today.”

As a child, Jackie Bouvier spoke the truth. Once, she and her little sister, Lee, got in an elevator, which was operated by a man with some white hair standing straight up from his forehead. Lee said politely to the elevator operator, “You look pretty well today.” But Jackie said, “That’s not true, Lee. You know very well he looks like a chicken.” Later, she became famous as Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a woman who closely observed the rules of etiquette.

Umpire Clarence “Pants” Rowland once called out Babe Ruth on a close play at third base one day, but he also praised him, helping him up, brushing off his uniform, and saying, “Great slide, Babe, but he just had you.” The Yankee players wondered why Babe didn’t argue the call, but Babe explained, “What could I do? I thought I was safe, but the guy was dusting my clothes off and telling me what a great slide I made. What could I say to him?”

Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes, understood and practiced good etiquette. An Armenian butcher once bowed to him seven times, and Rumi returned the bows. On another occasion, several children in a group bowed to him, and Rumi bowed to each of the children. One child was far off, and he called to Rumi, “Wait for me until I come.” Rumi waited, the child arrived and bowed to him, and Rumi returned the child’s bow.

Known for his fastballs, baseball player Walter Johnson was also known for being a gentleman. Once, a couple of people recognized him and talked to him for 20 minutes. His friend and teammate, Joe Judge, asked what they had been talking about. Mr. Johnson replied, “These men were telling me they knew my sister back in Kansas.” Surprised, Mr. Judge said, “I never knew you had a sister.” Mr. Johnson replied, “I don’t.”

After a baseball game at which he had officiated, minor league umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson was accosted by a woman who hit him several times with her umbrella. He warded off the blows as best he could, and then told the woman, “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but if you can get someone to introduce us, you can go on hitting me.” She laughed and quit hitting him.

Comedian Jay Leno declines to act as if he is better than other people. Once, while boarding a plane, he pushed himself in front of an old lady in a wheelchair, who waved him on and said, “Oh, go ahead, dearie.” This made him feel terrible. He said, “I felt like the guy on the Titanic who puts on a dress so he can get in the life raft first.” After that, he acted like a normal person instead of like a big shot.

Even when she was eight years old, gymnast Dominique Moceanu displayed good manners. Her first coach, Jeff LaFleur, once saw her running past two old ladies to reach the door of the ladies restroom. He thought at first that she was in a hurry, but then he saw that she had run past the two old ladies so she could hold the door open for them.

Babe Ruth had little education, especially in etiquette and polite conversation, although he tried to be polite. At an elegant dinner, he was served an asparagus salad, but he pushed his plate away. His hostess asked whether he disliked salad, and Babe replied politely, “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that asparagus makes my urine smell.”

In an exhibition match, Horton Smith, Harry Cooper, Lawson Little, and Jimmy Thomson were preparing to tee off at the beginning of the game. Suddenly, a spectator ran up and asked Mr. Smith, “How does the match stand?” Mr. Smith replied, “All even, sir.” The spectator thanked him, then joined the other people in the gallery.

When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962, he saw lights in Australia — the residents of the Australian cities Perth and Rockingham had turned on the lights for him. Mr. Glenn told NASA, “The lights show up very well, and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?”

There is a certain etiquette — and attention to safety — in pairs figure skating. For example, if the man is holding the woman high in the air and something happens so that she falls, proper etiquette requires that the man break her fall by allowing her to fall on top of him rather than directly onto the hard ice.

A woman was asked how she got her children to behave so nicely. She replied, “I give my seven-old-year $5, and he’s good. And I give my five-year-old $2, and he’s good.” She was then asked what she gave her three-year-old for him to be good. “Oh,” said the woman. “He’s like his father — good for nothing.”

“We preserve humaneness by being humane in our dealing with others.” — Tom Mullen.

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