Book Review: 'Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History’s Great Wits and Wordsmiths' by Mardy Grothe
Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History’s Great Wits and Wordsmiths Mardy Grothe Collins/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2005)
Those who have already read Grothe’s Oxymoronica will thoroughly enjoy this volume in which he shifts his attention from “paradoxical wit and wisdom from history’s greatest wordsmiths” to “clever comebacks & witty retorts from history’s great wits & wordsmiths.” Not surprisingly and in fact inevitably, many of the same wordsmiths are represented in both volumes, notably Robert C. Benchley, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Winston Churchill, W.C. Fields, Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Wilde.
In his introduction, Grothe defines two terms which certainly apply to the selections which follow: citing the OED, a retort is “a sharp or incisive reply, especially one by which the first speaker’s statement or argument is in some way turned against himself” and repartee is “1. A ready, witty, or smart reply; a quick and clever retort” and “2. Sharpness or wit in sudden reply; such replies collectively; the practice or faculty of uttering them.” With great skill, Grothe creates a context within which each selection is the response. Here are four examples:
During a noted opera singer’s “perfectly dreadful performance,” one of the guests leaned over and whispered in President Calvin Coolidge’s ear, “What do you think of the singer’s execution?” to which Coolidge replied, “I’m all for it.”
Shortly before his death, W.C. Fields (a lifelong agnostic) was visited by a friend who was astonished when he entered the hospital room. “What are you doing reading a Bible?” to which Fields responded “I’m looking for loopholes.”
After losing the Republican presidential nomination to George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole was asked by a reporter how he felt. “Contrary to reports that I took the loss badly, I slept like a baby — every two hours I woke up and cried.”
Paired with an inept bridge partner, George S. Kaufman fumed as the losses increased. At one point, his partner headed for the men’s room. The frustrated Kaufman yelled after him, “For the first time tonight, I’ll know what you have in your hand.”
Of special interest to me is the structure by which Grothe organizes his material. There are fifteen chapters which range from “Classic Retorts, Ripostes, & Rejoinders” to “Risqué Repartee.” He includes in each those selections which are most appropriate to the given chapter title, although the best of them could arguably be included in several (if not most) of the chapters. For example, one of my favorites. Here’s the situation. Obviously annoyed by an inebriated Winston Churchill, Lady Astor said “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee” to which he responded, “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Here’s another. When a female member of Parliament, Bessie Matlock, could no longer endure Churchill at a London party, she exclaimed “Winston, you’re drunk!” to which he replied, “You’re right Bessie. And you’re ugly. But tomorrow morning, I’ll be sober.”
I hope these various examples correctly indicate how entertaining this book is. Credit Grothe with the quality of his selections and the brilliance of their presentation. I cannot think of better books to give as gifts than one or both of the two Grothe has created, Oxymoronica and Viva la Repartee.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.