Martini Madness

Dorothy Parker Didn’t Write That Famous Quatrain About Martinis
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 8 2013 4:49 PM

Martini Madness

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Dorothy Parker didn’t write the famous quatrain about martinis that’s always attributed to her.

Parker_glass_4
The Dorothy Parker Martini Glass.

Abigail F.B. Pattersonfor Slate

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

It’s the Vermouth, Stupid (1) vs. Two at the Most (5)
In 1944, Bennett Cerf, best known for building Random House and playing What’s My Line?, published Try and Stop Me, a compilation of “jocular items attributed to famed wits.” The New York Times Book Review described it as “a mélange of old and not so old gags, some brand new ones, a touch of history, capsule biographies, puns,” and yarns from the “word-of-mouth circuit”: “It is, obviously, also a book that is likely to sell like the devil.” Within two years, one million copies were in print, and an Armed Services Edition sat by the beds of the boys who led America to the fore. It remained a publishing phenomenon on into the 50s, when even Lucy loved it.

In his paragraphs on Mrs. Parker—Dorothy Rothschild Parker, born August 22, 1893 in Long Branch, N.J.—Cerf relayed that she, asked by some unidentified person how she had enjoyed some unspecified cocktail party, responded: “Enjoyed it? One more drink and I’d have been under the host!”

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Which does not seem, in itself, terribly funny, but Cerf was known to mangle an anecdote, and it is easy to imagine a line like that killing in context like this: One night Dorothy Parker and Bennett Cerf are among a group of partygoers who depart tipsily—cramming into an Otis, bobbling past a doorman, stepping unsteadily into a taxi cab. Mr. Benchley or Miss Doe or some such sozzled interlocutor says, “One more drink and I’d have been under the table,” lobbing a comment smashed back by a crafty racquet of a championship wisecracker.

I have no facts to support that bit of speculation. Then again, there’s not a one-to-one correlation between facts and truth when it comes to martini lore in particular or, more generally, that literary genre known as bullshitting in bars.

In the 1920s, when Parker developed a nationwide reputation as a quick wit, she also emerged as what Ralph Keyes, a scholar of spurious sayings, calls a flypaper figure. Others of the type include Samuel Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Thomas Jefferson, and the vermouth-shunning Winston Churchill—all of them attached by rumor to any number of quotes, famous names lending status to random phrases. The most famous thing George S. Kaufman ever said was, “Everything I've ever said will be credited to Dorothy Parker.” She herself wrote a ditty relevant to the phenomenon in 1928’s “Pig’s Eye View of Literature,” with regard to Oscar Wilde:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

In 1940, a wire-service columnist turned up at Parker’s house in Los Angeles, eager to ask about all her famous quips. She said: “Quips? Oh. Ridiculous, isn’t it? To have such a reputation, I mean.” And: “I hardly say any of those clever things that are attributed to me. I wouldn’t have time to earn a living if I said all those things.” And, most sad and striking and stricken: “I am serious about my writing. The reputation I didn’t earn and don’t want has been embarrassing and harmful.”

In 1956, a Paris Review interviewer turned up at Parker’s “Hogarthian” New York apartment and asked: “You have an extensive reputation as a wit. Has this interfered, do you think, with your acceptance as a serious writer?” She replied: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me—and then they got the shaggy dogs.”

In 1959, an undergraduate humor magazine at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson published a column of gags that included a certain quatrain:

I wish I could drink like a lady.
"Two or three," at the most.
But two, and I'm under the table—
And three, I'm under the host.

In 1967, Parker died, leaving her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation and a strange legacy to American folklore. When you Google “dorothy parker martini,” you get this:

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I'm under the table,
After four I'm under my host."
―Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

What does this urban myth say about Dorothy Parker? Or, perhaps more to the point, the popular idea of Dorothy Parker? Do the clouded origins of the quatrain rhyme with the enigmatic history of the martini itself? How does martini lore illuminate folk culture as a game of telephone? (May I offer you a Liquid Transmitter?)

When I asked Parker biographer Marion Meade for comment on this phenomenon, she said, among other things, “Parker preferred Scotch…. Yes, Parker wrote some amusing lines about drinking, but they were composed during Prohibition, for Prohibition readers suffering from hangovers. Certainly, she drank way too much, but she was an alcoholic and there's nothing particularly funny about that.”

When I told my mother-in-law, whose Dorothy Parker martini glass you see here, I'd busted this myth, she was oddly disappointed. It was as though I'd told her Santa Claus didn't exist.

When I stopped by the office of the creator of the Dorothy Parker martini glass, he was certain that he’d read the quatrain in The Portable Dorothy Parker—and also that he felt morally compelled to pay royalties to the NAACP, which assumed control of the Parker estate after King’s assassination.

When I allow my recipe for a Gibson requiring Dorothy Parker American Gin a victory over James Carville’s clean crowd-pleaser, I do so with an eye toward keeping this tournament’s poetic streak alive. Is the martini quatrain in some way a classic of American culture? Who really wrote it and what’s it all mean?

Two at the Most advances to the Elite Eight in the Midwest Regional.

The 1951 Martini (9) vs. The Old Hollywood (13)
It was a treat to wait to meet the meat of the anchovy-stuffed olive in the 1951 Martini. The very sight of it made me drunk with anticipation to drain my drink and catch my canapé. I suggest that you have one ASAP—three at the very most.

The 1951 Martini advances to the Elite Eight in the South Regional.

The Nick & Nora (1) vs. The Critic’s Choice (12)
The Nick & Nora is made with Beefeater, which is ubiquitous. The Critic’s Choice is made with Milshire, which no longer exists. I think it’s the greatest thing in the history of advertising that a liquor company paid a culture critic to excerpt his work (The Future of Drinking) and extol their spirit’s virtues, but it’s clear that Gilbert Seldes didn’t do his job well enough.

For the record, it is my semi-informed opinion that current product closest to Milshire is Broker’s, recommended as a martini gin by the author of A Baby Boomer’s Guide to Their Second Sixties:

It is really good and also is cheaper than the other call brands. It's distilled the traditional way, using a copper pot still. And it comes from London. If you don't like martinis, learn to like them. If you once liked to smoke, buy a pack. They go well with a martini and at your age they are not going to kill you and, most importantly, if you have one first thing in the morning it will keep you “regular.”

The Nick & Nora advances to the Elite Eight in the East Regional.

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