Night owls without the wit to woo!
Who would be your dream dinner party guest? This is a question that often crops up in magazine questionnaires.
The most honest answer is, of course, ‘Anyone who arrives with a bottle, doesn’t talk about Brexit or burst into tears, and leaves by 10.30pm’.
But that’s not the idea. You are meant to come up with a selection of alluring celebrities — witty or worthy or wise, or a bit of all three.
Goody-goodies tend to choose Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ, Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama, perhaps quietly thinking that they might at least help with the washing-up.
Not long ago, a YouGov poll put Sir David Attenborough in top position, with Margaret Thatcher, Kylie Minogue, J. K. Rowling and, of all people, Gordon Ramsay, together in joint second place.
Third equal were Will Smith and Sir Winston Churchill, hardly the easiest combination, though I suppose you could place them at opposite ends of the table, with Kylie and Sir David sitting in between.
What happens when these dreams become true? history suggests that they swiftly turn into nightmares. In 1922, a wealthy, fashionable couple called Sydney and Violet Schiff held a dinner party in Paris that included the most sought-after artists of the age. Even today, their guestlist looks like a world-beater: Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Marcel Proust.
But the event failed to run smoothly. Placed next to Stravinsky, Proust compared him to Beethoven, adding, ‘ Doubtless you admire Beethoven’.
‘ I detest Beethoven,’ came the reply.
‘But — cher maitre — surely those late sonatas and quartets . . .’ ‘Worse than the others.’ At this point, James Joyce emitted a loud snore (‘At least, I hoPE it was a snore,’ observed a fellow guest) before waking with a jolt.
A Duchess sitting nearby recorded that Proust then said to Joyce, ‘I have never read your works, Mr Joyce’.’ To which Joyce replied, ‘I have never read your works, Mr Proust’. Silence ensued.
In 1943 in New York, the writer Dawn Powell witnessed a meeting between the two greatest wits of their age: one was S.J. Perelman, who was once described by Frank Muir as ‘arguably the most original — and funniest — comic prose stylist of the century’.
The other was James Thurber, the cartoonist and humorist whose very short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is said to have earned its author more money per word than any other piece of prose in history.
What happened when these two giants of comedy met? For her diary — reprinted in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine — Dawn Powell transcribed her conversation with the two men: PERELMAN: Dawn, I hear your book is going like blazes. how many copies sold? DAWN POWELL: Why, I imagine around 15,000. PERELMAN: Ah, here’s Thurber. You know Dawn. THURBER: hello, Dawn, how many copies did your book sell? 50,000? DAWN POWELL: Well, more like 20. THURBER: Understand you got $15,000 from the movies. Shoulda got more. Would’ve if you’d held out. DAWN POWELL: Well, it would still all be gone no matter what I got.
THURBER: (glancing around): Musta set Peter back about 50 bucks. What’d he get for his picture?
PERELMAN: Do you realize that bastard Cerf takes 20 per cent of my play rights . . ? THURBER: Shouldn’t do it. harcourt never took a cent off me. had it in the contract. PERELMAN: I’d like to have lunch with you and discuss that, Jim. Jesus, Jim — 20 per cent!
Dawn Powell offered this tart verdict on the historic meeting: ‘Thus does the wit flow from these two talented fellows.’
The sad truth is that most talented people refuse to waste their talent on chat. Keith Waterhouse, my sainted predecessor in this column, once compared cracking jokes in conversation to throwing gold coins down a drain.
In my experience, politicians are the only people who are more interesting in private than in public, where they are obliged to offer the pretence of respectability and to tow the party line. The opposite applies to all the more glamorous professions.
I once asked a well-known rock star what her fellow rock stars talk about. ‘ What type of in- ear monitors we use,’ she replied.