Daily Mail

Night owls with­out the wit to woo!

- Craig Brown www.dai­ly­mail.co.uk/craig­brown Entertainment · Nelson Mandela · William Welch · Mother Teresa · Dalai Lama · David Attenborough · Margaret Thatcher · Kylie Minogue · Joanne (JK) Rowling · Gordon Ramsay · Will Smith · Paris · Igor Stravinsky · Pablo Picasso · James Joyce · New York County, NY · Winston Churchill · Marcel Proust · Frank Muir · James Thurber

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.

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