The stopped clock theory of wit

Or, the source of Tallulah Bankhead's accidental quips

Did Tallulah Bankhead actually exist, or was she some sort of Jazz Age fever dream? It’s hard to be sure because the actress made a career out of being the most outspoken, obscene, and outrageous woman of her day. 

Or as she put it: “I’ve been called a garrulous extrovert, a cello-voiced witch, a honey-haired holocaust, a heretic whose vitality if harnessed to the Sahara might transform that sandy waste into another Eden.”

She talked incessantly to make people notice her, and when that didn’t work she disrobed. Her appetites — for liquor (2 bottles bourbon per day), for lovers (5,000 self-reported, male and female), for cigarettes (150 a day), for life — were enormous. “I don’t care what they say about me after I’m dead,” she often said, “as long as they say something.” So, here’s something:

Tallulah Bankhead moved into New York’s Algonquin Hotel just as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the rest of the era’s great talkers took their seats at the Algonquin Round Table. While attending a play with the critic Alexander Woolcott, she quipped “There’s less to this than meets the eye!” 

She later clarified that she’d meant to say more than this, but her inadvertent improvement of a cliche ended up in Woolcott’s column. “All of a sudden thousands of Americans were clamouring for ‘more of that Bankhead girl’s wit,’” one of her biographers wrote. 

But while she was chatty and charming, Tallulah Bankhead wasn’t really a wit. She qualified by the Stopped Clock Theory of Wit: If you keep talking, eventually disparate ideas will couple themselves. 

“Anyone who talks as much and as long as I do is sure to come up with some howlers,” she said. “More than one companion has quailed under the impact of ‘I never eat on an empty stomach,’ ‘I’ve had six juleps and I’m not even sober,’ and ‘We’re reminiscing about the future.’”

Are these clever or clumsy? They don’t sparkle on the page, so clearly Tallulah’s charisma helped seal the deal. Even so, one of her nonplussed co-stars rendered his verdict when he said “I’ve just spent an hour talking to Tallulah for a few minutes.”

The lesson here: Incessant blather is not the recommended route to wit. Talk less, listen more. No one wants to give up an hour for a few good minutes. But if you do accidentally say something witty, happily accept the plaudits you’re due.

Many years ago, my dear mother observed that New Englanders kept one hand under the table as they ate, a habit she viewed as illogical and vowed to change. 

“Are you going to do that singlehandedly?” I asked, walking backwards into a quip. Should you wish to applaud, boo, or merely shrug, you may do so by tapping the ❤️ at the bottom of this newsletter.

Quick quips; lightning

“When one has never heard a man’s name in the course of one’s life, it speaks volumes for him; he must be quite respectable.” — Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Tallulah Bankhead’s name remains known, so she did succeed at her ultimate ambition.

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” — Fran Lebowitz (1950-)

Modern addendum: If someone looks at their phone while you’re talking, stop talking.

The only thing I regret about my life is the length of it. If I had to live my life over again, I’d make all the same mistakes – only sooner.”— Tallulah Bankhead (1903-1968)

And presumably, she’d have said all the clever things in the first few days.


That’s the sixteenth issue of Get Wit Quick, a field guide for garrulous introverts.  There’s exactly as much of my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting as meets the eye. Forward this newsletter, friend! And enjoy some characteristic last words from Tallulah: “Let’s face it, my dears, I have been tight as a tick! Fried as a mink! Stiff as a goat! But I’m no toper. No tosspot, I. In all my years in the theatre I’ve never missed a performance because of alcoholic wounds. I have never skidded into the footlights through confused vision.”

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