The undisputed championnes of sexy wit (and possibly witty sex) were a certain coterie of mid-20th century Hollywood starlets. Led by Mae West, with supporting roles played by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Tallulah Bankhead — pause breathily here for the décolletage joke about the best supported actresses — these sirens of the silver screen inverted the classic storytelling rule: They told, but they didn’t show.
“Sex is an emotion in motion.”
— Mae West
Just as the best horror movies put off revealing the monster for as long as possible, these leading ladies did a lot of leading while preserving, for the most part, their position as ladies.
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
— Mae West
“I’m as pure as the driven slush.”
— Tallulah Bankhead
West began her career on Broadway, where she mastered the art of innuendo. Just as a good speech is like a dress that’s short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the important parts, her stage shows caused scandal but not quite enough to get them shut down. “Is the stage jazzing down to hell?” asked the New York Daily Graphic in a 1926 headline written before Betteridge’s Law was unanimously passed by the world’s editors. As the caption of a fairly chaste front-page photo naively noted: “This picture shows Mae West in Sex, which plays to capacity, regardless of the storm of protest it has aroused.” So even though it was widely talked about, people still wanted to see it? How unexpected!
When the authorities finally barged in on Sex after a mere 390 performances, they had a hard time explaining exactly what was so flagrante about the delicto.
“Miss West moved her navel up and down and from right to left,” a vice squad sergeant testified unconvincingly at her obscenity trial in 1927. The accused took her lumps with pleasure, saying, “Considering what Sex got me, a few days in the pen and a $500 fine ain’t too bad a deal.”
“It is better to be looked over than overlooked.”
— Mae West
“Whenever I’m caught between two evils, I take the one I’ve never tried.”
— Mae West
West created the template for a temptress later used to great effect by Marilyn Monroe, who once, when asked what she had on during a photo shoot, replied “the radio.” Capturing the public imagination while leaving much to said imagination was the whole game. The less they had to say and show, the sexier they could be.
“You can say what you like about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins.”
— Mae West
Toni Morrison put her finger on the problem with overexposure in a 1993 interview with the Paris Review. “Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough,” she said. “The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text.”
“If you start saying ‘the curve of…’ you soon sound like a gynecologist. Only Joyce could get away with that.”
— Toni Morrison
The trick, then, is to avoid all the obvious words. Eschew the anatomical and sidestep the slang. A deeply dirty joke should slide through email filters with lubricated ease. And since we’ve come this far, here’s an impossible-to-confirm exchange between Victorian sexpot Lillie Langtry and her lover, the Prince of Wales who would later be King Edward VII. “I’ve spent enough on you to buy a battleship,” he complained, to which she responded, “And you’ve spent enough in me to float one.”
What pairs better with sex than money? How about limited-edition postcards illustrated by brilliant artists with the cleverest quips ever uttered? Beginning today, a paid subscription to Get Wit Quick will get you Riposte Cards, a regular mailing of real paper postcards commissioned from the best artists who will return my emails.
But wait! There’s less! Your free subscription stays free and continues to offer all the myriad riches of Get Wit Quick, including weekly issues, your sacred right to participate in the Quote Vote, an all-access pass to the archive, and the comfort of regularly confirming that your email address still works.
So don’t subscribe to Riposte Cards and everything stays as is. Whew!
But if you DO subscribe, well, then we embark on a fun little adventure in reader-supported mail art. Using skills I used to survive as a newspaper editor back in the Pleistocene era, I’ll commission some of my favourite artists and illustrators to letter some of their favourite witty lines on postcards, which I’ll then mail to you. How often I do this depends on how many of you sign up, but we’ll start with a quarterly commission with the goal of scaling up to monthly. At that point, it’ll be less than the price of a doppio cortado per beautiful postcard suitable for framing, sending to a friend, or using as a coaster to protect your coffee table from aforementioned doppio cortado.
AND! Some portion of the subscription money (I’m thinking 5%?) will go to PEN Canada, my local affiliate of the non-partisan international organization that celebrates literature, defends freedom of expression, and aids writers in peril — all the conditions necessary to promote more wit.
Many more details to come in future issues, but if you’d like to get in on the ground floor, this is it!
“Bad weather always looks worse through a window.”
— John Kieran
Every week, you choose another subject to add to our ongoing Wit’s Guide to Life. Once we’ve covered all the subjects and wit is the custom of all lands, this newsletter will wither away like the state was supposed to do under Marxism. In other words, it’ll never stop.
Mae West’s wordplay as foreplay
Tallulah Bankhead’s garrulous extroversion
Every other sentence of Get Wit Quick No. 188 was a double entendre, which means the average number of entendres per sentence is one. The newsletter remains free, so that’s still a good deal! That spiffy new logo & wordmark is by Isaac King, artist and animator extraordinaire. He’s definitely one to watch, especially if you leave valuables lying about. This project grew out of my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting; there is absolutely no need to sexualize the act of tapping the❤️ below.
Seriously? Mae West, postcards, support artists! What could be better?
I am a postcard nut. No famous artists or writers in my collection, just friends and family. Oh, and those cards I send myself whenever I travel. Started during a three month solo trip to Europe, age 22 in 1970. 14 countries in 14 weeks. Has become an obsessive tradition.
I’m in the other CA (California). Guess my credit union will be bright enough to figure how much to charge me for my upgrade.