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Author Topic: 1950s Election Quote
Unusual Elfin Lights
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This quote has always intrigued me. It seems a bit low for a campaign.

Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert!" Pepper has a sister who was once a thespian!" "Pepper practiced celibacy before his marriage!"
However, I have seen two convincing websites contradicting the veracity of this.

Allegedly, in the 1950 Democratic race for senate a guy named Smathers used this to cut down a guy named Pepper. Smathers eventually won the election.

My conundrum, I wish to use this in the future for some instruction, I just want to confirm whether it is fact or fiction. Can someone help out?


Posts: 2064 | From: New Brunswick, Canada | Registered: Aug 2004  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
The Red and the Green Stamps

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I researched this some time ago, but just got around to looking at this more closely in the past few months.

Short answer? Smathers never delivered the "thespian speech."

Long answer?

In his extensive Smathers biography Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America, Brian Crispell speculated on the birth of the "thespian speech" and how it ultimately became credited to Smathers.

Journalists [covering the Pepper and Smathers campaigns] discovered that, as in any campaign, after hearing a candidate on a day-long series of four to six speeches, even the most entertaining and vitriolic message became mundane. William H. Lawrence of the New York Times and the regular beat writer from the Miami Herald, Stephen Trumbull, both mentioned in their columns the repetitious nature of the speeches. Trumbull even noted the running gag among the reporters that since they knew the speeches "practically by heart," one of them could easily fill in for either candidate in the event of illness. (42) During this period, with additional writers covering the grind of the campaign trail, the most famous thing George Smathers never said was reported as fact. The origins of the alleged remark are unclear. Whether the product of worn-out journalists or an ambitious small magazine called "Quote," the quote attributed to Smathers had him preying upon the limited vocabulary of "backwoods" Florida townspeople by informing them: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy." (43)

The sensational quote was published by Time magazine on 17 April 1950 and then by Life magazine in its 23 October 1950 issue. The infamous lines by then were considered fact, though they had never been printed during the campaign by any Florida newspaper following the candidates, not even by Nelson Poynter's St. Petersburg Times. Eventually, the attributed statement was included in a book coauthored in 1954 by William F. Buckley entitled McCarthy and His Enemies. In response to Smathers's protest that the remarks were manufactured and that he had originally denied making them after they first appeared, Buckley sympathized but observed, "You will have a difficult time persuading the general public that you did not in fact make these remarks." The writer continued to note, "I have often heard extracts . . . consistently attributed to you, quoted. Inevitably, they bring a mirthful chuckle from the audience." Buckley then made a significant point in concluding that Smathers had not "suffered . . . from the general impression that you did indeed make [the remarks] in the course of your campaign against Senator Pepper." (44)

In fact, during the time frame in which the remarks were first published, Smathers did not endure criticism, probably because of the accepted characteristics of a bitter campaign that often featured cruel sarcasm and biting humor. However, as time passed the quote simply would not vanish, and, wrenched from the context of the 1950 contest, it emerged as even more outrageous than what it originally was. As late as 1964, Smathers's Senate office was answering inquiries regarding the quote. (45) Never, not even as a humorous aside to a friend, did Smathers accept responsibility. Finally, after leaving office, he made a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who could provide proof that he ever uttered the remarks. (46) The offer stands yet. [pp. 65-67]

(42) New York Times, 18 March 1950.
(43) Buckley and Bizell, McCarthy, 304-305.
(44) Smathers to William F. Buckley Jr., 17 March 1954; Buckley to Smathers, 10 June 1954, campaign file, 1950, box 110, Smathers Papers.
(45) Smathers to Rolfe Neill, 20 January 1964, file 61, box 56; William Jibb to Mrs. T.H. Murphy, 26 October 1964, file 69, box 57, Smathers Papers.
(46) New York Times, 24 February 1983.

That last footnote refers to an article Howell Raines wrote for The New York Times ("Legendary Campaign: Pepper vs. Smathers in '50," Pg. B8). Although Raines reported that the retired politician vehemently denied to him ever using the quips in any speech (and, in later years, Pepper himself also acknowledged that he never heard Smathers repeat any of the lines attributed to him), Smathers himself "said these wisecracks became the running jokes of the campaign and that [reporter William H. Lawrence of The Times] kept him posted on the latest versions."

Furthermore, Raines noted that, "William Fokes, a Tallahassee lawyer who was Mr. Pepper's administrative assistant at the time, also confirmed that reporters were passing around these jokes." (Smathers talks at some length about this in his 1989 inteview with Donald Ritchie.) Raines noted that everyone (from both camps) he interviewed was of the opinion that Smathers had never uttered any of these quips in any stump speech. Raines went on, however,

but there was evidence that once the jokes got started, the Smathers organization helped spread them. The idea was not to mislead ignorant voters with fancy words but to undermine respect for Mr. Pepper by making him an object of ridicule in the conservative Panhandle of northern Florida, recalled Daniel T. Crisp, a Jacksonville public relations man who worked in Mr. Smathers's behalf.

"It was actively used because it was funny," said Mr. Crisp. Two years before the election, he recalled, he was hired by Edward Ball, manager of the DuPont interests in Florida, to rally the conservative vote against Mr. Pepper. The jokes about celibacy and matriculation were part of an arsenal of anti-Pepper humor."

"Earwitness to Campaign Slymouth," a letter-to-the-editor that appeared in the 13 June 1989 edition of The New York Times (Section A, Pg. 26, Col. 4), was written by a University of Florida grad who contended that during that 1950 campaign he heard those phrases delivered "in multiple, statewide broadcast campaign speeches." It's unclear whether he claimed to have remembered hearing radio broadcasts or whether he attended Smathers's speeches in person, but for some reason he was sure that no reporters were responsible for writing those "accusations." Nevertheless, the writer went on to say,

Substantially, though, the episodes happened, and somebody must have recordings of them, even though tape and wire recording machines were not widespread in the populace. All radio stations had them.
No recordings of Smathers (or anyone else) repeating these lines during the campaign have surfaced. And, as Crispell mentioned, when it comes to Smathers's alleged remarks, no one's found any contemporaneous reports in any Florida newspapers that the candidate ever accused Pepper of indulging in celibacy before marriage or having a thespian-sister.

It's hard to figure out when Smathers is first supposed to have said these things about Pepper (or when the joke "speech" first surfaced), but Ben Zimmer has found a source that predates the frequently offered Time magazine version -- a 2 April 1950 Washington Post piece on "a story going the Washington rounds." There, the remarks are attributed to "[t]he political enemies of Senator Claude Pepper." Mention of Smathers himself as the culprit is notably absent.

The second part of the long answer is this: that conceit -- of benign $10-words being delivered so as to have sexual innuendo -- was already pretty well known to Americans in the 1950s.

A friend of mine, knowing my interest in Smathers's alleged "thespian speech," gave me a copy of Gershon Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (First Series) [New York: Grove Press, 1968] and pointed me to pages 148 and 149.

There, Legman writes,

Among the newspaper columnists who have been "livening up" their daily stints with refurbished sex jokes over the last few decades, . . . nothing quite so brave has yet been seen as the half-page ad for Gimbel's department store in The New York Times, Sunday, August 14, 1949, p. 72, in which all the possible changes are rung -- for advertising purposes -- on the following variation on the Omne ignotum pro obscno [1] theme:

A dying Irishman who has become rich, though uneducated, leaves half his fortune to the church, intending to leave the other half to the state coeducational college. "Devil's work!" cries the priest. "They take decent boys and girls and make them matriculate together. They even have to use the same curriculum!" The bequest to the college is cancelled. (N.Y. 1942.)

The Gimbels ad [2] changes the priest to an 'old lad,' though with a hint of a brogue -- 'Sure and he's got a point' -- to serve as a reminder; adding,

'But with 480 coed colleges dotting the smirking face of the land, with some 585,431 wimmen shamefully lurking with the lads in same, leave us face it. Matriculate together they will, says Gimbels -- so you gals might just as well relax and enjoy it.'

[. . .]

Baker, 1947, V. 3 gives this as a political speech by Senator Claghorn to his backwoods constituents.

(Legman then goes on to note Earl Wilson's 6 April 1950 column, which is mentioned in Zimmer's post, to which I linked above. "N.Y. 1942" indicates where and when Legman himself first heard this joke.)

"Baker, 1947, V. 3," which I've not actually seen, refers to George Baker's three-volume "Slightly Soiled . . . A group of tales, compiled and retold." It's difficult to know what Baker provided as evidence of a presumably humorous political speech, but Senator Beauregard Claghorn was a popular character (played by Kenny Delmar) on "Allen's Alley," Fred Allen's radio show, which ran from 1942 to 1949. (Delmar reprised the role for the 1947 film, "It's a Joke, Son!" He also made numerous public appearances as Senator Claghorn and, in character, met President Truman at one such event in January, 1948.) Claghorn, the folksy Southern Democrat politician (and on whom Foghorn Leghorn was patterned), was introduced in the fall of '45 and sent into retirement three years later.

(For what it's worth, Legman also mentions Samuel Goldwyn's "moronisms," [also known as "Goldwynisms"], many of which are suspected as apocryphal. One of these hinged on a reversed misunderstanding [reversed for this purpose, that is],

[Goldwyn] wanted to buy the movie rights to 'Radclyffe Hall's' novel The Well of Loneliness. "But Sam," an underling tried to warn him, 'you don't want to make a movies out of that. It's about Lesbians!" "Lissen, get me the book. So we'll turn 'em into Chinks." (N.Y. 1937, heard -- as usual -- from someone who swore he personally knew the vice-president at MGM to whom the remark was made.)
Legman speculates that most or all of moronisms attributed to Goldwyn, were "actually invented and put into circulation by his principal screen-writer, Ben Hecht, a good newspaperman gone Hollywood" and Charles MacArthur, who happened to write the screenplay for a 1947 comedy called "The Senator Was Indiscreet." The film featured William Powell as Melvin G. Ashton, a "dimwitted blowhard" U.S. Senator running for President.)

Certainly by early 1950s, then, the public was already not only well familiar with the radio voice and image of the bumbling politician (especially a Southern one), but also knew jokes that hinged on not understanding perfectly innocent "high-class" words and mistaking them for concepts decidedly less, well, polite.

And Claude Pepper [3], in fact, who was serving as Florida Senator in 1937 and who was therefore spending considerable time in Washington, would certainly have been familiar with that set-up:

[From Harlan Miller's "Over the Coffee" column, The Washington Post; 11 August 1937; Pg. 15.]

Popular anecdote on the Hill: About the Mississippi legislator who was opposed to co-ed schools because the boys and girls matriculate together and use the same curriculum.

To my mind, then, given the popularities of this form of joke and the already-present image of the bumbling Southern politician, once reporters' humorous quips about Pepper began to stick to Smathers, it was just a matter of time before someone came to believe he had heard Smathers himself on the radio, accusing his shameless extrovert of an opponent as having a thespian-sister.

-- Bonnie

[1] Everything unknown is taken as obscene.

[2] In fact, the relevant portion of that Gimbels ad reads,

"co-ed colleges?" "Devil's work! They take decent boys and girls," said the old lad, "make them matriculate together -- and even let them use the same curriculum!" Sure and he's got a point. But with 480 co-ed colleges dotting the smirking face of this nation, with some 585,431 wimmen shamefully lurking with the lads in same, leave us face it. Matriculate together they will, says Gimbels -- so you gals might just as well relax and enjoy it. You want no mis-mating of clothes, no color schemes gang awry. You want to dress, and dress your best for every blessed minute you use the same curriculum together."
[3] It's interesting to me, then, that the "thespian speech" gets its own exhibit space over at the Claude Pepper Museum,

[ETA: As UEL points out, Smathers and Pepper, former friends and co-workers, were running against each other in the Democratic Primary for the Florida Senate seat; this race did not take place in the general election. Smathers beat the incumbent handily, mostly because of his strong showing in the more conservative panhandle of the state. During the campaign, Smathers was accused of (and probably participated in) a lot of dirty activities. Delivering that "thespian speech," however, was probably the most benign of his alleged misdeeds.]

Se non vero, ben trovato.

Posts: -99014 | From: Chapel Hill, North Carolina | Registered: Feb 2000  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
The Red and the Green Stamps

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By the way, Bill Garvin's "Guaranteed Effective All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech," which appeared in Mad magazine in December, 1970, and which is the bastard grandchild of the "thespian speech," is not to be missed:

Bonnie "journalists are such cunning linguists" Taylor

Se non vero, ben trovato.

Posts: -99014 | From: Chapel Hill, North Carolina | Registered: Feb 2000  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
Unusual Elfin Lights
Happy Xmas (Warranty Is Over)

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Wow! That was one helluva post. [Eek!]

I did not expect nearly that much information. If I could give you my post count, I would. [Wink]

Thanks for that. Although my original intention of knowing this story is no longer valid, you have given me much food for thought in other areas.

Once again Bonnie, thanks. [Smile]

:UE sitting in awe:

Posts: 2064 | From: New Brunswick, Canada | Registered: Aug 2004  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
Coventry Mall Carol

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Post? That wasn't a post! That was a dissertation! [Smile] (ETA: and a well done one, at that!)

Come on, come on - spin a little tighter
Come on, come on - and the world's a little brighter

Posts: 5595 | From: Columbus, OH : The Soccer Capital of America | Registered: Sep 2002  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
The Red and the Green Stamps

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Thanks, you two. I'm obviously very fond of this political legend and therefore really appreciated your asking it about it, UEL. (Besides, a lot of that relied on others' research.)

For the past couple of months I've been especially curious to see earlier anecdotes that rely on the same form of leering innuendo, or - as Legman called it - a theme of omne ignotum pro obscno; it's quite possible several of these will turn up in, for example, turn-of-the-century dirty-joke books.

-- Bonnie

Se non vero, ben trovato.

Posts: -99014 | From: Chapel Hill, North Carolina | Registered: Feb 2000  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator

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