Quote or No Quote? Who Said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come and sit here by me”?

It’s the holiday season! Across Buzzkill Nation and around the Buzzkill World, families and friends will be attending parties, sitting down to family dinners, and, sometimes, imbibing too much and getting into traditional holiday-season arguments and fights.

For me, this always brings to mind that great quote, 

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, come and sit here by me.”

…attributed to Dorothy Parker, the early 20th century writer, wit, and satirist.

And, of course, like a great many quotes, there are variations on the phrasing:

“If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.”
“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me.”

As much a fan of Dorothy Parker as I am, I have to tell you that, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit here by me,” isn’t one of hers.

It was originally said by Alice Roosevelt, the eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. By the time her father ascended to the Presidency, Alice Roosevelt was a prominent writer and well-known socialite in New York and Washington. According to the most solid evidence we have, what Alice said (or, more accurately, what she had embroidered on a couch pillow) was “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me.”

From all accounts, Alice Roosevelt was vivacious, intelligent, curious, and constantly in motion. She was known to come into the President’s office, unbidden, several times a day, to offer her thoughts and suggestions on politics and to make comments on social affairs. Apparently, this frustrated the President greatly. So much so, in fact, that, after multiple “Alice interruptions” one morning, Teddy Roosevelt turned to an advisor and said, “I can either run the country, or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”’

This TR-ism is usually given as “I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice, but I cannot possibly do both,” which has a slightly different (and more condescending) meaning. But Teddy didn’t say that.

Alice Roosevelt married Ohio Congressman, Nicholas Longworth, in 1906, and continued to have an active and vocal social life for much of the 20th century. Her devastating description of Thomas Dewey, the 1944 Republican presidential candidate, was, “he looks like the bridegroom on the wedding cake.” This quip reinforced the idea that Dewey didn’t have the stature to be President. And Dewey, of course, lost to Alice’s cousin, FDR, in a landslide in the 1944 election. (And oh, by the way, that’s another quip I thought originated with Dorothy Parker.)

There are dozens more of these Alice Roosevelt stories, quotes, and bon mots, but there are only so many hours in any one podcast. In the interest of brevity, and to express the kind of holiday spirit we have here at the Buzzkill Institute, I’ll close with this. On the eve of her father being replaced as President by William Howard Taft in January 1909, Alice buried a voodoo doll of Nellie Taft, the new First Lady, in the garden of the White House.

And you can’t top that as one of the Buzzkill Blessings of the season. Talk to you next week.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Shelley Fraser Mickle, White House Wild Child: How Alice Roosevelt Broke All the Rules and Won the Heart of America

The fascinating historical biography of America’s most memorable first daughter, Alice Roosevelt, whose free spirit and status made her the Princess Diana and Jackie O of the early 20th century.

Perfect for readers of female-centric biographies like The Daughters of Yalta and for fans of the glitzy drama of The Gilded Age and The Crown.

During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency—from 1901 to 1909, when Mark Twain called him the most popular man in America—his daughter Alice Roosevelt mesmerized the world with her antics and beauty.

Alice was known for carrying a gun, a copy of the Constitution, and a green snake in her purse. When her father told her she couldn’t smoke under his roof, she climbed to the top of the White House and smoked on the roof. She became the most famous woman in America—and even the world—predating Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy as an object of public obsession.

As her celebrity grew, she continued to buck tradition, push against social norms, and pull political sway behind the curtain of privilege and access. She was known for her acerbic wit and outspoken tendencies which hypnotized both the social and political world.

Brilliantly researched and powerfully told, Shelley Fraser Mickle places the reader in the time and place of Alice and asks what would it have been like to be a strong-willed powerful woman of that day. Drawn from primary and secondary sources, Alice’s life comes into focus in this historical celebration of an extraordinary woman ahead of her time.

“With wit and fresh insight, Shelley Fraser Mickle brings vividly to life one of the most colorful figures of the 20th Century–the most glamorous, rebellious and contentious woman in the United States, and for a time the most famous.” –Jonathan Alter, former editor for Newsweek, author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life

“What a tale!. . .The history of the Roosevelts has been predominantly about men, now it’s Alice’s turn.”

—Diana Williams, WABC news anchor

Posted in

Leave a Comment