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The Art of the Comeback

November 26, 2013

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Jean Gabin and Arletty

Is there anything better for Christmas than a bit of a laugh? Well, a visit by, say, the blonde CIA agent in Homeland would be preferable, but I think she’s got other things on her mind than yours truly. Great comebacks are my favorites. For example: When the great French actress Arletty was dragged into court and accused of giving comfort the French way to a German Luftwaffe officer, her only defense was, “€œIf you men hadn”€™t let them in so easily, I wouldn”€™t have slept with him.”€ She also added that her heart belongs to France, “€œbut my ass is international.”€ She was cheered and set free immediately.

The most famous comeback belongs to Voltaire”€”who else? When asked on his deathbed by a priest if he renounced the Devil, he responded that this was no time to make new enemies. An even bigger ham, the great John Barrymore”€”also on his deathbed”€”felt his nurse put her head on his chest trying to hear if his ticker was still ticking. “€œOK, hop in,”€ said the actor, then he expired. A pompous English judge who was notorious for cruising for boys late at night asked a colleague what he gave for buggery, meaning what length of prison time. (Homosexuality was until 1967 illegal in a nation composed mostly of homosexuals.) “€œOh, fifty pence or so,”€ answered his colleague.

“€œWhen asked on his deathbed by a priest if he renounced the Devil, he responded that this was no time to make new enemies.”€

My own greatest quip came to me while dead drunk. Most good comebacks are never thought out. They just happen. We were at Mortimer’s attending a Reinaldo and Carolina Herrera dinner party for Princess Margaret. I was placed next to Margaret after the main course. (They were switching people around so she would meet them all up close.)

“€œI think we met in “€™67,”€ I said, slurring my words.

“€œWhat, you”€™re a schivil shervant?”€ slurred the princess right back.

“€œDo I look like a schivil schervant?”€

“€œMy God, he’s a schivil schervant.”€

End of conversation, and a quick change of placement followed. On our way out, the nice pianist saw the Princess and hit a few bars of “€œGod Save the Queen.”€

“€œNo, no, none of that,”€ said an agitated Margaret.

“€œIt’s not for you, ma”€™am, it’s for Jerry Zipkin,”€ said yours truly, never to be spoken to ever again by Jerry.

A comeback as good as Voltaire’s”€”who some believe had thought of his comeback beforehand as he knew what the priest would ask him”€”was from John Wilkes, the brilliant orator and Parliamentarian when he was told by the Earl of Sandwich that he would die either in the gallows or by the pox. Wilkes never missed a beat: “€œThat depends, Sir, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”€

Robert Benchley, one of our greatest humorists, was also a famous lush. Emerging from a nightclub he saw the resplendent doorman in uniform and said, “€œMy good man, call me a taxi.”€

“€œHow dare you,”€ said a furious gentleman, “€œI am a United States admiral.”€

“€œOh, in that case, call me a battleship.”€

“€œWhat the fuck was that?”€ This vulgarity was supposedly pronounced by the mayor of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The other one about the Japanese takes place in a New York high-school class for 16-year-olds. “€œWho said, “€˜We will pay any price, bear any burden”€™ and so on?”€ asks a teacher. Nobody answers until from the back of the class a tiny hand goes up. It’s a new boy, Takashita.

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