Funny Stories about Famous People
January 27, 2011 3:20 PM   Subscribe

What is your favorite short anecdote about a famous and/or influential historical personage?

Not looking for quotes here. For my AP class, I've had some success ending the class with a short (1-2 minute) story about some person or period under discussion, but there are wide swaths of the subject area I just haven't fun-studied enough to have these kinds of finishers for every day or topic. I want more.

Also: I just love short, funny, or bizzare stories about historical figures. It is its own reason. Ideally it's something that could be rattled off in a minute or three.

During a discussion of the Civil War, I mention the paucity of any pictures of Lincoln that are not stern and serious and frowny (There is one, I believe?) and find that telling the anecdote from Team of Rivals that DKG told on the Daily Show, which can spring off any number of discussions.

They need not be US-centric, Rome and Greece are full of these sorts of things, and I'm a big fan of Alexander's gift to Leonidas, as its is a story that is both awesome on its own, and can be plugged in to finish all kinds of topics about the Classical and Hellenistic worlds.
posted by absalom to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
A woman walked up to Noel Coward and said, "You smell!"

He replied, "No, madam, you smell. I stink."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:46 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

My favourite is about Albert Einstein: He was apparently a late talker and his parents were worried about his mental development. At last, at the supper table one night, he broke his silence to say, "The soup is too hot." Greatly relieved, his parents asked why he had never said a word before. Albert replied, "Because up to now everything was in order."
posted by nomis at 3:58 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

From Richard Feynman:
You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:13 PM on January 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

Since you mention Lincoln, I am compelled to mention broadswords in a pit.
posted by hattifattener at 4:18 PM on January 27, 2011

There's lots of good ones about Wittgenstein, but my favorite regards Wittgenstein wielding a poker against Karl Popper:

The club became legendary within philosophy because of a meeting on 25 October 1946 at Richard Braithwaite's rooms in King's, where Karl Popper, another Viennese philosopher, had been invited as the guest speaker. Popper's paper was "Are there philosophical problems?", in which he struck up a position against Wittgenstein's, contending that problems in philosophy are real, not just linguistic puzzles as Wittgenstein argued. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but Wittgenstein was apparently infuriated and started waving a hot poker at Popper, demanding that Popper give him an example of a moral rule. Popper offered one—"Not to threaten visiting speakers with pokers"—at which point Russell had to tell Wittgenstein to put the poker down and Wittgenstein stormed out. It was the only time the philosophers, three of the most eminent in the world, were ever in the same room together.[49] The minutes record that the meeting was "charged to an unusual degree with a spirit of controversy.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:18 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mental Floss is full of this kind of thing. A perusal of their blog will bring up lots of interesting/funny stories about historical people, places and events. For example, they have a series called Five things you didn't know about... that has a lot of t his kind of thing.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 4:26 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

My favorite story about Harry Truman was how, when he became Roosevelt's VP, he honestly didn't know the depth of Roosevelt's illness at the time, as it was a closely guarded secret.

After he actually met Roosevelt in person at this time and was let in on the secret, he had a giant ZOMG reaction. Some of Truman's letters to his own trusted colleagues back in Missouri had passages like, "Uhh, not sure this was a good move. In deep shit. I think this guy's gonna die." Roosevelt died three months into the term.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:29 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have time, check out the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. So many favorites there, I wish I could find my book (it's packed in a box).

Hopefully recalling this correctly..

John Bronte (father of the Bronte sisters) was hosting guests for dinner and the topic at the table was regarding the horrors of cannibalism. He smiled as he wryly responded, "If we are to have meat at all, why not the best?"

Another about Thoreau..

While out with a berry gathering party, Edward Emerson, then a young boy, in his eagerness, tripped and spilled his berries. He was inconsolable even when others reassured him with offers from their own bounties. Thoreau knelt on his knee, put his arm around the boy and told him that "In order for the crop to continue, nature had provided for little boys to now and then, trip and sow the berries so that they may continue go grow. If he would come back next year, he would find a terrific lot of berries in this very spot!" And at that, Edward broke into smiles.
posted by loquat at 4:34 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Julius Caesar was captured by pirates when he was young. They were going to hold him for ransom, but he was offended at the small amount they had requested and insisted that they raise it.

They did.

While waiting, he spent the time hanging out with them, practicing fighting, relaxing, and promising them that when his friends returned with the money and they released him, he'd raise a fleet, come back, and kill them all.

He did.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:45 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester, at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. They headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the railhead at Dickinson, and Roosevelt walked the whole way, the entire 40 miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in Roosevelt’s eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read."

— David McCullough
posted by magstheaxe at 4:48 PM on January 27, 2011 [18 favorites]

Aaron Burr was a bad ass.

Taken from

Burr’s discipline was indeed very strict, so that at first raw recruits rebelled against it. On one occasion the men of an untrained company resented it so bitterly that they decided to shoot Colonel Burr as he paraded them for roll-call that evening. Burr somehow got word of it and contrived to have all the cartridges drawn from their muskets. When the time for the roll- call came one of the malcontents leaped from the front line and leveled his weapon at Burr.

“Now is the time, boys!” he shouted.

Like lightning Burr’s sword flashed from its scabbard with such a vigorous stroke as to cut the man’s arm completely off and partly to cleave the musket.

“Take your place in the ranks,” said Burr.

The mutineer obeyed, dripping with blood. A month later every man in that company was devoted to his commander. They had learned that discipline was the surest source of safety.
posted by Felex at 4:58 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Marion "Mamie" Fish was a doyenne in New York and Newport society known for her wit, penchant for practical jokes and the elaborate parties she hosted in the family's several mansions (some designed by Sanford White); her husband, Stuyvesant, was a railroad baron. Anyway at one Thanksgiving feast the guests were assembled around the table as one of the servers brought in an enormous platter laden with vegetables surrounding a perfectly cooked 25 lb turkey. Suddenly the server lost his footing, tipped the platter and the turkey and trimmings slid to the floor. The guests stared in shocked silence. Without losing a beat, Mrs. Fish simply said, "That's quite alright. Just pick all that up, take it all back to the kitchen and bring out the other turkey."

Permission to believe is a wonderful thing. I used a similar ruse once when the fresh pasta I made that afternoon landed on the floor instead of in the pot. I put the pasta into a paper bag to "throw away," announced to the guests that I had more in the basement refrigerator, disappeared downstairs, rinsed it off in the laundry sink, put it into another container and returned, putting it into the boiling water before anyone could notice that it was a little damp. Plausible enough--but I was young then; today I'd just rinse it off in front of everyone.
posted by carmicha at 5:06 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Burr somehow got word of it and contrived to have all the cartridges drawn from their muskets.

Either this anecdote is a fake or it's gotten garbled in translation. Firearms in that era didn't use cartridges.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:36 PM on January 27, 2011

Two favorites about Sir Issac Newton: In his early twenties, he inserted a "bodkin" (letter opener thingy) into his eye socket to see how far it could go before.....god knows what! Gosh, things would be different if he had managed to blind or kill himself. He took notes, of course.

He also frequently lectured to an empty room during his tenure as a professor at Cambridge. The students were quite frightened of him, and couldn't make out what the deuce he was talking about. Optiks?
posted by effluvia at 6:10 PM on January 27, 2011

The History category at Futility Closet is lousy with this sort of anecdote. Eg:
While a law student at Duke University, Richard Nixon broke in to the dean’s office with two friends to see their forthcoming grades.

“They replaced everything, took nothing, damaged nothing, and committed no indiscretions,” writes Conrad Black in his 2008 biography of the president. “Yet some Nixonophobes have suggested that this was a foretaste of felonious behavior, and of a propensity for office break-ins.”
Another good one from here at MeFi: Abraham Lincoln's duel
posted by carsonb at 6:18 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love these weird stories! For me, they're what makes history. I've got a whole bundle of them:

Andrew Johnson, in his bid for reelection, went on disastrous a speaking tour in 1866 called the Swing Around the Circle that's fodder for any number of funny stories. I haven't been able to find confirmation for this in a few minutes of googling, but my history professor said at some stops it devolved into Johnson and the audience hurling insults at each other, and when the audience threw stuff at Johnson at one stop he collected it to throw back at the audience at the next stop.

Accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss was convicted based on the testimony of his one-time neighbor Whittaker Chambers. Chambers claimed that Hiss had taken documents from the State Department to hand over to the Soviets, but couldn't produce them at first. After a lot of pressure, he retrieved a film canister with the evidence from his secret hiding spot. When I told the story in class I paused and made the kids guess where they'd hide state documents somewhere where nobody could find them. They always picked the easy places like under the bed or in a fake ceiling panel and I told them they'd all make horrible spies. Noody ever came up with Chambers' hiding space: he hid the film canisters in a hollowed-out pumpkin he kept out in his garden. The "Pumpkin Papers" got Hiss convicted of perjury, but not spying because the statute of limitations on espionage had run out by then.

Mussolini went to a boarding school when he was little, but was expelled for stabbing another student in the hand.

Henry Box Brown isn't a household name these days, but he was pretty popular in the 1850s for his slave narrative that chronicled how he escaped slavery by constructing a crate 3 feet long by 2 feet wide, getting inside, and having a neighbor mail him to an abolitionist in the north. The journey took 27 hours, a good portion of which was spent upside-down, and when the abolitionist group opened up his crate in Pennsylvania he apparently sat up and said "How do you do, gentlemen?" He solicited funds to buy his wife and children's freedom, but said "screw it" and instead moved to England, where he married a British woman and became a magician.

Weird death stories are also good for a few chuckles. Rasputin's murder is always a good one, and Tojo's suicide attempt can get a few chuckles if you tell it right. And then there was Nietzche's mental breakdown, after which he never spoke again. And this isn't funny at all, but you'll have them hanging off their every word if you describe the execution of Ethel Rosenberg in excruciating detail.

This isn't about a person, really, but my favorite history story of all time is how the US military invaded Lebanon in 1958. Lebanese President Chamoun's government was losing its stability in the fallout from the Suez Crisis and he needed the US's help to keep power, so he claimed a Communist takeover was imminent. Eisenhower wasn't about to let that happen, so he invoked the Eisenhower Doctrine (for the first time!) and sent some marines over in Operation Blue Bat. Their objective was to land on the beaches in Beirut and go secure the airport. It all happened according to plan, because there weren't really any Communist forces to oppose them. My history professor described the scene as the marines emerging out of the ocean, in full combat gear, to a beach full of tourists. I like to imagine the tourists all just stared in utter confusion from their beach towels and umbrellas while the US military stormed by on the way to capture the city. Maybe they were drinking cokes from their picnic baskets.
posted by lilac girl at 6:37 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone remembers Issac Newton as the guy who said If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. Wow, what a nice grounded, humble guy for a genius.

But this quote is defeasible.

1) Apparently Newton was widely regarded as a self-important asshole. (This alone is interesting enough given the effect of the quote on the posthumous image of Newton)

2) The remark was in a letter to Hooke - regarding subjects they had worked together on, but Newton had had a falling out with Hooke.
Hooke was of slight build.

Some think Newton's humility was actually a jab.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:09 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Either this anecdote is a fake or it's gotten garbled in translation. Firearms in that era didn't use cartridges.

sure they did

posted by -harlequin- at 7:18 PM on January 27, 2011

I think everyone needs to know the coolest thing about Ben Franklin.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:17 PM on January 27, 2011

I believe I heard this from John Peel, but when John Lennon was asked why the Beatles did some songs in German he said "Because we thought only the Germans were stupid enough to buy our shit."
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 8:51 PM on January 27, 2011

I came to recommend Futility Closet, so +1 for that.
posted by papayaninja at 9:39 PM on January 27, 2011

One of my favorites - obviously apocryphal, but still great - is told by Stephen Hawking:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:02 PM on January 27, 2011

Apocryphal I'm sure, but it's quoted in a Carl Sandburg poem.

The pioneer driving a yoke of oxen and a cart met a heavy man in a buggy driving a team of black horses.

"I am Sam Houston, Governor of the State of Texas, and I order you to turn out of the road for me."

"I am an American citizen and a taxpayer of Texas, and I have as much right to the road as you."

"That is an intelligent answer and I salute you and I will turn out of the road for you."
posted by GaelFC at 10:32 PM on January 27, 2011

Lady Nancy Astor: Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea.
Winston Churchill: Lady Astor, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.
posted by dave99 at 2:19 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty's Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion's petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as the the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance.

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

posted by nickrussell at 3:32 AM on January 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Supposedly Calvin Coolidge became known as "silent Cal" during his vice presidency as a result of a little incident at a party he and his wife were attending. A woman undertook a bet that she could get Coolidge to say more than two words. The woman approached Coolidge and explained the bet, to which he replied "you loose."

Wikipedia (correctly?) claims that the woman was Dorothy Parker, who years later upon hearing that Coolidge had died, said "how can they tell?"
posted by Kevin S at 4:47 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown [separately] around an experimental government farm. When [Mrs. Coolidge] came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” President: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”
posted by kirkaracha at 7:23 AM on January 28, 2011

the anecdote from Team of Rivals that DKG told on the Daily Show

I case you don't watch the clip, it goes like this in the book:
One of Lincoln's favorite anecdotes sprang from the early days just after the Revolution. Shortly after the peace was signed, the story began, the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen "had occasion to visit England," where he was subjected to considerable teasing banter. The British would make "fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington" and displayed it prominently in the outhouse so Mr. Allen could not miss it. When he made no mention of it, they finally asked him if he had seen the Washington picture. Mr. Allen said, "he thought that it was a very appropriate place for an Englishman to Keep it. Why they asked, for said Mr. Allen there is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman Shit So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:33 AM on January 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Winston Churchill was quite a wit.

Once, when he was dozing on a train, a woman entered his carriage and noticed that his fly was open. She said "Mr Churchill! Your penis is sticking out!". Old Winston awoke, and answered: "Madam, don't flatter yourself. It is merely hanging out."

He also seemed to be quite forgetful with his fly.

Another time, he was walking along the street when he was informed by a passer-by that his fly was half open. He replied "Hmm. Or perhaps it it is half closed?", and carried on walking along the street.
posted by jonesor at 4:35 PM on January 28, 2011

One evening in July of 1830, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was throwing a dinner party. That there was a revolution on, that Paris's streets were full of barricades and partisans and its air full of the pealing of bells was not, evidently, sufficient cause to disturb the old man's social calendar.

During the salad course, the bells changed their tone from alarm to celebration, and snatches of song drifted in through the windows.

"Ah!" said Talleyrand, raising his glass. "It is over. We have triumphed."

"We, my prince?" said a guest. "And who would we be?"

"Oh, as for that," said Talleyrand, "I shall tell you tomorrow." And he called for dessert.

(Likely apocryphal, but definitely characteristic.)
posted by Iridic at 10:08 AM on January 29, 2011

Let me just say I feel really bad about the whole Karl Popper incident.
posted by wittgenstein at 7:24 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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