“Bring a friend if you have one”

“Bring a friend if you have one”

GBS in 1925 (Wiki­me­dia)

Alas the famous exchange between Churchill and George Bernard Shaw is  fic­tion.

Accord­ing to the usu­al­ly reli­able Kay Halle, in her quo­ta­tions book Irre­press­ible Churchill (Cleve­land: World, 1966, page 116), Shaw wrote to Churchill in 1924: “Am reserv­ing two tick­ets for you for my pre­miere. Come and bring a friend—if you have one.”

Churchill, Halle says, replied: “Impos­si­ble to be present for the first per­for­mance. Will attend the second—if there is one.” Finest Hour edi­tor Dal­ton New­field explained in the 1970s that the play in ques­tion was Shaw’s “St. Joan.”

But Allen Pack­wood, direc­tor of the Churchill Archives Cen­tre, has just come across an cor­re­spon­dence in a remote cor­ner of the Churchill Papers (CHUR 2/165/66,68) in which both Shaw and Churchill deny the exchange:

“A Mr. Tatham writes to George Bernard Shaw on 15 Sep­tem­ber 1949 ask­ing to pub­lish the famous exchange with WSC over the­atre tick­ets.

“Shaw replies: ‘The above is not only a flat lie but a polit­i­cal libel which may pos­si­bly dam­age me. Pub­lish it at your per­il, whether in asser­tion or con­tra­dic­tion.’

“Tatham also writes to Churchill, whose sec­re­tary, Eliz­a­beth Gilli­att, replies on 16 Sep­tem­ber 1949 as fol­lows: ‘he [Churchill] con­sid­ers Mr. Bernard Shaw is quite right in call­ing the inci­dent to which you refer ‘a flat lie.’”

The famous retort has been reprint­ed in many quote­books, includ­ing mine, but no more.


6 thoughts on ““Bring a friend if you have one”

  1. The sup­posed exchange has prob­a­bly stuck for many years because, like many false quotes, it “sounds” like both of them, as you say. (The alleged play was “St. Joan,” 1924.) But bar­ring any bet­ter evi­dence, all we can go on is Shaw’s hot denial (“a flat lie [and] a polit­i­cal libel”) and Churchill’s agree­ment that it didn’t take place. Too bad; it’s a clas­sic.

  2. One thing about this is that the denials took place many years after the event. So I would say this is still a POSSIBLE or ATTRIBUTED quo­ta­tion. Churchill and Shaw had a rival­ry and I don’t think it out of char­ac­ter for Shaw to have said what he said. Shaw had the rep­u­ta­tion of hav­ing a sharp, cru­el and often insult­ing tongue espe­cial­ly to peo­ple he con­sid­ered his social infe­ri­ors. I am cer­tain he nev­er would have talked to the Queen of Spain in that man­ner. It is pos­si­ble the exchange nev­er hap­pened. But I sense that Shaw was more con­scious post WW2 of his rep­u­ta­tion and Churchill’s rep­u­ta­tion. Pre-1914 -it is hard to imag­ine now -Churchill was a nobody com­pared to Shaw who was much more famous.

  3. True, one can’t prove a neg­a­tive, but I am inter­est­ed in what we actu­al­ly know Churchill said or wrote. The fact that both denied it, and that no doc­u­men­tary evi­dence of the exchange has ever been found in either of their archives, makes the con­clu­sion rea­son­able.

  4. The fact that two promi­nent fig­ures deny a clever but pri­vate exchange does not make it untrue. Nei­ther does it make it true. It means noth­ing more or less than that they denied it. They were both wit­ty men and it is easy to believe that it could have been said by either. Unless some­one finds the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments in ques­tion, we will nev­er know.

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