A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from February 09, 2009
“If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee” (Nancy Astor to Churchill?)

The following joke is frequently told about Nancy Astor (1879-1964) and Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Astor supposedly said: “if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee!” Churchill supposedly gave a witty reply: “If you were my wife, I’d drink it!”

The joke was attributed to American humorists Marshall P. Wilder and De Wolf Hopper, both in newspaper articles from the year 1900. Print citations date from at least November 1899, and many citations state that the item is from the Boston (MA) Transcript. The joke’s circumstances usually involve a man smoking a cigar next to the woman, with both aboard a street car. A New York play contained the joke by at least 1902.

Coffee is not included in the earliest verions of the joke, but was added by December 1900. ("If you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee tomorrow!")


Google Books
The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
2006
Pg. 155:
Winston Churchill
British statesman, 1874-1965
[Replying to Nancy Astor’s saying “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!”:]
And if I were your husband I would drink it.

Attributed in Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, Glitter and Gold (1952). George Thayer, who had worked as research assistant to Randolph Churchill on the latter’s biography of Winston Churchill, wrote in 1971 that this anecdote was false. In fact, the joke appears to be an old one. The Chicago Tribune, 3 Jan. 1900, printed the following: “‘If I had a husband like you,’ she said with concentrated scorn, ‘I’d give him poison!’ ‘Mad’m,’ he rejoined, looking her over with a feeble sort of smile, ‘If I had a wife like you I’d take it.’”

Google Books
Churchill by Himself:
The Definitive Collection of Quotations

By Richard Langworth
Published by PublicAffairs
2008
Pg. 578:
Poison in your coffee
[Nancy Astor: “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee."]
If I were married to you, I’d drink it.
CIRCA 1912, BLENHEIN PALACE.
(BALSAN, 162; SYKES, 127.)
Official biographer Martin Gilbert (In Search of Churchill, 232) suggested the author was F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, “a much heavier drinker than Churchill, and a notorious acerbic wit.” But Fred Shapiro (Yale Book of Quotations) says the riposte dates back even further, to a joke line in the Chicago Tribune of 3 January 1900: “‘If I had a husband like you,’ she said with concentrated scorn, ‘I’d give him poison!’ ‘Mad’m,’ he rejoined, looking her over with a feeble smile. ‘If I had a wife like you I’d take it.’” Verdict: F. E. Smith, giving new life to an old wisecrack.

19 November 1899, Gazette-Telegraph (CO),"Tales of the Town,” pg. 7:
Speaking of cigars reminds me of a story I heard the other day. It was told me for new but it is certainly good enough to be old.

On one of the recent warm days a sour-visaged, middle-aged, fussy lady got on one of the smoking seats on an open car. Next her sat a man who was smoking a cigar. More than that, the lady, sniffing, easily made out that the man had been eating onions. Still more than that he had been drinking beer. The lady, fussed and wriggled, and grew angrier and looked at the man scornfully. Presently she could endure it no longer. She looked squarely at him and said:

“If you were my husband, sir, I’d give you a dose of poison.”

The man looked at her. “If I were your husband,” said he, “I’d take it.”

Chronicling America
17 December 1899, Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, UT), pg. 18, col. 3:
Well Agreed.
(Boston Transcript.)
On one of the recent warm days a sour visaged, middle aged, fussy lady got on one of the smoking seats on an open car in the subway. Next her sat a man who was smoking a cigar. More than that, the lady, sniffing, easily made out that the man had been eating onions. Still more than that, she had the strongest kind of suspicion that he had been drinking beer. The lady fussed and wriggled, and grew angrier, and looked at the man scornfully. Presently she could endure it no longers. She looked squarely at him and said:

“If you were my husband, sir, I’d give you a dose of poison!”

The man looked at her. “If I were your husband,” said he, “I’d take it.”

Chronicling America
3 January 1900, New-York (NY) Tribune, pg. 6:
READY WITH HIS RETORT.
The following story is attributed to Marshall P. Wilder: Some evenings ago a man was seated in the corridor of one of the large hotels smoking a fragrant Havana cigar. On the lounge next to him were seated a woman and her daughter, the latter being immediately next to the smoker. The draft in the corridor blew the smoke from the cigar across the younger woman’s face, to which, although it annoyed her extremely, the smoker remained seemingly either oblivious or else wholly indifferent. Finally, after several quite audible remarks to her mother apropos of the rudeness of men in general in smoking in the presence of women, which passed rapidly into a somewhat hectic comment on this smoker in particular, the frayed string of her temper broke, and, turning savagely to the tormentor, she said: “If you were my husband do you know I’d poison you?” Her neighbor, removing his cigar from his lips, promptly responded. “And do you know, madame, were you my wife, I’d take that poison?”

3 January 1900, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, “Scored Last,” pg. 12:
“If I had a husband like you,” she said, with concentrated scorn, “I’d give him poison!”
“Mad’m,” he rejoined, looking her over with a feeble sort of smile, “If Ihad a wife like you I’d take it.”

7 January 1900, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Mutually Agreeable (from the Boston Transcript),” pg. IM9:
“If you were my husband, sir, I’d give you a dose of poison!”
The man looked at her. “If I were your husband,” said he, “I’d take it!”

29 July 1900, Fort Worth (TX) Morning Register, pg. 13:
DE WOLF HOPPER AND THE NEW WOMAN.
De Wolf Hopper was on an open street car the other day, when he ran across the severest type of the new woman. he was sitting on one of the back seats with the smokers when the woman got on and took a place right beside him. SHe had no business on earth there, but she got there. In speaking about the affair afterward, Mr. Hopper said:

“She was the ugliest looking woman I think I ever saw. Her nose turned up into the air, and I knew the moment that I saw her I could never be her friend. She looked at me suspiciously, as if she were wondering what reason I had for being alive. Now, it happened that I had a very severe cold, and a friend had recommended a strong onion sirup, and I had just purchased at a grocery store three or four old fashioned onions that I had slipped in my coat pocket. I took out one of these onions and began to peel and eat it.

“The woman eyed me from head to foot, looked me up and down. But she didn’t say anything—not then. So I went into my pocket again. In order to make the onion sirup according to instructions, I had bought a small flask of whisky. Well, I drew out this whisky, and I took the cork out of the flask and deliberately took a long pull at it before the new woman. SHe sized me up again good and hard. Then she said in a severe voice:

“‘Do you know what I would do to you if you were my husband?’

“‘No, ma’am,’ I said. ‘What would you do to me if I were your husband?’

“‘I’d give you poison!’ said she.

“‘And if you were my wife I’d take it,’ said I.”

2 December 1900, Morning Herald (KY), pg. 13:
PARRIED.
She—If you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee tomorrow.
He—And if you were my wife I would drink the coffee.
-- Fliegende Blaetter.

28 September 1902, New York (NY) , “In New Plays: Where the Laughs Come,” pg. 27:
These lines are saved from “Captain Molly,” in which Elizabeth Tyree appeared at the Manhattan:

Bunner—If I were your husband I’d give you poison.
Molly—If I were your wife I’d take it.

30 September 1906, Washington (DC) , “Here in Washington,” pg. ES4:
“Mr. Blank, if I were your wife, I’d give you a cup of poison.”
“Madam,” he responded, without a smile. “If you were my wife, I’d be glad to drink it.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (0) Comments • Monday, February 09, 2009 • Permalink