Old Money: In Their Own Words

One of our long-time readers, “Mary Louise Case”, offers another insightful missive on the importance of reading, thinking, and having something interesting to say.

Thank you, MLC.

The photo of Quentin Crisp is by Ross Bennett Lewis.


Wit: The weapon of weapons

Years ago, I watched broadcast of several spliced interviews with Quentin Crisp detailing the twists and turns of his inimitable life. I was most struck by that which also surprised the interviewer: Crisp stated he left his phone number listed in the New York phone book so that if anyone wanted to take him to and pay for dinner, Crisp would ‘sing for his supper’ telling tales of his life.

My first thought was: what a nice little insurance scheme against an impromptu financial reversal! To eat a hearty dinner at La Grenouille – gratis! – while telling enthralled guests about a stream of poor decisions in 1930s London seems quite delightful. Crisp could end up with a stomach filled with grilled Dover sole and his patrons were charmed beyond their expectations.

After the program was over this exchange didn’t leave me for weeks. What if I had to sing for my supper if the opportunity arose? What stories could I tell that would entertain my dinner companions to the point where they felt the night was unforgettable?

Remembering each segue of the Quentin Crisp show I realize every single time he responded to any question, he replied with something concise, apt, and extremely witty which may be why I enjoyed the broadcast so much.

My life was not as colorful as Quentin Crisps’ nor did it have the fateful twists and turns living in two of the most dynamic cities of the 20th century, London and New York City.

But what if I found myself in a position where I had to use my charm to secure a meal in a top-notch restaurant – what would I do? How does one sharpen one’s wit and display this with perfect timing for all dinner companions? The answer, which will surprise no one, is reading everything one can get their hand’s on, and as often as possible. Of course a person’s ability to remember detail is important, too, and understanding story structure, how a word can have several meanings, and knowing how to raise and lower your tone as the story progresses only helps matters.

I don’t know any clearer target to successful dialog with others than cultivating the habit of reading. It’s very true that the act of reading a book is nothing more than hallucinating while one looks at part of a dead tree. But reading literature and poetry, for instance, also primes the mind on how to handle and parse information using the rules of logic and imagination; both are extremely resourceful in problem-solving in throughout life. Your mind becomes a warehouse of useful information and a chronological record of the events in historical or utopian tales offered by talented writers. Now you can pick and choose what to offer as entertainment from this brain-warehouse you take with you everywhere.

If one reads enough, reflects enough, remembers stories, develops original ideas, and shares the adventures of others, I believe this is a very good start to becoming an excellent dinner guest. Certainly being interesting–and interested–at a dinner party makes your host look brilliant. The party is a social success and those present speak about it for weeks.

Refining one’s wit is as important as keeping your teeth clean, paying your taxes in full on their due date, and checking to see if your spouse is still breathing if they’ve gone quiet for more than an hour.  Reading well and reading often is the grist for the wit’s mill which may help you sing for your supper when a friend feels generous – or just in need of company – on a Saturday evening.

  • “Mary Louise Case”

12 thoughts on “Old Money: In Their Own Words

  1. I love this! Too often I find my immediate pool of people for conversation rehashing the same headlines we have all read. It seems no one reads beyond whatever story is most prominent on the Internet these days. I was attracted to my husband because he had something to say that I had never before heard.
    The other side of this coin is one can sometimes (too often?) find oneself in the unfortunate situation of being looked at in bewilderment when trying to bring up for conversation a topic outside of the normal banality being offered today.
    What a wonderful article, Byron. More on this would be lovely, please.

  2. Wit and the art of conversation, in other words social skills, eludes most people I see everyday, i.e., my office mates. Not only is there little in the way of conversation, what is said is so insulting I nearly gasp at the faux pas, yet they are unaware of their gaff. It is truly uninspiring. The other side of the coin is that I have to explain the most basic level of knowledge to almost all. It makes every exchange feel like a task. I’ve given up.

    1. Hang in there, Anne. One of the duties of Old Money Gals (and Guys) is to be polite and patient with others, even if they aren’t exactly the way we’d like them to be. It’s sometimes a challenge. Hopefully, you can make the most of your social opportunities away from the workplace, and the enjoyment outside the office will compensate. – BGT

  3. Hello Byron. I heard a phrase the other day that I liked. It’s referencing Anne’s comment and your reply to her. The phrase… “High standards for yourself, grace for everyone else.” But I do have to agree that the art of conversation seems to be lost.

  4. When my husband was a lobbyist in DC we were always invited out – White House, embassies, fund raisers and sometimes just dinner or cocktail parties at various places. My real estate business was part-time then as my most of my time was spent rearing the children. I CONSTANTLY read everything I could get my hands on so I would have something to contribute to the conversation or at least answer a question intelligently. And even then sometimes it was just best to say ‘I’m not familiar with that, but I’d LOVE for you to tell me more about it.” Regardless, I was always able to ‘hold my own’ because most of the politicians there are so egotistical they just wanted to talk about themselves so I’d ask questions to get them started. Now that I’m Texas I have so many stories from Washington DC that people want to hear those stories!

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