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The art of witty repartee

Monday, August 11, 2014

A politician once asked me, sneeringly, “Do journalists ever get it right?’’

Before I could chasten myself, the words flew right out of my mouth: “Read tomorrow’s story about yourself and find out.’’

He never spoke to me after that. And the next day’s story was a doozy. 

In one of my less than shining moments, I was called into my editor’s office, expecting to be chewed out about a comma or dangling something. Instead, he congratulated me on my most recent article and then added, “Who wrote it for you?’’

Again, the words escaped my lips before I could kick myself in the ankle: “I am so glad you liked it. Who read it to you?’’ 

My mind must have been invaded by Ilka Chase, an American actress and novelist who had once subdued a sweet young thing with the same comeback, after the actress had sniped about Ilka’s autobiography, Past Imperfect.

Good thing Mr editor could take a joke.

Have you ever had one of those awkward moments when someone says something offensive, annoying or just plain stupid and you can’t think of a rejoinder until days later? 

While there is truth in the maxim that a still tongue keeps a wise head, sometimes you just have to define a moment with a shivering retort. The best rejoinders are perfectly polite, and delivered with a sangfroid that would put the chill in the bones of Winston Churchill, who was famous for his icy comebacks. One of his most celebrated took place at a reception where a well-starched wife of a politician reprimanded him: “Mr Churchill, you are drunk!’’ Came the reply: “And Madam you are ugly but I shall be sober in the morning.”