Irreverent, smart, and obscenely entertaining, this book shatters the myths, misconceptions, fallacies, and falsehoods about all the things people think they know
Lead pencils can give you lead poisoning . . .
Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head . . .
One dog year equals seven human years . . .
Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake!” . . . Fact or fiction?
Pedants, revolt! In chapters literary, medical, grammatical, historical, scientific, and biblical, this book sets the record straight on the facts behind the fallacies that have somehow become accepted wisdom. From insects to food, grooming to Greeks, the animal kingdom to assassinations, Harpo Marx to Shakespeare, and questionable quotes such as “It’s all Greek to me,” this remarkable book reveals the often surprising origins of the legends and folklore we mistake for the gospel truth—and teaches you to think twice before repeating them. Covering a range of diverse topics, this is the ultimate go-to book for settling many an unresolved dispute, shedding light on a wide variety of facts that we have always believed to be true, but which are, in fact, completely false.
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Andrea Barham is an author and freelance technical writer.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Art, Literature, and Entertainment
Harpo Marx was mute
Adolph Arthur Marx, known as Harpo Marx, was perfectly able to speak. He was also a talented and self-taught harpist, which is how he got his nickname.
In November 2000, BBC Radio Two's The Birth of Screen Comedy featured Harpo's son Bill Marx explaining why his father suddenly stopped speaking onstage. It came about as a result of a bad review, which said that "his pantomime was wonderful, but when he opened his mouth to speak he ruined the image." According to Bill Marx: "Dad took it to heart and he just stopped talking."
You can hear Harpo Marx explaining how he fell off a stool while playing the harp in a brothel at the following website:
Toulouse-Lautrec was a dwarf
The French artist Toulouse-Lautrec may have been born with a congenital disorder, but it wasn't achondroplasia (dwarfism) as is commonly believed. Arnold Matthias, author of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, has discovered that it was much more likely to have been "a hereditary bone disease (pyknodysostosis)."
The Encyclopaedia Britannica reveals that at the age of thirteen, Toulouse-Lautrec broke his left thighbone, and just over a year later he fractured his right thighbone in a second mishap. The resulting damage caused to his bones left his legs atrophied and made it very difficult for him to walk. According to the findings of geneticist Philip R. Reilly, in his book Abraham Lincoln's DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics, as an adult Toulouse-Lautrec "stood just shy of 4 feet 11 inches tall."
A further misconception surrounding the artist concerns the name "Toulouse." Often regarded as his rst name, Toulouse actually formed part of his surname. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cites his full name as "Henri-Marie-Raymonde de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa."
Errol Flynn was Irish or English or American
Dashing Hollywood actor Errol Flynn earned acclaim as a great swashbuckler in
lms such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Biographer Jeffrey Meyers reveals in his 2002 book Inherited Risk that in an effort to perpetuate Flynn's romantic screen image, Hollywood publicity departments portrayed Flynn as a "mad Irishman," an "elegant Englishman," and a "bold American."
However, Meyers reliably informs us that Flynn was the son of Australian scientist Professor Theodore Leslie Thomson Flynn, and he was born "on the cold, strange island of Tasmania" in 1909. Therefore Flynn was neither Irish, English, nor American, but Australian by birth.
Humpty Dumpty was an egg
Humpty Dumpty came to be regarded as an egg after he was drawn as one in Lewis Carroll's 1872 children's book, Through the Looking-Glass. Before that, no one knows for sure exactly what Humpty Dumpty was.
In The Great Plague, writer and historian A. Lloyd Moote suggests that Humpty Dumpty was "the royal cannon . . . that fell from a church wall [St. Mary at the Walls, Colchester, Essex] during a Civil War siege" in the late 1640s. Legend has it that a Parliamentary cannonball hit the tower wall below where the royal cannon was positioned, which caused it to fall off. All the king's horses (the horsemen) and all the king's men (the foot soldiers) tried to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall, but failed.
Though many believe this story to be true, there's no proven connection between the cannon and the nursery rhyme.
Walt Disney is cryonically frozen
Film producer, director, and animator Walt Disney is, of course, the most famous cryonically preserved celebrity. At least, he would be if he had really been frozen. Disney hated funerals and before he died he made it clear that he did not wish to have one. Consequently his funeral service in December 1966 was small and private. Less than a month later, local psychologist Dr. James Bedford became the first person to be preserved at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. The fact that the birth of cryonics and Disney's low-key funeral occurred at much the same time seems to have been the main reason why questions were raised about the final resting place of Disney's body.
The printed version of the rumor is said to have first appeared in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969. It was then mentioned in a number of unauthorized biographies, one of which, Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, also claimed that Disney had an interest in cryonics. So was Walt Disney frozen? Not according to the Cryonics Institute who have stated: "We don't think so."
Biographers Katherine and Richard Greene, who had full access to the Disney family and archives, have said in their 1998 book The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney: "Contrary to rumor, Walt was cremated--not frozen." Indeed, his death certificate states that his remains were subject to a "cremation" on "12/17/66" at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, Los Angeles, California, after which, according to Frommer's Los Angeles 2004 author Matthew Richard Poole, they were buried "in a little garden to the left of the Freedom Mausoleum."
Victorian actress Sarah Bernhardt performed wearing a wooden leg
The nineteenth-century French actress Henriette-Rosine Bernard (aka Sarah Bernhardt) certainly lost a leg during the course of her long career. During a South American tour in 1905, she sustained an injury to her right knee while appearing in a production of the play La Tosca, when she landed badly after jumping off the parapet in the last scene of the play. Ten years later the leg had become gangrenous and had to be amputated. Bernhardt was seventy-one years old.
Though Bernhardt did try using a prosthetic leg, she didn't take to it. However, she was determined not to let this setback damage her successful acting career, and when she was able, she embarked on another European tour in 1920, in which she played roles that she could act while remaining seated.
The theater critic Howard Greer describes one of Bernhardt's valiant performances in an article published in the Theatre Magazine in 1920: "Throughout the action of the play the star [Bernhardt] makes but two appearances and remains seated upon her golden palanquin. She is carried upon the stage by four richly armored slaves and reclines voluptuously on her cushions."
"Puff, the Magic Dragon" is a veiled reference to smoking marijuana
Legend has it that this delightful children's hit song by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary is all about smoking marijuana: i.e., "Puff" refers to drug-related smoking; "little Jackie Paper's" surname implies cigarette-rolling papers; "autumn mist" is marijuana smoke; and the land of "Honalee" refers to the Hawaiian village of Hanalei, famed for its highly potent marijuana plants. However, this suggestion has been strongly denied by all those associated with the song's origins.
Leonard Lipton, author of the original 1959 poem that formed the basis of the song, has claimed that it was inspired by Ogden Nash's poem "The Tale of Custard the Dragon," and was about the transition from childhood to adulthood. The song's cowriter, Peter Yarrow, has added: "When 'Puff' was written, I was too innocent to know about drugs . . . What kind of a mean-spirited SOB would write a children's song with a covert drug message?"
What kind indeed? Anyone want to cast aspersions on Peter, Paul and Mary's second hit "Blowin' in the Wind"?
W. C. Fields has "I'd rather be in Philadelphia" on his tombstone
It is often claimed that actor and screenwriter W. C. Fields--who starred in
lms such as My Little Chickadee (1940) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)--has the above legend engraved on his tombstone. In fact, the brass plaque in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, Los Angeles, California, which marks his final resting place reads simply: "W. C. Fields 1880-1946."
Biographer James Curtis explains that the famous epitaph--"Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia"--which is often misquoted, first appeared in Vanity Fair in October 1924. Fields made the quip in response to the journalistic question: How would you like your epitaph to read? The quote is often paraphrased as: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" or "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
Frankenstein was a monster
Mary Shelley's Gothic horror story Frankenstein is named after the main character Victor Frankenstein, who creates a monstrous living being out of human body parts. English professor Ellen Moers's commentary, Female Gothic, explains that "the scientist runs away and abandons the newborn Monster, who is and remains nameless." Therefore, the creature should be properly referred to as "Frankenstein's monster."
Incidentally, Frankenstein wasn't a German doctor, but a Swiss student of natural science.
Baseball originated in nineteenth-century America
In 1905, U.S. baseball league presidents set up the Mills Commission, which declared that Abner Doubleday "devised" baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. However,...
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