“The Gleaming Toys of History”

“One good anecdote is worth a volume of biography.”
— William Ellery Channing

What exactly is an anecdote?

“A usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident”
— Webster’s Dictionary

“A biographical incident; a minute passage of private life”

— Samuel Johnson:

“The gleaming toys of history”
— Winston Churchill

Hello, Goodbye, HelloHello, Goodbye, Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings presents an unbroken chain of anecdotes concerning encounters between people of note throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Author Craig Brown has linked 101 such stories, allotting each story 1001 words, an interesting construct that lends a sense of pacing to the book. He leads us forward and backward through history, connecting the dots of the private moments of some very public lives, titling each encounter appropriately to convey content or tone of the meting.

Starting from “Adolf Hitler is Knocked Down by John Scott-Ellis (Munich, 1931),” along the way, we see how “Harry Houdini Baffles President Theodore Roosevelt (Atlantic crossing, 1914)” and “Marilyn Monroe Wears Her Tightest, Sexiest Dress for Nikita Khrushchev (Hollywood, 1959) before closing the circle with “The Duchess of Windsor Takes Tea with Adolf Hitler (Bavarian Alps, 1937). One of my favorites has Helen Keller visiting Mark Twain, later describing our most American author: “He seemed to have absorbed all of American into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.’ ”

This is not the first book of anecdotes I have enjoyed.Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes
Many years ago, I discovered the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (1985, reissued in 2009), a much larger collection of shorter anecdotes. Free of the constraint of connecting famous characters in every anecdote, this collection (Clifton Fadiman, General Editor) catalogs its many subjects alphabetically, from Hank Aaron to King Zog. Some individuals contribute only one anecdote, while others may have many.


Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill’s life alone yields 49 anecdotes for this collection, including the time George Bernard Shaw invited Churchill to the opening night of his new play,  Saint Joan. Shaw sent two tickets with a note, saying, “One for yourself and one for a friend — if you have one.” Churchill expressed regret about being unable to attend on that evening, asking if he could instead have tickets for the second night — “if you have one.”


Of course, we all have personal anecdotes, as well. Our modern digital commons offer us the chance to share these stories, whether they are about Granny or Roky Erikson or George McGovern. BTW, those are all anecdotes I frequently share, along with tales of my dog, Brutus, and an awful lot of Austin anecdotes from the most recent half of forever (that’s long I’ve lived here).

Jerry Jeff Walker—Viva TerlinguaSome other time, I’ll tell you about how we nearly ruined Jerry Jeff Walker’s recording for his classic album, Viva Terlingua.  See, back in the summer of ’73, me and the 3 Mikes were hanging out at Thistle when Another Mike showed up asking, “Hey, who wants to drive out to Luckenbach?”

But that’s another anecdote…


About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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