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Beau Brummell and Famous Snubs

Issac Cruikshank's 1824 satiric sketch of the Cyprian's Ball at the Argyle Rooms, where 13 years earlier
Brummell snubbed the Prince Regent ("Cyprian" is a Regency term for high-class prostitute)

This July is the anniversary of one of the most famous snubs in history, or at least in British history.

George Cruikshank's 1819
caricature of Prinny
For it was in July of 1813 that Beau Brummell snubbed the Prince Regent at London’s Argyle Rooms. And that snub, for whatever momentary satisfaction it may have given Brummell, marked the beginning of the end of his career as the most famous dandy in Regency England.

Brummell and a trio of his aristocratic chums (Lord Alvanley, Sir Henry Mildmay, and Henry Pierrepoint) were hosting a ball to celebrate the money they’d won gambling at Watier’s Club.

The four dandies reluctantly invited the Prince Regent to their party, primarily because His Royal Highness was determined to attend despite the fact that he'd recently quarreled with Brummell. So when he arrived at the ball, Prinny greeted Brummell’s friends but ignored the Beau.

Brummell retaliated by inquiring in a high-pitched voice that penetrated the room's din:

 “Alvanley, who is your fat friend?”

Now, the Prince was extremely sensitive about his ever-increasing girth, so he was mortified and infuriated by Brummell’s remark, so much so that he never spoke to the Beau again. And despite the fact that the Prince Regent was enormously unpopular with his subjects and the dandy's social standing remained undiminished after the snub, at least for a time, forever losing his royal patron had an enduring effect on Brummel. 

To the end of his life, the Beau hoped the rift between him and Prinny would heal, especially after the Prince was crowned King George IV in 1821.  
Brummell in 1805, by Robert Dighton

Instead, Britain’s most famous dandy spent the next couple of years shunned by the Regent. It became increasingly difficult for him to find anyone who'd give him a line of credit, and he piled up gambling debts he couldn’t repay. 

Brummell was forced into exile, fleeing to France in 1816 to avoid arrest. He never returned to England, much less to his former position as the unrivaled authority on Regency manners and mores.  

One a king of London society, Brummell died in Caen in 1840 after a stint in debtor's prison. He ended his days in dire poverty, ravaged mentally and physically by syphilis, dirty and unkempt - a state that was a far cry from his former fastidiousness. 

Whether retaining the King as a lifelong friend rather than making him an enemy in 1813 would've altered Brummell's sad fate is impossible to know but easy to conjecture.

In researching the Brummell/Prinny incident, I came across other snubs and put-downs in history. I suspect they’re more fun to read about than to experience.

Here are four other encounters (in roughly chronological order) during which at least one person got zinged:

Lord Sandwich and Samuel Foote

Samuel Foote was a famous 18th-century playwright, and the story goes that he was sharing a meal with Lord Sandwich at London’s famous Beef Steak Club in Covent Garden. After the bottle had passed back and forth a few times, Sandwich said:

“Foote, I have often wondered what catastrophe would bring you to your end; but I think you must either die of the pox [syphilis] or the halter [hanged on the gallows].”

Without missing a beat, Foote replied: “My Lord, that will depend upon one of two contingencies - whether I embrace your Lordship’s mistress or Your Lordship’s principles.” 

 Talleyrand and Madame de Stäel 

Madame de Stäel was a famous French author and one of the most influential women of her time. Her life spanned both the French Revolution and the Regency, as well as Napoleon's rule in France. Her lovers included several important men, including the witty Talleyrand, the French politician who represented France at the Congress of Vienna.  

Madame de Stäel in 1810, by François Gérard 

In 1802 Madame de Stäel published her first novel, Delphine. In the book, de Stäel depicts her former lover, Talleyrand, as the character Madame Vernon, a sly and treacherous villain. Meanwhile, the title character Delphine, whom de Stäel modeled after herself, is written as a paragon of feminine beauty.

The book was a sensation, and no doubt an embarrassment to Talleyrand. But he had his revenge on de Stäel, a woman known for having a somewhat masculine cast to her facial features.

In a letter to her, he wrote: “I hear that you’ve written a book in which both you and I are disguised as women.”

Sarah Bernhardt around 1864, photo by Félix Nadar
Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt 

Oscar Wilde was an admirer of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. 

Once, after a supper, Wilde asked the actress: “Do you mind if I smoke?”

To which she replied, “Oscar, I don’t care if you burn.”

Mark Twain and Henry James

The famous American author offered this witty twist to a standard compliment in a comment he made about a book written by his literary contemporary, Henry James:

“Once you’ve put it down, you simply can’t pick it up!”

Winston Churchill in December 1941, by Yousuf  Karsh

Winston Churchill and Lady Astor

Churchill was noted for being an astute politician, a heavy drinker, and a clever wit. But not everyone was charmed by him.

According to legend, Lady Astor once said to him in exasperation: “If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

Churchill’s response?

“If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

So there you have it – five famous snubs. One contributed to a social lion's eventual downfall, and the others make amusing anecdotes. These stories are a good reminder that a witty remark can sometimes ricochet, hurting the one who hurled it. 

That was certainly true for Beau Brummell. 

But for most of us, a funny comment is a blessing because, after all, who doesn’t appreciate a good joke, especially in these distinctly unfunny times?

And while we're on the subject of wit, here is British author, actor and wit Stephen Fry with his explanation of the difference between American and British comedy and comedians:

Sources for this post include:

  • Wit, The Best Things Ever Said, compiled and edited by John Train, Edward Burlingame Books, New York, NY 1991
  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency, by J.B. Priestley, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY 1969
  • Beau Brummell, by Hubert Cole, Mason/Charter, New York, 1977

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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