Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom

by david on 22 August 2010

In 1902 Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford and Addison Mizner wrote a book of witty updates of popular sayings (one example: “people who love in glass houses should pull down the blinds”). The book was packaged into calendar form, entitled The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1903, printed by the Twentieth Century Press and published by Elder & Shepard. The New York Times reviewed the book on 10 January 1903:

Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford and Addison Mizner have prepared an attractive little nonsense book in spite of its pessimistic title (The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1903, Elder & Shepard, San Francisco, 75 cents) very startlingly bound in warm red calico with two black cats conventionally intertwined to give it finish. Some of the wisdom smacks of bitterness, which even for a cynic is not nice, but others of their distorted proverbs make clever reading. Indeed, the very first sentiment that ushers in the New Year is one that is doubtless echoed by the majority of mankind: “God gives us our relatives; thank God we can choose our friends.”

Nonetheless, the Cynic’s Calendar was a huge success and spawned seven sequels and one compilation.

Many of Paul Elder’s authors were obscure and quickly forgotten, but this was not the case with Herford, Mumford and Mizner.

  • Oliver Herford (1863-1935) was a British-born writer, artist and illustrator who is sometimes called “the American Oscar Wilde.” He often wrote for the magazines Life, The Mentor, and Ladies Home Journal. His younger sister Beatrice Herford was a humorist, actress and vaudeville performer in England.
  • Ethel Watts Mumford (1878?-1940) was an American author and artist. Her parents were wealthy and gave her a fine education, including studying painting at the Julian Academy in Paris. She divorced her first husband when he became intolerant of her writing career, and swore not to remarry unless the new gentleman accepted her career. She married Peter Grant in 1906 and for a while wrote as Ethel Watts Mumford Grant before reverting to her original byline.
  • Addison Mizner (1872-1933) was an American architect famous for his Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial resorts in Florida. He was one of the most famous architects in America in the 1920s. He was born in Benicia, California and apprenticed with Willis Polk despite the lack of formal architectural training. Addison’s brother Wilson Mizner was manager of The Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, and they were involved in a series of scams and misadventures that inspired Stephen Sondheim’s musical Road Show.

In his memoir The Many Mizners, Addison tells the story of the making of the calendar. It is amusing enough that I have included it here in full. Our story begins in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he has been living for many months. He is almost broke, which apparently was not unusual:

Steamer day was the bright spot in the week, and one forgot his feuds in seeing new faces and getting news from the mainland. Hardly a steamer landed that did not bring people with letters of introduction and although they paid for carriages one had to do something for them, and this shaved my purse to a splinter.

One steamer day a most lovely young woman arrived. She had the usual letter, introducing Mrs Ethel Watts Mumford to me. She had with her, her aunt, Mrs Morrow, and cousin Ethel, and last but not least the “hell child,” her son of about seven. He was a terrible brat, but Ethel Mumford was so gay and attractive that even this handicap did not fend me off. She had just been divorced and wanted to be an author and was looking for local color. It was not long before she had the islands by the tail, for she thought the natives more interesting than the missionaries’ offspring.

She took a house at Waikiki, on the beach, and any moonlight night you could hear native music and see dimly the hula under the coconut trees, with a long cloth laid under the hoawa trees for a luau.

All this so scandalized respectability that at any odd time the acetylene lights would flash on the scene, and finding nothing worse than a native feast, would blink out in disappointment. Curiosity became so keen that, finally, the more advanced came to call. At first they warned politely that one did not mix with the “Kanaka” as a social equal, but many stayed to do a little mixing themselves.

Ethel had too much sense of humor to be considered sentimental. We swam all day, feasted, and learned the hula, and Honolulu was split in twain with those that were shocked and those that were curious and defended the cause.

One day I twisted an old adage to fit the time, and Ethel came back with a quotation from Oliver Herford. We began twisting all the old saws and bringing them up-to-date.

It was nearing Christmas time, and Ethel suggested that we get out a calendar like the Shakespeare ones of the period, where you tore off a quotation each day, only we were to use our twisted aphorisms instead.

We got 365 together and sent them to Elder & Shepard in San Francisco to be printed for our Christmas presents. Elder wrote back and asked us if he could publish it for sale, with a few cuts. The cuts brought our one a day down to one a week, for this was the beginning of the 1900s and the things the editors cut out would be sewing circle stuff today. But, we thought it would be fun and we got up a design, with a gingham cover, and illustrations and sent back the dummy of the Cynic’s Calendar by Ethel Watts Mumford, Oliver Herford and Addison Mizner.

The very first “crack” in the damn thing cost me plenty, for I had said: “God gives us our relatives; thank God, we can choose our friends.” I moulted a couple of rich old aunts on the instant.

Oliver Herford had never heard of me and got fussy and resented our using his name and thought he should get 90% of the royalties. As Ethel and I didn’t expect any return, we didn’t pay much attention to his squawks; besides, we had only used two or three of his jolts, and had done all the work, both as to designs and contracts. We thought a third was fair enough for him. Imagine our shock when the first royalty checks came in and we found that we had made over $1500 apiece!

–from The Many Mizners, by Addison Mizner. Sears Publishing, 1932.

Many of the pen-and-ink drawings in the calendars are signed “Towanda”. Similar drawings in later calendars are signed “Ethel” or “E W Grant”, so “Towanda” was clearly Mumford’s nom de plume. In addition, each of the sayings can be attributed to one of the three authors by means of the accompanying monogram (see photographs below); Mumford’s monogram is a “T” for “Towanda”. If anyone knows more about the name “Towanda” and why Mumford used it, I would be grateful to hear of it.

Cover of the 1903 calendar

Cover of the 1903 calendar

1903 Calendar for the week of July 1st, with an aphorism by Oliver Herford and an "O" monogram

1903 Calendar for the week of July 1st, with an aphorism by Oliver Herford and an “O” monogram

1903 Calendar for the week of July 12th, with an aphorism by Addison Mizner and his "AM" monogram

1903 Calendar for the week of July 12th, with an aphorism by Addison Mizner and his “AM” monogram

1903 Calendar for the week of December 27th, with an aphorism by Ethel Watts Mumford and her "T" (Towanda) monogram

1903 Calendar for the week of December 27th, with an aphorism by Ethel Watts Mumford and her “T” (Towanda) monogram

Cover of  the 1904 calendar

Cover of the 1904 calendar

Title page of the 1904 calendar

Title page of the 1904 calendar, with a drawing on the left by Ethel Mumford signed “Towanda”

Cover of the 1905 calendar

Cover of the 1905 calendar

Cover of the 1906 calendar

Cover of the 1906 calendar

Cover of the 1907 calendar

Cover of the 1907 calendar

Cover of the 1908 calendar

Cover of the 1908 calendar

Cover of the 1909 calendar

Cover of the 1909 calendar

Title page of the 1909 calendar

Title page of the 1909 calendar, with drawings by Ethel Mumford signed “E W Grant” and “E W G”

Perfectly Good Cynic 1909 perpetual cover

Alternate cover of the Perfectly Good Cynic’s Calendar for 1909

Cover of the 1910 compilation "The Complete Cynic"

Cover of the 1910 compilation “The Complete Cynic”

Cover of the 1917 "revived" calendar

Cover of the 1917 “revived” calendar

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