AFTER-DINNER SPEAKERS TELL HOW THEY DO IT
Interesting Methods of Joseph Choate, Mark Twain and Others in the Making of Speeches by Which They Score Their Triumphs.
Since the Days of Webster Many Significant Change Have Arisen That Add to the Enjoyment of Post-Prandial Eloquence.
Joseph Choate, perhaps the foremost of American after-dinner speakers today, has a saying to the effect that he always goes to a dinner "with an anecdote and a sentiment - and trusts to the evening for the rest!"
After -dinner speaking is becoming less and less cut and dried with the passing time. In the days of Daniel Webster they had perorations lasting an hour or more; now there are no more Daniel Websters, and if there were, the people would have no time to listen to them. Most of the successful after-dinner speakers today declare that anything in the world can be said in half an hour, and almost anything in fifteen minutes.
Then, too, the speeches and toasts at dinners today are no longer stated on the menus. The three, four, or five speakers who have been asked to "oblige" have their names printed thereon without the slightest indication of what they are going to talk about. That is a great improvement upon the old, stereotyped programme method, as will be readily seen. The first thirty seconds are what make or mar a speech. Now, if the audience sees Mr. So-And-So will speak upon the "Police of New York," a certain amount of the early part of the ensuing discourse is discounted; they already know what it is about. But if they have heard nothing about it, they listen for the opening of the speech to enlighten them; and in that first thirty seconds the orator captures their attention for the rest of the evening - that is, he does if he knows his business.
"Many men succeed," said a certain brilliant orator yesterday. "It is amazing, and so some people a little disgruntling, to consider how little better any one man is than any other. The quality that counts in the game is the ability for recovery - the gift of picking oneself up after a fall, and making people forget that it ever happened. A very brilliant man may slip into the mud through some mistake or oversight, and all the public sees or hears of it is the splash. But to go on and make people blot it out of their minds, through sheer nerve and brains - there you have something privileged to endure - and deservedly. It is particularly true of speakers. The men who make mistakes are divided into two sets: the one who have tack and grit enough to make good after their failures, and the ones who are conquered thereby - who, in short, can't play the game.
The Hint for a Speech.
The advantage of going unprepared to a dinner are many. One of the most obvious is this: If something happens, or is said, at the table during dinner or during the course of the speeches - some trifling incident or statement that suggest to one or more men there something which he would like to say himself if he happened to be in the chair, and the speaker gets up and says it for him - he is bound to agree with him. Of course, agreeing with him, he thinks him the cleverest man he knows. The tactful orator works on this and many other subtle little facts of human nature.
Mark Twain never prepares a speech in any way. He says that he has lived so long, and had so many and varied experiences, that no man can talk for five minutes without suggesting to him a train of thought and a consequent number of pertinent anecdotes and important points. It is for this reason that he always likes to be put at the very end of the programme, if possible; he uses the other men's speeches as inspiration and fuel for his own, and is likely to make new and humorous changes upon almost any subject which has been broached during the evening.
Mr. Clemens enjoys speaking immensely - indeed, he loves to talk, by his own admission. And apparently people love to hear him quite as much, judging by the number and urgency of his invitations. Of course he cannot accept one-half of them, and now appears at very few public banquets. he prefers to talk at small dinners, where he feels he is among friends - though, indeed, he could not fail to be that wherever he might go, for every one loves Mark Twain.
That Humorous Drawl.
As he talks he runs his fingers through his long, thick, white hair, and in his delicious drawl, murmurs, "it's a very curious thing - a very curious thing" - and then springs a story upon his audience which awakes roars of laughter. This little trick of repeating a phrase just before he makes a point is a favorite one with Mark Twain. He uses it as a composer uses a phrase of melody, repeating it slowly to create a sense of suspense before he bursts into a new motif.
Everything which Mr. Clemens does is invested with his own individual touch - a touch which is paramountly humorous; but it is interesting to note that he never makes a speech which has not in it a deeply serious note.
Joseph Choate has a very subtle method of making points. He talks with the finest art of simplicity and makes his points so casually that they seem to have been dropped unwittingly upon the air. He never seems to be conscious of being clever or amusing, and as the laugh grows and swells following some delicately brilliant touch he is quite grave and unconscious.
In some trifling ways his method has undergone a change of late years. He is a good deal more of the foreign diplomat in his speeches. "he does not exactly 'haw! haw!' after the English fashion," commented some one who was himself a speech-makes, "but he has adopted their method of feeling is way into his subject, as it were. He drops his witticisms as if by accident, and waits to give people a chance to pick them up; and how many laughs he gets!"
Chauncey Depew, for twenty-five years the king of them all, has a unique style of his own. His method is to begin his speech with a jab at the persons who have asked him to speak. If it should happen to be a dinner given by a society of merchants, he would quite as likely as not commence with references to the custom of putting sand in sugar. At this point his face is normal - in shape and expression. They he begins to warm up into the humor of the occasion, and his countenance broadens and spreads with appreciation of the comic touches he is making. Finally he becomes serious, and like a piece of India rubber this same expressive face is lengthened into an accompanying shape of gravity; and at the very close of his speech his eyes beam, and his face curves again in full refulgence and satisfaction in a good thing well done.
Gen. Porter always begins with a joke. Then he presents a string of anecdotes - always new and funny ones - and at the close breaks into a peroration full of fine flowers of speech, elaborate metaphors, and well-turned phrases.
Three Laugh Makers.
Hamilton W. Mabie, the editor of the "Outlook," is a speaker whose work is both polished and incisive. He dearly loves to poke fun of a satirical nature at his audience, often of the most finished and elaborate sort, before he gets at the meat of his argument, which he treats, when the time comes, with clearness and earnestness.
There are three men in New York who are called by many persons the "three laugh-makers": Patrick Murphy, Job Hedges, and Simeon Ford. Murphy has an inimitable manner and a very slow delivery. He drops his jokes a word at a time, making his hearers wait for each point, and phrasing each line with careful humor. The word "careful" is employed advisedly, for he slaves over his speeches in advance and writes and rewrites them many times. His sense of humor is exquisite, and his style very finished and perfect of its kind.
Job Hedges dislikes being "starred" as an after-dinner speaker. Of course he is one, and one of the best; probably he does more of it than any of them, but, just the same, he doesn't like to have this branch of his fame thrown at his head too much. He goes to dinners and talks on subjects that interest him by way of diversion, not "as a profession." Some men play golf, some men play bridge; this is his way of playing. While one man sketches for amusement, and one makes love, or friends, and one makes money by gambling, and another makes mischief by way of refreshment and recreation, Mr. Hedges makes speeches. It is his pet dissipation, and has the quality - rather rare in forms of dissipation - of giving others more pleasure than it gives himself.
He never prepares a speech. He has been heard to say that "preparing a speech is like planning how you are going to make love to a girl; by the time you get there you are so scared you can't touch her!"
Job Hedges cannot digest his dinner if he is an attitude of anxiety. Therefore he makes it a rule never to dine where he is going to speak. "Hedges must be a nervous fellow," remarked a man who had often heard him. "Whenever he is to speak he just toys with a knife and fork, and never eats a morsel!" As a matter of fact, he has dined well and substantially before he ever reaches the table at all. When he has agree to make a speech, he just explains that he may be a little late; that he wants no recognition nor reception; he will just slip into his place quietly, and when he is wanted will respond.
Job Hedges and Simeon Ford.
When the evening arrives, instead of presenting himself at Delmonico's, where the banquet is to be held, he hies him to Burns's and orders a thick beefsteak and baked potatoes, the latter slathered over with dish-gravy; a fine old New England dish, if you never tried it! All of this he eats; then he has a cigar, a drink - maybe - and reads the evening paper. Finally he takes a walk, and, quite clam and comfortable, ends up at the big dinner ready to talk.
I have heard his speaking method called explosive, but it is probably the natural expression of the man himself. He is very buoyant, very enthusiastic, with a hearty laugh, a sly twinkle, and a clean-cut face at once boyish and shrewd under his gray hair. I can imagine that he might sound explosive - but he might make other speakers sound tame.
Simeon Ford - but let Simeon Ford speak for himself. You must imagine him as plunged in gloom as Mr. Hedges is sparkling with energy and humor. Mr. Ford's face refuses to break into a smile, except once in a while, and then it is very pleasant and revealing. For the most part he is wrapped in a cloak of melancholy of as sable a tone as that of the Dane himself.
"Speech-making is a thoroughly detestable occupation," said Mr. Ford, with deep sadness. "I dislike it more than I can say, and I cannot think why I ever do it, or why I ever began to do it. As a matter of fact, I don't do it very often now. When I was younger it may have pleased my vanity, but now it brings me nothing but misery.
"I am considered funny - a humorous speaker. By nature I am the most melancholy and serious of persons. I never knew a comedian yet who was not at heart a pessimist of the most tragic depths.
The Tortures of a Speaker.
"I grind my speeches out word by word, and phrase by phrase. I suffer agonies over each one, and I really believe I would rather have typhoid fever forty times than make one speech.
"It was all very well in the days when Choate and Howland and Porter were at the beginning of their prime. Then a man knew far in advance just at what dates he would be expected to speak - at the New England dinner, at the St. George's dinner, and so on; he could, if he liked, work up his speech a year in advance. It is very different now. A proposition of that sort is sprung on a man almost over night, and he has to think wildly against time of something which will be at once appropriate and funny. I am never eloquent and patriotic. In Washington you can get about twelve gross of orators capable of ringing the changes upon the Grand Old Flag.
"I get along well enough during dinner until the speeches begin; then I am in misery until I am through with my part of the performance. Of course I think that all the speeches which come before mine are rotten, and all those that follow me great.
"Some people tell me they forget their speeches. Indeed, I've seen a man faint away in the middle of a seemingly flourishing speech because he could not remember his lines. I've nearly toppled over myself once or twice, but it was coral-insect building coral in the Pacific Ocean.
It was the Hon. Henry E. T. Howland who, when he found himself the only Yale guest at the Harvard dinner, and was received with uproarious applause, began his speech with this story, which promptly became famous: "Gentlemen, I am overwhelmed by this reception! I had expected my greeting to be something after the manner of Mrs. Flaherty, who, when she met her neighbor and enemy out walking, said: 'The top of the mornin' to ye, Mrs. Moriarty; not that I care a damn, but just for the sake of makin' conversation!' "
"A speech," said Judge Howland, with his delicious twinkle, should be partly sense, and partly nonsense! Many men prepare heavy, dignified speeches, but I don't! It seems to me that at the end of dinner, full of good wine and inhaling good cigars, men want to be amused. Up there on the platform, or dais are the minstrels furnished for the occasion; they should be amusing! I have a son who is a purist; he and some other people think that my flights are too flippant. Well, I have tried to make a big, dignified, serious speech - at the New England dinner one night it was - and it was very bad."
He chuckled at this amusing fact, and continued:
"The after-dinner speakers are growing fewer every day, and, above all, they are growing briefer! That is a great improvement. A good thing should not be run into the ground, and the terser a speaker is, the more he has to say, as a rule. Anecdotes should be treated very tenderly. An anecdote should never be introduced unless it is absolutely in the spirit of the occasion. I remember hearing Evarts make the hit of he evening with the simplest sort of response; it wasn't a story, nor a full-fledged joke, just a delightfully humorous touch.
A Reminiscence of Evarts.
"The speaker had been putting difficult exam questions to the men at the table - it was a Harvard dinner - and Evarts was, of course, from Yale. Finally the speaker ended up with: 'And now, gentlemen, I should like to know why the coatings of the stomach, being charged with digestive juices capable of digesting almost anything, do not digest themselves.'
"To which Evarts, like a flash, replied: 'That question seems to me unnecessary to answer as, whenever I expect to attend a Harvard dinner I always remove all the coatings of my stomach!'
"Of course he was never permitted to finish. But a little thing like that will set the whole evening to a humorous tune. Choate is peculiarly happy in that sort of thing, too; I remember - oh! you want me to talk about myself? But I am not a 'famous after-dinner speaker,' you know!
"No, I don't like 'speaking' any longer, at least not so well as I used to like it. Of course sometimes it is much easier and pleasanter than at others. Some audiences are so responsive that they draw the speech right out of your mind before you know it, and, anyway, though on general principles I believe in preparing a few points of a speech in advance, some of the best speeches I ever made in my life were without the slightest preparation.
"Now it is all very well to give charades in the country, where every one knows every one else, and you have none of the feeling of being on probation, but it turned out to be somewhat different in New York before a large audience of the Trinity congregation.
"It was all very nicely planned. A lady named Mrs. Meade was going to play the part of a poor woman freezing to death in the streets, while I was the kind man who rescued her; at the proper moment the clouds were to roll by, and the Christmas Waits - the Trinity Choir - were to burst into song.
"Well, in the first place, Mrs. Meade, when the time came, either forgot or refused to say her long recital of woes, and just wailed, 'I'm so cold! I'm so cold!' which looked as if it might be true; then, when the clouds rolled by, the choir was found to consist of two rather faint-voiced boys; and to finish up with, Walter Satterlee hustled the rest off and whispered to me cheerfully from the wings that I was to amuse them with the others changed their costumes!
Trouble in Old Trinity.
"I'll never forget that moment - never! Whenever I pass Old Trinity I shudder. As a matter of fact, the calmness and daring of despair fell upon me, and danced a pas-seud [sic] on that stage amid great applause!
"But, all my life, my nightmares have been going up for examinations without being prepared - a ghastly experience which inscribed itself indelibly upon my mind in my youth - going upon the stage without knowing my lines, or - and this is invariably the worse - standing up to make a speech and having no idea what to say!
"No, that last has never actually happened to me, though I always expect it. Whenever I have reached very deep waters of forgetfulness or some other undertow I have always been able to reach for a life-line somewhere and gain safety before I was lost!
"Some audiences are very responsive; they always help a speaker; the Southern Society is one, and the Virginia Society is another. The St. Patrick is sympathetic and delightful, but you have to treat them with gloves on all the time; they are touchy!
"Everything is a personal matter, really, with speech-making. I have heard a certain famous man talk about himself for an endless time and relate by the score, chestnuts that I have had to discard long since - regretfully, for they were good ones - and yet his hearers have laughed at him heartily as if they had not heard every one of his stories a hundred times and did not know all his peculiarities by heart.
"That is just because they love the man, and because he has a personal charm and humorous twist that will doubtless continue to endear him to every one - myself included - for years to come.
"You know it's a funny thing, but when the speech-making is all over and the strain is gone and you have listened to what all the other fellows have had to say you are always ready to get up and make a great speech! When I am all through with my performance at a dinner I always think of ever so many clever, brilliant things that I wish I had said. You know the best speeches in the world are composed going home in the cab!"
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search