This is an experiment in finding connections. Whence does an idea — or at least its literary history — derive? And so I started (since our kitchen is being Amtico-ed) with …
Of course I started with Frank Loesser’s song and Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again:
See what the boys in the backroom will have,
And tell them I’m having the same.
Go see what the boys in the backroom will have,
And give them the poison they name.
And when I die, don’t spend my money
On flowers and my picture in a frame.
Just see what the boys in the backroom will have,
And tell them I sighed,
And tell them I cried,
And tell them I died of the same.
Can’t find the precise clip, but here’s a heavily-nicotined substitute (which certainly gets the smokey flavour):
That was good enough for me until I hit upon references to a Sidney Perelman column of 1978 in The New York Times Magazine. He was reminiscing of Tad Dorgan, cartoonist for the New York Journal. Perelman noted that the speech-bubble in one Dorgan cartoon of the Prohibition era was “See what the boys in the back room will have”. Dorgan also seems the originator of “Yes, we have no bananas”
Dorgan died in 1929.
Are we there yet?
No way. Here pseudonymously comes Richard Steele, in The Guardian, number 85, for Thursday, 18 June 1713.
The previous issue, number 84, contained a letter from “Johannes Misochirosophus” of the Middle Temple to “Nestor Ironside”, complaining about the habit of
… our minor orators, who display their eloquence in the several coffee-houses of this fair city, to the no small annoyance of considerable numbers of her majesty’s spruce and loving subjects, and that is a habit they have got of twisting off your buttons. These ingenious gentlemen are not able to advance three words until they have got fast hold of one of your button; but as soon as they have procured such an excellent handle for discourse, they will proceed with great elocution.
Which helps us with the notion of “buttonholing” a listener; and to which, of course, “Nestor Ironside” entirely concurs.
In The Guardian, number 85, Daniel Button, of Button’s Coffee-house, complains:
I have observed this day you make mention of Will’s Coffee-house, as a place where people are too polite to hold a man in discourse by the button. Every body knows your honour frequents this house; therefore they will take an advantage against me, and say, if my company was as civil as that at Will’s, you would say so: therefore, pray your honour do not be afraid of doing me justice, because people would think it may be a conceit below you on this occasion to name the name of
Your humble servant,
The young poets are in the back room, and take their places as you directed.
Daniel Button is no fiction. He had been a servant of the Countess of Warwick. He then set himself up running a coffee-house in Russell Street, just off Covent Garden. That was patronised by Addison and his fellow wits — except when the Countess had annoyed Addison, when they would off to the rival establishment.
Even that is not the entirety of the story. Addison would finally marry Charlotte Rich, née Myddleton, countess of Warwick, in 1716. Lady Warwick had been left a widow, in 1701, at the age of twenty-one. She and Addison had, according to Thomas Hearne, reputedly been “an item” since 1705:
‘Tis reported for certain Mr. Jo. Addison is marry ‘d to the Countess-Dowager of Warwick.
The actual, later marriage was not a success.
That would have been it, until I remembered dusty days in the College library, bored out of my chuff, and seeking relief in the works of Robert Greene.
What must first have caught my eye originally was Greene’s celebrated put-down of:
… an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.
Then I found Greene was a good Norwich lad, who had gone happily bad — his own claim was he:
married a wealthy gentlewoman called Doll, spent her fortune, and then sent her with a child back to her Lincolnshire family [in the DNB entry].
Besides a whole mish-mash of other stuff (including half-a-dozen stage-plays, from which the apprentice playwright Will Shagsper freely borrowed), Green was an early pamphleteer, knocking out a new one every six months.
He carved out a speciality of muck-raking, affecting the persona of a reformed rake, exposing the corruption and shystering of late Sixteenth Century London. In one of these, A notable discovery of coosnage, he has the story of how the “Flax-wife” realised she had been short-changed by the coal-merchant:
Hereupon she cald to her neighbours ; being a companie of women, that before time had also bene pincht in their coles, and shewed them the cosnage, & desired their aide to her in tormenting the Collier, which they promist to performe … She conueid them into a back roome (some sixteen of them) euerie one hauing a good cudgell under her apron; straight comes the Collier, and saith, Mistres, here be your coles: welcome good Collier, quoth she, I praie thee follow me into the backe side, & shoot them in an other roome.
The ladies then hold a mock-trial, find him guilty, thrash him soundly, and send him on his way.
In every case, then, the “back room” is not a place to be visited unprepared.
The other connection here is “back room boys”. That’s Beaverbrook, in a broadcast which was transcribed for The Listener of 27 March 1941 (no podcasts for another sixty years):
Now who is responsible for this work of development on which so much depends? To whom must the praise be given? To the boys in the back rooms. They do not sit in the limelight. But they are the men who do the work. Many of them are Civil Servants.
I find it indicative of something that the Canadian Beaverbrook was reaching for an alternative to an American metaphor already in use: “backstage”. On which, I backtrack:
Dwight L. Bollinger, doing the October 1942 Among the New Words column, found a 1940 precedent in the Topeka Journal of 4th May 1940:
Berle … does a lot of backstage speech writing and economic research for Roosevelt.
That’s Adolf Berle:
Not quite a “special relationship”
Lest anyone assume “backstage” here amounts to no more than being a phrase-monger and script-polisher, Berle was of the belly of the military beast. His job after Harvard Law was economic research for the US Army, then being part of the Woodrow Wilson team at the Paris Peace Conference. He made his money (and his considerable reputation) as a Wall Street lawyer during the Republican years, before re-entering the “back rooms” of presidential politics. He may well be the “hidden hand” which has directed US foreign policy in the Middle East. Berle saw the economic significance of oil; and was instrumental in Roosevelt’s amended Executive Order 8926 of 18 February 1943. This made it clear that:
the defense of Saudi Arabia [is] vital to the defense of the United States.
Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was already on the ball, urging that the US take an active part in organising the Gulf concessions:
to counteract certain known activities of a foreign power which presently are jeopardizing American interests in Arabian oil reserves.
Spit it out, Harold: the “foreign power” was (and is) the UK.
Once again, “backstage” or the “back room” has a sulphurous whiff about it. [By the way, Chris Faraone did a nice piece, Who Killed the Smoke-Filled Room Anyway? A Brief History, for Esquire last autumn.]
1943 — and we’re almost finished.
Anyone of my generation should have encountered Nigel Balchin’s 1943 thriller The Small Back Room, of which Balchin did a screenplay for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film appeared in 1949.
The story works on two levels: as thriller and psychological study.
The protagonist is scientist Sammy Rice, tasked to solve a mystery of booby-traps being dropped by the Luftwaffe. The climactic moment is when Rice solves the puzzle, realising the device has two trip-fuses.
Parallel with this, Rice’s private life is in chaos. He feels mismanaged by his superiors. He is in pain from an artificial foot. He reports to alcohol. His girlfriend can stand him no longer, and leaves him, taking the cat.
A happy ending: Rice is restored to favour in his work. The girl returns, bringing the cat. All is fine and dandy.
And there, ladeez an’ gentlemen, is my Who, What, Where, Why, When and How of the back room.
Perhaps we can do it again, sometime.