The wonderful WWW will provide several mangled summaries of this incident. Here seems to be the fullest, contemporary account:
It finally happened — a bull got into a china shop today.
The bull — Royalist Dandy Victor of Twin Oaks Farm, Morristown, N.J. — was led through the shop by Fred Waring, orchestra leader. Both nearly died of fright.
It was on a bet. Waring lost a football wager to Paul Douglas, newsreel sports commentator. The pay-off was disappointing. From now on, “like a bull in a china shop” no longer denotes clumsiness with overtones of wreckage and havoc. It means acute timidity, plus resignation.
What happened? Just $1.17 worth of china was destroyed — by Douglas, not the bull. Douglas broke a plate and a teacup in the hope of arousing “Dandy” to anger and action. Dandy just blinked and turned his head away.
Dandy is a two-year-old, 1000-pound, beaver-hued Jersey owned by Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen, one of the country’s foremost cattle breeders.
The china shop was the ultra-exclusive one of William H. Plummer, Ltd., at 695 Fifth Avcenue. The owner Frederick J. Cuthbertson permitted the use of his place — not for the publicity, he said — but because “we’re making history”.
There were at least 100 witnesses, including Mrs. Waring, Mrs. Frelinghuysen, and former Gov. Harold H. Hoffman of New Jersey.
Waring wore a dinner jacket and opera hat. He chose conservative garb, he said, because he didn’t want to excite the bull. Douglas put on a red sash and a toreador’s jacket, red with gold braid. He wore a bull fighter’s hat.
“I got nothing to lose,” he said.
Dandy had on a fancy brown and orange blanket.
Dandy pushed his nose through the entrance of the shop at 10:05 a.m. Waring, shivering “from cold”, tugged at the leather strap attached to the halter. Dandy rolled his eyes and looked scared. So did Waring.
Dandy and Waring then manoeuvred up the aisle under a $3500 Pâte-sur-Pâte vase designed by Solon at the Minton factory in England. The photographers’ lights bothered Dandy and he tossed his massive head and horns. Waring said, “For Pete’s sake don’t switch your tail; I’m paying for this.”
Cuthbertson looked on pretty calmly for a man who had just estimated the value of the merchandise in Dandy’s path at “$50,000.”
Waring broke the plate, made faces and shouted insults but Dandy just edged away.
The three paused beside a $35 china bull. Dandy didn’t look at it. He gazed timorously at the photographers, wincing every time they shouted suggestions to Waring. The orchestra leader hung his hat on one of Dandy’s horns and the bull all but moaned.
Then the trio turned the corner and moved down the opposite aisle and out of the store, Dandy quickening his pace at the door as though glad it was all over.
Douglas said, “I’m satisfied.”
Waring, who had shouted “Goodby, dear” to his wife when the procession started, mopped his brow.
Outside an office girl on her way to work said to her companion: “Lookit the cop. Something must’ve happened.
Just history being made, that was all.
There’s just enough of the Runyon-esque there, for those fine citizens from Brooklyn — Harry the Horse, Spanish John and Little Isadore — to be lurking just out of focus.
An ox in a china shop?
Obviously no bull could be in a china shop before the eighteenth century gave us the full experience of retail therapy. So, on Monday 4th September, 1769, we encounter Mr James Boswell in London’s Soho:
In one of the streets of Soho I met Mr. Sheridan, whom I had not seen for many years. I lie under many obligations to him, as he took a great concern about me when I was a very idle, impetuous young fellow, and had me often in his house in the kindest manner. So I was happy to meet with him, and promised to come and dine with him without ceremony, when I was not engaged. I then called on Mr. Thomas Davies, bookseller, whom I must always remember as the man who made me acquainted with Mr. Samuel Johnson. He is a very good kind of man himself, and has been long my acquaintance. He told me that Mr. Berenger, the Master of Horse, who it seems is mighty delicate and polite, said that Mr. Johnson was, in a genteel company, like an ox in a china-shop. He overturns everything.
The following morning, Boswell was up betimes, caught the “Oxford fly” at 7 a.m., breakfasted at Slough, dined at Henley, and got to Oxford about six. I put up at the Angel Inn. Which, it strikes me, is not bad for a horse-drawn trip along rough roads. Paddington (and Boswell would need to have crossed London to get even that far) to Oxford is today less than an hour by the best trains. But be warned:
Allow me to correct Mr Boswell. Richard Berenger was not the Master of Horse (i.e. Officer Commanding the Royal stables) in 1769: he was the “Gentleman of Horse”, the 2 i.c. — and, incidentally, the last before the post was abolished, on Berenger’s death, in 1782.
Walter Scott’s variation
The metaphor hadn’t stagnated when Walter Scott used a version in a footnote [Note V] to Chapter VII of The Fortunes of Nigel (published 1822):
SIR MUNGO MALAGROWTHER
It will perhaps be recognised by some of my countrymen, that the caustic Scottish knight, as described in the preceding chapter, borrowed some of his attributes from a most worthy and respectable baronet, who was to be met with in Edinburgh society about twenty-five or thirty years ago. It is not by any means to be inferred, that the living person resembled the imaginary one in the course of life ascribed to him, or in his personal attributes. But his fortune was little adequate to his rank and the antiquity of his family; and, to avenge himself of this disparity, the worthy baronet lost no opportunity of making the more avowed sons of fortune feel the edge of his satire. This he had the art of disguising under the personal infirmity of deafness, and usually introduced his most severe things by an affected mistake of what was said around him. For example, at a public meeting of a certain county, this worthy gentleman had chosen to display a laced coat, of such a pattern as had not been seen in society for the better part of a century. The young men who were present amused themselves with rallying him on his taste, when he suddenly singled out one of the party:—”Auld d’ye think my coat—auld-fashioned?—indeed it canna be new; but it was the wark of a braw tailor, and that was your grandfather, who was at the head of the trade in Edinburgh about the beginning of last century.” Upon another occasion, when this type of Sir Mungo Malagrowther happened to hear a nobleman, the high chief of one of those Border clans who were accused of paying very little attention in ancient times to the distinctions of Meum and Tuum, addressing a gentleman of the same name, as if conjecturing there should be some relationship between them, he volunteered to ascertain the nature of the connexion by saying, that the “chief’s ancestors had stolen the cows, and the other gentleman’s ancestors had killed them,”—fame ascribing the origin of the latter family to a butcher. It may be well imagined, that among a people that have been always punctilious about genealogy, such a person, who had a general acquaintance with all the flaws and specks in the shields of the proud, the pretending, and the nouveaux riches, must have had the same scope for amusement as a monkey in a china shop.
Which paragraph amply illustrates why the reading of Sir Walter Scott is less practised in modern times. It also shows he has a deft sharpness to his quill.
As Scott explains:
Sir Mungo Malagrowther, of Girnigo Castle, … claims a little more attention, as an original character of the time in which he flourished.
Having little or no property save his bare designation, Sir Mungo had been early attached to Court in the capacity of whipping-boy, as the office was then called, to King James the Sixth, and, with his Majesty, trained to all polite learning by his celebrated preceptor, George Buchanan. The office of whipping-boy doomed its unfortunate occupant to undergo all the corporeal punishment which the Lord’s Anointed, whose proper person was of course sacred, might chance to incur, in the course of travelling through his grammar and prosody. Under the stern rule, indeed, of George Buchanan, who did not approve of the vicarious mode of punishment, James bore the penance of his own faults, and Mungo Malagrowther enjoyed a sinecure.
I suspect that Sir Mungo Malagrowther, of Girnigo Castle, in borrowing some of his attributes from a most worthy and respectable baronet may have been borrowing from Sir William Stewart 11th Laird of Grandtully Castle (as left).
And a right devious … err … twister he seems to have been, at that:
Sir William is known in family tradition as ‘William the Ruthless’, and it is to his cupidity and lack of scruple that the Steuart-Fothringham family owed their prosperity. To his seat of Grandtully Castle – until recently in the ownership of Henry Steuart-Fothringham — he added the nearby Murthly Castle by devious means. It is said that he threatened to reveal – or, in family tradition, simply to pretend — that the owner Abercrombie of Murthly was sheltering Jesuits unless he agreed to sell Murthly Castle for an absurdly low price.
Perhaps a worthy ancestor for one of Runyon’s citizens.
Finally, the finished phrase
A few years after Scott’s monkey, we meet Captain Marryat’s simile towards the end of Chapter XV of Jacob Faithful . The Turnbull household (a significant name) anticipates social climbers of later novelists and generations:
As soon as Mr. Turnbull was dressed, we went down into the drawing-room, which was crowded with tables loaded with every variety of ornamental articles. “Now this is what my wife calls fashionable. One might as well be steering through an ice-floe as try to come to an anchor here without running foul of something. It’s hard-a-port or hard-a-starboard every minute ; and if your coat-tail gybes, away goes something, and whatever it is that smashes, Mrs. T. always swears it was the most valuable thing in the room. I’m like a bull in a china-shop. One comfort is, that I never come in here except when there’s company. Indeed, I’m not allowed, thank God. Sit on a chair, Jacob, one of those spider-like French things, for my wife won’t allow blacks, as she calls them, to come to an anchor upon her sky-blue silk sofas. How stupid to have furniture that one’s not to make use of! Give me comfort; but it appears that’s not to be bought for money.”
Or, just like Messers Waring and Douglas, we can put the presumption to the test: