President Abraham Lincoln on November 21, 1864, sent a letter to Mrs. Bixby, who, the War Department informed him, had lost five sons fighting for the Union. “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” In fact, two of Mrs. Bixby’s sons were killed in action, a third either deserted or died while a prisoner of war, a fourth was honorably discharged, and the fifth deserted.
“Branwell—Emily—Anne are gone like dreams—gone as Maria and Elizabeth went twenty years ago. One by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm—and closed their glazed eyes—I have seen them buried one by one—and—thus far—God has upheld me,” Charlotte Brontë at the age of thirty-three wrote on June 13, 1849.
Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens, Henry Fielding Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton Dickens, Walter Landor Dickens, and Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens were among the names of Charles Dickens’ sons. Among the brothers of Walter Whitman were George Washington Whitman, Andrew Jackson Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson Whitman.
Shortly after her ex-husband Louis Calhern married Julia Hoyt, the novelist and actress Ilka Chase found a set of visiting cards with the name “Mrs. Louis Calhern” on them. “They were the best cards—thin, flexible parchment, highly embossed,” Chase recalled, “and it seemed a pity to waste them, and so I mailed the box to my successor. But aware of Lou’s mercurial marital habits, I wrote on the top one, ‘Dear Julia, I hope these reach you in time.’ I received no acknowledgment.”
It is said that Alexander the Great once found Diogenes the Cynic examining a pile of human bones. “What are you looking for?” the ruler inquired. “I am searching for the bones of your father,” replied the philosopher, “but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves.” On another occasion a woman came to see Diogenes, complaining that her son was poorly behaved, and asked what she could do about it. Diogenes answered by slapping the woman in the face.
“I must admit, ‘the Mitfords’ would madden me if I didn’t chance to be one,” Diana Mitford—the sister who had wed the leader of the British Union of Fascists in 1936 at the house of Joseph Goebbels—wrote at the age of seventy-four in 1985 to her youngest sister, Deborah, who had married Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, in 1941.
In her account of tenth-century Kyoto court life, The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon was fond of making lists. “Things later regretted: an adopted child who turns out to have an ugly face”; “Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness: someone insists on telling you about some horrid little child, carried away with her own infatuation with the creature, imitating its voice as she gushes about the cute and winning things it says”; “Moving things: a child dressed in mourning for a parent.”
“Have you been eating candy?” President John F. Kennedy asked his daughter Caroline before a dinner during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She did not reply. He inquired again and was ignored. “Caroline,” the commander in chief said, “answer me. Have you been eating candy—yes, no, or maybe?”
Among the anecdotes, descriptions, and stray ideas in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Note-Books, a collection modeled on Samuel Butler’s famous version of the same name, are the entries: “story of the ugly aunt in the album,” “sent a girl flowers on Mother’s Day,” “reversion to childhood typical of the only child.”
“What theological objections could the pope himself raise to a birth-control method that simply permitted parents to choose a son in preference to a daughter? After all, God did,” reasoned Clare Boothe Luce, a playwright and U.S. congresswoman, in an article published in the Washington Star in 1978, promoting the use of a hypothetical “man-child pill” that would control population growth by ensuring the birth of a boy.
At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked T.H. Huxley, who came to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” if it was on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side that he was descended from a monkey. To which Huxley reportedly replied, “I should feel it no shame to have risen from such an origin; but I should feel it a shame to have sprung from one who prostituted the gifts of culture and eloquence to the service of prejudice and of falsehood.”