10 of History's Best Compliments
Giving someone a memorable, cliché-free compliment is trickier than it sounds, but these famous figures managed to express their admiration—or in a few cases, double-edged appreciation or backhanded contempt—in a truly unforgettable way.
1. The time a teenage George R.R. Martin wrote a fan letter to Stan Lee.
Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has a brilliant, twisted mind, but beneath his chest beats the heart of a fanboy. In 1964, a teenage Martin wrote a letter to Marvel Comics, addressed to Stan Lee—the legendary co-creator of Marvel characters including the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers—and American comic book artist Don Heck.
Martin loved the latest two issues of The Avengers and Fantastic Four so much, he had "finally come to the decision to have both mounted in bronze and set on a pedestal in the center of my living room," he wrote. The young fan had particular praise for Lee, telling him, "Stan old boy, you can put another notch in your pen for this masterpiece."
That being said, Martin had quibbles with a few characters, calling them "probably four of the poorest villains you have ever introduced." Even as a teen, Martin was already thinking long and hard about what constitutes the perfect villain.
2. The time the Campbell Soup Company sent their product to Andy Warhol.
Critics didn’t know what to make of Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans piece, which the pop artist debuted in 1962 during a one-person exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. But not surprisingly, William MacFarland, the Campbell Soup Company’s product marketing manager, loved it. In 1964, MacFarland showed his appreciation for Warhol's work by mailing him a few cases of tomato soup:
In an accompanying letter, MacFarland wrote:
Dear Mr. Warhol, I have followed your career for some time. Your work has evoked a great deal of interest here at Campbell Soup Company for obvious reasons.
At one time I had hoped to be able to acquire one of your Campbell Soup label paintings—but I’m afraid you have gotten much too expensive for me.
I did want to tell you, however, that we admired your work and I have learned that you like Tomato Soup. I am taking the liberty of having a couple of cases of our Tomato Soup delivered to you at this address.
We wish you continued success and good fortune.
3. The time a child ate Maurice Sendak's letter.
Compliments aren’t always verbal. Case in point: In 2011, Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, told NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross that a child once expressed his love for the illustrator/writer’s work by devouring it:
Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters—sometimes very hastily—but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, "Dear Jim: I loved your card." Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, "Jim loved your card so much he ate it." That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.
4. The time Clyde Barrow sent his regards to Henry Ford.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s preferred getaway car was reportedly the Ford’s V-8-powered Model B. In 1934, the two outlaws even died in one, after law officers showered their stolen Ford V-8 with more than 130 rounds of steel-jacketed bullets.
Barrow couldn’t write well, but between heists and killings, he purportedly took the time to send a letter to Henry Ford. The fugitive's missive praised Ford for manufacturing his favorite ride:
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8—
Clyde Champion Barrow
Barrow is said to have sent the letter around a month or so before he and Parker met their untimely fate. Its authenticity has been debated, but according to legend, Ford had his secretary write the outlaw a thank you letter (which Barrow never received).
5. The time a teacher noted a young Roald Dahl's unusual writing style.
Roald Dahl famously grew up to become a novelist, short story author, and children’s book author, but as a young boarding school pupil, teachers noted his eccentric writing style. "I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended," an instructor once wrote on one of Dahl's school reports. It’s hard to determine whether she meant this as an insult or a compliment, but Dahl likely construed it as the latter, since he held onto the assignment.
6. The time Mark Twain compared Helen Keller to Shakespeare (and other great thinkers/leaders).
Mark Twain and Helen Keller made unlikely friends, but they were close ones all the same. Keller was 14 years old when she met the celebrated American author—then in his late fifties—through writer Laurence Hutton. During the course of their 15-year friendship, Twain showered her with compliments, the most effusive one being, "Helen Keller is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals… She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today." Not bad praise from a writer known for his stinging wit.
7. The time Ernest Hemingway told F. Scott Fitzgerald he wasn't too crazy about his novel.
F. Scott Fitzgerald spent nine years on his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night. When he finally finished the work in 1934, Fitzgerald asked his close friend, Ernest Hemingway, for an opinion.
Hemingway replied with a double-edged compliment: "Dear Scott: I liked it and I didn’t." He was a fan of the novel’s beginning, he said, but didn’t think the work felt authentic. "That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way," Hemingway advised.
"It's a lot better than I say," he admitted. "But it's not as good as you can do."
8. The time Mario Puzo convinced Marlon Brando to play The Godfather's Vito Corleone.
The Godfather (1972) was based on author Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel, published three years prior to the film’s release. Before director Francis Ford Coppola signed on to the project, Puzo had a clear vision of who should star as Vito Corleone: Marlon Brando. Hoping to flatter the actor into trying out for the role, Puzo sent Brando a complimentary note in 1970, telling him he was made to play the mafia don:
Dear Mr Brando
I wrote a book called THE GODFATHER which has had some success and I think you're the only actor who can play the part Godfather with that quiet force and irony (the book is an ironical comment on American society) the part requires. I hope you’ll read the book and like it well enough to use whatever power you can to get the role.
I'm writing Paramount to the same effect for whatever good that will do.
I know this was presumptuous of me but the least I can do for the book is try. I really think you'd be tremendous. Needless to say I've been an admirer of your art.
Puzo’s fan letter worked its magic, but studio executives were leery of hiring Brando, as the actor's films were no longer raking in the big bucks—plus he was infamous for his overbearing on-set demands. They eventually caved after Coppola joined the project and advocated for Brando to join the cast.
9. The time director Billy Wilder insulted a singing actor.
Filmmaker Billy Wilder won multiple Academy Awards for his work on Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Lost Weekend (1946), and The Apartment (1960), but his famously backhanded compliments—while harsh—also deserve props for their cleverness.
While making the 1964 comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder listened to an unknown actor sing, and remarked, "You have Van Gogh’s ear for music." If that weren't enough, Wilder also once told actor Walter Matthau—who starred in Wilder-directed movies including The Front Page (1974) and The Fortune Cookie (1966)—"We're on the track of something absolutely mediocre," and courted his wife by telling her, "I'd worship the ground you walk on if you lived in a better neighborhood."
10. The time John F. Kennedy praised Thomas Jefferson at a dinner for Nobel Prize winners
On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed a roomful of Nobel Prize winners who were being honored at a White House dinner. Surrounded by countless brilliant minds, Kennedy jokingly paid his highest compliment not to his guests, but to a long-dead U.S. President: Thomas Jefferson. In his opinion, nobody—not even his distinguished companions—held a candle to the polymath Founding Father:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.