Be Nice to People on Your Way Up. You’ll Meet ‘Em On Your Way Down

Jimmy Durante? Wilson Mizner? Walter Winchell?

updownwindur4Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes clichés become clichés because they express important truths. I think this is an example:

Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down

Can you determine who first came up with this insightful saying? Was it “The Schnozzola” Jimmy Durante?

Quote Investigator: There are three main candidates for authorship of this phrase: Walter Winchell, Wilson Mizner, and Jimmy Durante. The earliest instance located by QI is in a newspaper account published in July of 1932 that states legendary columnist Walter Winchell presented the maxim during a radio program the night before.

The first attribution to Wilson Mizner located by QI occurs in a profile of the celebrated rogue in the New Yorker in October of 1942. Mizner died in 1933 so this is a somewhat late attribution. If he did utter the phrase then the date would be close to when Winchell said it or earlier.

The first attribution to actor, comedian, and pianist Jimmy Durante found by QI is in a book of philosophy and literary theory published in 1945. The author, Kenneth Burke, states that Durante delivered the adage as a line of dialogue in a movie. QI has not yet identified the film or the script writer who crafted the words for the thespian Durante. The Internet Movie Database lists movie appearances for him starting in 1930.

Here are selected citations in chronological order. In 1932 the Pittsburgh Press ran an article titled “Were You Listening?” that commented on the radio programs aired on the previous night. The words of Walter Winchell are described as follows [PPU]:

He did give some good advice to bigheaded movie actors: “Be nice to those you meet on the way up. They’re the same folks you’ll meet on the way down.”

In June of 1933 the famous maxim appeared in the widely distributed publication Reader’s Digest where it was listed with a series of other quotes in a regular section called “Patter”. Winchell was acknowledged [RDU]:

It pays to be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people you meet on the way down.

–Walter Winchell

In August of 1933 Winchell was again credited with the saying in the pages of Golden Book magazine. The phrase appeared in a regular section of the periodical titled “So They Say” that contained a series of short quotations. The name of the person credited with each quote was accompanied with a thumbnail sketch. The controversial Winchell was described as a “scandal master” [GBU]:

Walter Winchell: scandal master, on a life philosophy

“It pays to be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people you meet on the way down.”

In 1942 the New Yorker magazine ran a multi-part profile about Wilson Mizner titled “Legend of a Sport” by the journalist Alva Johnston. Content from the series was later used in the 1953 book “The Legendary Mizners” by Johnston. The profile credited Mizner with several bons mots including the one under investigation [NYU]:

Among his philosophical maxims were: “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet ‘em on your way down,” “Treat a whore like a lady and a lady like a whore,” and “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

The attribution to Mizner spread through reports in newspapers that reprinted information from the New Yorker profile. For example, the Milwaukee Journal in 1943 ran an article “Famous Wisecracks from Wilson Mizner” based on the profile that included this adage and others [MJU].

Mizner died in 1933, but QI has not yet found any earlier direct evidence that he coined the phrase. Databases are still incomplete and not all newspapers have been digitized. Quotation expert Ralph Keyes favors Mizner and says “Verdict: Credit Wilson Mizner for now” in his wonderful reference work “The Quote Verifier” [QVU].

In 1945 Kenneth Burke the prominent literary theorist published the text “A Grammar of Motives”. This volume contains a reference to a motion picture in which Jimmy Durante deploys the maxim [KBU]:

As translated into terms of capitalist climbing, there is a place in a movie when Jimmy Durante, in the role of an actor in difficulties, is slighted by another actor who thinks himself slated for success. Jimmy admonishes: You had better be nice to people you pass on the way up; for you may pass them again on the way down.

This movie role, in a film that must have been made sometime before 1945, may be the reason that Durante is associated with the quotation. The title of the picture is not stated by Burke, and QI has not located it.

In conclusion, Walter Winchell helped to popularize this adage in the 1930s, and the preponderance of evidence currently available favors assigning credit to him. Yet, Mizner is still a possibility. QI thanks you for your question, and hopes that each successful person will be kind to others even if he or she plans to inexplicably never come back down.

[PPU] 1932 July 8, Pittsburgh Press, “Were You Listening?”, Page 21 (GNA Page 16), Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News archive)

[GBU] 1933 August, The Golden Book Magazine, “So They Say”, Page 116, Volume XVIII, Number 104, Review of Reviews Corporation. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[RDU] 1933 June, Reader’s Digest, Patter, Page 107, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on microfilm) link

[MJU] 1943 April 2, Milwaukee Journal, Famous Wisecracks From Wilson Mizner [From the New Yorker Magazine], Page 18, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News archive)

[QVU] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 154, 310, and 313, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[KBU] 1945, A Grammar of Motives by Kenneth Burke, Page 306, Prentice-Hall, New York. (Google Books preview of 1969 edition; Verified on paper in 1945 edition) link

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