The Main Thing Is Honesty. If You Can Fake That, You’ve Got It Made

Groucho Marx? George Burns? Jean Giraudoux? Celeste Holm? Ed Nelson? Samuel Goldwyn? Daniel Schorr? Joe Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest advice I was ever given as a sales associate was from another seasoned employee:

The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Later, I read or heard this type of advice several times. For example, a television actor being interviewed said something like:

The secret of success is sincerity. Fake that and you’re in.

The expression varies but the basic joke is the same. Could you explore this saying to see where it began?

Quote Investigator:  Groucho Marx, Samuel Goldwyn, and George Burns have each been credited with versions of this remark. George Burns did include a version in his third memoir in 1980, but this was a relatively late date. QI has located no substantive evidence supporting an ascription to Marx or Goldwyn.

The earliest evidence QI has found for this type of remark appeared in a syndicated newspaper column by Leonard Lyons in 1962. The popular Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm attributed the words to an anonymous theater actor [LLCH]:

Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. invited a panel of performers – including Celeste Holm and Shelly Berman – to discuss the trends in show business. Miss Holm spoke of the vogues in acting, and said she heard one actor say: “Honesty. That’s the thing in the theater today. Honesty … and just as soon as I can learn to fake that, I’ll have it made.”

In 1969 an actor named Ed Nelson who played the character Dr. Michael Rossi on the soap opera Peyton Place stated a version of the maxim in Life magazine. QI believes that multiple later occurrences of the expression can be traced back to this instance, but usually the actor’s name was omitted [ENPP]:

… Ed Nelson (Dr. Rossi) summed up what he had learned in his five years on the show. “I’ve found that the most important thing for an actor is honesty,” he said. “And when you learn how to fake that, you’re in.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

An influential 1970 book of photos and essays “They Became What They Beheld” by the anthropologist Edmund Snow Carpenter included an instance of the adage. The words were not precisely attributed by Carpenter. Instead, he used the identifying phrase “Actor in Peyton Place”. Yet, this reference certainly fits the actor Ed Nelson. The Yale Book of Quotations includes this salient cite [ECPP] [YQEC]:

“It took me a long time to discover that the key thing in acting is honesty. Once you know how to fake that, you’ve got it made.” Actor in Peyton Place

The book by Carpenter was reviewed twice in the pages of the New York Times and both reviewers were impressed by the humorous quotation about honesty. As a result, the saying was reprinted in the body of both reviews facilitating its further dissemination [NYJL] [NYHK].

In 1971 the author of “The American Idea of Success” shifted the domain of the expression from acting to the business domain of sales [ASRH]:

In any case, the key principle in selling is honesty. Once you know how to fake that, you’ve got it made.

In 1973 a Nebraska newspaper reported on a speech by a lawyer at a fund-raising event. The speaker made a jest directed at his own profession while deploying a variant adage with the word “sincerity” instead of “honesty” [OMAL]:

Master-of-ceremonies was Arthur O’Leary formerly chief deputy county attorney. “Sincerity is essential for a good lawyer,” O’Leary said. “Once a lawyer learns to fake that, he’s got it made.

In 1976 the actor E. G. Marshall spoke to a reporter named Don Freeman and described a conversation that he had with a friend who was a longtime performer in soap operas [EMDF]:

“Once,” says. Marshall, “I asked him what’s so difficult about acting in the soaps? ‘Sincerity,’ he said to me, ‘and once you can fake that…'”

With that, Marshall threw back his head and laughed, and one reflected that it is not at all common to see E. G. Marshall in a mood of levity.

In 1980 the comedian George Burns published a memoir titled “The Third Time Around”, and he included a chapter about his late-blooming career in motion pictures. He offered the following advice to young aspirants [GBTT]:

And remember this for the rest of your life: To be a fine actor, when you’re playing a role you’ve got to be honest. And if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Also in 1980 a version of the saying was ascribed to the French novelist and playwright Jean Giraudoux in the humorous work “Murphy’s Law Book Two”. This curious claim was listed without a citation, and QI has not yet found any earlier evidence for this attribution to Giraudoux who died in 1944. Here is the text in the “The Cynic’s Lexicon” [CLJG]:

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

quoted in Murphy’s Law Book Two by A. Bloch, 1980

In 1981 a newspaper columnist reported that the phrase was being used in the domain of advertising agencies [AARM]:

An Ad agency friend heard this comment the other day at his office:

“The most important quality for success in this business is sincerity. As soon as you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

In 1982 Stanley Fish, the prominent literary theorist and newspaper columnist, published an article in the journal Critical Inquiry with an epigraph attributed to the movie mogul and quotation magnet Samuel Goldwyn [SFSG]:

The most important thing in acting is honesty; once you learn to fake that, you’re in.  – SAM GOLDWYN

In 1983 the magazine Mother Jones printed an advertisement for t-shirts emblazoned with a wide variety of catch phrases. The following saying was listed without any attribution [MJSS]:

THE SECRET OF SUCCESS IS SINCERITY ONCE YOU CAN FAKE THAT YOU VE GOT IT MADE

Also in 1983 the quotation collector Laurence Peter presented an instance of the remark in a newspaper column [LPLT]:

Peter’s Ladder-of-Success Rule: Sincerity is the secret of success. Once you can fake that, you’re on your way.

In 1989 an article in the periodical Management Today attributed a more elaborate variant of the saying to the celebrated comedian and quotation magnet Groucho Marx [MTGM]:

But if even ethics in business is pursued solely for the bottom line, it can all too easily sound like Groucho Marx’s philosophy: ‘The secret of life is honesty and fair-dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’

In 2003 the journalist Daniel Schorr wrote an article reflecting on the early part of his long career and claimed that he heard a version of the motto from a television producer. This citation was mentioned in the Quote Verifier reference work [DSCM] [DSQV]:

But 15 years later, I would be abandoning the printed press and joining Ed Murrow at CBS. I soon learned that television wasn’t just about conveying information, but about glorifying the conveyor of the information – the star. When I asked a young producer the secret of success for a print reporter going into television, he replied, “Sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

In 2008 a writer at CBS Marketwatch stated that the famous talk show host Joe Franklin had claimed coinage of the saying [JFJG]:

“The key to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Go ahead, have a good laugh. …

I first heard the quote uttered by legendary New York talk show host Joe Franklin in an interview on the very first “This American Life,” who claimed that he had coined it. In getting ready to do this blog post, I found a reference to a French dramatist, Jean Giraudoux, who is said to have been the originator.

In conclusion, the first evidence located by QI for this class of remarks was dated 1962 though it may have been in circulation years prior to this date. The coiner remains anonymous. Early examples were tailored to the worlds of acting in the theater and appearing on television.

George Burns helped popularize the expression via his third memoir. Attributions to Groucho Marx and Samuel Goldwyn are not supported by evidence at this time though Groucho was alive while the expression was being propagated.

Update History: On January 23, 2012 the citation for Jean Giraudoux in “The Cynic’s Lexicon” was added. This reference pointed to the 1980 work “Murphy’s Law Book Two”. On January 25, 2012 the CBS MarketWatch citation mentioning Joe Franklin was added.

[LLCH] 1962 April 06, Morning Advocate [Advocate], The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Page 2-A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (GenealogyBank)

[ENPP] 1969 April 25, Life, Requiem For a TV Town by Joan Barthel, Start Page 47, Quote Page 49, Published by Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link

[ECPP] 1970, They Became What They Beheld by Edmund Carpenter, Page title: They Became What They Beheld, Unnumbered pages: Approximate page 62, Published by Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, New York, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[YQEC] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section George Burns, Page 117, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[NYJL] 1970 November 26, New York Times, Books of The Times: Art in the Global Village by John Leonard, Page 29, New York. (ProQuest)

[NYHK] 1973 July 29, New York Times, We cannot see our time and we know little about our lives by Hugh Kenner, Section Book Review, Page BR6, New York. (ProQuest)

[ASRH] 1971, The American Idea of Success by Richard M. Huber, Page 263, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

[OMAL] 1973 February 20, Omaha World Herald, Exon Praises Jacobberger by Larry Wilson, Page 4, Column 7, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

[EMDF] 1976 January 11, Times-Picayune, No Credibility Gap with E. G. Marshall by Don Freeman, Page 21, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[GBTT] 1980, The Third Time Around by George Burns, Page 189, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)

[CLJG] 1984, The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green, Section: Jean Giraudoux, Page 82, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[AARM] 1981 June 03, Omaha World Herald, Thief Finds Cans ‘Trash Accountable’ by Robert McMorris, Page 2, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

[SFSG] 1982 Summer, Critical Inquiry, With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida by Stanley E. Fish, Page 693, Volume 8, Number 4, Published by: The University of Chicago Press. (JSTOR) link

[MJSS] 1983 April, Mother Jones, [Advertisement for T-Shirts], Page 44, Volume 8, Number 3, Foundation for National Progress, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link

[LPLT] 1983 September 20, Los Angeles Times, Peter’s Almanac, Page F3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[MTGM] 1989 May, Management Today, Good Behaviour by Jack Mahoney, [Business ethics column], Page 180, Haymarket Publishing Ltd. (Gale Group; Accessed 2011 December 4)

[DSCM] 2003, Christian Science Monitor, Staying tuned by Daniel Schorr, Page: 11, Dateline: Washington. (NewsBank)

[DSQV] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 198 and 326, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[JFJG] 2008 August 28, CBS News MarketWatch, The Key to Success is Sincerity by Jon Greer, CBS Interactive Inc. (Accessed at cbsnews.com on January 25, 2012) link

4 thoughts on “The Main Thing Is Honesty. If You Can Fake That, You’ve Got It Made

  1. Rick Rofihe

    I was lucky enough to know Edmund (“Ted”) Carpenter for three decades; he passed away just last summer. Something Ted said to me once was “If somebody doesn’t like you, there’s nothing you can do to make them like you.” I later used the line in a short story I wrote, “Carmen”, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1991.

  2. Scott Allen

    Google (and a whole lot of other people) seems to think this quote is from Jean Giraudoux. While I haven’t been able to identify the specific original work, nor an earlier book containing it, the most authoritative sources I’ve found for it are:
    – Dictionary of Quotations in Communications
    – Roget’s College Thesaurus (Penguin edition)

  3. Garson O'Toole Post author

    Scott Allen: Thank you very much for visiting the Quote Investigator website and leaving a comment with valuable information. I have updated the post to include an attribution dated 1980 for Jean Giraudoux.

  4. bartholomew

    Actual sincerity or even honesty–rather than faked sincerity or faked honesty–means that the person subjectively believes what the person is putting forth and doing, even if what the person is putting forth and doing is contradictory to one’s true self, erroneous and even evil. Trilling says that authenticity means that what the person is putting forth and doing coincides with one’s true self, and usually is not erroneous or evil, but actually true and good.

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