Count Your Age by Friends, Not Years. Count Your Life by Smiles, Not Tears

John Lennon? Birthday Card? Dixie Lee Crosby? Dixie Willson? Anonymous?

dixielee01Dear Quote Investigator: I am a big fan of the Beatles, and I think I have a good mental picture of my favorite band member, John Lennon. The following popular pair of statements is often credited to Lennon, but I think the attribution is false:

Count your age by friends, not years.
Count your life by smiles, not tears.

Disagreement with a friend of mine about these words has led to a social rift. The prevalence of incorrect ascriptions is irritating to me. Yet, an expression like this can have a deep emotional resonance for an individual, and skepticism about an attribution can be viewed as callous. Perhaps an exploration of this saying will help to repair our relationship.

Quote Investigator: The musician John Lennon was born in 1940. The earliest evidence of this quotation located by QI was printed in a newspaper in 1927. Hence, Lennon did not craft these two statements. They were part of a larger poem that was printed in a birthday card given to a woman in Richfield Springs, New York when she attained her ninetieth year: 1

The following quotation is taken from one of the many beautiful greeting cards:

“Count your garden by the flowers,
never by the leaves that fall;
Count your days by golden hours
don’t remember clouds at all!
Count the night by stars, not shadows
Count your life with smiles—not tears
And with joy on today’s birthday,
count your age by friends—not years!”

In 1931 a newspaper in Roswell, New Mexico published a version of the poem under the title “Count Your Blessings” without an attribution. The first four lines were identical to those given above. The end of the poem was slightly different, e.g., the mention of a birthday was omitted: 2

Count your nights by stars — not shadows;
Count your life with smiles, not tears — and with joy
Count your age by friends, not years.
–Author Unknown To Us.

In 1933 a newspaper in Anniston, Alabama printed an article titled “How ‘Count Your Garden’ Was Written”. The author of the poem was identified as Dixie Willson: 3

Into the Volland office one day came Dixie Willson. She had come to see the editor. “I’m broke,” she told the editor. “And not only broke, but I haven’t eaten in so long that the old belt won’t pull any tighter. But I can write verses. If I should write a greeting verse for you, would you buy it?” “Write it, and I’ll see what I can do,” said the editor.

The article stated that Willson wrote a verse that was accepted, and she received $5 from the editor. Willson and the editor went to dinner which she generously paid for with the money. Finis for the $5.

But it wasn’t finis for the verse: it was the beginning of an edition that has passed the half-million publication mark. For the verse that she wrote is this favorite of greeting card buyers everywhere:

Count your garden by the flowers, never by the leaves that fall;
Count your days by golden hours, don’t remember clouds at all!
Count your nights by stars—not shadows; count your life with smiles—not tears.
And with joy, on this your birthday—count your age by friends—not years.

In February 1935 an inquiry about the poem was printed in the “Queries and Answers” section of the New York Times: 4

S. H. requests the title and the name of the author of the poem which contains the following lines, possibly not quite correctly quoted:

Don’t count your troubles
By the leaves that fall.
The poem ends with these lines:
Don’t count your birthdays by the years that pass
But by the friends you have.

In March 1935 a partial answer to the inquiry was published in the “Queries and Answers” section of the New York Times: 5

The poem desired by S. H. (Feb. 3) appears as a popular birthday card and bears no author’s name.

After the remark above, the paper printed a poem very similar to the one given in the 1927 citation, and after the poem the following comment appeared:

Several readers sent these lines, but none of them was able to give the title or the author’s name. One correspondent informs us that the poem has been set to music by Harriet Ware and published by G. Schirmer, Inc.

In April 1935 a sardonic article about the greeting-card business by E. B. White was published in The New Yorker magazine. The article presented a different identity for the author of the poem: 6

Bing Crosby’s wife, Dixie Lee, is one of the people who have lived to regret the passing of the royalty system. Miss Lee, about six years ago, sold to the P. F. Volland Company the following poem:

Count your garden by the flowers,
Never by the leaves that fall,
Count your days by golden hours,
Don’t remember clouds at all;
Count your nights by stars, not shadows,
Count your life with smiles, not tears,
And with joy on this, your birthday,
Count your age by friends, not years.

The firm paid her five bucks, and she blew most of it taking one of the editors to lunch. The next few months she watched her greeting become a best-seller.

The year specified in the article for the sale of the poem was six years before 1935, i.e., in 1929, but the card was already in circulation by 1927. This slight inaccuracy does not rule out the correctness of the authorship indicated. Also, The New Yorker was once praised for the high-quality of its fact-checking.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1936 the topic was revisited in the “Queries and Answers” section of the New York Times. This time an author was named. However, QI suspects that the information was derived from The New Yorker article and was not arrived at independently: 7

It is said that Dixie Lee, wife of Bing Crosby, wrote it and sold it to a publisher for five dollars.

In 1941 a Mason City, Iowa newspaper printed an article titled “Mason City Series of Success Stories: Dixie Willson, Outstanding Writer” that mentioned the poem and credited Willson: 8

Still popular among the Volland publications of that time is a small book of verse, which ranks as a best seller in its line. Also most exceptionally received was a birthday verse written for a Volland card which is still the top favorite of all of those published by the company.

In 1948 the popular author and composer of greeting cards J. P McEvoy wrote a story about the business for The Saturday Review of Literature. He credited the poem to Dixie Willson instead of Dixie Lee Crosby: 9

Probably the biggest selling birthday card had only one line: “Birthdays are like measles—everyone has ’em.” And one of the next biggest, written a generation ago by Dixie Willson, is still up in the all-time hit parade of schmaltz you can’t forget:

Count your garden by the flowers
Never by the leaves that fall;
Count your days by golden hours
Don’t remember clouds at all!
… (lines omitted)

Two lines from the poem were attached to John Lennon’s name by February 2010 as shown in a tweet from @Girlfriendology: 10

Girlfriendology @Girlfriendology
Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears. #quote John Lennon
9 Retweets
4 Favorites
10:59 AM Feb 6th, 2010

In conclusion, the lines supplied by the questioner were part of a larger poem that appeared on a birthday card by 1927. The authorship of the poem is somewhat uncertain. Dixie Willson is currently the leading candidate, but Dixie Lee Crosby is also a possibility. The poem was created before John Lennon entered this world. Evidence connecting him to the two lines of the work is weak. The linkage apparently was established years after Lennon’s death in 1980.

(Special thanks to freelance editor Jamie Chavez. Her inquiry inspired QI to construct this question. Stylistic, grammatical, and conceptual errors are QI’s. Many thanks to Pat Schultz who told QI about the important citation in 1941 crediting Dixie Willson.)

Update History: On March 6, 2016 citations in 1931, 1933, and 1941 were added. The conclusion was altered to name Dixie Willson as the leading candidate.

Notes:

  1. 1927 January 27, Richfield Mercury, Ninetieth Birthday Celebrated at Monticello, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Richfield Springs, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1931 January 6, The Roswell Daily Record, The Social News by Grace Thorpe Bear, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Roswell, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  3. Date: 1933 February 28, Newspaper: The Anniston Star, Section: Social News – Personal Mention – Women’s Clubs, Social Editor: Iva Cook, Article: How “Count Your Garden” Was Written, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Anniston, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1935 February 3, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Queries and Answers, Quote Page BR27, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1935 March 3, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Queries and Answers, Quote Page BR27, Column 3, New York, (ProQuest)
  6. 1935 April 20, The New Yorker, Onward and Upward With the Arts: Terse Verse by E. B. White, Start Page 32, Quote Page 38, F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online Archive of page scans of The New Yorker; Accessed July 21 2013)
  7. 1936 May 3, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Queries and Answers, Quote Page BR27, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1941 March 08, The Globe Gazette, No. 50 in a Mason City Series of Success Stories: Dixie Willson, Outstanding Writer, Quote Page 16, Column 4, Mason City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1948 November 20, The Saturday Review of Literature, From Me to You by J. P. McEvoy, Start Page 7, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Unz)
  10. Tweet, From: Girlfriendology @Girlfriendology, Time: 10:59 AM, Date: February 6th, 2010, Text: Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears. #quote John Lennon (Accessed search database for twitter on July 22, 2013)