Behind Every Great Fortune There Is a Crime

Honoré de Balzac? Mario Puzo? Pierre Mille? Frank P. Walsh? Samuel Merwin? James Henry Yoxall? C. Wright Mills? Jane Bryant Quinn? Apocryphal?

balzac06Dear Quote Investigator: The popular 1969 novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo recounted the violent tale of a Mafia family, and the epigraph selected by the author was fascinating:

Behind every great fortune there is a crime.
—Balzac

While searching I found a few different versions of this saying. Yet, I have been unable to locate this maxim in a work written by Honoré de Balzac:

Behind every great fortune lies a great crime
Every great fortune begins with a crime
At the root of every great fortune there was a crime.

Should Balzac really be credited with this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this adage was inspired by a sentence that was written by Honoré de Balzac, but the expression has been simplified in an evolutionary process. Here is the original in French from a serialization of “Le Père Goriot” published in “Revue de Paris” in 1834: 1

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.

Balzac published a series of interlinked novels called “La Comédie Humaine” or “The Human Comedy”, and “Le Père Goriot” was part of this series. Eventually all were translated into English, and here is a rendering of the statement above published in 1896: 2

The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.

Here is another translation into English that was published in 1900: 3

The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectable way.

Note that Honoré de Balzac did not pronounce a general rule that larceny was at the root of all large fortunes. However, the simplified statement that is popular in modern times is arguably more provocative and consequently more memorable.

The simplification process is illustrated by an instance of the saying printed in a periodical in 1912. The following words were credited to an unidentified “French writer”. QI hypothesizes that they were inspired by a schematic memory of Balzac’s words: 4

At the base of every great fortune there is a great crime.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The 1912 expression given above was printed in a newspaper account of a dinner held in London. The article writer was Pierre Mille who was described as “a literary man of Paris”. The speaker of the adage was an unidentified dinner guest. Boldface has been added below:

One evening at the Carlton Hotel, where he had invited me to dinner, the conversation fell on certain money kings of America, those great modern powers that one cannot help dreaming about. One of the guests recalled the words of a French writer. “At the base of every great fortune there is a great crime.” I could not help saying how false this statement was. At the base of great American fortunes to-day there is boldness, the genius of concentrating economic fortunes, a vigorous mentality in calculating and combining, but never a trace of crime.

The above account was first printed in the French periodical “La Petit Journal” according to the newspaper report. So this concise maxim was disseminated in two languages.

In 1915 a business publication in Chicago Illinois reported remarks made by a Washington-based government functionary who pronounced a concise dictum: 5

What kind of a creature is this Frank P. Walsh that the United States has let loose on an unoffending American people? Mr. Walsh is chairman of the federal commission on industrial relations. He is quoted as saying in an address in this city this week that “every great fortune is a fundamental wrong”; that “every man with a fortune must at some time have crossed the line of ethics and of criminal law”; that “the government ought to get back the land which has been taken by fraud.”

In 1922 a short story by the playwright and novelist Samuel Merwin was printed in a Kentucky newspaper. An instance of the aphorism was spoken by a figure in the story: 6

In every instance, Rob. The facts support us. Every great fortune—every one—is founded on evil, usually on crime. In the building of every one there were moments—crises, you understand—when only a criminal act of some nature could save the thing.

The purchase of a legislature or a judge, robbing a vault of records or evidence, even violence against an individual.

In 1925 a British politician named James Henry Yoxall published a collection of essays, and he included a simplified version of the adage which he tentatively ascribed to Balzac: 7

Somebody said—I think it was Balzac—that at the root of every great fortune there was a crime, which is not true, let us hope; but at the root of every honourable success there has been capacity of some kind, depend on it—strength, splendid health, or assiduity, courage, enterprise, wisdom…

In 1956 the American sociologist C. Wright Mills published “The Power Elite”, and credited Balzac with an instance of the maxim: 8

Two general explanations for the fact of the very rich—now and in the past—are widely available. The first, of muckraker origin, was best stated by Gustavus Myers, whose work is a gigantic gloss in pedantic detail upon Balzac’s assertion that behind every great fortune there lies a crime.

In 1958 the writer Daniel Bell reviewed the work of Mills in the pages of the “American Journal of Sociology”. Bell presented a slightly altered version of the maxim that Mills ascribed to Balzac: 9

It is interesting that Mills quotes with approval Balzac’s dictum, “Behind every fortune is a crime,” and sees it as a judgment which applies equally today.

In 1969 the bestseller “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo was released with an epigraph credited to Balzac. The novel was a popular sensation which was made into an acclaimed film: 10

Behind every great fortune there is a crime.
—Balzac

In 1976 the financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn employed a version of the saying with an anonymous attribution: 11

It has been said that every great fortune is founded on a great crime, a maxim that Miller’s book documents down through the Harding administration.

In conclusion, Honoré de Balzac did write a statement linking large fortunes to crime, but it was a nuanced remark about a subset of great fortunes. Over the years his expression has been dramatically simplified, and no single person can be credited with the construction of the modern concise and forceful version.

(Thanks to Fred Shapiro for the analysis of this quotation 12 given in the “The Yale Book of Quotations” which included the important 1956 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1834, Revue de Paris, Volume 12, Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, Seconde Partie: L’entrée dans le monde, Start Page 237, Quote Page 258, Au Bureau De La Revue De Paris, Paris, France. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1896, Comédie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac, Edited by George Saintsbury, Old Goriot (Le Père Goriot), Translated by Ellen Marriage, Quote Page 124, J. M. Dent and Co., London and New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1900, The Standard Wormeley Edition: La Comédie Humaine of Honoré de Balzac, Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Père Goriot, Quote Page 142, Hardy, Prat & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1912 May 18, Charleston News and Courier, Conan Doyle’s Yarn, (Paris Correspondence New York Sun), Quote Page 8, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1915 March 13, The Economist, Walsh’s Philosophy, Quote Page 449, Column 1, Economist Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1922 April 16, Lexington Herald, The Gold One by Samuel Merwin, Section 3, Quote Page 9, Column 5, Lexington, Kentucky. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1925, Live and Learn by Sir James Henry Yoxall, Section: Regarding a Surcoat, Start Page 111, Quote Page 116, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (The 1925 date is listed in the Oxford University online catalog and is visible in a Bodleian Library stamp of “APR 1 1925″ on the acknowledgment page) (Bodleian Libraries: University of Oxford: Digital Scan)
  8. 1956, The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills (Charles Wright Mills), Chapter 5: The Very Rich, Quote Page 95, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1958 November, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 64, Number 3, The Power Elite-Reconsidered by Daniel Bell, Start Page 238, Quote Page 238 and 239, Published by The University of Chicago Press. (JSTOR) link
  10. 1969, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, (Epigraph on Title Page of Book I), Quote Page 9, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1976 September 22, Seattle Daily Times, Staying Ahead: Fathers of country also good hustlers by Jane Bryant Quinn, Quote Page A19, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Honoré de Balzac, Page 42, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)