There But for the Grace of God, Goes God

Winston Churchill? Leo C. Rosten? Walter Winchell? Herman J. Mankiewicz? Apocryphal?
orsonDear Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill had an unhappy experience negotiating with a politician who held a very high opinion of himself. Afterward Churchill reportedly concocted the perfect remark for deflating the pretensions of an egomaniac:

There, but for the grace of God, goes God.

However, I have heard that this same jibe was aimed at the renowned auteur Orson Welles during the filming of “Citizen Kane”. Would you please explore the provenance of this witticism?

Quote Investigator: This remark was based on a comical modification of a resonant phrase from history. Here are two instances:

There but for the grace of God, go I.
There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.

More information about the origin of this penitent statement is available here.

The earliest evidence of the quip located by QI was printed in the 1941 book “Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers” by Leo C. Rosten which included the quotation applied to filmmaker Orson Welles. Rosten did not identify the person who delivered the barb. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When Orson Welles (of whom someone said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God”) was first shown through a studio he exclaimed, “This is the biggest electric train any boy ever had!” The remark is acute and revealing.

QI is not certain of the precise release date in 1941 of the “Hollywood” book. On January 20, 1941 the widely-distributed syndicated columnist Walter Winchell presented a different version of the circumstances surrounding the quotation. The target of the barb was a religious figure named Father Divine instead of Orson Welles. The word “niftied” was a vocabulary item employed by Winchell. It meant the spoken phrase was “nifty”, i.e., deft. The name “Divine” was spelled “Devine” in the paper: 2

The Story Tellers: The DAC News reports that a Harlemite watching Father Devine whisk by in a long limousine, niftied: “There, but for the grace of God—goes God.”

Above are the two earliest citations located by QI, and the temporal ordering was uncertain. The tale mentioning Orson Welles has circulated continuously to the present day. The version with Father Divine has largely disappeared from collective memory. A third version with Winston Churchill speaking the humorous line entered circulation by 1943 as indicated by the citation listed further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In November 1941 Rosten’s “Hollywood” book was evaluated in “The New York Times”, and the reviewer found the comment about Welles entertaining enough to reprint it in his newspaper column. Hence, the joke achieved wider distribution: 3

In commenting on the climactic and cultural aspects of the place he recalls that a melancholy writer once said: “Hollywood is a warm Siberia,” and he remembers some one’s comment on Orson Welles: “There but for the grace of God, goes God.”

In August 1942 the newspaper columnist and novelist Katharine Brush printed the jest directed at Welles with an attribution that remained anonymous. In October the mass-circulation periodical “The Reader’s Digest” repeated the item with an acknowledgement to her: 4 5

Anonymous remark made in Hollywood about Orson Welles (whose airs and graces, it appears, were at that time a little exalted): “There but for the grace of God, goes God.”

In June 1943 “The New York Times” published a different tale set in London. The statement under investigation was referred to as a “Churchillian phrase”. The newspaper account employed an ambiguous wording, but it suggested that Churchill had used the remark. The article mocked unidentified pompous generals of the past: 6

Churchill’s description of one of his generals—”magnificent in defeat, insufferable in victory,” could well be applied to others who have left their mark on history. Some few in the portrait gallery of the past were stuffed shirts, most aptly described and demolished by another Churchillian phrase: “There, but for the grace of God—goes God.”

In August 1943 a full version of an alternative anecdote was published in a newspaper in Ottawa, Canada which acknowledged a Chicago paper. Reportedly, Churchill used the jibe to criticize fellow politician Stafford Cripps: 7

The current number of the Chicago Sun Book Week prints an item from overseas said to be the latest London story. It has Winston Churchill gesturing with his cigar as Sir Stafford Cripps comes into the room, and making the Churchillian remark, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

In September 1943 “The New York Times” published an article with a group of remarks credited to the U.K. Prime Minister titled “Churchillisms: New Vigor for the King’s English” which included an instance of the anecdote: 8

Some of the best “Churchill” lines are struck off the anvil in the course of his daily associations. One classic that is going the rounds just now took place after a conversation with a particularly intransigent doctrinaire politician who had got it the Prime Minister’s hair. As the recalcitrant one walked off with an air of injured righteousness Churchill nudged the Cabinet Minister next to him and remarked, “There but for the Grace of God goes God.”

In 1947 the “Chicago Tribune” printed the quotation ascribed to Churchill and named Stafford Cripps as the subject: 9

Mr. Churchill once took cognizance of the stern and unyielding moral character of the president of the board of trade by remarking, “There but for the grace of God goes God.”

In 1948 the industrious anecdote collector Bennett Cerf published a volume that included the Churchill-Cripps tale. Cerf stated that he heard about the incident from Sir Sidney Clift who was present when Churchill spoke: 10

Sir Sidney Clift reports that he was standing with his friend, Winston Churchill, in a passage leading into the House of Commons recently, when Sir Stafford Cripps, no favorite of Mr. Churchill, brushed by. Churchill grimaced, and remarked, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

In 1971 about three decades after the Welles version of the tale began to circulate an article in “The New York Times” identified Herman Mankiewicz as the jokester. The author Mordecai Richler while reviewing a book about “Citizen Kane” stated that the line was spoken by Mankiewicz who wrote the screenplay for the classic: 11

His wit is of course celebrated and remains an integral part of any study of Hollywood. “There but for the grace of God, goes God,” he observed of Welles crossing the “Kane” set…

In 1995 “Hollywood Babble On: Stars Gossip About Stars” by Boze Hadleigh printed the following passage attributed to the film star David Niven: 12

There were prima donnas in the old days as well. I worked with Orson Welles, who himself repeated to me the story someone had once said about him: “There but for the grace of God goes God.” By that point, I think Welles had ceased caring about art and settled into a celebrity attitude…
David Niven

In conclusion, the earliest evidence in 1941 indicated that this quip was directed at Orson Welles. At almost the same time the joke was aimed at Father Divine. The creator of the remark was revealed to be Herman Mankiewicz, but the citation supporting this identity was published many years after the remark was made.

There is some evidence beginning in 1943 that Churchill employed the joke. But it appears that the remark was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Winston Churchill portrait by Ambrose McEvoy. Publicity photograph of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Both images are in the public domain and were obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

(Thanks to Wilson Gray and Laurence Horn for their comments on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1941 copyright, Hollywood: The Movie Colony: The Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten, Quote Page 51, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Facsimile produced on demand in 1973 by University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan) (Verified on paper in facsimile)
  2. 1941 January 20, Omaha World Herald, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 5, Column 5-6, Omaha, Nebraska.(GenealogyBank)
  3. 1941 November 29, New York Times, Books of the Times by Charles Poore, (Book Review of “Hollywood: The Movie Colony: The Movie Makers” by Leo C. Rosten), Quote Page 15, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1942 August 16, Portsmouth Times, Fits and Starts: Out of My Mind by Katharine Brush, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Portsmouth, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1942 October, Reader’s Digest, Volume 41, My favorite modern quotations — Katherine Brush, Quote Page 92, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1943 June 20, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, Men of Destiny – Leaders in North Africa by Hanson W. Baldwin, Quote Page SM5, Column 1 and 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1943 August 21, The Evening Citizen (Ottawa Citizen) On The Book Table by W. J. Hurlow, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Google News Archive)
  8. 1943 September 12, New York Times, Churchillisms: New Vigor for the King’s English by Raymond Daniell (from London by wireless), Start Page SM9, Quote Page 61, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 1947 March 11, Chicago Daily Tribune, No Loitering, Quote Page 16, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  10. 1950 (Copyright 1948), Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 14, (Reprint of 1948 Simon & Schuster edition), Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1971 October 31, New York Times, The Citizen Kane Book, (Article subtitle: There but for the grace of God, went God), (Book Reviews of “Raising Kane” by Pauline Kael and “The Shooting Script” by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles), by Mordecai Richler, Quote Page BR3, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. 1995: Hollywood Babble On: Stars Gossip About Stars by Boze Hadleigh, Quote Page 189, Birch Lane Press Book of Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)