If You Can Read This, You’ve Come Too Close

Dorothy Parker? Lillian Hellman? Ford Model T Label? Frank Sullivan? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

close07Dear Quote Investigator: The witty author Dorothy Parker was once asked to suggest an epitaph for her tombstone. Over the years she crafted several different candidates, and I am interested in the following saying which can be expressed in multiple ways:

If you can read this you are too close.
If you can read this you’ve come too close.
If you can read this, you are standing too close.

Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI plans to examine at least five different epitaphs that have been attributed to Dorothy Parker. Here is a link to a webpage that will have pointers to the five separate analyses when they are completed.

There is evidence that Dorothy Parker did present this saying as an epitaph for herself. This information emanated from Lillian Hellman who was a long-time friend of the writer, and who acted as her controversial literary executor. Hellman delivered a memorial speech after Parker’s death during which she asserted that Parker desired a gravestone with the following message:

If you can read this you’ve come too close.

Hellman’s remark was discussed in publications in 1968 and 1969 and in her own memoir. Detailed citations are given further below.

The origin of the phrase chosen by Parker was intriguing to QI. The statement was used as a comical cautionary sign appearing on the back of Ford Model T automobiles during the 1920s. Parker humorously repurposed the expression and shifted its semantics. She performed the same alchemy on the statement “Excuse My Dust” as discussed here.

In January 1925 a newspaper in Portland, Oregon reported on a sign that had been seen in Pennsylvania. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A Novel Warning.

A driver of a motor car In Washington, Pa., while trailing a small coupe, noticed very small letters on the spare tire covering. Anxious to know what was being advertised, he drove close enough to read the inscription, which said: “If you can read this you are too darn close.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1925 a very similar tale was printed in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper. The warning message was slightly longer and more elaborate: 2

His Curiosity Satisfied

The curiosity of a motorist on a country road was aroused by the lettering, too small to read, on the spare tire of a car ahead. Anxious to know what it said, he put his foot on the accelerator and read: “If you can see this you are too darned close for comfort.”

In 1928 the humorist Frank Sullivan published “Innocent Bystanding” which included an instance of the saying. Sullivan was a friend of Dorothy Parker’s and both attended gatherings of the Algonquin Round Table. A section of Sullivan’s book discussed “Outfitting the College Student” and observed that the saying had migrated from the backs of automobiles to the backs of coats: 3

The student must also be equipped with a yellow slicker painted with various mottoes and designs. The oilskin coat should be bright yellow. It is considered au fait to have the various female friends of the youth place their autographs on the coat. Legends such as “Excuse My Dust” or “If You Can Read This You Are Too Damn Close” should be painted on the back, with any mural or landscape designs that occur to the boy’s fancy.

In 1931 the linguistics journal “American Speech” published “An Anthology of Lizzie Labels” by researcher B. A. Botkin. The terms “Lizzie” and “Tin Lizzie” were nicknames for the popular Ford Model T automobile. Botkin collected data from University students about linguistic phenomena, and his subjects recalled observing labels such as the following: 4

Gone and not forgotten. Grief without pain. Hell to start and hell to stop. Hold ‘er, Newt. Hold everything. Hotsie totsie. How do you do in a case like this? How many times? If you are close enough to read this you are too (damn) close. (2) If you can read this (sign) you’re (are) too darn (damn, damned) close.

The Model T did not have bumpers, and early motorcars sometimes displayed messages on a covering placed over the spare tire mounted on the back as indicated in the 1925 citations above. In later years the message was printed on bumper stickers.

In 1950 the expression was still well-known, and it was incorporated into a joke about flying saucers and the military that was printed in a widely-syndicated newspaper column: 5

One fellow claims he even knows the message stencilled on the flying saucer. It says “If you can read this you’re too darn close … to knowing a top military secret.”

In 1953 the same columnist wrote comically about the strong cultural reaction produced by the Kinsey Reports on human sexuality: 6

My secretary read the first few thousand words and announced “I wouldn’t have that book in my house!” I said “you’re throwing it away!” She said “Certainly not … I’m keeping it in the office.” She’s reading the stories at her desk with a sign behind her that says “If you’re reading this you’re too darn close.”

In 1968 “Esquire” magazine published a profile of Dorothy Parker who had died a year earlier. The author stated that the playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman spoke at Parker’s funeral and recounted that Parker had selected the saying under investigation as an epitaph. The name “Dottie” in the following passage was the nickname used by friends instead of “Dorothy”: 7

“She was part of nothing and nobody except herself; it was this independence of mind and spirit that was her true distinction,” her longtime friend, Lillian Hellman, said at her funeral. Miss Hellman also said that Dottie wanted her tombstone to tell the world, “If you can read this, you’ve come too close.”

In 1969 Lillian Hellman released “An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir”, and she discussed a remark made by Parker about the epitaph she desired. An extensive excerpt from the book was also published in “The Atlantic” magazine: 8 9

Once she said to me — I quoted it at her funeral and found to my pleasure, as it would have been to hers, that the mourners laughed — “Lilly, promise me that my gravestone will carry only these words: ‘If you can read this you’ve come too close.'”

In 1970 a biography titled “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats was released and the author presented another version of the expression: 10

Death could be funny, the funniest thing about it being the world’s fear of it. She amused Mr. Benchley by thinking up epitaphs to embellish her own tombstone, such as “This is on me,” “Excuse my dust,” and “If you can read this, you are standing too close.”

In conclusion Lillian Hellman’s testimony in her memoir indicated that Dorothy Parker probably did suggest using the humorous epitaph on her own gravestone. However, the joke was already in circulation by the 1920s, and its creator was anonymous. Over the decades the location of the saying moved from automobiles, to coats, to flying saucers, to offices, and to graveyards.

Image Notes: Grave marker generated at tombstonebuilder website. Dorothy Parker picture from 1910 or early 1920s via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes:

  1. 1925 January 11, The Sunday Oregonian (Oregonian), Section 7, A Novel Warning, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1925 April 17, Rockford Daily Register-Gazette, His Curiosity Satisfied (Filler item), Quote Page 15, Column 2, Rockford, Illinois. (The original text has “to small” instead of “too small”) (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1928, Innocent Bystanding by Frank Sullivan, Section: Outfitting the College Student, Quote Page 41 and 42, Published by Horace Liveright, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the librarians of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and special thanks to the wonderfully helpful librarian in Tuscaloosa)
  4. 1931 October, American Speech, Volume 7, Number 1, An Anthology of Lizzie Labels by B. A. Botkin, Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Published by Duke University Press. (JSTOR) link
  5. 1950 April 6, The Times Record, One Man’s Opinion by Walter Kiernan, Quote Page 22, Column 5, Troy, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1953 August 20, Tyrone Daily Herald, One Man’s Opinion by Walter Kiernan, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Tyrone, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1968 July, Esquire, Volume 70, Whatever you think Dorothy Parker was like, she wasn’t by Wyatt Cooper, Start Page 56, Quote Page 57, Column 1, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)
  8. 1969, An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir by Lillian Hellman, Quote Page 215, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1969 April, The Atlantic, Volume 223, Number 4, A Book Bonus: An Unfinished Woman by Lillian Hellman, Start Page 90, Quote Page 114, Column 1, The Atlantic Monthly, Boston, Massachusetts, Published Monthly at The Rumford Press, Concord, New Hampshire. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Quote Page 44, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified in paper)