Category Archives: George Jean Nathan

He’s a Writer for the Ages—For the Ages of Four to Eight

Dorothy Parker? George Jean Nathan? Anonymous?

gjnathan01Dear Quote Investigator: The trenchant prose of Dorothy Parker has always impressed me. Reportedly she once lacerated a writer who was receiving a superfluity of undeserved accolades with the following:

He is a writer for the ages — the ages of four to eight.

Is this Parker’s joke? When was this written?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of a remark matching this template appeared in the ‘Patter’ section of “The Reader’s Digest” in 1938. The age limits were different, and the barb was aimed at a playwright, but the core joke was the same. In addition, the words were not attributed to Dorothy Parker; instead, another wit named George Jean Nathan was credited. Here are two examples from the ‘Patter’ section: 1

When the Critics Crack the Quip

Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank. —John Mason Brown in N.Y. Post

Mr. ———— writes his plays for the ages — the ages between five and twelve —George Jean Nathan

A decade later, in 1948 the anecdote and quotation collector Bennett Cerf published the volume “Shake Well Before Using”, and he included an instance of the saying ascribed to Parker: 2

Miss Parker was asked another time to express an opinion of an overpraised novelist. She remarked, “He’s a writer for the ages—for the ages of four to eight.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 32, Patter, Quote Page 19, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1950, Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 219, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Reprint of 1948 Simon and Schuster edition; Verified on paper in 1950 Garden City Books edition)

Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up

Groucho Marx? Walter Winchell? George S. Kaufman? George Jean Nathan?

Dear Quote Investigator: When a friend asked me my opinion of a terrible play that I saw recently I answered:

I did not like it, but perhaps this judgment is unfair. I saw it under adverse conditions — the curtain was up.

Eventually she coaxed me into admitting that this joke is from Groucho Marx. However, my memory is imperfect so I decided to check with a Google search, and I found that a playwright named George S. Kaufman is also listed as the originator. Could you determine if this is a real Groucho quote or a fake one? Also, can you ascertain which show was being ridiculed?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Groucho did utter a version of this quote in 1931 to Walter Winchell who promptly reported it in his widely-read and highly-influential newspaper column. The confusion about the attribution arises because Groucho gave credit to the playwright and humorist George S. Kaufman for the quip when he told it to Winchell. In fact, the initial newspaper report in 1931 mentions only Kaufman’s name.

The target of the jest was a show called “Vanities” by the major Broadway producer Earl Carroll, and he was not happy to hear the mocking comment. His anger was primarily directed at Winchell, but there were repercussions over a period of years including: strained relationships, publicly traded insults, and a theater attendance ban.

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