Category Archives: James Dean

Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse

James Dean? John Derek? Willard Motley? Irene L. Luce? J. M. O’Connor? Anonymous?

motleydean01Dear Quote Investigator: James Dean was a charismatic young movie star and an icon of rebellion when he died in a car crash. I have always connected him to this motto:

Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.

But I was told this saying was used in the 1949 movie “Knock on Any Door” starring John Derek and Humphrey Bogart. Here is another version of the statement:

Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

Would you please trace this fashionable slogan of self-destruction?

Quote Investigator: The first part of the saying has a very long history. In 1855 a newspaper printed a precursor while criticizing the high-living aristocracy. To construct a definition for “aristocracy” the word was split into segments for analysis. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Racy—fast. They live fast and die fast.

In 1870 an article in “The New England Farmer” wistfully described the new generation of electrified Americans: 2

In these fast days of steam and electricity, mankind, and particularly Young America, have become electrified, and they must “get up and get,” or there is no enjoyment. Live fast and die young is the principle.

The earliest instance of the full motto located by QI appeared in a 1920 newspaper account of a proto-liberated woman in a court case: 3 4

Letters from Mrs. Irene L. Luce, to Oscar B. Luce, won a divorce for the husband here today.
“I can’t be bothered with a husband,” one letter said.
“I intend to live a fast life, die young and be a beautiful corpse,” Mrs. Luce wrote.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1855 June 5, Daily Ohio Statesman, A Definition: Aristocracy, Page 1, Column 7, (Acknowledgement to N. H. Register), Columbus, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1870 March, The New England Farmer; a Monthly Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, Extracts and Replies, Section: Clarksburg, Mass.—Concentrated Fertilizers, Start Page 147, Quote Page 148, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation)
  3. 1920 August 25, Riverside Daily Press, Did Not Want to Be Bothered with Husband, [Dateline Los Angeles, Aug. 25], Page 2, Column 4, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1920 August 26, The Des Moines News [Des Moines Daily News], Irene is No Piker [United Press], Page 1, Column 6, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)