Category Archives: Wilson Mizner

A Poet Is Born, Not Paid

Wilson Mizner? Addison Mizner? Douglas Malloch? Louis Ginsberg? Anonymous?

orpheus07Dear Quote Investigator: An adage from antiquity asserts that a great poet must have an inborn talent that cannot be taught or feigned:

A poet is born, not made.

The dire financial condition of the market for poetry has inspired a humorously modified expression:

A poet is born, not paid.

This quip has been attributed to the playwright, entrepreneur, and rogue Wilson Mizner; it has also been ascribed to Wilson’s brother, the architect Addison Mizner. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a humor column containing miscellaneous items that was published in “The Springfield Daily Republican” of Springfield, Massachusetts in August 1881. No attribution was listed for the remark. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A poet is born, not paid.

The line was printed in other periodicals, i.e., “The Cincinnati Commercial” of Cincinnati, Ohio in December 1881 2 and “Donahoe’s Magazine” of Boston, Massachusetts in January 1882. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1881 August 31, The Springfield Daily Republican “Out of Breath”, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1881 December 1, The Cincinnati Commercial, Personalities, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1882 January, Donahoe’s Magazine, Volume 7, Number 1, The Humorist, Quote Page 80, Thomas B. Noonan & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

How Can They Tell?

Dorothy Parker? Wilson Mizner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

parker07Dear Quote Investigator: Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, and his highly reserved character in social settings led to the nickname “Silent Cal”. A few years after his death in 1933 two similar anecdotes began to circulate about the spoken reaction to the news of Coolidge’s demise. Reportedly, when the wit Dorothy Parker was notified she said:

How can they tell?

Also, when the raconteur Wilson Mizner was told he said:

How do they know?

What evidence is there for these two tales?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the 1936 book “Enjoyment of Laughter” by Max Eastman in a chapter about the use of exaggeration in humor: 1

…Dorothy Parker’s remark when told that Calvin Coolidge was dead: How can they tell?

In 1937 a review of Eastman’s book was printed in “The Glasgow Herald” of Scotland, and the remark ascribed to Parker was reprinted 2

But here one gives the prize to Dorothy Parker, that vitriolic lady who “can’t read Wodehouse.” When told that President Coolidge was dead all she said was, “How can they tell?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1936, Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman, Quote Page 155, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1937 May 13, The Glasgow Herald, American Humour (Book Review of Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman), Quote Page 2, Colum 4, Glasgow, Scotland. (Google News Archive)]

Deathbed Remark: This Is No Time To Be Making New Enemies

Voltaire? Niccolò Machiavelli? Wilson Mizner? Dying Irishman? Canny Scot? Aging Rock Star? Apocryphal?

voltaire01Dear Quote Investigator: While reading speeches given by Nobel Prize recipients I came across an entertaining anecdote about Voltaire told by the eminent economist Robert E. Lucas: 1

When Voltaire was dying, in his eighties, a priest in attendance called upon him to renounce the devil. Voltaire considered his advice, but decided not to follow it. “This is no time,” he said, “to be making new enemies”. In this same spirit, I offer my thanks and good wishes to the Bank of Sweden, to the Nobel Committee, and to everyone involved in this wonderful occasion.

Reports of deathbed pronouncements are notoriously inaccurate, and the speaker was probably knowingly presenting a lighthearted fanciful tale. I have heard the same story told about the famous political schemer Niccolò Machiavelli. Could you explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke known to QI was published in April 1856, and the person lying on the deathbed was not famous. The jocular tale was told in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper and featured a generic Irishman: 2

You remind me of a dying Irishman, who was asked by his confessor if he was ready to renounce the devil and his works ‘Oh, your honor,’ said Pat, ‘don’t ask me that; I’m going into a strange country, and I don’t want to make myself enemies!’

This popular account was printed in multiple newspapers and periodicals in the following years, e.g., The Nebraskian of Omaha, Nebraska in August 1856; 3 the Boston Investigator of Boston, Massachusetts in August 1856; 4 the Chicago Daily Tribune of Chicago, Illinois in July 1857; 5 and the Saturday Evening Post of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in March 1860. 6

Over the decades the identity of the main character has shifted between: an Irishman, a Scotsman, Wilson Mizner, Voltaire, Niccolò Machiavelli, an aging rock luminary, and others.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1995 December 10, Speech at Banquet for the Nobel Prize Award by Robert E. Lucas, Jr., [Lucas won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel], From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor Tore Frangsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm. (Accessed at nobelprize.org on August 13, 2013) link
  2. 1856 April 30, Springfield Republican, Political Miscellanies, Page 2, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1856 August 06, The Nebraskian, (Freestanding short filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Issue 28, Omaha, Nebraska. (19th Century Newspapers)
  4. 1856 August 27, Boston Investigator, Wit, Humor, and Sentiment, Page 1, Column 5, Issue 18, Boston, Massachusetts, (19th Century Newspapers)
  5. 1857 July 25, Chicago Daily Tribune, [Freestanding article], Page 0_3, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  6. 1860 March 10, Saturday Evening Post, [Freestanding article], Page 6, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)

Be Nice to People on Your Way Up. You’ll Meet Them On Your Way Down

Jimmy Durante? Wilson Mizner? Walter Winchell? George Raft?

mizner09Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes clichés become clichés because they express important truths. I think this is an example:

Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down

Can you determine who first came up with this insightful saying? Was it “The Schnozzola” Jimmy Durante?

Quote Investigator: There are three main candidates for authorship of this phrase: playwright Wilson Mizner, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and comedian Jimmy Durante. New evidence uncovered by top researcher Barry Popik in December 2014 points to Mizner as the originator.

Currently, the earliest known citation appeared in a San Francisco, California newspaper on July 5, 1932. The saying was ascribed to “Miznor” which was a misspelling of “Mizner”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Wilson Miznor, globe-trotter, ex-Alaska mining chappie, scenario writer, playwright and sage of Hollywood, gave the following advice to a young and coming motion picture star:

“Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.

Walter Winchell employed the adage during a radio program on July 7, 1932, and he has often been credited with the remark; however, shortly after the broadcast he ascribed the saying to Mizner in his newspaper column. Jimmy Durante spoke a version while performing in a 1933 movie. But the saying was already in circulation. Further details are given below.

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Notes:

  1. 1932 July 5, San Francisco Chronicle, Directs Traveler On Road to Fame Quote Page 9, Column 6, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)

If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research

Wilson Mizner? Ralph Foss? Steven Wright? Joseph Cummings Chase? Asa George Baker? Leslie Henson? Tom Lehrer? Bob Oliver? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some of the websites I come across seem to produce their content simply by using cut and paste. They do not even bother to collect information from multiple sources. I am reminded of a very funny one-liner:

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

In recent times these words have been credited to the brilliantly out-of-kilter comedian Steven Wright, but I have also seen the quip attributed to the playwright and confidence man Wilson Mizner. Could you investigate this saying?

Quote Investigator: An enjoyable precursor of the expression was printed in 1820. In the following humorous statement from Reverend Charles Caleb Colton the era of the material being appropriated was considered decisive. Thanks to a commenter named Jutta for pointing out this citation: 1

If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will cried up as erudition.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1932 in a journal called “Special Libraries” which reported on a talk given at an annual conference for librarians. Ralph Foss, the director of sales at the McGraw-Hill publishing company, presented a version of the saying and ascribed it to an anonymous individual: 2

I am reminded of the man who was asked what plagiarism was. He said: “It is plagiarism when you take something out of a book and use it as your own. If you take it out of several books then it is research.”

In 1938 a version of the saying was credited to Wilson Mizner in a book titled “Tales of a Wayward Inn” by Frank Case. The famed Algonquin Round Table met in a hotel that was owned and managed by Case, and his memoir described his experiences as a host. Note that Mizner died in 1933 several years before the book was published: 3

As Wilson Mizner says, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”

In the same year, 1938, Joseph Cummings Chase, a prominent portraitist and art teacher, wrote a piece in “The Commentator” magazine that included a variant of the quotation. Chase was head of the Art department at Hunter College in the 1930s: 4

When a research professor takes pen in hand to do a book on Art he writes on and on without any evidences of the ability to stop. By and by out come five or six hundred more pages largely culled from the tomes of the research lads before him. On the title page of most of the books on Art should be printed, “If you steal from one person it’s plagiarism: if you steal from three persons it’s research.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1820, Lacon: or, Many Things in Few Words; Addressed to Those Who Think by Rev. C. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Fifth Edition, Quote Page 229, Published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1932 July-August, Special Libraries, “Cooperation Between Special Libraries and Publishers” by Ralph Foss of McGraw-Hill Company, Page 281, Special Libraries Association, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  3. 1938, Tales of a Wayward Inn by Frank Case, Chapter: Juniors and the Jani, Page 248, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York. (Verified on paper in Fourth Printing 1939)
  4. 1938 October, The Commentator magazine, “Do You Call THAT Art?” by Joseph Cummings Chase, Page 26, Column 2, Payson Publishing, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson for obtaining scans via Interlibrary Loan)