Dorothy Parker? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker was a friend of Alexander Woollcott, a notable writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. When Woollcott’s ancient cat developed a serious malady he was told by a veterinarian that the animal would have to be put to sleep. Uncertain of how to proceed, he consulted with Parker who said, “Have you tried curiosity?”
I offer my apologies to cat lovers for retelling this anecdote. Would you please examine the veracity of this incident?
Quote Investigator: To understand Parker’s quip the reader must be aware of an odd piece of proverbial wisdom that was in circulation by the 1800s:
Curiosity killed the cat.
A precursor proverb using the same template employed the word “care” instead of “curiosity”; the term “care” referred to worry and anxiety. For example, Shakespeare wrote in “Much Ado About Nothing” circa 1599:
What! courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.
The earliest instance of the Parker quip located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1966. This version of the tale did not involve Woollcott, and it occurred one week before the publication of the column when Dorothy Parker visited the residence of the actor Zero Mostel. Boldface has been added to excerpts. Ellipses were present in the original text: 1 2
Ian Hunter also was among the guests, and Mostel asked him about his cat — which terrorizes everyone: “Have you killed that cat yet?” … “No, I haven’t,” Hunter said. “Frankly, I can’t afford it — to pay the fee for killing my cat.” … Mrs. Parker suggested: “Have you tried curiosity?”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.