Tag 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)

I Did It For My Own Pleasure. Then I Did It For My Friends. Now I Do It For Money

Virginia Woolf? Molière? Ferenc Molnár? Philippe Halsman? Ad Reinhardt?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I was invited to conduct a workshop about writing and creativity. While reviewing materials on this topic I repeatedly came across a humorous quotation that pertains to commercialism. Here is one version:

Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.

These words were credited to Virginia Woolf which frankly I found very unlikely. While trying to track down a credible origin the most intriguing attributions I found were to two playwrights: the French master of comedy Molière and the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnár, but I was unable to locate an authoritative answer. Now that I’ve discovered your blog I was hoping that you might like to tackle this.

Quote Investigator: Congratulations on your sleuthing skills. I think that one of the names you give belongs to the true originator of this quip. Different versions of this quotation have been used by creative artists in multiple disciplines.

The Abstract Expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt, famous for his uncompromising philosophy of art that led to canvases covered with shades of black, used a version of the saying in the 1960s. But he did not originate the saying, and he placed quotation marks around it. Reinhardt used the saying to condemn commercial artists who believed that “painting is like prostitution”.

An anecdote set in the 1960s about the acclaimed photographer Philippe Halsman contained a version of the quotation. Halsman famously collaborated with the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to produce the book “Dali’s Mustache”. He also created many of the cover shots for Life magazine. In the anecdote Halsman said “I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution” and then he recited a version of the saying.

But QI believes that the primary locus of origination occurred during a conversation between the prominent drama critic George Jean Nathan and the playwright Ferenc Molnár. The words of Molnár were recorded in a 1932 book “The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan” as follows [NGN]:

We were sitting one morning two Summers ago, Ferenc Molnár, Dr. Rudolf Kommer and I, in the little garden of a coffee-house in the Austrian Tyrol. “Your writing?” we asked him. “How do you regard it?” Languidly he readjusted the inevitable monocle to his eye. “Like a whore,” he blandly ventured. “First, I did it for my own pleasure. Then I did it for the pleasure of my friends. And now—I do it for money.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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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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