Tag Archives: Joseph Stalin

The Crowd Came to the Funeral, Not To Mourn, But To Make Sure the Person Was Dead

Who Said It: Samuel Goldwyn? Mr. Jones? S. S. Van Dine? Joey Adams? Whispering Russian?
joey08Whose Funeral: Louis B. Mayer? Fogarty’s Brother? Joseph Stalin? W. Kerr Scott?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to Hollywood legend when the tyrannical chief of a powerful movie studio died many were surprised to see that his funeral was well attended. When the leader of a competing studio was asked for an explanation he said:

The turnout was large because so many people wanted to make sure he was dead.

Would you please explore this sardonic tale?

Quote Investigator: This questionable story was printed in the 1960 biographical work “Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer”. Mayer was a very successful movie producer who was a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. He died in 1957, and the cutting remark above has been attributed to fellow mogul Samuel Goldwyn. The details for this citation are listed further below.

Interestingly, barbs of this type have been circulating for more than 125 years. For example, in 1889 and 1890 multiple newspapers recounted a story from the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California about a longstanding bitter quarrel between two people named Jones and Fogarty. Jones felt some empathy for Fogarty when he learned that his brother had died. So he made an effort to end the dissension by attending the funeral, but his gesture of reconciliation backfired. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3

He displayed becoming grief and sorrow, but he did not have a chance to speak to Mr. Fogarty. A few days after he met Mr. Fogarty and went up to him with outstretched hand and a sympathetic look on his face. To his surprise Mr. Fogarty drew himself up and glared at him:

“May I inquire, sir, what the devil you were doing at my brother’s funeral?”

The Christian feeling in Mr. Jones evaporated. He took in the outstretched hand, and said with considerable force: “I went to make sure he was dead.” The war is fiercer than ever.

The story above exhibited a comparable punchline and provided a thematic match; however, it did not refer to a large turnout at a funeral. A different thematic match appeared in multiple newspapers in 1934 when a serialized mystery called “The Kennel Murder Case” by S. S. Van Dine was published. A police officer questioned a suspect: 4 5

“If you think your uncle was such a wash-out and you were so glad to find he’d been croaked, why did you run over to him and kneel down, and pretend to be worried?”

Hilda Lake gave the Sergeant a withering, yet whimsical, look.

“My dear Mr. Policeman, I simply wanted to make sure he was dead.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1889 November 28, The Parsons Sun (The Parsons Weekly Sun), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2,Parsons, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1890 January 12, The Morning Reporter (Independence Daily Reporter), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Independence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1890 May 20, Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City Daily Traveler), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Arkansas City, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1934 January 12, Valley Weekly (Valley Morning Star), ‘The Kennel Murder Case’ Thrilling Tale of a Man’s Death Twice by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1934 August 31, The Alton Democrat, The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Alton, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons? Beilby Porteus? Kurt Tucholsky? Erich Maria Remarque?

stats09

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a vivid statement that typifies a heartless attitude toward human mortality:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

These words are often attributed to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, but I have not found a precise citation for this harsh expression. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI linking this saying to Joseph Stalin was published in 1947 by the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons in “The Washington Post”. The ellipsis in the following passage was in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

QI does not know what source Lyons used to obtain the details of this noteworthy scene and quotation. Without additional corroborative evidence or an explanation QI believes that this citation provides weak support for the ascription to Stalin. Perhaps future researchers will locate further relevant evidence.

There are several interesting precursors that illustrate the possible evolution of this expression, and additional selected citations are presented below in chronological order. The family of sayings examined here is variegated, and the denotations are often distinct, but QI believes that grouping them together is illuminating.

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Notes:

  1. 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  2. 1947 January 30, Salt Lake Tribune, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Salt Lake City. (NewspaperArchive)