Tag Archives: Tony Curtis

It’s Nice To Be Important, But More Important To Be Nice

Roger Federer? John Templeton? Walter Winchell? Kay Dangerfield? James H. Lane? Tony Curtis? Bob Olin? Sidney Blackmer? Joe Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Antimetabole is a clever literary technique in which a phrase is repeated, but key words are reversed. For example:

It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

This line has been attributed to the tennis superstar Roger Federer and the renowned investor and philanthropist John Templeton. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI conjectures that this statement evolved from an adage composed by the powerful widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell. Yet, many years before Winchell’s brainstorm an interesting precursor appeared in the “Trenton Times” of Trenton, New Jersey in 1905. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“If it is important to be nice, it is nearly as important to look nice. You may be full of kindness and desire to make others happy, but if you cannot cross a room without knocking down a chair or two, or answer a question without turning crimson and glaring at the floor, people will never really believe in your good intentions.”

The statement above contained two very similar repeated phrases, but the key words were not reordered; hence, antimetabole was not employed. In addition, the overall meaning differed substantially from the expression under examination.

In April 1937 Walter Winchell concluded his column with a remark he had sent via telegram. Winchell used the slang word “swell” which corresponded to “nice” in that time period: 2

In reply to the wire of Jeff L. Kammen, of Chicago: The last line was: “Your New York Correspondent, who wishes to remind celebrities that it is swell to be important—but more important to be swell!”

QI hypothesizes that someone during the following decade exchanged “swell” and “nice” to produce the popular modern saying from Winchell’s adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1905 February 21, Trenton Times, For the Window Garden, Quote Page 6, Column 2 and 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1937 April 13, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Walter Winchell On Broadway (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Kissing Marilyn Monroe is Like Kissing Hitler

Tony Curtis? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: Tony Curtis was a wonderful actor, and I was saddened when he passed away in 2010. For years I have wondered about a quotation that he supposedly said. The story goes that he was asked what it was like to kiss Marilyn Monroe and he said:

Kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler.

This is bizarre. I don’t believe it. Why would he say it? Could you help with this question?

Quote Investigator: There is considerable evidence that Curtis did utter these words and in his later life he did acknowledge that the words were his. The rationale behind the quotation is more complicated and Curtis gave more than one explanation.

In 1959 Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe worked together in the very popular classic comedy “Some Like It Hot” directed by Billy Wilder. Monroe was a glamorous icon in 1959, and the film contained a kissing scene between Curtis and Monroe. Curtis says he was asked repeatedly what it was like to kiss the leading screen siren of the age, and finally in exasperation he replied sarcastically that it was like kissing Hitler. He simply wanted to end the questioning with a joke. He really thought she was a great kisser, and people misunderstood the quote. That is one explanation he has given.

Another explanation is given in press accounts from the 1960s that state Curtis was very angry with Monroe because of her actions during filming which reportedly were irresponsible and self-centered. She refused to follow schedules and required a large number of retakes because she would not say her lines properly. These difficulties precipitated his comment about kissing Monroe. Curtis was simply expressing his extreme irritation.

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