Tag Archives: Walter Winchell

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)

We Are Taught To Fly in the Air Like Birds, and To Swim in the Water Like the Fishes; But How To Live on the Earth We Don’t Know

George Bernard Shaw? Martin Luther King? Maxim Gorky? Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan? C. E. M. Joad? Walter Winchell? Jack Paar? Anonymous?

flyswim08Quote Investigator: Technological progress today is shockingly vertiginous, but advancements toward human reconciliation and harmony are glacially slow. A saying from the previous century treats this topic with poignancy:

Now that we have learned to fly the air like birds, swim under water like fish, we lack one thing—to learn to live on earth as human beings.

This saying has been attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw and the civil rights champion Martin Luther King. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw wrote or spoke this statement. Martin Luther King did employ this saying in his Nobel Prize speech, but it was already in circulation. The earliest citation known to QI attributed the saying to the prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky who credited an anonymous peasant. Here is the key passage from the 1925 book “Social Classes in Post-War Europe” by Lothrop Stoddard. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Not long ago Maxim Gorky stated that the Russian peasant profoundly hates the town and all its inhabitants. According to the Russian muzhik, the city is the source of all evil. Modern “progress” does not appeal to him, the intellectuals and their inventions being regarded with deep suspicion. Gorky relates how, after addressing a peasant audience on the subject of science and the marvels of technical inventions, he was criticized by a peasant spokesman in the following manner: “Yes, yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like the fishes; but how to live on the earth we don’t know.” In Gorky’s opinion Russia’s future lies in peasant hands.

This evidence was indirect because it was not written by Gorky, and QI has not yet located this statement in his oeuvre. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1925, Social Classes in Post-War Europe by Lothrop Stoddard, Quote Page 26, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)

Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Will Smith? Walter Winchell? Robert Quillen? Edgar Allan Moss? Tony Wons? Ken Murray? Emile Gauvreau? Will Rogers?

shop09Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever purchased an item and wondered the next day what motivated your inexplicable action? Here are two versions of an entertaining saying about consumerism:

1) Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

2) We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

Statements like this have been credited to the famous comedian Will Rogers, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, and the Hollywood star Will Smith. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a June 1928 column by the syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in which he labelled the expression “Americanism”: 1

Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1928 June 4, The Detroit Free Press, Paragraphs by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)

They’ve Absolutely Ruined Your Perfectly Dreadful Play

Tallulah Bankhead? Apocryphal?

orpheus11Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest one-line review of a movie I have ever encountered is the following:

Darling, they’ve absolutely ruined your perfectly dreadful play.

According to a show-business legend, the movie star Tallulah Bankhead delivered this mortifying judgement to the famous playwright Tennessee Williams when she saw the film version of his play “Orpheus Descending”. Would you please explore this tale?

Quote Investigator: In 1940 Tennessee Williams wrote a play titled “Battle of Angels”; however, at that time he was unable to successfully mount a full production. He rewrote and retitled the work “Orpheus Descending”, and in 1957 it was presented on Broadway, but the reception was muted. The construction of the play had been inspired by the tragic ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In 1960 “Orpheus Descending” was adapted into a film titled “The Fugitive Kind” with top performers in the cast: Marlon Brando played the Orpheus-type role and Anna Magnani played the Eurydice-type role. The critical notices were mixed, and the commercial performance was weak.

The earliest evidence located by QI of a match for the quotation appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in May 1960. Winchell stated that Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams had recently resumed a friendship that previously had been strained. Bankhead’s candor was unhampered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They witnessed the film “Fugitive Kind” (adapted from his “Orpheus Descending”) and she told him: “I think it’s disgraceful. They’ve absolutely ruined a bad play!” Tennessee enjoys being spiked by Talu the tiger.

The use of the pedestrian word “bad” in this version of the quotation reduced its humor. Yet, this instance might be the most faithful to the words Bankhead actually uttered. The word choice evolved as the tale was retold during the ensuing years.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1960 May 25, The Terre Haute Tribune, Walter Winchell of New York, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

rogers09Dear Quote Investigator: While searching for a quotation on the subject of government in a reference book I came across a quip from the famous cowboy and Native American humorist Will Rogers:

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

But the supporting citation was dated 1962, and Rogers died in 1935. Would you please determine if better citations exist?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI was contained in an anecdote published in multiple newspapers in June and July 1925 from a columnist named Frederic J. Haskin. Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President at that time. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

It seems that Rogers recently had an interview with President Coolidge, in the course of which the president is said to have remarked that he didn’t see how Rogers thought up all his funny stories. “I don’t, Mr. President,” Rogers replied. “I watch the government and report the facts.”

A reviewer named Jud Evans saw a performance by Rogers on November 30, 1925 and wrote about it the next day in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. Rogers spoke a version of the joke during his show: 3

Because the crowd wasn’t exactly bulging out the doors, Will called all those in the balcony and in the rear rows down into the closer seats with the remark “Of course, you paid more down here, but you’ll know better next time.”

Nobody but Will Rogers can pull his gags any more than they can whirl his lariats. He gave the usual explanations for his comedy saying “I just watch the government and report the facts.”

There are many variants of this line and some are more elaborate than others. Rogers used the joke repeatedly during his performances and in his writings, and he varied the phrasing.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations on this topic and shared them on his website here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1925 June 19, The Helena Daily Independent, The Haskin Letter: Watching the Government by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1925 July 7, Los Angeles Times, Seeking Facts of Government: Civil Service League to Watch and Report, Will Rogers Anecdote Basis of New Slogan by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  3. 1925 December 1, Richmond Times Dispatch, Will Rogers Gives Ideas on Current Problems Here by Jud Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)

Insanity Is Hereditary. You Can Get It from Your Children

Sam Levenson? Oscar Levant? W. C. Fields? Helen Gorn Sutin? Dave Berg? Ann Landers? Erma Bombeck? Grace Kelly?

heredity08Dear Quote Investigator: Many parents concur with a very funny quip that reverses the traditional notion of inheritance:

Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids.

This joke has been attributed to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck, the television host Sam Levenson, and the comedian W. C. Fields. Would you please resolve this ambiguity?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published on April 6, 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper within a column containing a miscellaneous set of short comical items. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children.
—Sam Levenson

During the same time period, the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed the jest with an identical attribution: 2

Sam Levenson’s merciless truth: “Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children!”

During the following years: Oscar Levant employed the joke; Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck placed it in their respective newspaper columns; and Grace Kelly used a variant quip. Nevertheless, QI believes that Sam Levenson should receive credit for this witticism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1961 April 6, The Ada Weekly News, Strayed From the Heard by Connie Nelson, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ada, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1961 April 7, San Diego Union, Walter Winchell’s America, Quote Page A16, Column 5, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)

I’ll Give You a Definite Maybe

Samuel Goldwyn? Jerry Wald? Jed Harris? Louis Sobol? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

maybe09Dear Quote Investigator: Making a weighty decision is difficult because one must be willing to forgo alternative choices and possibilities. The following equivocal statement comical illustrates this psychological tension:

I can give you a definite maybe.

The words above have been attributed to the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn who made a large number of multi-million dollar business decisions. Would you please explore this phrase?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI was printed in a column of the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in November 1933. The quip was relayed to the columnist by Jerry Wald who was a screenwriter and producer; Wald ascribed the remark to another unnamed Hollywood producer: 1

From Jerry Wald, away out in Hollywood, comes the gag about the producer who was arguing with an actor about a contract. The actor insisted the producer come to a definite decision, one way or the other.

“What are you complaining about?” screamed the producer. “I have given you a definite decision…didn’t I give you a definite maybe?”

In December 1933 a very similar anecdote was printed in a newspaper in Amsterdam, New York with an acknowledgement to the periodical “Hollywood Times”: 2

To a movie actor who insisted on a definite decision the film producer roared: “What are you complaining about? I have given you a definite decision–didn’t I give you a definite ‘Maybe?'” — Hollywood Times.

By 1935 the expression was being attributed to the director and producer Jed Harris. Columnist Louis Sobol was credited in 1939; columnist Walter Winchell used the phrase in 1940; and Samuel Goldwyn was also credited in 1940.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1933 November 14, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Reverting to Type by Art Arthur, A Definite Perhaps, Quote Page 19, Column 8, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1933 December 30, Evening Recorder (Daily Democrat and Recorder),In Merrier Mood, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Amsterdam, New York. (Old Fulton)

There But for the Grace of God, Goes God

Winston Churchill? Leo C. Rosten? Walter Winchell? Herman J. Mankiewicz? Apocryphal?
orsonDear Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill had an unhappy experience negotiating with a politician who held a very high opinion of himself. Afterward Churchill reportedly concocted the perfect remark for deflating the pretensions of an egomaniac:

There, but for the grace of God, goes God.

However, I have heard that this same jibe was aimed at the renowned auteur Orson Welles during the filming of “Citizen Kane”. Would you please explore the provenance of this witticism?

Quote Investigator: This remark was based on a comical modification of a resonant phrase from history. Here are two instances:

There but for the grace of God, go I.
There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.

More information about the origin of this penitent statement is available here.

The earliest evidence of the quip located by QI was printed in the 1941 book “Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers” by Leo C. Rosten which included the quotation applied to filmmaker Orson Welles. Rosten did not identify the person who delivered the barb. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When Orson Welles (of whom someone said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God”) was first shown through a studio he exclaimed, “This is the biggest electric train any boy ever had!” The remark is acute and revealing.

QI is not certain of the precise release date in 1941 of the “Hollywood” book. On January 20, 1941 the widely-distributed syndicated columnist Walter Winchell presented a different version of the circumstances surrounding the quotation. The target of the barb was a religious figure named Father Divine instead of Orson Welles. The word “niftied” was a vocabulary item employed by Winchell. It meant the spoken phrase was “nifty”, i.e., deft. The name “Divine” was spelled “Devine” in the paper: 2

The Story Tellers: The DAC News reports that a Harlemite watching Father Devine whisk by in a long limousine, niftied: “There, but for the grace of God—goes God.”

Above are the two earliest citations located by QI, and the temporal ordering was uncertain. The tale mentioning Orson Welles has circulated continuously to the present day. The version with Father Divine has largely disappeared from collective memory. A third version with Winston Churchill speaking the humorous line entered circulation by 1943 as indicated by the citation listed further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1941 copyright, Hollywood: The Movie Colony: The Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten, Quote Page 51, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Facsimile produced on demand in 1973 by University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan) (Verified on paper in facsimile)
  2. 1941 January 20, Omaha World Herald, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 5, Column 5-6, Omaha, Nebraska.(GenealogyBank)

“It Took Me Fifteen Years to Discover That I Had No Talent for Writing.” “Did You Quit?”

Robert Benchley? Mark Twain? Walter Winchell? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the funniest quotations about writing is usually credited to the brilliant wit Robert Benchley:

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

I was very surprised to find the same joke attributed to Twain in the comprehensive collection “Everyone’s Mark Twain”:

After writing for fifteen years it struck me I had no talent for writing. I couldn’t give it up. By that time I was already famous!

Was this quip created by Robert Benchley, Mark Twain, or somebody else?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this comical remark was crafted by neither Twain nor Benchley. The earliest version of the joke located by QI was about writing poetry. It was published in the humor magazine Puck in February 1912 under the title “COULDN’T AFFORD TO THEN”. The generic names SCRIBBLER and FRIEND were used to designate the speakers in a dialog: 1

SCRIBBLER.—It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write poetry.
FRIEND.—Gave it up then, did you?
SCRIBBLER.—Oh, no. By that time I had a reputation.

In March 1912 the same joke was reprinted in other periodicals with an acknowledgement to Puck, e.g., Springfield Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, 2 Seattle Daily Times of Seattle, Washington, 3 and The Jersey Journal of Jersey City, New Jersey. 4

In September 1912 The Independent, a weekly magazine based in New York City, printed a variant that referred to writing stories instead of poetry: 5

“It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write stories.”
“I suppose you gave it up, then?”
“No, no. By that time I had a reputation.”
—New York American.

The quip was retold, and the phrasing evolved for decades, but the creator was left unnamed. The earliest connection to Mark Twain located by QI appeared in the popular newspaper column of Walter Winchell in 1946. The first known attachment of the joke to Benchley occurred in an issue of Reader’s Digest in 1949. Also, Nathaniel Benchley, the son of Robert, attributed the joke to his father in a biography he wrote in 1955. The details are provided further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1912 February 28, Puck, Volume 71, Couldn’t Afford To Then, Unnumbered Page [Page 5 by count], Column 3, Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York. (HathiTrust)
  2. 1912 March 02, Springfield Republican, Had a Reputation, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 17, Column 7, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1912 March 05, Seattle Daily Times, “Couldn’t Afford to Then”, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 7, Column 2, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank))
  4. 1912 March 23, Jersey Journal, “Scissorettes: Too Late.”, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 16, Column 4, Jersey City, New Jersey (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1912 September 19, The Independent, [Weekly Magazine], Pebbles, [Acknowledgement to New York American], Page 679, Column 2, New York. (Google Books full view) link

No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance!

Walter Winchell? Michael Todd? Rose Bigman? Helene Hanff? Richard Rodgers?

Dear Quote Investigator: The most famous review in Broadway history is also the most controversial, and I hope you can help solve the following mystery.

In 1943 a hardworking theater group in New Haven, Connecticut was trying to prepare a major musical so that it could move to Broadway. The production was called “Away We Go!” and the local audience was welcoming. But an important visitor from New York saw the show and was decidedly unenthusiastic. The women in the cast wore appropriate period costumes, long dresses. The reviewer thought that the display of feminine pulchritude was fundamental to success, so the following devastating one-line analysis was communicated to New York:

No legs; No jokes; No chance!

A major investor threatened to drop out, but the company persevered. When the production was transferred to Broadway it had a new title: “Oklahoma!” and box-office records were smashed. “Oklahoma!” became the longest running and most successful musical of its era.

However, this popular Broadway legend has more than one version because the identity of the New York visitor is uncertain. Some say that the influential producer Mike Todd created the inaccurate review. Others say that Rose Bigman heard the statement or composed the statement and sent it via telegram to New York. She was the right-hand assistant of Walter Winchell the most powerful newspaper columnist and radio commentator of the period. The legend says Winchell published the now infamous appraisal in his widely distributed column. Another scandalous tale says the true unexpurgated comment was “No tits; No jokes; No chance.” What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The New Haven premiere of “Away We Go!” occurred on March 11, 1943. Some references claim that the lacerating evaluation was published shortly after this performance, but QI has been unable to find any evidence supporting this claim.

The Broadway production with the updated title “Oklahoma!” opened on March 31, 1943. Three months later, on June 24, 1943, Walter Winchell’s syndicated column was printed in the Augusta Chronicle with the following comment about the musical which was already a triumph. Note that the repeated dots in this text are part of Winchell’s writing style and do not represent an ellipsis [OKW1]:

The success of “Oklahoma” still is Broadway tabletalk. …The musical was “a sleeper.” …There was no advance gab about it. ..None of the usual excitement of a Theatre Guild first night …Even the ticket brokers were unimpressed after witnessing it at New Haven. One spec summed up this way: “No jokes, no legs, no chance!”

This is the earliest instance of the well-known remark that QI has located. Note that the first two elements, “No jokes” and “No legs”, are swapped when compared to the most common modern version.

Clearly, Winchell was not attacking the play in this piece; instead, he was criticizing a wildly inaccurate prediction. Also, he did not publicly attach a name to the harsh statement. The next week, on June 29th, Winchell printed a humorous and joyful follow-up response from a member of the theater company [OKW2]:

The quip here about “Oklahoma” being unappreciated during the try-outs and a N.Y. ticket spec summing up: “No jokes, no legs, no chance!” is topped by Jean Roberts of the cast .. “And now,” she telegraphs, “no tickets!”

More than a decade later in 1957 the notable Broadway press agent Richard Maney wrote about the early reception of “Oklahoma!” In one sentence he presented Mike Todd’s negative opinion of the show. In the immediately succeeding sentence he mentioned the notorious phrase which he attributed to a “Broadway ticket broker”. In a third sentence he listed the critique of theater owner Lee Shubert. A rapid reader might have connected the key comment to Todd instead of an anonymous ticket broker. In the following excerpt Lindy’s referred to a popular New York City restaurant [FFRM] [PPRM]:

“Are they going to ask $3.60 for that?” jeered Michael Todd, even then identified as a genius by the illuminati in Lindy’s. “No legs, no jokes, no chance!” was the verdict of a Broadway ticket broker credited with occult powers. Lee Shubert frowned on the proceedings. No musical could prosper in which a character was killed, he said.

In 1960 a columnist named Harlowe R. Hoyt writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer attributed the remark directly to producer Mike Todd [CPMT]:

And the late Mike Todd jeered “Oklahoma” with: “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

Starting in 1961 two strongly conflicting accounts about this episode in musical history emerged. One account was outlined by a publicist for “Oklahoma!” named Helene Hanff in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in March 1961. Another version was given by Walter Winchell in a series of rebuttals printed in his column and in his memoir. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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