Jimmy Durante? Wilson Mizner? Walter Winchell? George Raft?
Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes clichés become clichés because they express important truths. I think this is an example:
Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down
Can you determine who first came up with this insightful saying? Was it “The Schnozzola” Jimmy Durante?
Quote Investigator: There are three main candidates for authorship of this phrase: playwright Wilson Mizner, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and comedian Jimmy Durante. New evidence uncovered by top researcher Barry Popik in December 2014 points to Mizner as the originator.
Currently, the earliest known citation appeared in a San Francisco, California newspaper on July 5, 1932. The saying was ascribed to “Miznor” which was a misspelling of “Mizner”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Wilson Miznor, globe-trotter, ex-Alaska mining chappie, scenario writer, playwright and sage of Hollywood, gave the following advice to a young and coming motion picture star:
“Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.“
Walter Winchell employed the adage during a radio program on July 7, 1932, and he has often been credited with the remark; however, shortly after the broadcast he ascribed the saying to Mizner in his newspaper column. Jimmy Durante spoke a version while performing in a 1933 movie. But the saying was already in circulation. Further details are given below.
On July 8, 1932 the Pittsburgh Press printed an article titled “Were You Listening?” that commented on the radio programs aired on the previous night. The words of Walter Winchell were described as follows: 2
He did give some good advice to bigheaded movie actors: “Be nice to those you meet on the way up. They’re the same folks you’ll meet on the way down.”
Apparently, Winchell did not provide an attribution during the radio program; however, he did on July 9, 1932 within his widely-syndicated column. The text recounted the tale of a lowly typist at a movie studio who was offered a lead role in a film; as a cautionary remark the words ascribed to Mizner were presented. This instance used the word “pleasant” instead of “kind” or “nice”: 3 4
Which reminded a wag of Wilson Mizner’s classic advice: “Always be pleasant to the people you meet on the way going up—for they are the same people you meet on the way down!”
In June of 1933 the famous maxim appeared in the widely distributed publication “The Reader’s Digest” where it was listed with a series of other quotes in a regular section called “Patter”. Winchell was acknowledged: 5
It pays to be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people you meet on the way down.
In the following days and months a precisely matching version of the statement credited to Winchell appeared in other periodicals. QI believes the information was probably reprinted from the “The Reader’s Digest”. For example, a Circleville, Ohio newspaper included the quotation as a filler item on June 17. 6
In August 1933 the phrase appeared in “The Golden Book Magazine” in a regular section called “So They Say” where Winchell was negatively labeled: 7
Walter Winchell: scandal master, on a life philosophy
“It pays to be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people you meet on the way down.”
In September 1933 a columnist in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” described two lines delivered by the musician and humorist Jimmy Durante during the 1933 movie “Broadway to Hollywood”. But the writer suggested that the quips were not original; instead, he implied they were obtained from Winchell’s articles. Ellipses were in the original text: 8
Jimmy Durante makes a brief appearance and uses two lines lifted from Winchell’s columns. . . . “Never snub people on your way up,” Jimmy tells a swell-headed movie star, “because you meet the same people on your way down,” . . . then he adds, “You aren’t so important. Everybody knows that the biggest star in pictures is Mickey Mouse.”
Addison Mizner believed that his brother Wilson was deliberately not given proper credit for his witticisms. The author of “Scoop’s Colyum” in a Danville, Virginia newspaper disagreed: 9
That’s untrue, Wilson was quoted time after time, with credit given, by Walter Winchell and O. O. McIntyre and others. His sayings wouldn’t have sounded right out of anyone else’s mouth.
“I did read a movie mag interview with George Raft, in which he gave as his own, one of the Master’s gems, just a year late: ‘Be pleasant to the people you meet on the way up. They are the same people you are going to meet on the way down.’ Can you imagine that as original with the dead pan star? He heard it remembered it, and at the proper time misquoted it to a gasping sobbie.
In 1942 “The New Yorker” magazine ran a multi-part profile about Wilson Mizner titled “Legend of a Sport” by the journalist Alva Johnston. Content from the series was later used in the 1953 book “The Legendary Mizners” by Johnston. The profile credited Mizner with several bons mots including the one under investigation: 10
Among his philosophical maxims were: “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet ’em on your way down,” “Treat a whore like a lady and a lady like a whore,” and “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”
Jimmy Durante’s words were not forgotten. In 1945 Kenneth Burke the prominent literary theorist published the text “A Grammar of Motives”. He referred to a motion picture in which Durante deployed the maxim: 11
As translated into terms of capitalist climbing, there is a place in a movie when Jimmy Durante, in the role of an actor in difficulties, is slighted by another actor who thinks himself slated for success. Jimmy admonishes: You had better be nice to people you pass on the way up; for you may pass them again on the way down.
In 1952 the long-time columnist Franklin Pierce Adams published “FPA Book of Quotations”, and he ascribed an instance of the adage to Durante: 12
Be awful nice to ’em goin’ up, because you’re gonna meet ’em all comin’ down.
—JIMMY DURANTE (1893- )
In conclusion, QI believes Wilson Mizner was probably the originator of this adage. The earliest citation named Mizner. Walter Winchell disclaimed authorship when he ascribed the remark to Mizner. Durante employed the saying in 1933, but the earliest known citations occurred in 1932.
(Special thanks to Barry Popik who contacted QI in December 2014 with new valuable information on this topic including the earliest known citation. Great thanks to Douglas Cootey for tweeting about this quotation which also refocused attention on this entry.)
Image Notes: Publicity photo of Walter Winchell circa 1960 via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of escalator from Hebi65 at Pixabay. Picture of Wilson Mizner circa 1922 from the collection of the Benicia Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons.
Update History: On December 21, 2014 the entry was rewritten with the addition of some key citations. The leading candidate was shifted from Winchell to Mizner.
- 1932 July 5, San Francisco Chronicle, Directs Traveler On Road to Fame Quote Page 9, Column 6, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1932 July 8, Pittsburgh Press, “Were You Listening?”, Page 21 (GNA Page 16), Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News archive) ↩
- 1932 July 9, The Reading Times, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1932 July 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 June, Reader’s Digest, Patter, Page 107, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1933 June 17, The Circleville Herald, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Circleville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 August, The Golden Book Magazine, “So They Say”, Page 116, Volume XVIII, Number 104, Review of Reviews Corporation. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1933 September 4, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Reverting to Type by Art Arthur, Quote Page 16, Column 5, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 February 21, The Bee, Scoop’s Colyum, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1942 October 10, The New Yorker, “Profiles: Legend of a Sport – Part I” by Alva Johnston, Quote Page 21, Column 3, F-R Publishing Corporation , New York. (New Yorker online archive) ↩
- 1945, A Grammar of Motives by Kenneth Burke, Quote Page 306, Prentice-Hall, New York. (Google Books preview of 1969 edition; Verified on paper in 1945 edition) ↩
- 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: Success, Quote Page 761, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩