“How Old Cary Grant?” “Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?”

Cary Grant? Gar Wood? Mark Clark? Tom Ferris?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the movies from the golden age of Hollywood. I think the stars were more glamorous in the past, and the stories about the stars were wittier. The quotation I would like you to investigate was reportedly written by Cary Grant for a telegram that he sent.

Telegram delivery was halted in the 1980s, so some of your blog readers may not know much about them. They were text messages that were sent long-distance via radio or wire and then delivered using messengers. They were expensive in the 1930s and 1940s, and to save money telegram messages were often very short. Words such as “is” and “are” were often deleted from messages to obtain greater brevity.

A classic anecdote begins with a journalist who is working on a story about Cary Grant with a tight deadline. He needs to gather some background information, so he sends a telegram to the publicist of Cary Grant asking about the age of the star:

HOW OLD CARY GRANT?

But Cary Grant intercepts the message and decides to send his own reply:

OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

I love this story, but I know that Hollywood studios during the golden age sometimes concocted fun stories about stars and planted them in newspapers. Could you investigate whether this quotation is genuine?

Quote Investigator: Cary Grant directly denied the story in a newspaper interview in 1978. This humorous yarn has been told with at least three different people in the leading role. Cary Grant was the third, and the tale with him was probably apocryphal. The first anecdote was about a speedboat racer named Gar Wood, and it was probably genuine. The second tale was about General Mark Clark, and it was questionable.

The earliest known citation for this tale appeared on September 22, 1957 in the “Minneapolis Sunday Tribune”. A perfectionist managing editor sent a telegram to his reporter requesting a relatively trivial piece of information. The reporter was covering a speedboat regatta. The acronym F.C.O.N corresponded to Favorite Crusty Old Newspaperman. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

Some years ago, our F.C.O.N. was covering a Florida speedboat race in which the famous Gar Wood was participating. Our boy had already filed his story, but late at night, he got a telegram from his editor that read: “How old Gar Wood?”
The reporter wired back: “Old Gar Wood fine. How you?”

Although the topic of the telegram was Gar Wood he was neither the recipient nor the sender of the telegram. The journalist who crafted the comical response was named Tom Ferris as indicated further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The second earliest citation appeared on December 14, 1957 in an Anniston, Alabama newspaper within a column by Barbara Hodge Hall who recounted a story from an unnamed fellow journalist: 2

He had filed his story and just managed to get to sleep on the heartless hotel bed mattress when a knock came to the door. It was a bellboy with another of those telegrams.

“How old Gar Wood?” it inquired bluntly. Shortly thereafter, the managing editor found himself confronted with this succinct reply: “Old Gar Wood fine. How you?”

In December 1957 this yarn also appeared in “Reader’s Digest” magazine which acknowledged the “Minneapolis Tribune”: 3

A crusty old newspaperman, who has worked all over the world . . . he was covering a Florida speedboat race in which Gar Wood was participating. Our boy had filed his story, but late at night he got a telegram from his editor that read: “How old Gar Wood?” The reporter wired back: “Old Gar Wood fine. How you?”

– “Almanac” in Minneapolis Tribune

In 1958 the anecdote appeared in the pages of an Oakland, California newspaper. The account closely followed the version in the “Minneapolis Tribune”. 4

In September 1959 the legend developed a new permutation in the column of famed show business chronicler, Earl Wilson. Gar Wood was replaced by General Mark Clark. The three letter acronym INS in the following excerpt stands for International News Service, a competitor to news services such as AP (Associated Press): 5

NEWSPAPER TALE: Once in the old days at INS, a Rome correspondent doing a feature story on Gen. Mark Clark didn’t know his age. He cabled the NY office: “How old Mark Clark?” An editor in NY thought the cable needless, and cabled back: “Old Mark Clark fine. How you?”

In November 1959 the legend changed again and moved closer to its most common modern form. The comedienne Celeste Holm told a version in which Gar Wood and Mark Clark were replaced by Hollywood star Cary Grant. In Holm’s version the telegram was not intercepted by Grant, instead the studio produced the comical telegraphic response: 6

She recalled the time a reporter interviewed Cary Grant and found out everything she wanted to know except his age, which she felt was too delicate a question to ask. So she sent the following wire to his studio: “How old Cary Grant?” … She got a reply right away, said the comedienne. The studio wired: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”

In 1961 another variant of the legend appeared in the newspaper column of George Dixon. The topic of the telegram was again Gar Wood, but this recounting of the tale is interesting because names are given for the two individuals communicating via telegram. Dixon claimed that a friend of his named Tom Ferris was responsible for sending the famous reply telegram. Ferris was working in Florida as a press agent (not a journalist) for a boss named Steve Hannagan who was based in Manhattan. Hannagan had a “limitless budget for telegrams”: 7

He shot telegrams at his hireling from morning till night, often requesting information he could have obtained by consulting “Who’s Who.” One of these inconsequential telegrams read:

“Please wire me how old Gar Wood is.” Mr. Ferris wired back: “Old Gar Wood is fine.

Dixon’s intriguing version of the story also featured novel phrases. The request telegram contained the verb “to be” which is typically omitted. The reply also used the “is” form of the verb “to be”. Grammatically, the joke worked even with this phraseology.

The prominent science writer and documentary film maker Timothy Ferris, the son of Tom Ferris, provides support for an account featuring Gar Wood and his father. He heard this story within his family: 8

As I recall the matter, my father quoted the telegram as reading, “Please wire how old Gar Wood is.”  The awkward phrasing, ending as it does in a preposition, may have irritated him. Anyhow he replied, “Old Gar Wood fine.  How you?”

The awkward phrase actually ends with the verb “is”. The legend appeared in the mass-circulation magazine Time in 1962. The periodical’s account depicted Cary Grant himself sending the reply: 9

In his studio office, he keeps three tremendous photographs of his wives and numberless mementos of his long and lofty career. “The good old days are now,” he grins amiably. A short time ago, a magazine editor wired him: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? And he wired back: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

Skipping forward to 1978, the Los Angeles Times published a profile of Cary Grant, and the reporter asked him about the well-known anecdote. He denied it: 10

“That story has been attributed to various people over the years,” he says. “I wish I could say it was true, but it’s not.”

Most actors, I have discovered, encourage anecdotes about themselves, even if they’re apocryphal. Not Cary Grant.

In conclusion, the telegram story about Cary Grant is apocryphal. The imitative account concerning General Mark Clark also does not have strong evidentiary support. QI finds the anecdote with Tom Ferris and Gar Wood convincing. The testimony of Timothy Ferris provides strong complementary evidence for that version of the tale.

(Thanks to top-notch researcher Sam Clements who located the December 14, 1957 citation. Thanks also to prominent lexicographer Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal who wrote on this topic at the Visual Thesaurus website. Many thanks to Paul Durrant who located the important citation dated September 22, 1957. When the first version of this QI article was written the “Minneapolis Tribune” was not available in searchable digital form. Durrant very helpfully located the citation after the newspaper was digitized. Thanks to Ben Yagoda and James Landau for feedback.)

Update History: On July 16, 2015 the statement about the affiliation of Ben Zimmer was changed from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. On January 1, 2020 the September 22, 1957 citation was added and the article was extensively updated. Also. the format of the citations was changed to numeric.

Notes:

  1. 1957 September 22, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (Minneapolis Tribune), Section: Upper Midwest and Peach Sports, Almanac: Wire You So Anxious to Know?, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1957 December 14, The Anniston Star, “Saturday Notes” by Barbara Hodge Hall, Page 2, Column 2, Anniston, Alabama. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1957 December, The Reader’s Digest, News Beat, Quote Page 119, Volume 71, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1958 September 15, Oakland Tribune, The Jester, Editorial Page, NA Page 42, Column 6, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1959 September 29, The Evening Standard, That’s Earl for Today by Earl Wilson, Page 12, Column 1, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1959, November 8, St. Petersburg Times, Betty Beale’s Washington Letter to Gloria Biggs, Women’s Editor: Capital’s Crowded With Comments, Cut-Ups, Page 17-E (GN Page 47), St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  7. 1961 November 1, Cumberland Evening Times, “Capital Scene” by George Dixon, Page 8, Column 7, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. Personal communication, Email to Garson O’Toole from Timothy Ferris dated January 25, 2011. (Timothyferris.com is the Official website of the science writer Timothy Ferris.) (Accessed February 24 2011) link
  9. 1962 July 27, Time, “Hollywood: Old Cary Grant Fine”, Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of Time magazine) link
  10. 1978 June 11, Los Angeles Times, “Cary Grant: Doing What Comes Naturally” by Roderick Mann, Page Q39, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

4 thoughts on ““How Old Cary Grant?” “Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?””

  1. I very much enjoyed your QUOTE INVESTIGATOR blog post explaining the origins of that delightful “How old Cary Grant?” anecdote. Even it it’s only apocryphal, it’s still a hoot! Keep those fun Quote Investigations coming!

  2. The author of the joke was my father, Tom Ferris, a former journalist, critic, and short-story writer working for the Hannagan publicity agency. My dad was a tireless practical joker who wrote a lot of funny lines but this one was among his favorites. The subject was indeed Gar Wood. Perhaps because I am a writer myself, our first names got switched in the account you published here. Tom died in 1977. He would be tickled to learn that his witticism can still elicit a smile.

  3. Timothy Ferris,
    Thank you very much for reading this blog post and commenting. Your valuable testimony fits together with the story told in the column of George Dixon on November 1, 1961. Dixon said that his friend Tom Ferris was responsible for sending the famous reply telegram. I apologize to all the readers of this blog for the typo that substituted “Tim” for “Tom”, and now the text has been updated to read Tom Ferris.

    I have enjoyed the wonderful PBS television specials based on your works. Your visiting and helping to improve the accuracy of this information is much appreciated.

    Garson O’Toole

  4. It was Timothy Ferris’s father?

    This confirms, again, an observation that struck me about “apocryphal” stories. A lot of stories get passed around, and the details get lost. For quote searchers, this produces quotes to track down. Did Einstein really say compound interest was the best invention of the 20th century? (No.) Did Lincoln really say that calling a dog’s tail a leg, doesn’t make it a leg? (Not exactly — he used “calf” instead of dog.) Did Thomas Jefferson and John Adams really celebrate the 4th of July together in their old age after reconciling? (No, but they both died on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration . . .).

    The real stories often are better than the stories with the fictional embellishments.

    Gar Wood? Who in the world is he? Isn’t it fantastic that a story about the guy would become more famous, years later, than the guy himself? And the reporter in the story was Timothy Ferris’s father? You can’t write fiction like that. Fiction has to stay in the realm of the possible, Mark Twain said. Wasn’t it Mark Twain?

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