Robert Benchley? Irvin Cobb? Will Rogers? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A variety of quips have been credited to the great wit and stylish film actor Robert Benchley, but I don’t see his name very often on this website. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes contains a story that illustrates his sharp humor. Benchley was attending a Hollywood bash and sitting next to a beautiful actress who married often and engaged in love affairs even more frequently. A popular party game called for each guest to write his or her own epitaph [BRB]:
She complained that she could not think what to write about herself. The humorist suggested: “At last she sleeps alone.”
Would you please explore this tale to see if Benchley concocted this zinger?
Quote Investigator: In addition to Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes this popular witticism appears as a punch line in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [ORB] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YRB]. All three references credit Benchley and the earliest citation of 1943 is given by the YBQ.
QI has found an instance of this yarn with Benchley composing the jocular epitaph that was published at the slightly earlier date of 1942. But another famed humorist was a participant in a very similar story, and he produced the same punch line several years before this date. Since the joke is somewhat risqué and also a bit unkind QI was surprised to find it ascribed to the folksy entertainer Will Rogers in 1935.
Yet the quip without the supplementary anecdote may have been in circulation for an even longer period. One well-known historian states that the joke was told by the columnist Irvin Cobb about a high-profile socialite named Sally Ward who died in 1896. Here are selected instances in chronological order.
Sally Ward was a fashionable woman who hosted fancy benefit balls for the poor and enjoyed jewels, white satins, and silks. An important social affair in her home town of Louisville, Kentucky was incomplete unless she was invited. She lived between 1827 and 1896, and one of Kentucky’s top historians, Thomas D. Clark, wrote the following about her in a reference work in 2001 [KYIC]:
Because of Sallie Ward’s penchant for gathering in rich husbands and outliving them, Kentucky humorist Irvin Cobb suggested that a fitting tombstone inscription would be, “At Last She Sleeps Alone.”
Irvin Cobb was a New York-based columnist who lived between 1876 and 1944. No date is given for the utterance above, but if he did employ the jest then it was clearly before 1944, and it may have been many years earlier. QI has located another attribution of the joke to Irvin Cobb, but the target of the quip was not Sally Ward; instead, a person or fictional character named Polly Simpkins was named. The details are given further below.
The first dated instance of the quotation located by QI occurred in a work published in 1935. Will Rogers was one of the top comedians of his era, and the racy book “Bawdy Ballads and Lusty Lyrics” credited him with the joke [BBWR]:
Will Rogers’ suggested epitaph for a much-married Hollywood matron: “At last she sleeps alone!”
A considerably more elaborate version of this joke is told in 1940 in a journal aimed at farmers called “Better Crops with Plant Food”. Once again the quip is ascribed to the cowboy funnyman Will Rogers [PFWR]:
At a party in Hollywood, one of the stunts was to ask each guest to write his or her own epitaph and, when called upon, to get up and read what they had written. A much-married movie actress sitting beside Will Rogers said she didn’t know what to write. Will said, “If you read it just as I write it, I will do it for you.” This is what she read: “At last she sleeps alone.”
A remarkably similar anecdote is told with Robert Benchley as the protagonist in 1942. This is the earliest cite located by QI that attributes the joke to Benchley [FRB]:
At a Hollywood party the guests were playing a game which required each one to write an epitaph for himself. A much married actress was sitting next to Robert Benchley and complained that she did not know what to write for herself. Benchley said, “I’ll write it for you.” He did so, and passed on her slip with his to be read out. The epitaph when read was, “At last she sleeps alone.”
In 1944 the joke compiler Bennett Cerf offered the following short version of the tale [CRB]:
Last year a movie queen whose love-life would have filled ten volumes passed away. Benchley suggested for her epitaph: “She sleeps alone at last.”
In 1945 a biography of Alexander Woollcott, a writer for The New Yorker and an Algonquin Round Table member was published. The book credited a version of the joke to Irvin Cobb, but it also implied that the attribution was not altogether reliable [AWIC]:
Half the wisecracks of the next ten years were attributed to the Algonquin. Here were conceived, by common, but not too reliable, rumor, Dorothy Parker’s quip: “If all the girls who attended the Yale Prom this year were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised”; Irvin Cobb’s epitaph for a beauty of notoriously general liaisons: “Here lies Polly Simpkins: asleep—alone—at last”; …
In 1948 the Los Angeles Times reprinted an article from the Chicago Tribune about humorous epitaphs. The dateline listed London as the location for the story, and the inscriptions were primarily British. Here is the last epitaph listed [LAM]:
And, finally, one suggested for a much married actress: “Asleep—alone—at last.”
In conclusion, this zinger has been associated with at least three people, and it is possible that all three used the quip. But the near replication of the anecdote for Rogers and Benchley is suspicious. Based on current evidence the attribution to Rogers precedes the attribution to Benchley and Rogers deserves priority.
The earliest published attribution to Irvin Cobb occurs after Rogers and Benchley. If he actually did tell the Sally Ward version of the quip then there is a good chance that he told this joke before the other two. The jest may have started anonymously and then been assigned to well-known funny individuals.
QI thanks you for your question, and hopes you have a splendid epitaph. But QI also hopes it will not be needed for many years.
[BRB] 2000, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes [Revised edition] edited by Clifton Fadiman and Andre Bernard, Page 54, Column 2, Warner Trade Publishing, New York. (Google Books preview) link
[ORB] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Epitaphs, Page 111, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books preview; Verified on paper) link
[YRB] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Robert Benchley, Page 53, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
[KYIC] 2001, The Encyclopedia of Louisville, editor in chief John E. Kleber, “Sally Ward” by Thomas D. Clark, Page 921, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington Kentucky. (Google preview; Verified on paper) link
[BBWR] 1935, Bawdy Ballads and Lusty Lyrics, edited by John Henry Johnson, Page 64, Maxwell Droke Publisher, Indianapolis. (Verified with scans; Many thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake at UNC)
[PFWR] 1940 August-September, Better Crops with Plant Food, A Few Whinnies, Page 49, Column 1, Potash & Phospate Institute, Atlanta, Georgia. (Verified with scans; Many thanks to the Clemson University Libraries Remote Storage Facility)
[FRB] 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes edited by Edmund Fuller, Anecdote 884, Page 153, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[CRB] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 133, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
[AWIC] 1945, “A. Woollcott: His Life and His World” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, Pages 121, Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[LAM] 1948 January 25, Los Angeles Times, Epitaphs Show British NOT Short on Humor, Page 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
Update history: On March 28, 2011 the 1945 citation for Irvin Cobb was added, and the 1948 citation was added. The text was modified to reflect this new information.