Virginia Woolf? Molière? Ferenc Molnár? Philippe Halsman? Ad Reinhardt?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I was invited to conduct a workshop about writing and creativity. While reviewing materials on this topic I repeatedly came across a humorous quotation that pertains to commercialism. Here is one version:
Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.
These words were credited to Virginia Woolf which frankly I found very unlikely. While trying to track down a credible origin the most intriguing attributions I found were to two playwrights: the French master of comedy Molière and the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnár, but I was unable to locate an authoritative answer. Now that I’ve discovered your blog I was hoping that you might like to tackle this.
Quote Investigator: Congratulations on your sleuthing skills. I think that one of the names you give belongs to the true originator of this quip. Different versions of this quotation have been used by creative artists in multiple disciplines.
The Abstract Expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt, famous for his uncompromising philosophy of art that led to canvases covered with shades of black, used a version of the saying in the 1960s. But he did not originate the saying, and he placed quotation marks around it. Reinhardt used the saying to condemn commercial artists who believed that “painting is like prostitution”.
An anecdote set in the 1960s about the acclaimed photographer Philippe Halsman contained a version of the quotation. Halsman famously collaborated with the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to produce the book “Dali’s Mustache”. He also created many of the cover shots for Life magazine. In the anecdote Halsman said “I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution” and then he recited a version of the saying.
But QI believes that the primary locus of origination occurred during a conversation between the prominent drama critic George Jean Nathan and the playwright Ferenc Molnár. The words of Molnár were recorded in a 1932 book “The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan” as follows [NGN]:
We were sitting one morning two Summers ago, Ferenc Molnár, Dr. Rudolf Kommer and I, in the little garden of a coffee-house in the Austrian Tyrol. “Your writing?” we asked him. “How do you regard it?” Languidly he readjusted the inevitable monocle to his eye. “Like a whore,” he blandly ventured. “First, I did it for my own pleasure. Then I did it for the pleasure of my friends. And now—I do it for money.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Molnár’s expression was remembered and further propagated in a 1949 book “Life and the Theatre” by Lynton Alfred Hudson. This version used the word “cocotte”, a slang term for prostitute, instead of whore. In addition, the phrasing was reworked with “please” replacing “pleasure” [LT]:
Molnar has a well-deserved reputation as a raconteur and a wit. Once an interviewer asked him to explain his development as a dramatist. He replied, “It is the same as a cocotte’s. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, and now I do it for money.” It is not necessary to take this too seriously or to attempt to trace a descending curve of inspiration. But it is an unusually frank admission that he has at times pandered to the public taste …
In 1958 a version of the saying appeared in the pages of the New York newspaper The Village Voice. An article by famed columnist Nat Hentoff discussed the work of crime fiction writer Ed Lacy. Hentoff ended his article by presenting an excerpt from Lacy’s book “Breathe No More, My Lady” [VV]:
At the front of the book, by the way, Lacy has printed (the book is about a free-lance writer) this exposition, ascribed by him to Moliere:
“Writing is like prostitution .. first you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.”
This is the earliest attribution to Molière that QI has located. It seems possible that the author Lacy may have misheard the less well-known name of Molnár as Molière. Alternatively, Molnár was lifting a pre-existing saying from Molière though QI has not yet found evidence to support this possibility.
QI specializes in tracing quotations in the English language. When the quotation appeared in English the first cite pinpointed Molnár and did not mention Molière. However, QI would be happy to hear from a reader with an earlier citation for Molière in French or English.
In 1960 the Abstract painter Ad Reinhardt delivered a lecture based on his essay “The Artist in Search of a Code of Ethics”. His paper included “Thirteen Rules of Ethical Conduct for Professional Fine Artists”. The eleventh rule stated the following [AR]:
11. It is not right for artists to think that painting is like prostitution, that “first you do it for love, then you do it for others, and finally you do it for money.” An artist who makes a living from his art should be registered as a “lumpen artist,” issued an identity card, and dismissed with a suspended sentence.
Reinhardt placed the saying in quotation marks, and he did not provide an attribution. In later years the words were sometimes attributed directly to him.
An anecdote set in 1961 claims that the prominent photographer Philippe Halsman used a version of the quotation when he discussed his career choice. The story about Halsman was told by R. Smith Schuneman, Professor of Journalism, at a conference on photocommunication in 1970. Further below an excerpt from a memoir by the actor Leonard Nimoy provides additional evidence that Halsman has used the saying [RSS]:
One comedian par excellence has disguised himself for years as a photographer. I discovered that. His name, of course, is Mr. 100-Life-Covers, Philippe Halsman. Philippe had this answer for panel chairman Harriet Shepard in 1961 when she asked him why he became a photographer:
Well, I drifted into photography like one drifts into prostitution. First, I did it to please myself; then I did it to please my friends; and, eventually, I did it for money!
In 1962 the novelist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning dramatist Jerome Weidman used a version of the expression and credited it to Molnár [JW]:
That Hungarian guy, Molnar, he once made a crack. It got a big laugh. I remember. Still does. But there’s a lot of truth in it. He said becoming a writer is like becoming a whore. First you do it for your own pleasure, then you do it for the pleasure of a few friends, and finally you do it for money.”
In 1977 a non-fiction book about people that perpetrate hoaxes used the saying and also attributed it to Molnár [PD]:
Alan Abel’s career as a hoaxer recalls the reply of the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, when he was asked how he became a writer. ‘In the same way,’ Molnar said, ‘that a woman becomes a prostitute. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, and finally I did it for money.’
Ad Reinhardt’s use of the phrase was not forgotten. In 1986 an article in New York Magazine contained the following [NYAR]:
Or, as Ad Reinhardt once said, “It is not right for artists to think that painting is like prostitution, that ‘first you do it for love, then you do it for others, and finally you do it for money.'”
In 1987 the saying was attributed to Molière in an issue of the humanities journal “Bibliothèque D’humanisme et Renaissance”. A section of the journal is named “Chronique” and it includes reviews of books and monographs [BDR]:
Another chronique to help you keep up with the spate of books published in our field. More writing to notice, more writing for me. “Writing is like prostitution” wrote Molière. “First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.” I beg leave to suggest that in that connection Molière was wrong: first you do it for a few friends, then you do it for money.
In 1995 Leonard Nimoy wrote in his memoir “I am Spock” about visiting Philippe Halsman in his studio which Nimoy found intriguing because of his interest in amateur photography. The visit occurred twenty years before the publication of the memoir [LN]:
I asked Phillipe about how he got involved with photography, and he said, “Well, my career is rather like the story about the prostitute. When someone asked her how she got into her business, she said, ‘First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, then I did it for the money:” That’s what his career had become, and he possessed a rather wistful cynicism about it. He had started with love, and ended up with commerce.
In 1997 The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations attributed a version of the statement to Molnár. No specific citation was given in the reference, and the words differed from the earliest 1932 version given above [ODLQ]:
Ferenc Molnar 1878-1972:
when asked how he became a writer
In the same way that a woman becomes a prostitute. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, and finally I did it for money.
The connection of Virginia Woolf to the saying appears to be rather recent. Here is an example from the Goodreads website [GRVW]:
“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
— Virginia Woolf
A paper in the journal “MFS Modern Fiction Studies” in 1999 presented examples of Woolf using prostitution metaphorically to refer to writing. Perhaps familiarity with these examples encouraged someone to attribute the saying to Woolf [MFVW]:
In June of 1903, more than a decade before she would publish her first novel, Virginia Woolf confessed to a friend that “I have–what you call fallen more than once [. . .] I have sold my brains, which are my virtue” (Letters 1: 79). Twenty-two years later, Woolf compared her publication outlets in another letter and queried “whats [sic] the objection to whoring after Todd [Editor of Vogue]? Better whore [. . .] than honestly and timidly and coolly and respectably copulate with the Times Lit. Sup.” (3: 200). In both letters, written at quite different stages of her career, Woolf used commercial sexuality to figure a writer’s relationship with her public. Most startlingly, her second letter upholds “whoring” at the expense of respectable intercourse, which is deprecated as a pedestrian form of union.
In 2010 the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain was interviewed in Time magazine and he used a version of the quip [ABT]:
What did Molière say about writing being like prostitution? “First you do it for fun. Then you do it for a few friends. Finally you do it for money.”
In conclusion, QI believes that the quotation was probably first constructed by Ferenc Molnár around 1930 and reported by George Jean Nathan in 1932. Evidence also indicates that Philippe Halsman and Ad Reinhardt used variants of the expression many years later. Attributions to Moliere and Virginia Woolf seem to be much weaker. Thank you for your question. Good luck to writers who are compensated and uncompensated.
(Many thanks to Jonathan Caws-Elwitt whose email provided inspiration for this investigation. Caws-Elwitt identified Ferenc Molnár as a candidate for authorship of the quip. The question was fictionalized, e.g., Caws-Elwitt did not state he was preparing a workshop.)
[NGN] 1932, The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan by George Jean Nathan, Page 63-64, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[LT] 1949, Life and the Theatre by Lynton Alfred Hudson, Page 122, George G. Harrap & Co., London. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[VV] 1958 August 20, Village Voice, Second Chorus: Take the Pix Out of School by Nat Hentoff, Page 6, Column 3, New York. (Google News archive)
[AR] 1991, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt by Ad Reinhardt edited by Barbara Rose, Page 163, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. [The note for the essay “The Artist in Search of a Code of Ethics” on page 160 states: A paper read, with some changes, at the College Art Association meeting in New York, January 28, 1960, and with more changes, at the Artists Club on April 1, 1960.] (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[RSS] 1972, Photographic Communication: Principles, Problems and Challenges of Photojournalism edited by R. Smith Schuneman, In Summary and Into the Future: Adapted from 1970 Miami Conference Award Address, Page 357, Hastings House, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[JW] 1962, The Sound of Bow Bells by Jerome Weidman, Page 419, Random House, New York. (Google Books snippet; GB has incorrect page number; Verified on paper)
[PD] 1977, The Pleasures of Deception by Norman Moss, Page 38, Chatto & Windus, London. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[NYAR] 1986 June 23, New York Magazine, Love Or Money by Kay Larson, Page 66, New York, New York. (Google full view)
[BDR] 1987, Bibliothèque D’humanisme et Renaissance: Travaux et Documents, Recent Publications on Elizabethan England and Related Fields by Leonard R. N. Ashley, Page 629, Tome XLIX, Number 3, Librairie Droz, Genève. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[LN] 1995, I am Spock by Leonard Nimoy, Page 116-117, Hyperion, New York. [The book spells “Philippe” incorrectly as “Phillipe”. The excerpt is modified to use the correct spelling] (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper)
[ODLQ] 1999, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations edited by Peter Kemp, Motivation, Page 149, Oxford University Press, New York. (First published 1997; Verified in paperback edition published 1999)
[ABT] 2010 June 08, Time, In Medium Raw, Bourdain Is the Last Honest Man by Josh Ozersky, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; Accessed 2011 January 17) link
[GRVW] Goodreads website, goodreads.com, Virginia Woolf quotation, Writing is like sex. (Accessed 2011 January 17) link
[MFVW] 1999 Winter, MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Article Preview, “Publication and ‘Public Women’: Prostitution and Censorship in Three Novels by Virginia Woolf” by Celia Marshik, Volume 45, Number 4, Johns Hopkins University Press. (Project MUSE) link