Steve Jobs? Colonel Harland Sanders? Ed Wynn? The Sportsmen? Skeets Gallagher? Clifford Odets?
Dear Quote Investigator: Steve Jobs was the most fascinating entrepreneur and business leader of modern times in my opinion. Several of his quotations were reprinted in articles after his death at the early age of 56. This one captured my interest [SJWJ]:
Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.
Did Jobs originate the expression in the first sentence or have other wealthy people used this saying?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this general expression located by QI was published in an interview in January 1932 with Ed Wynn who was a very popular comedian. He became wealthy performing in multiple venues: vaudeville, Broadway, radio, and films. He also lost most of his money in a business reversal before his earnings made him prosperous again. In 1932 he spoke of his life philosophy [EWBG]:
“I have no ambition to be the wealthiest man in the cemetery,” he said. “And that, my boy, is the most brilliant thing I ever said. It is worthy of a greater brain than mine.”
“I made and lost four million before I found I needed only one to be happy.”
This turn of phrase impressed the Boston Globe headline writer who incorporated it in the article title “Ed Wynn Doesn’t Yearn to Be Wealthiest Man in Cemetery”. Note, Wynn used the word “wealthiest”, but he was later quoted using the synonym “richest” that is more common in the modern versions of the saying.
The phrase was used by silent film star Douglas MacLean, playwright Clifford Odets, actor Skeets Gallagher, KFC entrepreneur Colonel Harland Sanders, and others in later years. It even appeared in the title of a song in 1948 according to Billboard magazine. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Several months after the Associated Press story in the Boston Globe another profile of Ed Wynn was published in the periodical Life. This December 1932 portrait also included a version of the saying [EWLM]:
Today, looking more like his own business manager than the nervous, benevolent imbecile whose falsetto giggle nets him five thousand dollars a week on the radio and, roughly, another five from his current stage production, now on tour, he will tell you that he doesn’t do it for the money. He says he doesn’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.
In January 1933 the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest reprinted a condensed version of the Life profile of Wynn. This provided even wider distribution for the cemetery saying [EWRD].
In 1933 a vignette in a Hollywood gossip column quoted the actor Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher deploying the phrase [SGLA]:
Maury Cohen, producer of Invincible Pictures, and Skeets Gallagher were standing on the set talking about a certain writer both knew. “He’s ruining his health, working so hard,” said Cohen. “Yeah, he wants to be the richest man in the cemetery,” quipped Skeets.
In 1939 a volume about the “Best Plays of 1938-39” was published that contained a chapter covering the play “Rocket to the Moon” by Clifford Odets. The summary of the play referred to the phrase. Here is the complete line of dialog from the play [BMCO][WLCO]:
PRINCE (sitting): I’m piling up a fortune. Why? To be the richest man in the cemetery! Who’s coming to a stadium concert with me tonight? What nice little girl?
In 1941 the Hollywood columnist Jimmie Fidler wrote about the silent film actor Douglas MacLean who later became a movie producer. Fidler attributed the phrase about constrained pecuniary motives to MacLean [DMLT]:
Financially independent, he rejects assignments that conflict with his private life enjoyment, shrugging off protests with the statement that he has no ambition to be the richest man in the cemetery.
In 1947 a Florida newspaper printed a collection of Daffynitions that included a quip based on the saying [MNDF]:
SKINFLINT: One who wants to become the wealthiest man in the cemetery.
The June 12, 1948 issue of Billboard magazine printed a long list of “Advance Record Releases” that included this song [THRC]:
(I Don’t Want To Be) the Richest Man in the Cemetery
The Sportsmen (The Sad) Capitol 15120
In 1970 an Associated Press news story containing an interview with Colonel Harland Sanders was published. Sanders who was famous for his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise talked about taxes and giving away his wealth before he died [APCS]:
“A tax man told me five years ago if I died the government would get $900,000 in taxes,” he said. “I told him if the good Lord let me live three years more I’d give away Uncle Sam’s share and $900,000 more. I never had any desire to be the richest man in the cemetery.”
In conclusion, Steve Jobs did not originate the saying. Instead, by issuing his disavowal of exorbitant accumulation he was following a multi-decade tradition. Based on current evidence the comedian Ed Wynn crafted the expression and used it by the 1930s.
[SJWJ] 1993 May 25, Wall Street Journal, “What’s Next?: Steve Jobs’s Vision, So on Target at Apple, Now Is Falling Short” by G. Pascal Zachary and Ken Yamada, Start Page A1, Quote Page A6, New York. (ProQuest)
[EWBG] 1932 January 19, Boston Globe, Ed Wynn Doesn’t Yearn to Be Wealthiest Man in Cemetery, [Associated Press], Page 12, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[EWLM] 1932 December, Life, Ed Wynn, Page 21, Column 1, Life, New York. (ProQuest)
[EWRD] 1933 January, Reader’s Digest, Ed Wynn, “The Perfect Fool” by Philip Curtis Humphrey [Condensed from Life (December 1932)], Start Page 44, Quote Page 44, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
[SGLA] 1933 October 9, Los Angeles Times, Hobnobbing in Hollywood With Grace Kingsley, Page 7, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[BMCO] 1939, The Best Plays of 1938-39 and the Year Book of Drama in America, Edited by Burns Mantle, Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets, Start Page 110, Quote Page 123, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Google Books preview)
[WLCO] 1993, Waiting for Lefty & Other Plays by Clifford Odets, Rocket to the Moon, Quote Page 367, Grove Press, New York. (Google Books preview)
[DMLT] 1941 January 25, Los Angeles Times, Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood, Page 7, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[MNDF] 1947 May 16, Miami Daily News, Daffynitions, Page 10-B, Column 2, Miami, Florida. (Google News Archive)
[THRC] 1948 June 12, The Billboard, Advance Record Releases: Popular, Page 35, Published by Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
[APCS] 1970 October 25, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fame Came Late To ‘Colonel’, [Associated Press], Page 8-B, Sarasota, Florida. (Google News Archive)