Mark Twain? Chauncey Depew? Ring Lardner? William Allen White? Big Jim Watson? Joseph Hodges Choate? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: New Year’s resolutions often feature plans for more exercise. Mark Twain was once asked if he engaged in exercise, and he supposedly said:
I take my only exercise acting as a pallbearer at the funerals of my friends who exercise regularly.
But this same joke is also credited to Chauncey Depew, a United States Senator and renowned after-dinner speaker, who reportedly said:
I get my exercise acting as a pallbearer to my friends who exercise.
While searching I found that this quip was phrased in many other different ways. Could you determine if Twain, Depew, or someone else originated this funny saying?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Mark Twain made this remark. In 1905 Harper’s Weekly reprinted a speech given by Twain at his 70th Birthday party. In the passage below Twain expressed his dislike of exercise. But he did not employ the expression under investigation. Nevertheless, the hostility he evinced may have caused later individuals to assume that clever statements on this topic should be reassigned to Twain: 1
I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired; I was always tired. (Laughter.) But let another person try my way, and see where he will come out.
I desire now to repeat and emphasize that maxim: We can’t reach old age by another man’s road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.
A precursor of the quip appeared in 1922 in an article by the popular humorist Ring Lardner titled “My Week In Cuba” that was published in the magazine Cosmopolitan. Lardner’s remark included the notion of obtaining exercise by acting as a pallbearer, and his words were used in the caption of an illustration for the article which is shown below. In the following passage taxis are referred to as Flivingos: 2
We also visited the new country club and golf course which is patronized chiefly by Americans. As yet golf has not been generally took up by the natives who get plenty of exercise dodging Flivingos and acting as pall bearers.
In 1925 a version of the joke was printed in a syndicated news article about William Allen White who was a prominent American newspaper editor. White told the quip to his interviewer, but the phrasing he used differed from the common modern version. This key citation was located by Andrew Steinberg: 3
“You see in me the rocking chair expert of the Neosho Valley,” White says. “I have won every cup offered for long distance rocking chair prowess, and I get my exercise by acting as pallbearer for golfers who exercise to prolong useless lives.”
In 1926 another version of the joke appeared in a syndicated column about health titled “Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise” written by a medical doctor named Royal S. Copeland. This instance was closer to the modern version. Copeland was recounting the remarks of an anonymous “old man”, and it is possible that he was reformulating the comments of William Allen White given above: 4
Somebody told a story about an old man so remarkably well that a newspaper reporter asked why he had lived so long and kept so strong. “I suppose it is because you take systematic exercise,” said the reporter.
The startling reply of the old gentleman was, “The only exercise I take is acting as pall-bearer to my friends who have indulged in strenuous exercise!”
This is a ridiculous yarn, but it has in it a suggestion of value. Exercise is useful so long as it really is exercise and not violent and difficult work.
Too many athletes die of heart or blood vessel trouble. Too much strain on the organs of circulation will do real and lasting harm.
By 1930 the humorous remark was credited to Chauncey Depew, and by 1950 the jest was assigned to Mark Twain.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1929 a variant of the joke was attributed to ‘Big Jim’ Watson who was described as a “260-pound senator from Indiana.” Watson was a former athlete who had ceased exercising. In the following excerpt the phrase “cow pasture pool shooting” is a jocular description for golf: 5
“When my friends urge me to take up golf,” he remarks, “I tell them I get plenty of exercise by acting as pallbearer to my cow pasture pool shooting friends who die of heart disease and over-exertion.”
Chauncey Depew died in 1928 at the venerable age of 93. A couple years afterward in 1930 an article printed in a newspaper in Iowa attributed a version of the jest to him: 6
Chauncey Depew, who lived blithely to be 92 or 93, also had some ideas about keeping fit. Asked once if he exercised, he said: “No, I keep fit by acting as pallbearer for my friends who do.”
In 1936 a golf-oriented variant of the joke was again credited to Jim Watson: 7
Sage Jim Watson, for 40 years a republican power, now 71 years old, was interviewed out in Muncie, Ind., by John Lewellen, with the following results:
“I feel fine because I never stand when I can sit, never sit when I can lie, and never walk when I can ride. I get my exercise acting as pallbearer for my golf-playing friends.”
In 1938 the influential mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest reprinted the quip from a newspaper and credited Depew. The same words and acknowledgement appeared in the Lethbridge Herald, a Canadian newspaper: 8 9
Chauncey Depew, asked what kind of exercise he took, answered: “I get my exercise acting as pallbearer to my friends who exercise.”
— Thomas Collison in Portland Sunday Telegram
In 1940 William Allen White replied to a letter asking him about the origin of the humorous remark: 10
I have your letter asking me when and where I said: “I have taken no exercises for years beyond acting as pallbearer for friends who have taken exercise.” It was at a meeting of the Rockefeller Foundation. They were all men in their fifties and sixties talking about their golf and tennis. They asked what I did for exercise, and I said: “Chiefly acting as pallbearer for old boys who have taken exercise all their lives.”
It may have been original or may not. When one passes seventy he should not be too sure of anything.
In 1943 a version of the quip was included in a compendium of humor by the quotation collector Evan Esar. The joke was transformed into a definition and printed in “Esar’s Comic Dictionary”: 11
pallbearer. One who gets his exercise at the funerals of his friends who exercise.
In 1945 an article in the American Mercury magazine ascribed the entertaining saying to a prominent long-lived lawyer: 12
On the other hand, one of America’s most distinguished lawyers, J. H. Choate, when he was in his early nineties remarked that the only exercise he took was as pallbearer at the funerals of friends who had exercised regularly.
In 1950 the Cleveland Plain Dealer attributed the remark to Mark Twain, but the paper noted that Chauncey Depew was an alternative possibility for ascription: 13
Without the aid of scientific investigation, Mark Twain anticipated all this many years ago. He is supposed to have said that he took his only exercise acting as pallbearer at the funerals of his friends who exercised regularly. Twain got to be 75 years old.
Chauncey Depew is sometimes credited with having made the same remark. And he lived to be 94. I myself am beginning to use the gag, and I’m hoping.
In 1952 in the Lethbridge Herald newspaper Mark Twain again received credit: 14
… and Mark Twain said that he got all the exercise he needed by acting as pallbearer for his own friends who exercised regularly.
In conclusion, the earliest evidence currently points to William Allen White as originator because he expressed the core of the joke by 1925. A smoother version was given by Royal S. Copeland in 1926, but he did not claim authorship. Jim Watson’s usage is too late to provide good evidence. Depew was credited with the jest after he had been dead two years. The first citation for Mark Twain occurred in 1950, forty years after his death. Overall, William Allen White is the leading candidate, at this time, but any ascription would be tentative, and White himself expressed uncertainty in his 1940 letter.
(Thanks to correspondent Andrew Steinberg who located the January 14, 1925 citation.)
Update History: On March 2 the August 1922 citation in Cosmopolitan together with an illustration were added. Also, the January 14, 1925 citation was added. In addition, the article was partially rewritten.
- 1905 December 23, Harper’s Weekly, [Supplement to Harper’s Weekly], Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday: Record of a Dinner given in Celebration thereof at Delmonico’s on the Evening of December 5, 1905, Start Page 1884, Quote Page 1885, Column 2, Volume 49, Number 2557, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1922 August, Cosmopolitan, Volume 73, Number 2, My Week In Cuba by Ring W. Lardner, Start Page 48, Quote Page 51, International Magazine Company, New York, President: William Randolph Hearst. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1925 January 14, Evening Republican, “Thank Heaven It Was Sally” Says White: Kansan Admits He Was Ready to Wed Anyone, Page 1, Column 1, Mitchell, South Dakota. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1926 June 26, Chester Times, Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise by Royal S. Copeland, M.D., Page 7, Column 7, Chester, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1929 July 30, Reno Evening Gazette, Banish Strenuous Exercise Urges This Veteran Senator, [Associated Press], Page 1, Column 6-7, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1930 June 15, The Sioux City Journal, Notes of a Bystander by Grove Patterson, Page 6-A, Column 6, Sioux City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1936 May 13, Galveston Daily News, News Behind the News by Paul Mallon, Philosophy, Page 4, Column 3, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1938 August, Reader’s Digest, Page 92, [Freestanding quotation], Volume 33, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1938 August 16, Lethbridge Herald, [Freestanding quotation], Page 12 [Back Page], Column 1, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1947, Selected Letters of William Allen White: 1899-1943 by William Allen White, Edited by Walter Johnson, (Letter from William Allen White to Mr. W. A. Montgomery, University of Virginia, dated June 17, 1940), Quote Page 407, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Page 201, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1945 April, The American Mercury, What We Know About Longevity by Theodore G. Klumpp, M.D., Start Page 438, Quote Page 438, The American Mercury, Inc., New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1950 March 12, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: This Week Magazine, “Do You Hate Exercise?” by Morton M. Hunt, Page 17, Column 3, [GNB Page 223], Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1952 January 2, Lethbridge Herald, Editor Admits “Bad habits” by C. Willis in Stettler Independent, Page 4, Column 3, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive) ↩