Noël Coward? Winston Churchill? W. Somerset Maugham? Joe Drum? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: After major news events people often start exchanging jokes related to the subject matter. The recent tragic cruise ship accident has caused two versions of a comical anecdote to enter circulation. The punch line has been attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill and to the playwright Noel Coward. Examples of this joke are visible now [on January 21, 2012] when one searches for the phrase “women and children” on Twitter. Here is an example credited to Coward:
I only travel on Italian ships. In the event of sinking, there’s none of that ‘women and children first’ nonsense!
Could you explore this quotation?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke found by QI appeared in a Missouri newspaper in 1917. A travel writer, Henry J. Allen, described leaving a Paris railroad station and attempting to obtain transport in a taxicab; however, the number of taxicabs available was inadequate. The writer was reminded of a joke that he attributed to a “New York traveler” [KCNY]:
When we reached the outside our trouble began. There were some thirty or forty women from the train and as we watched the scramble for the very small number of taxicabs and 1-horse vehicles we were reminded of the reason a New York traveler once gave for traveling on a French liner: He said, “there is no foolishness about women and children first.”
Early instances of this barb were aimed at French vessels and crew and not Italian vessels. In March 1932 the name Joe Drum was attached to the tale by the syndicated gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre. But the fame of Joe Drum has faded with time, and today he is largely unknown [OOJD]:
Drum was sailing one day on a French ship. “I choose to cross with the gallant chevaliers of France,” he said, “where there is no hanky-panky about women and children first.”
In 1932 the saying was also credited to a more prominent individual, Noël Coward. Over the decades the attributions and embellishments have changed. By 1946 a more elaborate variant that mentioned food and drink was credited to an American Rear-Admiral. By 1985 the quip was ascribed to W. Somerset Maugham, and by 1993 an ornate version was credited to Winston Churchill.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In August 1932 an Associated Press writer published a short profile of Noël Coward. In a sub-section titled “King of the Jesters” the author commented on Coward’s use of the expression under investigation [NCAN]:
… some years ago, he said facetiously that he was sailing on a French boat where “there is none of this nonsense about women and children first.” Several humorless persons accepted the statement as a serious one and criticized Coward severely.
In 1936 the Los Angeles Times ascribed to Coward the following brief version of the statement [NCLT]:
Noel Coward once went on record as disapproving of this “women and children first foolishness.”
In 1946 the book “Cross-Channel” by Alan Houghton Brodrick was released and it presented a longer version of the saying in a footnote. The words were credited to an anonymous American naval officer who reportedly spoke them in the 1920s [CCAB]:
As late as 1925 an American Rear-Admiral on the active list joked that he always preferred to travel on the French ship because the food was better, the drink was better, it was “all wide open” and “if anything happens, why, then there’s none of this women and children first nonsense.”
In 1948 the remark appeared in the popular gossip column of Leonard Lyons, and the words were again attributed to Noël Coward. However, the quotation was indirect and based on the comments of a prominent Hollywood actor, Frederic March [LLNC]:
Frederic March who recently returned from England for the premiere of his new movie, “Live Today for Tomorrow,” saw Noel Coward in London just before he sailed. Coward expressed his preference for travelling on French ships. “But why?” asked March … “Because in case of disaster at sea,” Coward replied, “they don’t have that silly rule about women and children first.”
In 1960 a movie review in the Washington Post began with a line ascribed to Coward [WPNC]:
Noël Coward, commenting on a celebrated steamship line, once acidly observed: “Ah, splendid! None of that nonsense about women and children first.”
In 1967 The Saturday Review published an issue about travel modalities in the era between 1947 and 1967. The author Geoffrey Bocca discussed the perception of the prestigious Cunard Line when contrasted with other passenger ship lines of the past [GBCL]:
… the Cunard Line had done such a brilliant job of brainwashing in its emphasis on the incomparable Cunard service that one felt that after the Cunarders there was nowhere to go but down, and when one thought of going down one was reminded of the old joke about French sailors; “no nonsense about women and children first.” Attitudes changed later, but this was 1947.
In 1985 a version of the quip was ascribed to the well-known literary figure W. Somerset Maugham in “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes” [LBSM]:
Asked why he always chose to sail in French ships, Maugham replied, “Because there’s none of that nonsense about women and children first.”
In a 1993 collection of material for speech makers titled “More Podium Humor” an anecdote was presented concerning Winston Churchill. Italian ships were targeted instead of French ships in this variant of the gibe. The author stated that Churchill was questioned by a journalist about why he travelled on Italian cruise ships versus British ships, and he replied as follows [WCPH]:
“THERE ARE THREE THINGS I LIKE ABOUT ITALIAN SHIPS. FIRST, THEIR CUISINE, WHICH IS UNSURPASSED. SECOND, THEIR SERVICE, WHICH IS QUITE SUPERB.” And then Sir Winston added, “AND THEN, IN TIME OF EMERGENCY, THERE IS NONE OF THIS NONSENSE ABOUT WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST.”
On January 17, 2012 the BBC Radio 4 broadcast a short interview with Lord West of Spithead, and he referred to a version of the quip with Italian ships [BBLW]:
Although Noel Coward did mention once in his jokey way that he liked being on Italian ships because there was no nonsense about women and children first. But that was very much Noel Coward.
On January 20, 2012 the historian Richard M. Langworth wrote that the quotation attributed to Winston Churchill was “entirely bogus”. Langworth is the author of “Churchill by Himself” an authoritative collection of Churchill quotations. The statement about Italian cruise ships did not appear in this large collection, and the quotations about women and children that were included expressed very different sentiments. Langworth stated [RLWC]:
Neither this quotation nor key words from it can be found in digital scans of Churchill’s 15 million published words in books, articles, speeches and private papers. Nor can I find any record of Churchill cruising on an Italian liner after his retirement as Prime Minister in 1955.
In conclusion, the earliest version of this basic jest known to QI was credited to an anonymous New York traveler in 1917. Over time the words were attached to several famous individuals, and the telling was elaborated. Evidence suggests that Noël Coward did use this quip, but he was probably repeating a joke that already existed. The variants that discuss cuisine and service were apparently built from the basic joke. QI has not yet located compelling direct evidence that Maugham or Churchill employed this joke.
Update history: On January 26, 2012 information about Richard M. Langworth’s article dated January 20 was added to this post.
(Many thanks to David A. Daniel and Thomas S. Acton whose inquiries inspired the formulation of this question and gave impetus to this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Stephen Goranson who rapidly identified the early association with Noël Coward. Also, thanks to commenter Nelson Bridwell.)
[KCNY] 1917 September 13, Kansas City Star, Diving for French Verbs: Henry J. Allen Finds Language as Exciting as War, Page 4, Column 2, Kansas City, Missouri. (GenealogyBank)
[OOJD] 1932 March 01, Charleston Gazette, “McIntyre: Day By Day” by O. O. McIntyre, Page 6, Column 3, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewspaperArchive)
[NCAN] 1932 August 14, Aberdeen Daily News, A New Yorker At Large by Mark Barron, [Associated Press], Page 4, Column 4, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
[NCLT] 1936 July 15, Los Angeles Times, Surf Calls to Families, Page 3, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[CCAB] 1946, Cross-Channel by Alan Houghton Brodrick, Footnote 1, Page 16, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., London and New York. (Verified on paper; Many thanks to the Florida State University, Strozier Library) [Comment about date: No publication date is visible in the front matter, but a footnote on page 9 of the introduction indicates that it was being written in 1945. WorldCat and several catalogs specify the publication date as 1946.]
[LLNC] 1948 December 07, Canton Repository, Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, Page 29, Column 2, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
[WPNC] 1960 February 26, Washington Post, One on the Aisle: ‘Voyage’ Sails Sea of Fiction by Richard L. Coe, Page C6, Column 1, Washington, D.C, (ProQuest)
[GBCL] 1967 April 22, The Saturday Review, Twenty Years of Travel: 1947-1967: Vets, Jets, Mods, and Minis by Geoffrey Bocca, Start Page 47, Quote Page 52, Saturday Review, Inc., New York. (Unz)
[LBSM] 1985, “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes”, Edited by Clifton Fadiman, Section: W. Somerset Maugham, Page 391, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper)
[WCPH] 1993, More Podium Humor: Using Wit and Humor in Every Speech You Make by James C. Humes, Page 78, Harpercollins: HarperPerennial, New York. (Verified on paper)
[BBLW] 2012 January 17, BBC Radio 4, Today, “Captains ‘expected’ to stay on board”, Comment from Lord West of Spithead at time marker 2:00; Total length 3:04, BBC News, United Kingdom. (Accessed on bbc.co.uk on 2012 January 21) link
[RLWC] 2012 January 20, Website: “Richard Langworth: Churchill historian, automotive and travel writer”, Article: “Churchill on Italian Cruise Ships: Untrue” by Richard M. Langworth. (Accessed richardlangworth.com on January 26, 2012) link