“Will You Write an Autobiography?” “Not Until Long After I’m Dead”

Samuel Goldwyn? Ezra Goodman? Robert Gessner?

Dear Quote Investigator: The supply of comical lines credited to the Hollywood chief Samuel Goldwyn seems endless. Here is one that I love:

I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography until after they’re dead.

But I have become rather skeptical of these jokes because no one seems to hear these risible phrases and malapropisms from the mouth of Goldwyn himself. Is there an example of a reporter or someone hearing one of these statements spoken directly by Goldwyn?

Quote Investigator: Yes. In fact, the questioner has found a good example. This Goldwynism was evidently heard by two different people: Ezra Goodman, a reporter for Time magazine, and Robert Gessner, a professor of film. But the two listeners each heard a different version of the phrase at a different time.

In May 1955 Time magazine published a story discussing the continuing Hollywood success of Goldwyn at the age of 73. He was still active assembling the major production “Guys and Dolls”, but he had no plans to reveal his extensive confidential knowledge of filmdom in a book [SGTM]:

A foxy lone wolf—no partners, no board of directors, no bank financing—Goldwyn probably knows as much about Hollywood and its half century of history as any man alive. But another Goldwynism covers the situation. “I’m never going to write my autobiography,” he says, “as long as I live.”

In August 1955 Time printed a “Publisher’s Letter” outlining the recent activities of the magazine’s Hollywood journalist, Ezra Goodman. He visited Michael’s Cheesecake Stand in the Los Angeles and saw Marilyn Monroe crowned “Miss Cheesecake”. He also spoke to Samuel Goldwyn and was responsible for recording the May 1955 observation given above though the precise phrasing below is slightly different [EGTM]:

And he is willing to testify personally to one epic Goldwynism: “I will never write my autobiography as long as I live.”

In 1960 the New York Times reviewed a biography of Louis B. Mayer who was one of the rival moguls during Goldwyn’s heyday. The reviewer, Robert Gessner, was described as a “Professor of Motion Pictures at New York University and president of The Society of Cinematologists”. Gessner claimed that he directly heard a version of this classic Goldwynism [SGRG]:

Sam Goldwyn once inadvertently explained the difficulty in writing an honest screen biography. In response to this reviewer’s urging that he compose his own, a look of horror came over Mr. Goldwyn’s face and he smacked his palms upon his chest. “I write my autobiography?  Oh, no—I can’t do that! Not until long after I’m dead.”

QI believes that this variant from Gessner is more humorous than the statement reported by Goodman because of its heightened absurdity. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1961 Ezra Goodman published “The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood” about his experiences “on the journalistic firing line, so to speak”. He stated again what he heard from Goldwyn [EGFY]:

Perhaps the people in the movie business who are in a position to know are too busy to write or find it impolitic to note down what they know. As even that old publicity hound Samuel Goldwyn once told me: “I’m never going to write my autobiography as long as I live.”

In 1969 a book about movie producers titled “The Moguls” by Norman Zierold reported a version of the saying based on Gessner’s comment [SGNZ]:

When film writer and educator Robert Gessner suggested to Goldwyn that he compose his autobiography, a look of horror crossed Sam’s pixyish face. “I write my autobiography?” he asked incredulously. “Oh, no. I can’t do that–not until long after I’m dead.”

Skipping forward to 2002, the collection “Great Hollywood Wit” by Gene Shalit printed the remark in a section dedicated to the many accidental bon mots attributed to Samuel Goldwyn [SGGS]:

His life: “I’m never going to write my autobiography as long as I live.”

Also in 2002 the gossip columnist Liz Smith printed the following epigraph from a book. This variant is phrased in the form of advice [LZSG]:

“I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography until after they’re dead,” said Samuel Goldwyn.

In conclusion, QI believes Goldwyn did make a remark of this type. Indeed, he apparently said it more than once. Sadly, he followed his own advice and did not write a tell-all autobiography.

[SGTM] 1955 May 09, Time, Cinema: Going Like 70, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time archive at time.com; Accessed on March 13, 2012)

[EGTM] 1955 August 29, Time, Publisher’s Letter, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time archive at time.com; Accessed on March 14, 2012)

[SGRG] 1960 March 27, New York Times, The Demigod by Robert Gessner [Review of Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer by Bosley Crowther], Start Page BR6, New York. (ProQuest)

[EGFY] 1961, The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood by Ezra Goodman, Foreword, Page ix, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SGNZ] 1969, The Moguls by Norman Zierold, Page 123, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[SGGS] 2002, Great Hollywood Wit, Compiled and Edited by Gene Shalit, Section: Samuel Goldwyn, Page 23, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)

[LZSG] 2002 February 20, The Blade [Toledo Blade], Liz Smith: Cartoonist’s Novel Upsets Neighbors, Section D, Page 3, Column 5, Toledo, Ohio. (Google News Archive)