Whenever I Feel the Urge to Exercise I Lie Down Until It Goes Away

Jimmy Durante? Edna Mae Oliver? Robert M. Hutchins? Chauncey Depew? Mark Twain? Paul Terry? Robert Benchley? Max Beerbohm? J. P. McEvoy?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest quotation about exercise is usually credited to Mark Twain:

Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.

But this statement is also attributed to Robert Maynard Hutchins who was the President of the University of Chicago and to a passel of other people. The idea can be expressed in several ways but the basic quip is the same. Can you determine who was responsible for this valuable guidance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a syndicated gossip column based in New York on June 13, 1937. The statement was ascribed to Paul Terry who was the founder of the Terrytoons animation studio. The ellipsis in the following is in the original text [PTPD]:

GOTHAM GOINGS ON: Paul Terry, who does the animated cartoons, shares Chauncey M. Depew’s contempt for exercise … “When I feel like exercising,” he says, “I just lie down until the feeling goes away.”

Two weeks later on June 28, 1937 another gossip columnist based in New York credited the joke to the film and stage actress Edna Mae Oliver. In the following passage “Mori’s” referred to a popular restaurant in Greenwich Village [EOLL]:

“Being away from home gives me a great urge to exercise,” Edna Mae Oliver admits at Mori’s. But whenever I feel that way, I just lie down until the foolish notion goes away.”

A few months later in October 1937 an induction ceremony was held for the new president of Williams College in Massachusetts. The President of the Society of Alumni gave a speech, and he ascribed the saying to the luminary Mark Twain.  This the earliest connection to Twain located by QI; however, Twain died in 1910, so this is a late ascription, and it provides weak evidence [WCJJ]:

Mr. President: Mark Twain once remarked that whenever he felt an irresistible urge coming over him to take exercise, he always lay down until the feeling went away.

The number of people credited with this saying has grown over the decades to include: humorist J. P. McEvoy, University President Robert Maynard Hutchins, politician Chauncey Depew, comedian Jimmy Durante, and others.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1905 Harper’s Weekly reprinted a speech given by Mark 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 [MTHW]:

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.

On June 13, 1937 the comical remark was ascribed to Paul Terry. On June 28, 1937 Edna Mae Oliver was credited with a version of the comment. On October 8, 1937 the words were assigned to Mark Twain. The details for these three cites were mentioned previously.

In January 1938 the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest featured the quip, and Paul Terry was credited again. The important reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” included this valuable cite [PTRD] [PTYQ]:

PAUL TERRY maker of animated cartoons:
When I feel like exercising, I just lie down until the feeling goes away. – N.Y. Herald Tribune

On January 9, 1938 a columnist in a Massachusetts newspaper wrote about an anonymous friend who expressed hostility toward exercising [GSSR]

He visited my farm last week end and ridiculed my suggestion that it might work some toxic juices out of him if he would come out and help me prune a few apple trees. He said, “Exercise is the bunk and I’m against it. Every time I feel like exercising I lie down until the feeling passes. It works perfectly.”

The first cite given above stated that Chauncey M. Depew who died in 1928 had contempt for exercise, but the cite did not claim that Depew crafted this saying. Now seven months later on January 17, 1938 the words were assigned directly to Depew [CDCH]:

Chauncey M. Depew, New York politician and corporation lawyer, who lived to a ripe old age, said of exercise, “Whenever I feel like it, I just lie down until the feeling goes away.”

In March 1938 a Kingston, Jamaica newspaper printed a collection of quotations called “Krisp Kracks” that included the following [PTKJ]:

When I feel like exercising, I just lie down until the feeling goes away.  —Paul Terry.

In December 1938 the popular writer J. P. McEvoy wrote a profile of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the young President of the University of Chicago. McEvoy included a version of the jest in his article [JMRH]:

Today—tall, trim and handsome, he holds with that hero who confessed: “The secret of my abundant health is that whenever the impulse to exercise comes over me, I lie down until it passes away.”

Note that the humorous remark was attributed to an anonymous “hero”, but after this publication the words were regularly ascribed to Hutchins and sometimes to McEvoy [JMQV].

In 1938 a philosophical treatise on “A Theory of Value” was published by John R. Reid of Stanford University. The author referred to a current comedy sketch by a popular entertainer [JDJR]:

I am reminded of Durante’s recent gag. Stooge: “What do you do when you feel the need for exercise?” Durante: “I lie down until the feeling wears off.”

(This 1938 book is a revised version of a Ph.D. thesis that was accepted by the University of California, Berkeley in 1936. Hence, if this example was included in the original thesis then Durante must have employed the gag by 1936. This would be the earliest known date for the appearance of the joke. QI has not yet gained access to the Reid’s Ph.D. thesis.)

In 1939 a collection of short stories by Gordon Grand was published. In the volume a character named Pendleton was asked to accompany another man on an excursion. Pendleton declined the offer and presented a piece of wisdom that he ascribed to Mark Twain [MTGG]:

His only answer to my proposal was to suggest that I have a whiskey and soda and then tell me that when Mark Twain felt an irresistible urge coming over him to take exercise, he always lay down until the feeling went away.

In September 1940 an inquiry was printed in the New York Times from a reader attempting to determine who created the expression [SJNY]:

S. J. wants the name of the author of this quotation: “Whenever I feel like exercising I lie down until the feeling passes.”

In October 1940 answers to the inquiry were printed in the New York Times. One correspondent pointed to the 1938 profile of Robert Maynard Hutchins by J. P. McEvoy that was discussed previously in this post. A few other names were offered as possibilities: Paul Terry, Robert Hichens, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. But no additional supporting citations were given [MYNY].

In 1950 a company selling shaving creams and lotions ran an advertisement in Life magazine that credited the joke to the actor and humorist Robert Benchley [RBWS]:

Perhaps you agree with the late Bob Benchley, who said that whenever he felt like exercise, he lay down until the feeling passed.

In 1952 the saying was attributed to another individual who was famous for parody and witticisms [MBCW]:

… Max Beerbohm was quoted as declaring that when be felt the need of exercise he used to lie down until the feeling passed away …

In conclusion, the preponderance of evidence currently suggests that Paul Terry should receive credit for this remark. Edna Mae Oliver is another contender and so is Jimmy Durante. Additional evidence may shift this evaluation in the future. It is unlikely that Mark Twain used the expression because it has not been found in his oeuvre, and the ascription is quite late.

Update history: On September 1, 2012 the citation for the 1937 speech at Williams College was updated. The citation was verified using digital scans from archivists at Williams College.

[PTPD] 1937 June 13, Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Speaking by Lucius Beebe, Page 12-C, [GNB Page 126], Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[EOLL] 1937 June 28, NY Evening Post, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Page 13, Column 3, New York. (Old Fulton)

[WCJJ] 1937, Williams College, Induction of President Baxter on October the Eighth in 1937, [Speech given by John Clarkson Jay, President of the Society of Alumni], Williams College is in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (Verified with digital scans of the typewritten manuscript pages of the speech by John Clarkson Jay; Scans were obtained from Williams College Archives and Special Collections on August 24, 2012; Great thanks to the archivists for providing help)

[MTHW] 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

[PTRD] 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Quotable Quotes, Page 80, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)

[PTYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Paul Terry, Page 753, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[GSSR] 1938 January 09, Springfield Sunday Union and Republican [Springfield Republican], The Motor Budget by George W. Sutton, Jr., Page 13A, Column 8, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)

[CDCH] 1938 January 17, Circleville Herald, [Untitled filler article], Page 8, Column 3, Circleville, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)

[PTKJ] 1938 March 05, The Gleaner, Krisp Kracks, Page 27, Column 3, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive)

[JMRH] 1938 December, The American Mercury, Garlands for the Living: Young Man Looking Backwards by J. P. McEvoy, Start Page 482, Quote Page 482, Column 2, The American Mercury, Inc., New York. (Unz)

[JMQV] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 59 and 286, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[JDJR] 1938, A Theory of Value by John R. Reid, Page 123, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)

[MTGG] 1939, The Southborough Fox and Other Colonel Weatherford Stories by Gordon Grand, Appendix: Fragments from Colonel Weatherford’s Notebooks, Quote Page 230, The Derrydale Press, New York. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to the librarians at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County)

[SJNY] 1940 September 22, New York Times, Queries and Answers: When I Feel Like Exercising, Section: Book Review, Page BR20, New York. (ProQuest)

[MYNY] 1940 October 13, New York Times, Queries and Answers: When I Feel Like Exercising, Page 102, New York. (ProQuest)

[RBWS] 1950 December 11, Life, [Advertisement for J. B. Williams Shaving Preparations: Williams Aqua Velva, Williams Shaving Cream, etcetera], Quote Page 130, Column 2, Published by Time Inc. (Google Books full view)

[MBCW] 1952 January 2, Lethbridge Herald, Editor Admits ‘Bad Habits’ by C. L. Willis in Stettler Independent, Page 4, Column 3, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive)

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