Good Girls Go to Heaven. Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Helen Gurley Brown? Lawrence Johnstone? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Helen Gurley Brown was a pioneering and controversial editor at Cosmopolitan magazine. One of her most famous lines was:

Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.

I saw this quote in two of her recent obituary notices, but I have not seen a solid citation. When did she say this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence connecting Brown to this saying appeared in a New York Times interview in 1982. Brown was explaining the term “mouseburger”, and the interviewer noticed that the adage was written on a pillow [NYHB]:

“A mouseburger is a young woman who is not very prepossessing,” said Mrs. Brown on a recent afternoon, curled up on a floral-patterned couch with a needlepoint pillow that said “Good Girls Go to Heaven — Bad Girls Go Everywhere.” “She is not beautiful. She is poor, has no family connections, and she is not a razzledazzle ball of charm and fire. She is a kind of waif.”

This key citation is listed in the important reference work The Yale Book of Quotations [YQHB]. Brown helped to popularize the expression, but it was in circulation before 1982. For example, in February 1979 an Associated Press newswire story described a card with this caption [GGFL]:

Good little girls may go to heaven. But bad little girls go everywhere.

Precursors to this joke appeared at the turn of the previous century. The quips evolved over decades and QI hypothesizes that two types were combined to yield the modern statement.

In 1900 a New York newspaper printed the following anecdote which comically contrasted the behavior of good girls and bad girls [GGBG]:

WHERE WICKED GIRLS GO.—A mother who was talking to her little girl the other evening was greatly surprised at the answer she received to one of her questions. “My child, where do good girls go when they die?” “To heaven, of course.” “My dear, where do bad girls go?” “To the depot to see the traveling men come in.”

The same basic anecdote was told in multiple periodicals, e.g., newspapers in Princeton, Minnesota [GGPM]; Owego, New York [GGON]; and Adrian, Michigan [GGAM]. In 1908 a variant joke was printed with an acknowledgment to the Los Angeles Times [GGLT]:

Little Jenny had been found guilty of a breach of conduct, and her mother, desiring to impress the importance of perfect behavior, asked her If she knew where the good little girls go when they die. Jenny shook her head and was informed that they go to God’s home above. She was then asked where the bad little girls go. Her answer was speedily forthcoming: “To god’s cellar, of course.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Some versions of this jape challenged the taboos of the period. In 1918 the show business periodical Variety reported on an episode of censorship [GGVA]:

Lawrence Johnstone and his ventriloquial turn were one “gag” short after opening at the Miller here, booked by the Loew Circuit. The Milwaukee office of the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice attended to the elision following a complaint against the following conversation between Johnstone and his “dummy”.
“Tommy, where do the bad boys go?”
“Down below.”
“And where do the bad girls go?”
“Down to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.”

In 1924 another variant was published under the title “Revising an Old One”. This streamlined joke did not maintain the two-part structure. The mention of good girls was omitted [BGSC]:

“Where do bad little girls go?” “Down behind the garage to learn how to smoke cigarettes.”—Jacksonville Times-Union.

In March 1930 a key precursor was printed in a newspaper under the title “Our Worldly Infants”. This simplified quip also did not mention good girls [BGEX]:

Mother—Where do bad little girls go?
Betty—Most everywhere.

This version was very close to the modern adage under investigation. Simply combining this quip with the original two-part schema contrasting good and bad girls would generate the modern version.

In June 1930 the humor magazine “Life” printed an illustrated version of the gag with an acknowledgement to the magazine “Everybody’s”. A mother admonishing her daughter was depicted with the following caption [BGLI]:

MOTHER: Now do you know where bad little girls go?
MOLLY: Oh, yes—they go almost everywhere.    —Everybody’s.

In 1940 another variant with a two-part structure was printed in a syndicated newspaper column [GGMW]

Speaking of Hollywood, have you heard Alvin Hamburg’s sage observation about that fair city? In Hollywood, says Alvin, good little girls go to Heaven—and bad little girls go to town!

In 1952 a profile of the film star Bette Davis mentioned the title of a song she was preparing to sing on Broadway. This instance of the quip invoked the name of a luxury goods department store [GGRR]:

She loves the skits, dances, chic songs she’ll sing—one of which is titled “Good Girls Go to Heaven; Bad Girls Go to Bergdorf-Goodman.”

In 1979 a version of the saying under investigation appeared in a news story distributed by the Associated Press [GGFL]:

An Englishman sent the Lithuanians a devilish looking little girl with a caption in English that reads: “Good little girls may go to heaven. But bad little girls go everywhere.”

In 1980 a columnist writing for a Cleveland, Ohio newspaper observed the saying on a T-shirt [GGCP]:

Spotted on a Terminal Tower T-shirt: Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.

In 1982 an interview of Helen Gurley Brown was published in the New York Times, and the interviewer noted the presence of the motto on a needlepoint pillow [NYHB]:

Good Girls Go to Heaven — Bad Girls Go Everywhere.

In 1988 astrologer Jacqueline Stallone employed another variant of the expression [GGJS]:

If I work five days a week, I’d never have a chance to spend money. What do they say? Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go shopping.

In conclusion, Helen Gurley Brown did embrace this saying, and she did help to propagate it. The expression evolved over a period of decades, and it is not possible to pinpoint an originator.

[NYHB] 1982 September 19, New York Times, “At 60, Helen Gurley Brown Talks About Life and Love” by Glenn Collins, Page 68 [PRQ Page 69], Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)

[YQHB] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Helen Gurley Brown, Page 107, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[GGFL] 1979 February 13, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Lithuania’s Kaunas Is One Helluva Place by Nikki Finke, [Associated Press], Page 10-A, Column 5 and 6, Sarasota, Florida. (Google News Archive)

[GGBG] 1900 July 20, Pine Planes Register, [Freestanding short item], Page 3, Column 4, Pine Planes, New York. (Old Fulton)

[GGPM] 1900 July 26, The Princeton Union, [Freestanding short anecdote], Page 2, Column 3, Princeton, Minnesota. (Chronicling America LOC)

[GGON] 1900 August 2, Tioga County Record, This Child Was “On” All Right, Page 1, Column 5, Owego, New York. (Old Fulton)

[GGAM] 1900 September 12, Adrian Daily Telegram News and Notes, Page 3, Column 2, Adrian, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)

[GGLT] 1908 July 23, Evening World Herald [Omaha World Herald], Where They Go, [Acknowledgement to Los Angeles Times], Page 12, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

[GGVA] 1918 July 12, Variety, Section: Vaudeville, Indelicate “Gag” Ordered Out, [Dateline: Milwaukee, July 10], Page 5, Column 2, New York. (Old Fulton)

[BGSC] 1924 March 21, The Times-Picayune, Revising an Old One, Page 10, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[BGEX] 1930 March 26, Morning World-Herald [Omaha World Herald], Our Worldly Infants, Page 20, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

[BGLI] 1930 June 13, Life, [Caption of illustration], Page 24, Life Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

[GGMW] 1940 February 25, Milwaukee Sunday News-Sentinel [Milwaukee Sentinel], Best Bets Of The Week, Page 2-D, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)

[GGRR] 1952 September 22, Rockford Register-Republic, What’s Broadway to a Hollywood Trouper by Phyllis Battelle, Page 22, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

[GGCP] 1980 January 3, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mary Strassmeyer, Page 5-A [GNB Page 77], Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[GGJS] 1988 September 4, The Sunday Observer-Dispatch, Headliners: Brosnan tops among stylish, Page 10C, Column 1, Utica, New York. (Old Fulton)