Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse

James Dean? John Derek? Willard Motley? Irene L. Luce? J. M. O’Connor? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: James Dean was a charismatic young movie star and an icon of rebellion when he died in a car crash. I have always connected him to this motto:

Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.

But I was told this saying was used in the 1949 movie “Knock on Any Door” starring John Derek and Humphrey Bogart. Here is another version of the statement:

Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

Would you please trace this fashionable slogan of self-destruction?

Quote Investigator: The first part of the saying has a very long history. In 1855 a newspaper printed a precursor while criticizing the high-living aristocracy. To construct a definition for “aristocracy” the word was split into segments for analysis. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Racy—fast. They live fast and die fast.

In 1870 an article in “The New England Farmer” wistfully described the new generation of electrified Americans: 2

In these fast days of steam and electricity, mankind, and particularly Young America, have become electrified, and they must “get up and get,” or there is no enjoyment. Live fast and die young is the principle.

The earliest instance of the full motto located by QI appeared in a 1920 newspaper account of a proto-liberated woman in a court case: 3 4

Letters from Mrs. Irene L. Luce, to Oscar B. Luce, won a divorce for the husband here today.
“I can’t be bothered with a husband,” one letter said.
“I intend to live a fast life, die young and be a beautiful corpse,” Mrs. Luce wrote.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1921 the slogan was featured in a drama titled “These Wild Young People” by J. M. O’Connor a University of Washington student playwright: 5

Cyrillo. What do you consider wild?

Patricia. Oh, to play around and be petted a lot, smoke in public and all that. I read in a paper once about a man who got a divorce from his wife on the strangest grounds. She said she couldn’t be bothered with a husband, intended to lead a fast life, die young, and be a beautiful corpse. I think that’s a fascinating philosophy. It’s my program.

In January 1924 the saying was printed in the Monmouth College Oracle, a student periodical in Illinois. But now the philosophy was ascribed to men, and “beautiful” was replaced by “good-looking”: 6

Creed of a College Man.
Live a fast life, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.

In July 1924 the motto was printed in the syndicated column “The Office Cat” by Junius where it was applied to men and women: 7

The Young Folks’ Creed
Live a fast life, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.

In May 1925 a variant with “live well” instead of “live a fast life” appeared in a California newspaper: 8

Little Patty’s creed: Live well, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.

In July 1925 an instance closer to the modern version was published with “live fast” instead of “live a fast life”: 9

   A CREED
Live fast, die young, and be a good looking corpse.

In 1930 another variant appeared with “live hard” substituted for “live fast”: 10

There was an old cowboy proverb (it is probably forgotten in these lizzie days of pure-bred Herefords, irrigated alfalfa fields, and Sears, Roebuck riding breeches) that it was glorious to “live hard, die young, and make a hell of a good-looking corpse.”

In 1947 the book “Knock on Any Door” by Willard Motley was reviewed in the New York Times and the creed of the main character, Nick Romano, was shared with newspaper readers. This novel was made into a movie under the same title in 1949 with John Derek playing Nick Romano, and this helped to further popularize the motto: 11

How does handsome Nick react? Conscious of what reform school did to him, conscious of his wicked ways, he is still enamored of easy money and easy sex. He deliberately rejects conscience, boasts of his creed—“live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse”—achieves all three objectives.

Important reference works such as the Yale Book of Quotations 12 and The Quote Verifier 13 pointed out the presence of the slogan in Motley’s influential work.

In 1949 an advertisement for the movie “Knock on Any Door” included the saying: 14

He knows all the angles, loves all the girls, hates all cops. His code: Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!

In 1960 a Connecticut newspaper article about the confessed murderer Eugene DeSalvo commented on a novel that he desired: 15

One of the books he requested recently was “Studs Lonigan,” who, like DeSalvo, grew up in one of the poorer sections of Chicago, and whose motto was “Live hard, die young and have a good-looking corpse.”

The actor James Dean died in 1955. In 1974 a biographer of Dean claimed that he did use the popular expression. The biographer connected the words to the film of Motley’s book directed by Nicholas Ray: 16

Jimmy was also fond of quoting a line from Nick Ray’s Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.”

In 1990 a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer asserted a connection between Dean and a version of the slogan: 17

“Live fast, die young, have a beautiful corpse,” was a favorite saying of Eternal Teen-ager James Dean.

In conclusion, in 1920 a letter by Irene L. Luce was published that contained a full version of the motto. Currently, that is earliest citation known to QI. Yet, it is possible that the saying was already in circulation; hence, the ascription to Luce is provisional. The 1921 instance in the play by J. M. O’Connor was probably derived from news stories of the Luce divorce.

The phrasing evolved over time with “live fast” often replacing “live a fast life”. Variants with both “beautiful corpse” and “good-looking corpse” continue to circulate today. Willard Motley used the expression in 1947, but it was already in print. James Dean may have used the slogan, but if he did it was probably based on a line from a 1949 movie.

(Great thanks to Victor Steinbok for his thoughts and citations. Thanks also to discussants on the American Dialect Society mailing list.)

Notes:

  1. 1855 June 5, Daily Ohio Statesman, A Definition: Aristocracy, Page 1, Column 7, (Acknowledgement to N. H. Register), Columbus, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1870 March, The New England Farmer; a Monthly Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, Extracts and Replies, Section: Clarksburg, Mass.—Concentrated Fertilizers, Start Page 147, Quote Page 148, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation)
  3. 1920 August 25, Riverside Daily Press, Did Not Want to Be Bothered with Husband, [Dateline Los Angeles, Aug. 25], Page 2, Column 4, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1920 August 26, The Des Moines News [Des Moines Daily News], Irene is No Piker [United Press], Page 1, Column 6, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1921, University of Washington Plays: First series, Selected and Edited by Glenn Hughes, “These Wild Young People” by J. M. O’Connor, Jr., Start Page 49, Quote Page 59, (Quote also found on pages 53, 55-56, and 60), University of Washington Press, Seattle. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1924 January 9, Monmouth College Oracle [Newspaper of Monmouth College], Creed of a College Man, Page 4, Column 2, Monmouth, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1924 July 08, The Kingston Daily Freeman, The Office Cat by Junius, The Young Folks’ Creed, Column 4, Page 7,  Kingston, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1925 May 2, Riverside Daily Press, Tower of Jewels, Page 14, Column 7, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1925 July 31, The Rockford Morning Star, Star Dust, Page 10, Column 2, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1930, Only Saps Work: A Ballyhoo for Racketeering by Courtenay Terrett, Page 26, The Vanguard Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1947 May 4, New York Times, Disciple of Dreiser by Charles Lee, [Book review of “Knock on Any Door” by Willard Motley], Page BR3, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Willard Motley, Page 540, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  13. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 130 and 306, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1949 May 26, Rockford Morning Star, [Advertisement for film: Knock on Any Door], Page 27, Column 7, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1960 December 18, Sunday Herald, Ultimate Crime Puts De Salvo Beyond Reach Of ‘Chair’, Page SC-13, Column 4, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Google News Archive)
  16. 1974, James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Dalton, Page 274, Straight Arrow Books, San Francisco. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1990 August 19, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Pop culture gods – immortal myths that we crave by Nancy Shulins, [Associated Press], Page 4-H, Column 5, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)