I Never Forget a Face, But I’ll Make an Exception in Your Case

Groucho Marx? Alan Gale? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I am at a party I sometimes have trouble recalling the name of a person I have met before. But my recalcitrant memory has no difficulty remembering the line credited to Groucho Marx:

I never forget a face, but in your case I’d be glad to make an exception.

When I performed a search I found some other versions:

I never forget a face, but I’ll make an exception in your case.
I never forget a face—but I’m willing to make an exception in your case.

Is this a genuine Groucho joke or is it just a quip with a fake nose and glasses?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI all points to Groucho Marx as creator of this jape. The February 13, 1937 issue of “The Literary Digest” published a piece about psychology and memory. Conventional advice givers have emphasized the desirability of memorization, but this article accentuated the practice of forgetting. The author mentioned the now classic joke credited to Groucho: 1

It’s the art of forgetting; and all it amounts to, really, is the reverse English of memory. In fact, some psychologists find it as important as the art of memory.
Groucho Marx facetiously shows how effective it can be in his gag: “I never forget a face — but I’m going to make an exception in your case!”

A few days later, a columnist named E. V. Durling in the Washington Post presented the same joke with a variant wording and an ascription to Groucho. This citation was listed in the key reference “The Yale Book of Quotations”: 2 3

Groucho Marx. My nomination for Public Wisecracker No. 1. When and where was it Groucho said to somebody. “I never forget a face—but I’m going to make an exception in your case.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The May 1941 issue of the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest printed a more elaborate version of the joke supplied by a contributing writer named Hugh Pentecost. The context was specified and two lines of dialog were given: 4

A celebrity hound approached Groucho Marx at a party. “You remember me, Mr. Marx. We met at the Glynthwaites’ some months ago.”
“I never forget a face,” Groucho replied, “but I’ll make an exception in your case.”

In 1941 and 1942 the Reader’s Digest version of the anecdote was disseminated further in the “Thesaurus of Anecdotes” edited by Edmund Fuller 5 and in newspapers such as the Lime Springs Herald of Iowa. 6

In 1944 the quotation collector Bennett Cerf reminisced in the pages of “The Saturday Review” about past shows by the Marx Brothers: 7

The funniest lines usually fell to Groucho. He revived on the radio the other night his “I never forget a face—but I’m willing to make an exception in your case.”

In 1946 the comedian Joey Adams published “From Gags to Riches” which included a version of the quip that remarkably was credited to someone who was not Groucho: 8

Alan Gale lets them have it with, “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception.”

In 1949 Life magazine described remarks made by Groucho during his popular radio show “You Bet Your Life”. These lines were clearly reprised from his collection of past zingers: 9

The insults are direct and paralyzing. To a tongue-tied contestant he muttered, “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.” To another he said thoughtfully, “I never forget a face, but in your case I am going to make an exception.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Groucho Marx coined this joke and popularized it. He received the earliest set of attributions and there was no strong rival. He also seems to have used the quip on multiple occasions. There was no fixed phrasing for the quotation, but the core joke was invariant.

Notes:

  1. 1937 February 13, The Literary Digest, Psychology: Art of Forgetting: Magic Formula, Page 29, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Unz)
  2. 1937 February 16, Los Angeles Times, On the Side with E. V. Durling, Page A1, Los Angeles, (ProQuest)
  3. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Julius Henry ‘Groucho’ Marx, Quote Page 498, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1941 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 38, Party Chatter, Quote Page 66, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Section: Rudeness, Quote Page 90, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1941 April 24, Lime Springs Herald, Under the Co-Co by M.N.X., Quote Page 1, Column 5, Lime Springs, Iowa. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1944 April 1, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 18, Quote Page 18, Saturday Review Associates, Inc., New York. (Unz)
  8. 1946, From Gags to Riches by Joey Adams, Quote Page 111, Frederick Fell Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1949 Nov 21, Life, Groucho’s Garland of Gags, Quote Page 139, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view)