I Used To Be Snow White, But I Drifted

Mae West? A College Student? Anonymous?

maewest02Dear Quote Investigator: The actress, screenwriter, and sex symbol Mae West was well-known for delivering double entendres. Here are two examples of clever lines with multiple meanings:

I was once pure as snow, but then I drifted.
I used to be Snow White but I drifted.

Did Mae West coin either of these quips?

Quote Investigator: A version of the first joke was in circulation on college campuses by the 1920s. In 1921 the student publication “The Virginia Reel” from the University of Virginia printed the following: 1

“She was as pure and as white as snow.”
“Yes, but she drifted.” — Yale Record.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a match for the second joke appeared in 1938 in the syndicated Hollywood gossip column of Ed Sullivan who credited the words to West: 2

Mae West tells vaudeville audiences: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

Note that West referenced the fairy tale character Snow White, but the earlier joke simply referred to white snow. Hence, West added another comical layer of symbolism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Describing the chastity of women using figurative language involving ice and snow has a very long history. For example, early in the seventeenth century Shakespeare’s character Hamlet used the following words when he angrily pronounced a curse on Ophelia: 3

If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry. Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go.

In 1869 “The Galaxy” magazine published a moralistic and often reprinted poem titled “Beautiful Snow” that used an extended simile in which trampled snow was employed to represent lost chastity: 4

Once she was pure as the snow, but she fell!
Fell like the snow flakes from heaven to hell;
Fell to be trampled as filth in the street;
Fell to be scoffed at, to be spit on and beat;

In April 1921 a student publication at the University of Virginia printed an instance of the joke with white snow as noted previously. In November 1921 the same joke was printed in the journal of the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta. In both cases, an acknowledgment was given to the Yale Record, the campus humor magazine of Yale University: 5

“She was as pure and as white as snow.”
“Yes, but she drifted.” — Yale Record.

In 1927 an orchestra leader used a version of the quip as the title of a song: 6

To luncheon at Fifi Fitler’s, and there was a woman there who did tell how Ben Bernie had announced at the Palace that his orchestra would play a little piece entitled, “She Was Pure as the Driven Snow, But She Drifted,” and it did put me in mind of my flapperhood when I considered such verbal excursions the height of humour.

In 1935 an instance of the joke appeared in a story serialized in an Omaha, Nebraska newspaper: 7

“When Miss Otis was asked, at the last great judgment day, Madam— ‘Are you pure as the driven snow?’
They heard her say—’I was pure as the driven snow! But I drifted far and I drifted wide . . .

In 1938 the entertainment columnist and future impresario Ed Sullivan credited Mae West with a variant of the joke referencing the classic folklore character Snow White: 8

Mae West tells vaudeville audiences: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

In 1949 LIFE magazine profiled Mae West and included a sidebar titled “Mae’s Famous Sayings Are Part of Nation’s Folklore”. Here were three examples: 9

ON HUMAN NATURE: “I used to be Snow White but I drifted.”
ON LIFE: “It’s not the men in my life, but the life in my men that counts.”
ON GEOMETRY: “A curved line is the loveliest distance between two points.”

In 1970 the prolific satirical writer Peter De Vries placed a version of the jape in his novel “Mrs. Wallop”: 10

I can hear Mom yet: ‘Always thought so much of that one, always bragging about her marks in school, and her so choosy, so stuck-up, and pure as the newfallen snow. Yeah — but she drifted!’ That type humor.

In 2009 a book about humor titled “You’ve Got To Be Kidding!: How Jokes Can Help You Think” ascribed the early 1920s version of the joke to Mae West: 11

Then there’s the film actress Mae West’s comment: “I was once pure as snow, but then I drifted.” This quip is especially clever because it plays on the associations of “purity” with snow and with sexual innocence plus the equivocal meaning of the word “drift” (“driven by the wind” and “carried along by circumstances”).

In conclusion, there is good evidence that Mae West crafted a joke using the character “Snow White” by 1938. Her quip was constructed by creatively modifying a pre-existing trope referencing white snow which had appeared by the 1920s with anonymous authorship.

Notes:

  1. 1921 April 18, The Virginia Reel, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 30, Published by the students of the University of Virginia. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1938 May 4, Augusta Chronicle, Hollywood by Ed Sullivan, Page 4, Column 5, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  3. Sparknotes, No Fear Shakespeare, Hamlet: Act 3: Scene 1: Page 6. (Accessed sparknotes.com on June 27, 2013) link
  4. 1869 July, The Galaxy, Volume 8, Beautiful Snow by Wm. Andrew Sigourney, (Ivy Glen, December, 1853), Start Page 143, Quote Page 144, Sheldon & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1921 November, The Phi Gamma Delta, Volume 44, Undergraduate Humor form the College Comics, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 194, Column 2, Official Journal of Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, Editorial and Business Office, East Palestine, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1927 March 31, Life, Mrs. Pep’s Diary by Baird Leonard, Start Page 21, Quote Page 28, Life Office, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  7. 1935 December 21, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), The Briar Pipe: A Serial by Stuart Palmer, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1938 May 4, Augusta Chronicle, Hollywood by Ed Sullivan, Page 4, Column 5, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1949 May 23, LIFE, Mae West: Mae’s Famous Sayings Are Part of Nation’s Folklore, Quote Page 105, Published by Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1970, Mrs. Wallop by Peter De Vries, Quote Page 164, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2009, You’ve Got To Be Kidding!: How Jokes Can Help You Think by John Capps and Donald Capps, Quote Page 38, John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex, United Kingdom and Malden, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview)