A Man Is a Fool If He Drinks Before He Reaches Fifty, and a Fool If He Doesn’t Drink Afterward

Frank Lloyd Wright? William Faulkner? The Elder Gross? Charles Seiberling? Charles Douville Coburn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The celebrated and innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright is credited with the following remark about alcohol consumption:

A man is a fool if he drinks before he reaches the age of 50, and a fool if he doesn’t afterward.

Recently, I found a very similar saying attributed to the major literary figure William Faulkner:

But a man shouldn’t fool with booze until he’s fifty; then he’s a damnfool if he doesn’t.

Are these quotations accurate? Is it possible that one of these individuals heard it from the other? Perhaps this saying predates Wright and Faulkner. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The quotations ascribed to Frank Lloyd Wright and William Faulkner are well-founded and detailed citations for them are given further below.

The idea that drinking in the early decades of life might attenuate its long-term pleasurability can be found in the eighteenth century. Here is an example in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper in 1792 where the age of demarcation was thirty. Boldface has been added to some excerpts:[ref] 1792 September 11, Salem Gazette, Volume VI, Number 309, An Extract, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Salem, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Do you think that singing boys take great delight in music? Satiety makes it rather tedious to them. He who drinks before he is thirty, can take no great pleasure in drinking.

By 1900 a statement matching the sayings used by Wright and Faulkner was in circulation. The guideline was offered as medical advice during the Annual Meeting of the American Social Science Association:[ref] 1900 December, Journal of Social Science, Number 38, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Social Science Association Held in Washington, D.C. on May 7 to May 11, 1900, (Comments at the close of the morning session of the Department of Education and Art on May 9, 1900), Start Page 125, Quote Page 127 and 128, Published for the American Social Science Association by Damrell & Upham and the Boston Book Company, Boston, Massachusetts and G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

The best judges of the proper use or abuse of alcohol are medical men, who carefully note causes and effect. I would rather have personally observed facts than whole tomes of theories. In youth alcohol is of no benefit: it is harmful. In the aged it is a blessing, if used properly. Some one has said, “A man is a fool who drinks before he is fifty, and a blank fool who does not do so moderately thereafter.” Whiskey should be taken by the aged when overcome with fatigue and before taking food, as a tired man has a tired stomach; and a small portion of the stimulant will lift up the vitality and make good digestion possible.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1901 the saying was printed in a medical journal; however, the appropriate age to commence imbibing was listed as forty instead of fifty. An authority named “the elder Gross” was referenced as an advocate of the viewpoint:[ref] 1901 June 15, The Therapeutic Gazette, Edited by H. A. Hare and Edward Martin, Reviews, (Book review of: A Handbook of Materia, Medica, Pharmacy, and Therapeutics), Start Page 420, Quote Page 420, Column 2, Published by William M. Warren, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

So far as the use of alcohol is concerned in conditions other than those of disease, we have always felt that the statement of the elder Gross concerning this drug contained a large amount of truth, namely, that “the man who drinks whiskey before he is forty is a fool, and that the man who does not drink it after he is forty is a fool.” While this aphorism has the fault of all aphorisms, there is a large amount of truth in it notwithstanding the protestations of our prohibition friends.

In 1942 a newspaper article profiled the brothers Frank and Charles Seiberling who had co-founded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Charles who was in his eighties recounted a piece of medical advice:[ref] 1942 February 22, San Diego Union, “Spunky Seiberlings, Original Rubber Barons, Building New Fortune Although in Their 80s” by Harold C. McKinley, Quote Page 2-C, Column 5, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

“I hate the taste of whisky,” he tells you, “but I like the effects. Besides, my doctor told me a man who doesn’t drink after 50 is a damn fool.”

In 1943 the Ohio-based Cleveland Plain Dealer profiled a long-term employee of the newspaper who was approaching the age of 76:[ref] 1943 October 5, Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Once a Rover, Piles Up 50 Plain Dealer Years” by Roelif Loveland, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

How does he keep so healthy and alert?

“I drink good whisky,” Ashby said. “I generally take a snort before dinner. It keeps my arteries free. My physician has told me that a man is foolish if he drinks before he is 50 and silly if he doesn’t take a little alcoholic stimulant after he is 50.”

In 1951 a columnist indicated that some doctor’s continued to propound the recommendation. This instance used forty instead of fifty as the point of transition:[ref] 1951 April 27, Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, Looking At Life by Erich Brandeis, Quote Page 4A, Column 3, Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

While I am not a drinking man and thoroughly disapprove of drunkenness, I do take an occasional cocktail, a glass of wine or a bit of beer.

I do so on my doctor’s orders. He quoted a famous physician whose name I forgot, “Anybody who drinks before he is forty is a fool, and anybody who does not drink in moderation after he is forty is a fool.”

In 1958 the New York Times Magazine reported on the drinking habits of Frank Lloyd Wright who was then 89. Wright was quoted delivering an instance of the adage:[ref] 1958 June 22, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, “Life Begins at 40 (x 2): Eight notable oldsters tell how to stay young beyond 80” by Arturo and Janeann Gonzalez, Quote Page SM10, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Before dinner he often sips a single Irish whisky with a water chaser. “A man is a fool if he drinks before he reaches the age of 50, and a fool if he doesn’t afterward,” he explains.

In 1959 the actor Charles Douville Coburn who had performed in more than 60 movies pronounced a version of the saying:[ref] 1959 January 4, Omaha World Herald, Section: Magazine of the Midlands, The Amazing Mr. Coburn by Norman Shavin, Quote Page 15 (GNBank Page 101), Column 3, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

He said he still enjoys dancing and he loves an occasional nip.
A man is a damn fool if he drinks before he is 40, a damn fool if he doesn’t drink after he’s 40. I take my quota of scotch.”

In 1965 “William Faulkner of Oxford” was published, and it recorded the memories of many people who knew the famed writer from his days in Oxford, Mississippi. The photographer J. R, Cofield who had captured many images of Faulkner recalled him saying, “Civilization started with distillation.” Cofield also heard Faulkner deliver the following instance of the saying:[ref] 1965, William Faulkner of Oxford, Edited by James W. Webb and A. Wigfall Green, “Many Faces, Many Moods” by J. R, Cofield, Start Page 107, Quote Page 110, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“There is no such thing,” meditated Bill, “as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others. But a man shouldn’t fool with booze until he’s fifty; then he’s a damnfool if he doesn’t.”

In 1968 the industrious quotation collector Evan Esar included a version of the saying in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”. Wright’s words were slightly modified:[ref] 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Quote Page 243, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

A man is a fool if he drinks before he reaches fifty, and a fool if he doesn’t drink afterwards.
– Frank Lloyd Wright

In conclusion, QI believes that an important nexus for the dissemination of this saying was physicians communicating with one another. Patients received the advice from doctors who may have spoken with an edge of humor. Currently, the earliest known instance was printed in 1900, but the phrasing suggested that the expression was already in circulation amongst doctors. The watershed age was variable; sometimes fifty was specified and sometimes forty.

QI hypothesizes that Wright and Faulkner heard the expression from others; conceivably their doctors employed the adage.

(Special thanks to correspondent Hugo who located the 1900 citation. Great thanks to Dave Hill who pointed out the Wright and Faulkner quotations and inquired about the possibility of a common source. Hill runs the website “WIST: Wish I’d Said That!” which presents a valuable collection of quotations and citations.)

Update: On September 4, 2013 the citation in 1900 was added.

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