Kurt Vonnegut? Frank Sinatra? Jean-Paul Sartre? Dale Carnegie? Bud Crew? Socrates? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The 1982 novel “Deadeye Dick” by the popular author Kurt Vonnegut mentioned the following piece of graffiti:
“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.
I think this tripartite list first appeared in bathroom stalls in the 1960s or 1970s, but sometimes different authors were specified. Could you explore the history of this humorous scrawled message?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published description located by QI of a graffito that conformed to this template appeared in the “Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas in January 1968. According to the columnist Paul Crume the graffito was created in an incremental process by three different people. The initiator was a local businessman in Richardson, Texas: 1
Bud Crew says that a month ago he wrote this on the warehouse wall at Bud’s Tool Cribs in Richardson: “‘The way to do is to be.’—Leo-tzu, Chinese philosopher.”
A few days later, a salesman wrote under that: “‘The way to be is to do.’—Dale Carnegie,”
Recently, says Crew, an anonymous sage has added still another axiom: “‘Do be, do be, do.’ — Frank Sinatra.”
The phrase ascribed to the famous vocalist Sinatra was derived from his version of the song “Strangers in the Night” which was a number-one hit in 1966. Near the end of the track Sinatra sang a sequence of nonsense syllables that could be transcribed as “do de do be do” or “do be do be do”. This distinctive and memorable stylization has sometimes been parodied. 2
In July 1968 this graffito tale was included in a syndicated series called “Weekend Chuckles” from General Features Corporation; hence, it achieved wide dissemination. Some details were omitted, e.g., Bud Crew’s name was not given, but the graffito was nearly identical. The spelling of “Leo-tzu” was changed to “Lao-tse”: 3
One fellow was inspired to write on a warehouse wall: “The way to do is to be.—Lao-tse, Chinese philosopher.”
A few days later, a salesman wrote under that: “The way to be is to do.—Dale Carnegie.”
Recently an anonymous sage has added still another message: “Do be, do be, do.—Frank Sinatra.”
In January 1969 a real-estate agent named Joe Griffith ran an advertisement in a South Carolina newspaper that included the tripartite message. The first two statements in this instance were shortened and simplified. In addition, one of the attributions was switched to Socrates: 4
Joe Griffith Sez:
“TO BE IS TO DO” Dale Carnegie
“TO DO IS TO BE” Socrates
“DO BE DO BE DO” Frank Sinatra
The message continued to evolve over the decades and many philosophers and authors have been substituted into the template including: Dale Carnegie, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, John Stuart Mill, William James, William Shakespeare, and Bertrand Russell. The punchline ascribed to Frank Sinatra, in some form, is usually preserved though a variety of other lines have been added to the joke as shown in the 1990 citation further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In November 1971 a sports columnist in the “Dallas Morning News” published the following instance of the message which included two French philosophers: 5
“To be is to do.”—Sartre
“To do is to be.”—Camus
“Do be do be do.”—Sinatra
In 1972 “Aequanimitas”, the Yearbook of the Medical and Nursing Schools at the University of Michigan, printed a version with four parts instead of three. Also, Sinatra’s line was distinct: 6
To be or not to be—William Shakespeare
To be is to do—Jean Paul Sartre
To do is to be—Bertrand Russell
Scoo be doo be doo—Frank Sinatra
In August 1972 “The Boston Globe” published a report by a journalist who visited women’s restrooms in the Boston area and examined the graffiti. She found the following instance: 7
“To be is to do . . . John Stuart Mill”
“To do is to be . . . William James”
“Do be do be do . . . Frank Sinatra”
In January 1973 “The Times Diary” column of “The Times” newspaper of London described a graffito “in the gentlemen’s lavatory at Cambridge University Library” that was spotted by a reader. Three different hands wrote the three parts: 8
To do is to be—J. S. Mill.
To be is to do—Jean-Paul Sartre.
Do be do be do—Frank Sinatra.
A few days later “The Times” printed a follow-up that described a graffito in a prominent museum in New York: 9
In the Guggenheim Museum, New York, “to do is to be” is attributed to Plato, not J. S. Mill and “to be is to do” to Aristotle, not J. P. Sartre. “Do be do be do” remains the work of Frank Sinatra.
The newspaper also received reports of precedence from Oxford University which were relayed to readers:
And Oxford, predictably, claims to have been there first. A man from St Catherine’s says the text first appeared at the Bodleian several years ago and has since spread through many colleges.
A week later on January 12, 1973 “The Times” described a six-part graffito found on the library wall at the University of Guelph: 10
To be is to do—Aristotle
To do is to be—J. P. Sartre
Do be do be do—F. Sinatra
What is to be done?—Lenin
Do It!—J. Rubin
O.K.! O.K.!—T. Mann.
The line concerning “J. Rubin” was probably a reference to the political activist Jerry Rubin who published a book titled “Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution” in 1970. 11 QI has not attempted to provide rationales for each of the myriad lines inserted into this extended comical mélange over the years.
In January 1982 the Personals section of “Reason” magazine printed the following instance: 12
TO DO IS TO BE-Kant
To be is to do-Hegel
Do be do be do-Sinatra
In 1982 Kurt Vonnegut published “Deadeye Dick” which featured a fictional metropolis called Midland City and an imaginary airfield called the Will Fairchild Memorial Airport. The protagonist of the novel visited the bathroom at the airport: 13
For a few moments there, I was happier than happy, healthier than healthy, and I saw these words scrawled on the tiles over a wash basin:
“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.
Longer and more elaborate lists have been constructed over time. Here is a subset of the lines that were posted in a message to the rec.humor newsgroup of the Usenet discussion system in 1990. 14
“To do is to be.” — Socrates
“To be or not to be.” — Shakespeare
“To be is to do.” — Sartre
“Dooby dooby doo.” — Sinatra
“Yabba dabba doo” — Fred Flinstone
“Dabba dabba doo” — Kate Bush
“Do be a do be.” — Miss Louise, Romper Room
“Scooby-doobee-doo” — Scooby Doo
“Hey-boo-boo” — Yogi Bear
The long-running television show “Romper Room” was made for young children, and it featured a character in a bumblebee costume named “Do-Bee” who displayed emulation-worthy behaviors. Thus, the line above should have said: “Do be a Do-Bee”.
In conclusion, based on current evidence this family of multipart messages is traceable to a report from Texas in January 1968. The graffito evolved through replication and mutation. Individual lines were assigned to a wide variety of philosophers and thinkers. The attributions were primarily comical, and typically they did not correspond to actual quotations.
(Great thanks to Victor Steinbok who suggested this topic and gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to David A. Daniel and Barry Popik for pointing to the song “Strangers in the Night”. Additional thanks to multiple members of the American Dialect Society discussion group for valuable comments. Thanks also to correspondent R. Gentile who suggested that I mention “Strangers in the Night” in the article. In addition, thanks to A Very Defiant Duckling Named Ender who asked about the line featuring J. Rubin. Thanks to Hildegard Lindschinger who told QI about the “Romper Room” character Do-Bee.)
Update History: On October 18, 2013 a few sentences about the song “Strangers in the Night” were added. Also, the 1990 citation was added, and the acknowledgement was updated. On July 12, 2015 the reference to the 1970 book “Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution” was added. On December 30, 2015 two sentences were added about the Do-Bee character on “Romper Room”.
- 1968 January 29, Dallas Morning News, Paul Crume’s Big D, Quote Page A1, Column 6, Dallas, Texas. (The spelling “Leo-Tzu” is used in the original text instead of the more common “Lao-Tzu”) (GenealogyBank) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: Strangers in The Night – Frank Sinatra, Artist: Frank Sinatra, Uploaded on July 6, 2007, Uploaded by: kumpulanvideo, (Quotation starts at 2 minute 23 seconds of 5 minutes 10 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on October 18, 2013) link ↩
- 1968 July 28, Times-Picayune, Section 2, Weekend Chuckles, (Syndicated by General Features Corp.), Quote Page 3, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana, (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1969 January 31, The News and Courier (Charleston News and Courier), (Advertisement for Joe Griffith Inc., Realtor), Quote Page 15B, Column 2, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1971 November 10, Dallas Morning News, “Wishbone for Pros?” by John Anders, Quote Page 4B, Column 3, Dallas, Texas. (The original text contained “Sarte” instead of “Sartre”) (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1972, Aequanimitas 1972: Yearbook of the Medical and Nursing Schools, “Medical Education — A Review”, Quote Page 120, Published by the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1972 August 31, Boston Globe, Graffiti by the girls by Diane White, Start Page 37, Quote Page 42, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1973 January 2, The Times (UK), The Times Diary by PHS, Quote Page 10, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive) ↩
- 1973 January 5, The Times (UK), The Times Diary by PHS, Quote Page 12, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive) ↩
- 1973 January 12, The Times (UK), The Times Diary by PHS, Quote Page 12, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive) ↩
- Website: WorldCat OCLC, Book Publication Year: 1970, Book Title: Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution, Book Author: Jerry Rubin, Book Publisher: Simon and Schuster, New York, Website Description: “WorldCat is the world’s largest library catalog”. (Accessed worldcat.org on July 12, 2015) link ↩
- 1982 January, Reason, Personals, Quote Page 58, Column 2, Published by Reason Foundation, Santa Barbara, California. (Unz) ↩
- 1982, Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut, Quote Page 224, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1990 March 21, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.humor, From: (Scott Yelich) @cs.odu.edu, Subject: Do (Google Groups Search; Accessed September 16, 2013) ↩