The Final Test of a Gentleman: His Respect for Those Who Can Be of No Possible Service to Him

William Lyon Phelps? Apocryphal? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: I noticed that you have quotations from J. K. Rowling, Malcolm Forbes, and Paul Eldridge about how to evaluate the character of an individual. Here is another saying of this type that is credited to a charismatic Yale professor named William Lyon Phelps:

It is the final test of a gentleman—his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.

I have not seen a citation for this expression. Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: The precise statement above was attributed to William Lyon Phelps in the July 1935 issue of “Golden Book Magazine” 1 and this is the earliest evidence of a close match located by QI.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

More than twenty years earlier, in 1912, Phelps wrote an article in “The Century Magazine” that presented a different version of “the final test of a gentleman”. Phelps thought that a gentleman should treat a child with respect and without condescension: 2

I confess I cannot read without squirming those passages in “Great Expectations” where every visitor greeted the small boy by ruffling his hair, and I think most of us can remember without any difficulty and with a flush of joy those extremely rare cases in our own childhood when some grown-up visitor treated us with real, instead of with mock, respect. It is perhaps the final test of a gentleman—his attitude toward children.

In 1929 the “Los Angeles Times” presented the comically superficial “final test of a gentleman” proposed by a café owner in San Fernando Valley named Herbert J. Arriess: 3

Arriess maintains that the final test of a gentleman is to be seen in how he manipulates a fork at a public banquet.

“I have never known,” he once said, “of a member of a family that had money for three generations, making a noise when he ate his soup.”

In 1931 “The Washington Post” printed a quotation from Phelps in which he restated the idea he presented in the 1912 citation given previously: 4

…Professor William Lyon Phelps defines a gentleman as a man who can talk intelligently to children: He says:

“The final test of a gentleman is his attitude toward children. I wonder if all men remember as vividly as I do the occasion when grown-up people treated us neither with contempt nor with indifference nor with what is worse, grinning condescension…

The newspaper article also printed another statement from Phelps about the behavior of gentlemen:

“A gentleman,” says Professor Phelps, “puts his companions at their ease. A bore talks only about the things that interest him himself.”

In July 1935 “Golden Book Magazine” printed a set of eight quotations from different people under the title “Clues”. The fourth quote was attributed to Phelps though a precise citation was not given. This saying is thematically connected to the earlier remarks by Phelps because usually a child would not be able to reciprocate with a valuable service: 5

It is the final test of a gentleman—his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.
—William Lyon Phelps

The quotation was disseminated in other periodicals. On July 30, 1935 a short article in the “Christian Science Monitor” titled “What They Say” presented five quotations. The second was attributed to Phelps and was identical to the one in “Golden Book Magazine”. 6

In September 1937 the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest printed the saying and credited Phelps; however, the wording of the beginning of the statement was slightly different: 7

This is the final test of a gentleman: His respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.—William Lyon Phelps

In 1947 the trade magazine “Billboard” printed a variant in which “a gentleman” was replaced by “a pitchman”: 8

Fancy Freddie Says: “A pitchman even respects those who can be of no possible service to him.”

In 2010 a book about the prominent boxer Joe Louis included an instance of the saying ascribed to Phelps; however, the wording was modified: 9

In fact, it was Phelps who provided a lasting American definition of a gentleman when he pronounced, “This is the first test of a gentleman: his respect for those who can be of no possible value to him.”

In conclusion, this quotation was credited to William Lyon Phelps by July 1935. QI has not yet found this saying directly in a work written by Phelps. However, QI has found no substantive support for an alternate ascription. Hence, QI thinks it is reasonable to credit Phelps.

Image notes: Child image by jelly at Pixabay.


  1. 1935 July, Golden Book Magazine, Clues, (One quotation from set of eight), Quote Page 81, The Review of Reviews Corporation, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1912 January, The Century Magazine, Charles Dickens: “The Man Who Cheers Us All Up” by William Lyon Phelps, Start Page 334, Quote Page 337, Column 2, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1929 October 21, Los Angeles Times, Raconteur of Valley Suffers Auto Injuries, Quote Page 15, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  4. 1931 August 23, Washington Post, The Literary Pepper Pot, Quote Page MF14, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1935 July, Golden Book Magazine, Clues, (One quotation from set of eight), Quote Page 81, The Review of Reviews Corporation, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1935 July 30, Christian Science Monitor, What They Say, Quote Page 13, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  7. 1937 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 31, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 99, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1947 August 30, The Billboard (Billboard), Pipes for Pitchmen by Bill Baker, Quote Page 92, Column 2, Published by Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 2010, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man by Randy Roberts, Chapter 2: Emperors of Masculinity, Quote Page 24, Published by Yale University Press. (JSTOR Preview and Google Books Preview)